This review was originally published on The Arts Desk.
For women making music, it’s probably a tough call to decide on what is more tedious: being asked what it’s like being a girl in a band, or being grouped with other female musicians, regardless of genre, for magazine features and documentaries on Women in Rock. Girl in a Band – which, like Kim Gordon’s recent memoir, wears its title as a wink to the first – is a little too much of the second, although still has plenty of interesting things to say.
Kate Mossman, the New Statesman’s arts editor, put together an impressive selection of interview subjects from Carol Kaye, a former jazz guitarist turned one of the hottest session players of the 1960s, to Jehnny Beth of post-punk revivalists Savages. We heard unfamiliar voices (the work of 1970s US rockers Fanny had somehow passed me by) and veritable music documentary rent-a-quotes – although Viv Albertine (pictured below with Mossman) never gets any less interesting – talk around the central question, few answering it directly. But perhaps that was the point: to paraphrase Beth, asking what it’s like being a woman in a band is much the same as asking what it’s like being a woman walking down the street, or eating a sandwich. There’s nothing particularly about being female that defines the experience.
With subjects presented in chronological order based on when they were first active, it’s hard not to draw your own conclusions. Early interviewees including Kaye, members of Beatles contemporaries The Liverbirds, and Fanny’s guitarist June Millington, inadvertently gave voice to Mossman’s thesis that musicians of the 1960s and early 70s had only male role models to look up to. Patti Smith’s 1975 debut marked the tipping point for many, and Albertine – who joined The Slits in 1977 – was the first interviewee to express no interest in being, as Pauline Murray of northern punks Penetration described it, “just one of the boys”. The Slits had no desire to “stand how men stand” on stage, or to sing in “whispery little-girl voices” – something that won them male and female fans while threatening a male-dominated established order.
While Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads and Brix Smith-Start of The Fall touched on the sexism they experienced in their respective careers – Weymouth’s cutting response to the journalists who have tried to pit her against other women in her profession over the years, refusing to condemn anybody who “chooses to swing naked on a wrecking ball”, was a particularly fine moment – it wasn’t until we hit the 1990s that it started becoming properly overt. I would have loved to have heard more from Josephine Wiggs of the Breeders on the media’s tendency to lazily lump any band with a girl on guitar into the riot grrrl movement of the 1990s, while an interview with Miki Berenyi of Lush was an excellent reminder of the horrors of growing up part of the Britpop/Loaded generation – as well as of how great a song her band’s “Ladykillers” was.
But the most moving part of the documentary was a gloves-off interview with Lita Ford of the Runaways. While nothing about the teenage band’s treatment at the hands of their manager, Kim Fowley, surprises anymore, hearing her no-holds-barred support of former bandmate Jackie Fuchs following the latter’s allegations of rape by Fowley earlier this year gave me chills.
Girl in a Band: Tales from the Rock ‘n’ Roll Front Line is available to stream in the UK on BBC iPlayer.