Sally Forth 1986 ~ 88
Dee Orr, vocals, percussion, performance poetry; Vicky Scrivener vocals, guitar, performance poetry
Gigs included Oval House, Sth London; the Duke of Wellington pub, Dalston, and the Older Lesbians’ Conference
Sax Machine 1987
Ann Day, drums; Louise Elliott, sax; Michelle de Pass, vocals; Sonia Davenport, bass; many many saxophone players
Scissor Sisters (the originals!) early 1980s
Angele Veltmeyer, sax; Frankie Green drums; Laka Daisical, vocals, keyboards; Maggie Nicols, vocals; Sally Beautista, guitar; Vibe Robinson, bass; Vicky Scrivener, vocals – plus others?
Gigs: Centerprise benefit, Dalston; International Women’s Day concert, Finsbury Town Hall; WAMP benefit, Action Space
‘It was a rich and wonderful time, when women were inspired, enjoyable for me not least because of the great musicians I was fortunate enough to work with … I still continue and enjoy doing the odd solo gig, singing and reading my poetry at various jazz/music/arts venues, most recently at Conway Hall, London.’ ~ Vicky Scrivener, 2011
Siren ~ see Devil’s Dykes and The Bright Girls
Jane Boston, vocals, guitar, bass, harmonica; Tash Fairbanks, Alto/tenor Sax, Bass, Vocals; Deb Trethewey, drums, percussion; Jude Winter, synth, percussion.
See Siren perform at the Nottingham Women’s Festival in 1984 here.
Take the Money and Run
War and Marriage
Now Wash Your Hands, Please
Interview recorded as part of the Heritage Lottery Funded Music & Liberation project. Interviewed by Susan Croft and Deborah Withers, filmed and edited by Emma Thatcher.
Sisterhood of Spit
Angele Veltmeyer, sax; Alison Tomlin, sax; Alison Rayner, bass; Barbara Snow, trumpet; Caroline Gilfillan, vocals; Camilla Cancantata/Saunders, trombone; Chris Dymkowski, trombone; Deirdre Cartwright, guitar; Jackie Crew, drums; Laka Daisical, piano, vocals; Linda da Mango, percussion; Ruthie Smith, sax; Ruthie Thompson (?) trumpet; Rachel Hamilton, sax; Trudy Howson, vocals and jazz tap dance (on a miked-up tin sheet); Sue Blanks, piano; Sheila Way, (first drummer); Vick Ryder, vocals; Julia Granville, plus ?
Photo & text (c) Val Wilmer
Please click here for Val Wilmer’s article on the Sisterhood of Spit from The Observer, 17 May, 1981
‘The Sisterhood of Spit big band was 22-24 strong, so there was certainly an element of scale, of impact with that. Ruthie Smith came up with the name, I think – a nod to the Brotherhood of Breath big band that had long been active, obviously, but there was also a reference to punk in it: it was 1981 or so, and there was a sense we picked up from punk of -”Yes, we can get up and just do it”. The punk thing was more in terms of its ideals than any musical aesthetic. The Sisterhood came out of the women’s movement directly: the Dutch saxophonist Angle Veltmeijer, who was also in the Feminist Improvising Group, was running a saxophone class at the Women’s Arts Alliance, I had run a guitar class there for a short while. The sax class came together with some friends and other musicians to form the big band.
It probably is significant that some of the musicians involved in these large all-women ensembles had been with Ivy; she gave us a template, and we carried something on. For her, I mean!
But in a way there was another trigger too, that was clear from my experience playing with the very political, very popular all-women jazz and rock band Jam Today [in the mid 1970s]. All the feminist politics that had been coming over from America and changing the ways women in Britain thought led to campaign groups, conferences and organisations up and down the country. Even the Trades Union Congress would put on a women’s caucus event. And lots of those conferences had entertainment in the evenings and organisers started booking all-woman bands. To put a women-only band on the stage during these years was itself a political act – in a positive way at things like women-only benefits, which were happening for the first time, in a more charged way at some of the punky gigs when some men would be shouting abuse at us for just being women playing guitars and drums and things.’ ~ Deirdre Cartwright on Ivy Benson, and big band legacies, interview with Professor George McKay April 2004 http://www.deirdrecartwright.com/about/interviews. Part of this interview was published in the book: Circular Breathing: The Cultural Politics of Jazz in Britain
See also women in jazz (page W) – ‘The history of women in jazz in Britain’ by Parsonage, Catherine and Dyson, Kathy (2007) from Women in Jazz/Donne in Jazz, Adkins Chiti, Patricia ed. Rome: Editore Columbo, pp. 129–140) – for a discussion of the role of Ivy Benson’s band and subsequent women jazz musicians and bands, including the Guest Stars, the Feminist Improvising Group and others.
