Sister Rosetta Tharpe. The name brings to mind the obvious connection of the Rosetta Stone, and it’s an apt connection. Maybe more than anyone Rosetta is the key to the blurring of the line between spiritual music and the more secular rock ‘n’ roll. Just listen.
That tone, those riffs. Before Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis there was Sister Rosetta Tharpe. The unsaid, but surely not unnoticed here? Rosetta is female, and all too often rock ‘n’ roll is presented as a man’s game, when it’s anything but. From the Sister, through Aretha Franklin and Carol Kaye, from Stevie Nicks, to Courtney Love, to Marissa Paternoster and St Vincent, rock ‘n’ roll has always been lucky enough to benefit from a female perspective.
It only takes a cursory glance at the covers of the mainstream rock magazines to see that rock is all too often presented as masculine (and something where the credible practitioners are from a halcyon golden age fifty years past). Pink Floyd, The Beatles, The Stones, each and every one a sausage fest.
Madonna, an incredible performer and writer, never had the credibility of Prince or Springsteen, two contemporaries of her. Maybe this was a result of the times we were living, but punk had gone some way to redressing the patriarchal slant of rock some years before this. Between The Slits, Siouxsie and The Banshees, ESG, The Pretenders and X-Ray Spex, women had been making music every bit as challenging, rocking and popular as their male counterparts, although we still hear more about The Clash and The Pistols. Girlschool were giving Motorhead a run for their money in the hard ‘n’ heavy stakes. (My favourite Alexei Sayle joke: “I saw Motorhead in concert and I shouted at them “Sexist Crap!”. They thought it was a request.”)
So are women in rock doomed to be the B-side to another story about Brian Wilson? While some more distance must be traversed to get parity, things are moving in the right direction.
She Shreds, a magazine dedicated to female guitar and bass players, has appeared to shed some much-needed light on female plank spankers, and Taylor Swift (a credible country star before the pop years) is getting press columns for handling her business affairs with streaming services, her song-writing and her incredible sales. St Vincent is taking the guitar to new and uncomfortable places, Beth Ditto has got covers challenging the media on issues of size and sexuality and Pussy Riot have hijacked the mainstream media through performances and protest.
Female bands seem to be appearing with more regularity (check out Music Sales favourites Yassassin) and playing out more, which bodes well for the future of female rock ‘n’ roll. So, roll your sleeves up, pick up a guitar, buy some records and get out to shows, because it’s only with our support that equality in rock and pop can happen.