To celebrate International Women's Day, we take a look at the precious contribution women have made to rock music, from the birth of rock'n'roll to some of the best acts today!
"It's a man's man's man's world" once sang James Brown. He might have been right, but the world of rock'n'roll wouldn't be the same without some influential women. Since The Beatles, the dominating force in rock music have been BANDS - and 9 out of 10 times that meant "guys' bands". But the importance of women can't be underestimated. Sure, lots of women have achieved huge success making pop music, from Cilla Black to Kate Bush, from Madonna to Adele... but ROCK and Alternative music wouldn't be the same without the contribution of some really cool ladies, which we'll talk about here. And no, this doesn't include Babymetal...
In the beginning: The Ladies Sang The Blues
Some of the most important figures in early blues music were women - therefore, their importance for rock'n'roll was set from the start. Bessie Smith was the most popular blues singer in the 1920s and 1930s, and the tale of her tragic death became the stuff of legend - the successful blues singer who was victim of a car crash and refused treatment in a "whites only" hospital. She inspired films and plays about her, besides a classic song from The Band.
Memphis Minnie was an influential blues guitarist, singer and songwriter, whose songs were covered by Jefferson Airplane, Donovan and, most famously of all, by Led Zeppelin, who recorded "When The Levee Breaks".
Even more important for rock music was perhaps the Gibson-wielding Sister Rosetta Tharpe, whose playing style was one of the first expressions of what would become known as "rock'n'roll". She's said to have inspired Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and many others. Johnny Cash said she was his favourite singer. More recently, indie band The Noisettes wrote a song in her homage, and Alison Krauss & Robert Plant also sang a tribute to her, 'Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us'.
Back in 1964, Sister Rosetta attracted crowds to a rail station in Manchester and thrilled the public with her performance, playing a white Gibson SG Custom. It was one of the first times an American rhythm'n'blues artist performed in the UK - she was one of the first ever guitar heroes!
Another name worth mention is the remarkable Elizabeth Cotten. She was a guitar prodigy who wrote a little tune called 'Freight Train' when she was in her teens. But she married and gave up playing guitar for 25 years. One day, she found herself a job working as a maid for the influential Seeger family, one of the leading forces in the 1960's folk music revival. When they discovered she was a talented player, they helped her to perform live - and she finally became a successful touring and recording artist when aged over 60! Artists who covered Cotten include Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Devendra Banhart and others, who were also influenced by her finger-picking style and the alternate open tunings she used.
The Queen of Rock'n'Roll: Wanda Jackson
Despite that initial influence from blues artists, it's fair to say that women took a back seat during the "rock'n'roll" years. Apart from Wanda Jackson, there were no major guitar-playing girls in the 1950's rock'n'roll scene. It seems the "nuclear family" had enough trouble with kids rebelling and listening to this new kind of music, never mind GIRLS playing guitar! But Wanda was extremely important, in showing that women could rock just as hard as men, and was dubbed the "Queen of Rock'n'Roll" thanks to songs such as 'Hard Headed Woman':
In more recent years, her career got a new lease of life thanks to a very famous fan, Jack White, who produced a new Wanda Jackson album for his Third Man Records label.
Sixties: Break On Through To Other (Men's) Side?
In the sixties and early seventies, there was a wealth of women making great music, from Motown to folk singers such as Joan Baez, and cool and influential "girl groups" like the Ronettes or the Shangri-las, who went on to influence the Ramones. But in terms of women rocking out with guitars, there weren't many! Francoise Hardy, for instance, had some pioneering pop hits featuring fuzz pedal (before bands such as The Yardbirds or the Rolling Stones!), but the guitars were played by men - such as pre-fame Jimmy Page, who played lead on this:
It seems that women could successfully front rock bands, such as Tina Turner, Grace Slick, Nico or Janis Joplin, but when it came to playing rock'n'roll on their own, they remained oddities. "All-female" rock groups were never too successful, from The Liverbirds (Britain's first female rock band) to The Shaggs (dubbed the "worst band ever"... but responsible for one of Kurt Cobain's favourite albums!)
Punk & Beyond
By the mid-seventies, the world was finally ready for more women rocking out, as proved by the success of The Runaways and Suzy Quatro, but it was punk music which changed everything.