Sistermatic 1977 ~ 1978
Angela Stewart-Park, drums; Sharon Nassauer, keyboards and vocals; Yvonne?, bass; Dee Welding, congas; Carole Nelson, guitar
Gigs included a women’s festival in Copenhagen
A sound system consisting of female DJs, formed in the early 80s by Eddie Lockhart – DJ Shineeye – ‘as women were not given the right platform to show their skills. Sistermatic proved a great success for two decades.’
‘As a young singer on the folk scene in the early 1980s I wrote songs such as “Choices” about the abortion issue, and “The Secretary’s Song” – both on my first album “Gathering the Fragments” on Harbourtown Records. I was (and still am) also a member of Sisters Unlimited with Sandra Kerr, Rosie Davis and Peta Webb. We made two albums, one on the Harbourtown label called “No Limits” and the second on the Fellside label called “No Bed of Roses”’ ~ Janet Russell, October 2010
Notes towards writing a history of Sisters Unlimited (NB these are my perceptions, not necessarily shared by the other members of the group ~ Peta Webb)
Sandra’s song “We Were There,” about women in history, has a line “We were there – but still must write our history.” SU really ought to write our own history. There’s not much on the web – it mostly happened 1986 – 2000 (carrying on after that but with fewer bookings until present day). I have handwritten setlists, dates, venues in a notebook 1987-2000, then there are computer printouts (not well-organised, in my case. I have carrier bags of reviews, flyers and articles but no time to sort them). Rosie has a scrapbook – that would be worth looking at.
We advertised ourselves with the tag line “wit and wisdom of womankind”. We have skills as singers, musicians, dancers (in Rosie’s case) plus a sense of fun and ability to entertain and put on a show – but we use those skills to put across political messages which we feel should be heard, through the songs and introductions. We avoid being preachy and po-faced – we want to entertain, but also raise awareness. We still do all this when we perform a couple of times a year- but several factors limit our workload: geographical distance – we are spread between Newcastle and the South East (we started off all living in London) this means great expense in getting together to rehearse and also means our fee is often beyond what venues can afford; many other commitments both work and personal; the changed folk scene within which we mainly work which mostly has little interest in politics, especially feminism; generally we are supposedly in a post-feminist age in which our politics are irrelevant! Repertoire : if you look at the track listing of our 2 CDs it says it all – “No Limits,” Harbourtown HAR 013 CD (1991) and “No Bed of Roses,” Fellside FE 104 CD (1995)
(Sandra Kerr’s songs): No Going Back – about women in the miners’ strike; We Were There – women’s unrecognised place in history; Chipko –the women’s ecological hug-the- trees movement in India; (Janet Russell’s songs): Breastfeeding Baby in the Park; Secretary’s Song (about exploitation at work); (Rosie Davis’s songs): My Rebellious Adolescent; Prayer for the Earth (about ecology) (not yet recorded) (Peta Webb has not written any complete songs but contributes to communal songs and rewrites traditional songs from a woman’s perspective or sings them straight if they present women’s strength or women’s struggles. She also contributed songs from an era of black women’s emancipation in the 1920s & 30s – No Man’s Mama/Keep Your Nose out of Mama’s Business.) (Communally written songs – see below Notes & Anecdotes) Childbirth Shanty; Menopausal Old Me (not yet recorded); (Songs by other writers) Peggy Seeger – Tomorrow (the Nuclear Threat); Leon Rosselson – Sleep Well ; Voices (giving a voice to the dispossessed); Naomi Littlebear Morena – Old and Strong (she goes on and on); Isaye Barnwell of Sweet Honey in the Rock – More than a Paycheck (industrial diseases and hazards and their effect on the family); Ted Egan – Bunch of Damned Whores (the persecution of women leading to their transportation to Australia in the 19th century) (not yet recorded); Walter Robinson – Harriet Tubman – the black woman who set up an escape route for enslaved black people to escape from the Southern states of America to the North….(not yet recorded) Etc, etc. We don’t have any songs about lesbian/gay experience (since it is not our own) though we have always fully supported the equality that has gradually been achieved (except in a few entrenched institutions) during the 20 plus years that we have been singing and have sung at many women-only events. Notes and Anecdotes: Overheard at festivals: (women saying this!) “They don’t look like sisters….” “They’re lovely girls but they’ve been got at by feminists!” On one occasion we were programmed alongside a male shanty group singing about the shallowness of women/she’s a good screw/ we‘d like to give her a good seeing-to, etc. Shanties are work songs so, to the tune of “Go down you blood red roses – go down”, we started writing alternative words about universal women’s work -“Childbirth’s no bed of roses – bear down!” This evolved as a song communally written, along with (not yet recorded) “Menopausal Old Me”. As you can imagine, these get very different responses from members of the audience depending on gender. Some of the gigs we most enjoyed were put on by GOD – Growing Old Disgracefully, a group of older women determined to enjoy life to the full and not be pigeon-holed by their age.
