18 Oct 2016

Women of Rock!

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 2:09 pm on 18 October 2016

Kirsten Johnstone from RNZ Music (with suggestions from listeners) talks through the key figures of female rock, including Janis Joplin, Patti Smith, Suzi Quatro, Grace Slick, Debbie Harry and Chrissie Hynde.

Janis Joplin

Janis Joplin 1969

Janis Joplin 1969 Photo: Public Domain via Wikipedia

Joplin was really a blues singer – raw, passionate and intense. She grew up listening to Leadbelly and Bessie Smith. 

In 1966 she joined psych-rock group Big Brother and the Holding Company and quickly gained a reputation for her powerful live performances. 

She went on to have further success as a solo artist backed by the Kozmic Blues Band and Full Tilt Boogie Band.

Joplin broke the mould of how 'girl singers' should behave, but had a lineage of black female blues singers behind her – such as Big Mama Thornton.

She died of an heroin overdose in 1970 aged 27.

Big Mama Thornton

Big Mamma Thornton

Big Mamma Thornton Photo: Wikicommons

Big Mama Thornton was the first to record the track 'Hound Dog' in 1952.

Thornton was a rough, raw and earthy singer who also played harmonica and drums. 

She often dressed as a man in her performances, was openly gay and performed risque songs unabashedly.

She died of alcohol abuse aged 57 in 1984.

Grace Slick

Released in 1967 at the height of the psychedelic scene, ‘White Rabbit’ made Grace and her band Jefferson Airplane famous.

Grace Slick

Grace Slick Photo: Wikicommons

Slick wrote it in 1965 for her previous band and it was reportedly written on a bright red piano missing around 10 keys in the upper register.

Grace had grown up reading Alice In Wonderland and the song is notorious for its drug references.

Slick went on to be a member of Jefferson Starship, and later Starship. With the release of 'We Built This City' in 1985 she was then the oldest woman to top the charts, at 46.

Suzi Quatro

Suzi Quatro was a huge influence on subsequent female rockers such as The Runaways and was very much on the cusp of glam rock and punk.

Suzi Quatro

Suzi Quatro Photo: Wikicommons

A bass player and songwriter, she was famous for her leather jumpsuits and chains.

After seeing The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan show, Quatro and her siblings Patti and Arlene assembled an all-female garage band, the Pleasure Seekers, who played on the Detroit nightclub circuit.

Her tracks Devil Gate Drive, Can the Can and 48 Crash were big successes in New Zealand and her posters graced many a boy's wall.

The Runaways

The Runaways

The Runaways Photo: Wikicommons

Formed in 1975 by Joan Jett and drummer Sandy West, the band was rounded out with Cherie Currie, Lita Ford and Jackie Fox.

They were managed by the notorious Kim Fowley.

The band were not long-lived, but had time to enjoy Beatle-like mania in Japan. Drugs, alcohol and later accusations of sexual assault dogged them.

Jett went on to great success in the 1980s with ‘I Love Rock n Roll’ and ‘I Hate Myself For Loving You’. She is also a well-respected guitarist

Debbie Harry

Blondie in 1977

Blondie in 1977 Photo: Public Domain

Debbie Harry and Chris Stein's band Blondie came out of the CBGBs club in New York.

The band rode post punk/new wave/disco pop crests – Debbie Harry even rapped on ‘Rapture’  – and had massive hits in the '80s that are still huge dance floor drawcards today.


Ann Wilson (singer) formed Heart in 1973 and her sister Nancy (guitarist) joined the following year.

The sisters' anger towards Mushroom Records' attempted publicity stunt involving a made-up incestuous affair inspired their song 'Barracuda'.

Heart had huge rock ballads in the late '80s and early '90s – notably ‘What About Love’, and ‘All I Wanna Do Is Make Love To You’.

Chrissie Hynde

Chrissie Hynde

Chrissie Hynde Photo: AFP / FILE

The Pretenders formed in 1978 in England, although Hynde was from the US.

She had been working in the famous boutique Sex started by Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, but was desperate to form a band.

She succeeded, with the huge 1980s hits ‘Brass In Pocket’, ‘Back On The Chain Gang’ and ‘Don't Get Me Wrong’.

Hynde is a constant in an ever-changing line-up (two founding members had drug–related deaths).

Her unfaltering confidence influenced aspiring performers such as Madonna.

Look Blue Go Purple

Look Blue Go Purple

Look Blue Go Purple - Dunedin, 1985 Photo: audioculture.co.nz

A Flying Nun band inspired by Velvet Underground but also The Slits and The Raincoats and UK post-punk bands with all-women line-ups.

Kim Gordon

Kim Gordon playing with Sonic Youth in 2007

Kim Gordon playing with Sonic Youth in 2007 Photo: Bertrand from Paris / CC BY-SA 2.0

Bassist and singer Kim Gordon formed Sonic Youth with husband Thurston Moore in 1981 and only dissolved the band when their marriage broke up in 2011.

By 1992 they were already seven albums in and a hugely influential underground band.

Gordon produced Hole's first album Pretty on the Inside and directed the video for The Breeders ‘Cannonball’.

The Breeders

Twins Kim and Kelly Deal and Tanya Donnelly (previously of Throwing Muses) were The Breeder.

Kim was also bassist and singer for The Pixies.

In 1995, Kelley Deal was involved in a drug bust, which put the Breeders on indefinite hiatus. Kim Deal formed a side project, The Amps.

PJ Harvey

PJ Harvey performing in 1998

PJ Harvey performing in 1998 Photo: Mika Väisänen / CC BY-SA 4.0

Harvey was an important voice through the 1990s and 2000s and up to the present.

Her ever-evolving vocal style ranges from deep threatening growls to precariously high and delicate tones.

In recent years, Harvey has moved away from writing about intensely personal subjects to more global topics.

Patti Smith

Patti Smith

Patti Smith Photo: AFP / FILE

The audience voted, and Patti Smith won. 

Most women in rock who come after mention this New York singer-songwriter, poet and visual artist as an influence.

Tracks played

Janis Joplin - Piece Of My Heart - from Woodstock

Big Mama Thornton - Hound Dog (1952)

Jefferson Airplane White Rabbit

Suzie Quatro - The Wild One (1974) 

Runaways - cherry bomb (1976)

Heart - Barracuda

The Pretenders - Precious (1981)

Blondie - 'Kung Fu Girls'

Siouxsie And The Banshees - 'Hong Kong Garden'

Pat Benatar - 'Heatbreaker'

Sharon O'Neill - 'Maxine'

Look Blue Go Purple - 'I Don't Want You Anyway'

Sonic Youth - 'Kool Thing'

The Breeders - 'Cannonball'

Jan Hellriegel - 'The Way I Feel'

Fur Patrol - 'Precious'

PJ Harvey - 'You Said Something'

Angel Olsen - 'Shut Up Kiss me'

Patti Smith - 'Gloria: In Excelsis Deo'