One of the first women to kick out the jams was Patti Smith, with her classic 1975 debut, 'Horses'. Live, she'd demolish a hit from the previous, male-dominated decade, by performing a trashy version of The Who's 'My Generation', and show - once again - that women could also "kick ass":
Her scratchy, feedback-drenched Fender guitar would inspire alternative bands such as Sonic Youth, and her attitude showed that women didn't need to just be nice eye candy to please the crowd. Blondie's Debbie Harry also had lots of attitude, as well as Chrissie Hynde from the Pretenders, and many other acts that followed, from The Slits to X-Ray Spex to The Raincoats and Siouxie & The Banshees. Music was never the same again, and we've been used to more women in rock ever since, especially since the 90's: PJ Harvey, Elastica, The Breeders, Poison Ivy of The Cramps, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, Hole, Riot Grrrl bands such as Bikini Kill, Babes in Toyland, L7, Bjork, Bat For Lashes, Sleater Kinney, Peaches, The Gossip, Alabama Shakes, Julie's Ruin, Wolf Alice and many, many others!
WATCH! Top 12 Women in Music Today
As International Women's Day shows, our society still has a long way to go to give women the respect they deserve. But it seems that at least, when it comes to the music scene, it's the women who are leading the charge and making some of the most acclaimed music today! Some could argue that describing a band or musician as "female" is wrong - after all, no one refers to Oasis as an "all-male" band or to Ed Sheeran as a "male singer". So let's celebrate International Women's Day with a Top 12 of the best bands and artists right now... who just happen to be women!
They have been one of the most exciting UK bands since their debut single 'Husbands', and found further success with their second album, 'Adore Life'.
2) Courtney Barnett
An instant alt-rock icon, Fender-artist Courtney Barnett is equal parts Pavement, Lou Reed and Nirvana. A breadth of fresh air in the music scene, her alt-rock managed to get her nominated to major awards such as the Brits and the Grammys.
3) Sharon Van Etten
She may not bother the top of the charts as Adele, but New Yorker Sharon Van Etten has been building a strong following over the years, acclaimed album after acclaimed album, and can be regularly seen at top festivals such as Glastonbury.
4) PJ Harvey
The veteran here, PJ Harvey is returning in 2016 with a new album, 'The Hope Six Demolition Project'. By the sounds of first song made available, the new record will be every bit as good as her previous effort, the Mercury Award-winning 'Let England Shake'.
5) Jane Weaver
Jane Weaver, whom we interviewed last year, has been one of the biggest surprises to hit the UK music scene recently. After years making some great but little-known albums, she became a really "hot" name thanks to her latest release, 'The Silver Globe'. Since then, she's found herself on many Best Of The Year lists, and major music festivals.
This Californian band makes some of the most interesting guitar sounds right now, described by critics as "expansive, lushly-harmonic psych-rock songs with enough time-changes to satisfy even the most beardy prog-rock bong-toker".
7) Anna Calvi
Calvi is one of the world's most exciting guitarists right now, with some truly out-there, feedback sounds that would make Neil Young proud.
8) St. Vincent
Annie Clark is one of the most creative guitar players right now, with a "ballsy" and very original style that puts most grown men to shame! In just a few years she's done an album with David Byrne, played with the remaining Nirvana members for a Kurt Cobain tribute, and even got her own signature guitar. She's a true rock'n'roll legend in the making!
9) Tess Parks
Still a relative unknown, the talented Tess Parks found a bigger public in 2015 when she released her album in collaboration with Anton Newcombe, from Brian Jonestown Massacre. With big fans such as Alan McGee and bags of personality, she's one to watch. Another album with Newcombe is also promised.
Ex-Pippette Gwenno Saunders surprised everyone with an ace debut album released in 2015, and entirely sung in Welsh, titled 'Y Dydd Olaf'. A synth-heavy psych classic, it got rave reviews and fans such as Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie
11) Julia Holter
New Yorker Julia Holter is signed to cool label Domino Records, and released one of the most well-received albums of 2015, 'Have You In My Wilderness'. Like Sharon Van Etten, Holter seem to slowly but surely get a bigger following with each album. We'll hear a lot from her in the future!
Shoegaze legends Lush surprised everyone at the end of last year, when they announced their comeback. New single 'Out Of Control' was released in February 2016 and they sound as shoegaze and as good as ever. With gigs in the UK, France and America already booked, the band led by Miki Berenyi and Emma Anderson could be about to experience a well-deserved revival in 2016!
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Check this International Women's Day playlist, which includes all the artists mentioned in this article.