We also enjoy empowering women of all ages through workshops: vocal workshops to give women confidence in their singing voice, sheltered workshops to give women a chance to sing their songs in a supportive environment, political song workshops, song-writing workshops, dance workshops, harmony and choral singing. (Many of us continue to do this as individuals even if we can’t get together to do it as Sisters Unlimited.) Origin We didn’t come out of nowhere: each of us has a history of singing/playing /performing individually or in other groups/duos pre 1986, and continues to do so. I have written about my history in “Reflections over time” (which I sent you) and would like to flag up the importance of “My Song is My Own” (book 1979 ed. Kathy Henderson, Frankie Armstrong, Sandra Kerr) and tour c.1980. Around this time I was a working in a duo with Alison McMorland. In 1978 (?) we plus Frankie Armstrong put on a women-led session at the traditional National Folk Music Festival and when we got there could not get access to the room because of the crowds of people. We thought it was people exiting from the previous event then realised they were queuing to hear us! It was quite a revelation and led to my growing confidence in and desire to work with other women – though it took several years for the line-up of SU to materialise. Our first gig was organised by a man -traditional singer Bob Davenport – who thought there should be a women’s concert to mark International Women’s Day in 1986.
We have had support from male friends and partners throughout and although there have been difficult moments when performing – scepticism from men or distaste over the physical details of Childbirth Shanty, Menopausal Old Me – on the whole we have won general acceptance because of our musicality and performance skills.
~ Peta Webb 27 Feb. 2011 to be continued …
Reflections on repertoire over time ~ written in response to a query from a student doing research for the Folk and Traditional Music Degree in Newcastle
I started singing folk songs in the context of CND and the Aldermaston marches of the early 60s. As a schoolgirl I joined the march with political commitment and found I enjoyed the communal singing of “Don’t You Hear the H Bomb’s Thunder echo like the crack of Doom”(written by Karl Dallas to a rousing Gospel tune) and more ribald songs such as one about “losing your cherry “ to a fellow marcher- my initiation into the sexual innuendo of traditional songs and songs in the folk genre.
On the radio/TV at the time were Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, so, I learnt a couple of their songs, sang them at school concerts, partly with a desire to shock – Dylan, especially, was a cool anti-establishment figure epitomising the rebellion of youth. Also, around 1963, I heard Sandra Kerr in concert at a local school, and remember her “Old Man From Lee”- “Ah, but I’ll not have him”- a forerunner of the feminist movement in folk, which focused on traditional songs of complaint about a woman’s lot. Sandra and Frankie Armstrong were great influences on this positive female side though their influence kicked in rather later. At the time, from Joan Baez I moved to Anne Briggs (“Blackwaterside”) and Isla Cameron (“Died for Love”) with their poignant songs of young women being seduced and betrayed.
I was at Oxford University from 1964-67 and joined the Heritage Folk Song Society. On my first night I sang Joan Baez’ “ Flora, the Likely of the West”, with guitar. I was taken aside by older and wiser students and told not to song American rubbish but to listen to The Caedmon LPs of traditional singers, later to be re-issued on Topic as the Folksong of Britain series. (Behind this attitude was the influence of Ewan MacColl, his view on the importance of singing songs from your own culture. Several Heritage members belonged to the Critics Group, though I never joined myself. Later when I became aware of MacColl, I adhered more to Bert Lloyd’s more all-embracing attitude marvelling at Eastern European music, etc. I found The Singers’ Club intimidating and “preaching”, much preferred The Islington Folk Club at The Fox, run by Bob Davenport and Reg Hall, 1964-68, focusing much more on the music of the people, what actual people liked to sing in pubs and club, rather than on political correctness. I would expect that the Elliotts’ club had the same people-based attitude, having met The Elliotts over the years although since I was/am London –based, I rarely visited their club.) (By the way, “Flora the Lily of the West” has a great Irish pedigree. It’s a shame that Baez’ arrangement has branded it pop-folk.)
On FS of Britain I discovered Belle Stewart, Jeannie Robertson, wonderful Scots Ballad singers, among many more (Harry, Cox, Sam Larner…) but was particularly taken by Irish women singers such as Sara Makem, Brigid Tunney and travellers such as Margaret Barry (brilliant street singer, a great influence on style and projection), Lal Smith, Winnie Ryan. I sing their songs to this day, including more from Rita & Sarah Keane from Galway (aunts of Dolores Keane), whom I discovered in the early 70s.
