Rare was the girl group that played their own instruments in the mid-1960s. The prevailing attitude amongst both major and independent record labels seemed to be that the distaff could handle singing and frontwoman duties, and separate backing musicians (and their producer) would take care of whatever instrumentation was needed. Prevailing decorum and gender roles outside the record industry subtly discouraged girls from playing rock ‘n’ roll instruments on their own terms – lest they come across too masculine, too debauched, or (most likely) as merely a novelty.
Aside from Britain’s excellent Liverbirds (who achieved some chart success in Germany with a ‘65 version of “Diddley Daddy”), there wasn’t really a popular prototype for an all-female band when it came to ‘60s rock ‘n’ roll. Things started to change in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s as society became more accustomed to the idea of women rockers, but it took the D.I.Y. and anti-commercial impulse of ‘70s punk rock to incontrovertibly land rock ‘n’ roll instruments in female hands – and to relieve them in a real way from musical obligations to female propriety.
There were notable exceptions all along, though, even during the British Invasion years. The Vejtables’ Jan Errico, the Honeycombs’ Honey Lantree, and the fabulous Maureen Tucker (whose deliberately primal technique is such an underappreciated part of the Velvet Underground’s sound) were all female drummers in what were at least nominally successful male bands. These were musicians who weren’t trying to make any grand political statements – they just loved rock ‘n’ roll. But they wound up filling roles that were radical in their own quiet way.
Then there were the bands which were not only comprised entirely of females, but which were deadly earnest about rocking. A fairly rare phenomenon, the ‘60s all-girl bands operated completely independently of each other; still, though, the Heart Beats, the Bittersweets, and the Luv’d Ones were breaking new ground – whether they were trying to or not.
All of this week’s groups are tucked away on different volumes of the out-of-print Girls in the Garage compilations – a series which stretches the definition of “garage band,” but it’s a fine introduction nonetheless for anyone interested in obscure ‘60s femme rock ‘n’ roll.
Thanks to Vernon Joynson’s indispensable Fuzz Acid and Flowers for much of the information on this week’s selections.
1. Luv’d Ones, Up Down Sue (White Oak)
If the girl group that played their own instruments was rare in the mid-‘60s, then even rarer was the girl group that chose to fill out their sound with dark bass lines and fuzztone distortion, and that chose to write, sing, and play their own songs. That chose, in other words, to ply their talents strictly in the male domain of the ‘60s garage bands. Led by Charlotte Vinnedge and her sister Chris, Chicago’s Luv’d Ones were all that, plus mascara. Their tough “Up Down Sue,” their finest moment, was recorded while in Florida in 1966.
Truth Gotta Stand, an excellent compilation of the Luv’d Ones’ 45 singles (of which there were four), demos, and unissued songs, was released by Sundazed Records several years ago.
2. The Bittersweets, Hurtin Kind (Tema)
This 45 was produced, arranged, and released by James Testa and Don White around 1966, but little else is known about the Bittersweets themselves. Testa and White also recorded a rowdier version of “Hurtin’ Kind” (on the Tema label again) by the popular Cleveland band the Tulu Babies. The Tulu Babies’ was a local hit, but due to an arcane label-sequencing strategy at Tema headquarters, it’s unclear whether the Bittersweets’ or Tulu Babies’ version came first: I suspect that since the Tulu Babies’ keyboardist Doug McCutcheon wrote “Hurtin’ Kind,” it was latter, however. (Incidentally, the Tulu Babies later achieved some national fame as the Baskerville Hounds.)
Either way, the Bittersweets handled the emotional breakdown of “Hurtin Kind” with chiming guitars, angelic harmonies, and a deadpan, faux-English sexiness that must have forever endeared them to the sensitive young men of the greater Cleveland area. Listerine would be gargled and poetry scribblings heard throughout Shaker Heights that summer.
3. The Heart Beats, Choo Choo Train (The Heart Beats)
The Heart Beats hailed from an unlikely musical hub of the Southwest. A lot of fine musicians and songwriters have grown up in Lubbock, Texas, its bedrock conservatism and dusty desolation inspiring love, hate, and songs, even whole albums – Terry Allen’s Lubbock (On Everything), for instance – in the city’s name. It’s a city that musicians get the hell away from (the Dixie Chicks’ “Lubbock or Leave It”), or get the hell away from, and then return to (Mac Davis’s “Texas in My Rear View Mirror”).
The Heartbeats were reputed to range from ages twelve to fifteen at the time of this recording. I love when the girls sing, “My baby’s waiting / at the station / so give me just a little more acceleration.” Scandalous, I know.
“Choo Choo Train” was recorded in 1968.
With God as my witness, I will some day own a less scratchy copy of this record.