As an 18 year old I was choosing songs of angst: lost love (“I am a poor girl and me life it is sad”) death (“Trees they do grow high /Long a- Growing”)(I have noted this repeated pattern in successive waves of young women singers, the same songs/themes are still chosen) and later, Irish emigration songs. My first solo LP in 1973 was entitled “ I Have Wandered in Exile”, I empathised with the experience of the Irish forced to flee their country, and the heartbreak of return to the ruined family homestead (“ May Morning Dew”). Also as a child born 1946, growing up in the 50s, I was aware of refugees following the Second World War, my granny and I knitted countless blankets for them.
After university I did teacher training in London, went to The Fox, met Rod & Danny Stradling who were very much into going out to collect music from traditional performers (I had done a bit of this at Oxford). We heard music hall as well as traditional songs so I included these in my repertoire, just as the tunes we collected (in Suffolk, Sussex, etc,) were a mixture of traditional and “pop tunes through the ages”. I still enjoy this mixture, am no purist about material so long as it is sung with a sense of traditional style. (Steve Roud, the great indexer of traditional songs has this rule of thumb: a traditional song is one sung by a traditional singer. He will include Sheila Stewart singing a song written by Ewan MacColl (“The Moving-On Song”), but he won’t include a revival version of say, a Child Ballad.)
I taught in Ghana for 2 years, joined in with the traditional music in the villages around us (music for weddings, funerals, etc., singing with drums and rattles) and collected the music of several regions. During this time Rod Stradling (Rod is now editor of Musical Traditions internet magazine) sent me tapes of Morris dancing at Bampton, etc., so I kept up with English music still. On returning (1970) I went frequently to Rod & Danny’s club (The King’s Head) in London, which followed on from The Fox in its focus on traditional music & song in an informal presentation. Here I met Tony Engle, who was shortly to join, then run, Topic records. The four of us did more collecting, particularly in Suffolk, and put out a CD as the group “Oak”, (1970) mixing traditional tunes and songs with a few music hall songs we’d heard in the pubs. (I played English style fiddle, influenced by the musicians for Bampton Morris. Bampton being near Oxford we had regularly visited during my time at University.)
At the same time in London I regularly sang at sessions at the Irish pub The Favourite in the Holloway Road, hearing legendary musicians s such as Jimmy Power, Martin Byrnes, Martin Gorman, Lucy Farr, and was still more drawn to Irish than to English songs- this explains the Irish focus of my 1973 solo LP, mentioned before. “Oak” broke up, I worked in various duos and dance bands for several, years then the next big change of consciousness was the upsurge of feminism in the mid-70s. Of course I had been aware of feminist attitudes but there was a sudden outpouring of feminist writing and songs. I founded a consciousness- raising group at the school where I taught- and I started to look at my songs. I dropped some women–as–victim songs, though kept some I still felt to be only too true. I changed some words, rewrote endings, added verses to show more of women’s strengths. Women singers started to work together (before this the usual pattern was a “girl” singer in a male-dominated band). I worked in a duo with Alison McMorland; we and Frankie Armstrong did a women’s workshop at The National Folk Music in 1975(?) which had a great impact.
In London, I already worked with Rosie Davis in a bluegrass band, knew Sandra Kerr and was impressed by Janet Russell when I heard her in London, where she had recently moved. We joined to form “ Sisters in Song”, a name which quickly changed to “Sisters Unlimited” and determined to find and produce mainly feminist material. We also included other political songs (about the miners’ strike, nuclear war, the hug-the-trees movement in India. Much was written by the other members of the group. I am not a writer but would “reclaim” traditional songs, for example “Underneath Her Apron” which I sang with defiance of the father and joy in the baby born rather than letting it be seen as a victim song. It’s the only group I have been in where it seemed more important to sing political rather than traditional songs, though these were never abandoned.
This group lasted nearly twenty (?) years (mid 80s? < 2002) and produced 2 CDs. We were sad to find in the late 90s that political consciousness was considered outdated and no one wanted to book us any more, despite our considerable musical skills. One of our last, and unrecorded, songs is “Menopausal Old Me”- a definitely feminist and humorous exploration of a little-mentioned subject. This was found greatly liberating by many who heard it though others perhaps thought it a step too far! (PS Sisters Unlimited came together again for a gig at The Sage, Gateshead, in 2006, and hope to do a short tour in 2007.)
In 1990 I had already started The Musical Traditions Club, with Ken Hall and Keith Summers. Our aim was to present traditional singers in London – i.e. singers who had learnt directly in the oral tradition from family or community. No one was doing this at the time as a matter of policy, though other clubs would book the occasional well-known trad. performer such as Sheila Stewart. Among many others, we brought to London Fred Jordan (his first time for 10 years), Elizabeth Stewart from Scotland (her first time for 20 years) we brought from Northern Ireland Roisin White, Rosie Stewart, Mick Quinn, Grace Toland, who had never performed in England before and we included the London Irish in a way not done since The Fox in the 1960s. We booked The Elliotts a couple of times, appreciating their background as a family of singers including the great Jack Elliott and their repertoire of mining songs as well as family songs.
In 1991 I started singing duets with Ken Hall, who was to become my partner. The songs are a mixture of traditional and political, they include 1930s/40s American “Brother duets” (Monroe Brothers, Blue Sky Boys etc.) Just as the Suffolk pub singer would put a music hall tearjerker or comic song beside a country song or trad. ballad, singing what he/she enjoyed and heard, as urban singers we pick from the wide variety of influences on us. We chose songs from the American Depression (“Cotton Mill Colic”, “The Auction Song”), songs about the Irish in America “Irishman’s Dream”, about the Irish in London (“The Road” by MacColl, based on Francie McPeake’s words in “The Travelling People”, “Wild Wild Whiskey”, by Bob Davenport, based on the London Irish experience) as well as a range of traditional English & Irish songs. Sources are usually oral/aural- the inspiration of the singer is paramount to me: I have rarely learnt a song from a book. Notes: 1) as a feminist, I find some traditional songs difficult to sing, despite their pedigree or the beauty of the melody. For example “ The Banks of Green Willow”, where a pregnant woman on board ship opts to be thrown over board rather than suffer childbirth without any woman’s help. This is widespread in British tradition, with many beautiful melodies. I have sung a version with Sisters Unlimited, after which we could set against it a song where a woman triumphed rather than being the victim. Similarly, if I sing it solo, I feel a need not to ” leave” the woman drowned but to sing after it “In London So Fair” from Mary Ann Carolan, where the woman goes on board ship and, defying superstition, is eventually united with her lover (“and now they live happy on the sea”)! 2) I am constantly seeking for songs on contemporary political issues but am too often put off by the poor quality of the writing or the musical style, which is guitar based rather than fitting the unaccompanied singing style in which I specialise. Recently I have acquired from Geoff Lawes from Hull, a poignant song about asylum seekers in Britain, “Dear Fatima”, which I am very pleased to have found.
‘Sole Sister was Zuni synths and maestra, Moira bass, Noelle sax, Lucy Toothpaste singer. Different women left and joined over the years e.g. Miriam singing. Zuni did all the sound/recording: a wonderful musician.’
‘Are you hungry? Are you hungry? Are you hungry? Are you hungry?
Don’t you itch, itch, itch, To eat the rich, rich, rich?
They’re making war upon the poor. They’re making war upon the poor
Did you ever see a judge on a bus? And they tell us, don’t make a fuss!’ – Sole Sister
In 1982 Sole Sister played at the Berlin Women’s Music Festival – Grosses Fest/Internationale Frauenfest Spielwoche
Something Shady 1989-1999
Manchester-based band Rosie Garland (now Rosie Lugosi), lead vocal; Tricia Duffy – bass; Heather Greenbank, lead guitar; Angie Libman, rhythm guitar and vocals; Emma Jarman, violin and sax; Dawn, drums; Lorna, trumpet; Jules Gibb, vocals; Janet, backing vocals; Sandra Whetham, drums; Val Hinds, drums; Liz Quarty, congas; Helen Pillinger, sax; Clem Herman, sax; Sue Frost, french horn; Carole Trueman, trumpet; Nicki Tragen, sax.
Something Shady – A Herstory by Heather Greenbank:
Something Shady formed in 1989 and kept on going until 1999 with various band members leaving and new ones joining. The core of Tricia Duffy, Heather Greenbank, Emma Jarman and Angie Libman remained in the band until the end.
We played at lots of political events, such as fundraisers for Women’s Aid, Rape Crisis and at many International Women’s Day events. Because of band member’s links – Tricia is from Derry and Heather worked for Women’s Aid, we played at many Women’s Aid benefits and conferences and the band organised a Central Manchester Women’s Aid fundraising party every Christmas for almost 10 years. We also toured the North of Ireland twice – playing at Women’s Centres and Republican clubs in Derry and Belfast, as well as in numerous Irish clubs in Manchester.
Our music encompassed different styles, such as rock, soul, traditional Irish, blues and funk and we played a mixture of our own songs – Baghdad Cafe; Five and Dime and Goodbye Mrs Duffy to name a few, as well as covers such as Ride On by Christy Moore, Pretty Woman by Roy Orbison and Mr Big Stuff by Betty Wright.
Our biggest gigs were at the National demo against Thatcher’s Section 28, called ‘Love Rights’ in 1989, where we played at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall alongside artists such as Helen Terry and Jimmy Somerville. We also were the headline act at London Pride alongside Matilde Sontag and Jocelyn Brown.
Story – Flo saves the day
Something Shady played twice at the international 1 – a big mainstream music venue in Manchester – once was for International Women’s Day & the club was packed – excellent atmosphere… but the most memorable time was one winter when our drummer got snowed in on Snake Pass & couldn’t make the gig – we were waiting for her to arrive so we could go onstage and she rang to say she couldn’t make it.
We panicked & eventually went onstage & asked the audience if there was a drummer in the house. A woman called Flo was pushed to the front by her mates & we got her up on the stage. I quickly ran through the beats with her while the vocalists told some jokes & off we went. Flo was brilliant & the performance was such a buzz because we were winging it & the audience were right behind us. Flo saved the day. ~ Heather Greenbank, 2012
Information about Something Shady is archived on Manchester District Music Archive’s Queer Noise: The Hidden History of Manchester’s Gay Music Culture project (2010).
The Spies of Saturn
The Spoilsports 1978 ~ 1980
Angele Veltmeijer, sax; Barbara Stretch, vocals (who replaced Laka); Carole Nelson, keyboards and songwriting; Isabel Postill, percussion, congas; Laka Daisical, guitar and vocals; Lesley Shone, bass; Ruth Bitelli (who replaced Lesley on bass when she joined the Bellestars); Sheelagh Way, drums
Their record – ‘You Gotta Shout’ and ‘Love and Romance’ – was reviewed in the NME and described as ‘a cross between Steely Dan and The Joy of Cooking.’
Gigs included: Gay Pride in Hyde Park,1979 (?); a Women’s Music Festival in Neimegen, Holland; lots of benefits and a residency at the Earl of Aberdeen in Mile End.
Spoilsports photos courtesy of Carole Nelson
The Stepney Sisters 1974 – 1976
Benni Lees, bass guitar; Caroline Gilfillan, vocals, various instruments including drums when Susy was pregnant; Nony Ardill guitar; Ruthie Smith, vocals and saxophone; Sharon Nassauer (Shaz) keyboards; Susy Hogarth, drums
In this account of the development of the Stepney Sisters, saxophonist and vocalist Ruthie Smith talks about the band and its predecessors:
‘Caroline Gilfillan, Benni (Marion Lees) and myself met at York University and started singing in a soul band called Xpensive in the early 70s as the ‘girl backing vocalists’. There were various incarnations before we finally became Xpensive – Caroline and Benni used to wear hotpants and sing in a band calledTilly Teeth and the Braces, and spurred on by Arthur, the extraordinary hippy drummer, there was also Igor and the Coffin Draggers. Xpensive, which I then joined, had John Telfer on keyboards and lead vocals (currently the vicar on The Archers!) We also had Steve Beresford on bass (now a well known figure in contemporary music) and Stuart Jones on guitar, fromGentle Fire (Stuart used to work with this band playing with Karlheinz Stockhausen at contemporary music festivals abroad and was very hip and avant garde). Jan Steel played saxophone (another well known saxophonist in contemporary jazz) and Xpensive had various drummers, though eventually Dave Solomon joined us, a terrific soul drummer.
Caroline, Benni and I, as the ‘chick singers’ in the band, provided backing vocals for John Telfer and Steve Beresford and also sang a few lead songs ourselves. Having previously had a classical training, overnight I had to drop this voice entirely, and somehow produce a more ‘hard’ chest voice, since we were all trying to sound like the black American singers of Motown. Caroline did a mean version of the Shoop Shoop song, I used to sing Aretha’s Natural Woman and Do Right Woman. Benni was famous for her rendering of Elvis’s All Shook Up. And we did a wonderful array of classic soul standards, like Piece of my Heart, Dancing in the Streets, Chain of Fools, Da Doo Ron Ron, Superstition, Heard it Through the Grapevine, Dancing in the Streets, and Laura Nyro’s version of You Really Got a Hold On Me, to name a few. One day, one of our fans Matt, at the language laboratory at Langwith College, York University, provided us with language department equipment to help us get our act together. So using microphoness which were definitely not designed for music (!), he very kindly recorded a demo tape for us – while the sound of this tape is somewhat primitive, it really conveys the atmosphere of the band at the time .
Benni, Caroline and myself used to struggle with the image of being ‘chick singers’, something which did not come naturally to us, and we never felt very good at knowing what to wear and how to present ourselves as young women – it was somewhat problematic since none of us was by nature very glamorous and ‘Supreme style’ get-up – the standard garb for soul singer chick singers at that time! – was not really our thing! Finding an identity where stereotypically women were required to be sexy and sassy in rather an obvious way was a challenge in those days. In addition, we also did not feel we were really ‘proper’ musicians, since it was the blokes who played the music and read the chord charts! We spend some time doing the university circuit, playing at York University and also some very amusing and also hideous gigs in working men’s clubs (the week before, Shirley Bassey had been playing at one of these clubs) and such places as Mecca bingo halls. We wore our version of the Supremes’ dresses (handmade, off the shoulders/halter neck or low backs in different bright colours – red, purple and lime green!) Our one claim to fame was when we were the supporting band to The Wailers at a York University campus music gig in ‘Central Hall’ – this was before Bob Marley became famous, and after our set, he came up to us and asked us if we would like to be his backing vocalists! We declined because we were doing our university degrees!!!
When we came to London, we had hopes that Xpensive might manage to become a gigging and recording band, but we only lasted one season at the Albion Pub in Clissold Road, Stoke Newington, before we folded. At that time we had Herman Hauge join us on sax, and various other musicians, or ‘musos’ as we called them at the time. I am very grateful to Herman who introduced me to the Jazz greats – he had a very refined musical taste and introduced me to some really wonderful music including some of the more obscure and less mainstream players, who had extraordinary ‘soul’ in their playing, which helped me to connect up with the more spiritual aspects of jazz.
It is interesting, in terms of feminism, that it was definitely the girls in the band who did the ‘housekeeping’ of the group – i.e., we did all the practical organising and arranging of rehearsals etc, and the men would just show up, although John Telfer in particular was truly wonderful at arranging the music, and a tremendously helpful and dynamic character in getting things off the ground musically. So all in all, the originating impulse of playing music with women, prior to all-women or predominantly women bands such as Stepney Sisters, Soulyard and eventually The Guest Stars, came, for me, from this early experience with Xpensive. We had begun to write our own songs, and I remember the incredible shyness, embarrassment and shame as I tentatively brought out my first song ‘Dreaming’ and how grateful I was to Benni and Caroline’s support as we began to rehearse the vocals.
The Stepney Sisters ~ feminist rock band. Caroline, Benni and myself were steadily being influenced by feminism, and our ‘girl talk’ revealed a general confusion about what ‘being a woman’ actually meant, and also feeling disempowered and a bit fed up with the subordinate role as ‘chick singers’. Out of this, Caroline and Benni along with Sharon Nassauer, Nony Ardill and Susy Hogarth , and later on myself, spearheaded a move to form a women’s rock band which became The Stepney Sisterswhere we wrote our own songs reflecting the issues we were concerned with at the time. Benni Lees on bass guitar; Caroline Gilfillan vocals (and filling in on various instruments including drums when Susy was pregnant); Susy Hogarth drums (who had drummed with the Resister Sisters); Nony Ardill guitar; Sharon Nassauer (Shaz) keyboards – and myself on vocals and eventually saxophone.
The first gig the Stepney Sisters played was at a women’s arts festival in Covent Garden, with various feminist performance ‘artistes.’ I wasn’t in the band at the time, working in a ‘halfway house’ as a social worker, but on attending the first performance, begged to be in it. Caroline and I shared lead vocals and we began writing our own songs and playing our own instruments – I took up the saxophone in 1976. I was very lucky to find my selmer alto cigar cutter through ‘Exchange and Mart. My first and only saxophone lesson with Kathy Stobart, tenor saxophonist and my heroine at the time, was very inspiring – and also, as I reflect on it now, rather amusing. Kathy was a truly wonderful women, and I was somewhat astonished that rather than teaching me how to blow or get my embouchure sorted out, that – first things first! – she taught me how to housekeep the saxophone – i.e., how to wash the crook and mouthpiece and reeds, and clean out the insides with a rag and make sure the instrument was clean! Actually, it is and was extremely good advice!
Stepney Sisters mostly lived in squats in the East End of London – hence the name . We were happy to be helped out by Terry, Mark and Greig who were really friendly and helpful to us and made us feel at home in Stepney – and who we subsequently discovered were local ex-criminals who had become politicised ‘ inside’. As newly-radicalised members of IMG and Socialist Worker, they were happy to help their feminist sisters break into squats and sort out the electricity and water‼ They must have found us rather amusing because we were all middle class university graduates and they very working class thugs – much later we found out with quite some consternation that one of them was a murderer and they had links with the Angry Brigade!
One amusing story is whenStepney Sisters, fairly early in its career as a gigging band at squatters’ benefits and the like, were invited to play at the National Women’s Liberation conference up north – and we were excited to meet the Northern Women’s Liberation Rock Band there, who we heard were ‘extremely feminist’! So, reflecting on whether or not our band was feminist enough, we frantically rewrote the lyrics of our songs on our way up in the van, so as to make them more PC, removing such words as ‘Oh I want to love you baby’ (the dreaded word ‘baby’, a hangover from our Xpensive soulband days!) and replacing them with more PC lyrics such as ‘Oh I really want to love you!! ‘ Surely, no one could grumble at that‼? We did record for BBC a programme of ‘women hold up half the sky’, where we took ourselves extremely seriously. Susy, theStepney Sisters drummer, had a baby, Cody, who she brought to the gig, and on our way up, the van caught fire, and we put it out with a bottle of milk!! Nony Ardill has a complete and hilarious diary documenting of all the gigs and dramas.*
One such dilemma, following our interview with Spare Rib [issue 46, 1976: click here for the Spare Rib interview with the Stepney Sisters by Marion Fudger], was when Stepney Sisters was offered a gig as resident band at Chamonix in a ski resort. The band was split down the middle – half of us (Benni, myself and Susy) felt that being a feminist musician could best be expressed by our being good musicians, and getting really accomplished at our instruments and song writing (instead of fumbling around, which it sometimes felt we were doing) and that this gig offered us the opportunity to be paid to be a resident band, play, practice and really improve our musicianship. However the other more militant half of the band felt this was ‘selling out’ to capitalism and far too bourgeois, and we would be compromising our souls to chauvinist pigs to play in such an establishment – so we did not go‼’ To continue reading Ruthie’s account, please see the G page for a history of The Guest Stars
* ‘I kept a detailed daily diary during the time when I played in the Stepney Sisters, on which I have based this history of the band. Of course, this is my own personal account and my perceptions at the time were inevitably coloured by my own experiences …’
~ Nony Ardill. Click here to read Nony on The Stepney Sisters
Click here for the Stepney Sisters songbook
‘ … we’ve recently got together in all of our sixtieth-ish years to record the material that we wrote and performed in the 70s, at the most excellent Blue Barn studio.’ ~ Benni Lees, January 2011
8 track CD, featuring Benni Lees, bass, backing vocals; Caroline Gilfillan, keyboards, vocals; Nony Ardill, guitar, backing vocals; Ruthie Smith, tenor sax, vocals; Susy Hogarth, drums, percussion. Recorded and mixed at Bluebarn Studios, Ely, summer 2010. Engineered by Chris Taylor; graphic design by Herman Hauge; cover photos © Barbara Stretch
Hear the whole album! Available from Caroline.Gilfillan@btinternet.com for £5.00 plus postage & packing
Manchester-based acappella group
Stroppy Cow Records
A feminist record label – ‘we are anti-commercial – we aim to make living as musicians rather than profit as a business’ – started by Alison Rayner and Terry Hunt of Jam Today, joined by Ova, then passed on to the women at WRPM.
‘… that’s me with my son Harry, in the photo [back cover, left]. I joined Jam Today after the demise of another great women’s band, Spoilsports. In fact I think my first gig with JT was at the same event as my last with Spoilsports at the Drill Hall. I have photos somewhere but no idea of the date. I went on to learn the bass and played bass in Hi Jinx in the early 80′s after which I started to do my own music which culminated in the production of an album, There Is No Going Back under the name Blue Gliss and ultimately set up my own studio, Bluebarn, http://www.myspace.com/bluebarnrocks. Harry plays drums and with Max (Taylor) my youngest son who plays bass, formed the rhythm section of Roots Manuva’s Awfully Deep tour and then the wonderful, late lamented Clor. Max then went on to tour with Groove Armada for a couple of years. Alison and Deirdre have pursued successful careers on the jazz world and Jackie moved to Sussex to run a cafe in Brighton with her partner. The women’s music scene in the late 70′s and 80′s is great material for a novel or two. Anybody out there up for it?’ ~ Barbara Stretch, June 2010, originally posted on http://killyourpetpuppy.co.uk/news/?p=433
For the Stroppy Cow booklet click Jam Today (3) lyrics
Singer-songwriter Susan was present at women’s demonstrations and conferences throughout the 1970s, and well-known for her anthem ‘The Women’s Army is Marching.’ Thanks to Diane Hudson for these photos of women dancing to Susan’s music at the national WLM conference in Edinburgh in 1974. If anyone knows Susan’s current whereabouts, please contact the archive!