It didn’t start with the Runaways or the Go-Go’s. 60s bands like Ace of Cups, She, The Girls, Goldie & The Gingerbreads, The Untouchable, The Pleasure Seekers, The Liverbirds and many more, were part of the first wave of bold young women, mostly teens at the time, who knew that rock & roll belonged to them just as much as anyone else.
More than half a century ago, young women began a movement in rock & roll that reached across the globe but would nevertheless wind up largely written out of rock history. In subsequent decades, when an all-female rock band would emerge, be it Fanny or The Runaways in the ’70s or even The Go-Go’s or The Bangles in the ’80s, they were received as some strange, unprecedented phenomenon. But, in fact, the template for distaff rock bands had already been forged back in the mid-’60s by a bold, surprisingly widespread bunch of young women, mostly teens at the time, who knew that rock ‘n’ roll belonged to them just as much as anyone else.
As soon as the Merseybeat boom started convincing teens around the world that drums and electric guitars held the keys to the universe, teenage girls undaunted by rock’s rep as a boys’ game began to take matters into their own hands. Many of them cut records on small indie labels, a handful made their way to the majors, and several appeared on regional or national music TV shows. A few also found their history intertwined with the legendary likes of The Kinks, The Stooges, and Jefferson Airplane.
Guitarist Denise Kaufman of San Francisco’s Ace of Cups remembers her band’s beginnings: “I had never even thought of the possibility of an all-female band when I met the other four members who had already started jamming together. I had played either as a solo or in bands with guys. It was an organic convergence and we had nowhere to look for precedent. We were just making it up as we went.”
“We knew there were women who sang pop songs,” says guitarist/singer Geri Lombardo of Princeton, New Jersey’s The Untouchable, “but there weren’t any girls playing rock ‘n’ roll, using their own instruments and singing in four-part harmony that we knew of. But our thoughts were, ‘Why not do what we love, and if we are the first all-girl rock ‘n’ roll band, or one of the first, why not?'” The band’s lead guitarist, Dodie Pettit, adds, “We were best friends, and ‘guy bands’ didn’t want us to play with them, and we had the same desire and dream that they did. We wanted to try to replicate the music that we loved so much, The Beatles being the top of the list.”
The times being what they were, gender was sometimes exploited in the presentation of the first wave of all-female bands. Even the names of some of the groups reflected an implied chauvinistic male gaze, like The She’s, The Debutantes, The Models, The Belles, The Pretty Kittens, etc. The bands may have decided it was worth being marketed as curiosities in order to make their voices (and instruments) heard.
“On the one hand,” recalls Pettit, “we were savvy enough to know that just being girls we would get a lot more attention immediately, by wearing mini-skirts and showing off our looks. But, on the other hand, we knew that being a ‘novelty’ act would only get us in the door, and that we would probably get only one chance to prove ourselves worthy of being taken seriously. And we were hyper aware, at least I was, that most people were ready to ridicule us and couldn’t wait to shoot us down.”
But the bands made no concessions when it came to the music. Whether it was England’s Mandy & The Girlfriends bringing a raw, garage-rock edge to Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour,” Ace of Cups delivering their take on the late ’60s Bay Area sound with “Simplicity,” or New Yorkers The Enchanted Forest crafting the sophisticated chamber pop of “You’re Never Gonna Get My Lovin’,” they all maintained a sense of who they were and what they wanted to do.
They put up with plenty of sexism along the way but did their best to transcend it and turn things to their advantage. Lombardo remembers The Untouchable auditioning to be the house band at NYC hotspot The Electric Circus.
“The look on their faces when they saw these five young, pretty girls was comical. I remember Bob [Trainer, club rep] looked at us and you could tell from his expression that he thought this was going to be a big waste of his time. Had we not immediately begun to play, he probably would have turned around and left. We opened up with a cover of the Jefferson Airplane song ‘3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds,’ which has a very strong opening. We had played it on multiple gigs so it was tight. His jaw dropped, and he hired us by the second song!”
For reasons as numerous as the bands themselves (though discrimination was likely chief among them), none of the all-female groups of the ’60s ever really broke through to the big time, but a few of their alumni managed to make it through the gates in the ’70s. Glam-era star Suzi Quatro started out as a member of Detroit band The Pleasure Seekers, while Genya Ravan, singer for mid-’60s NYC band Goldie & The Gingerbreads, would find renown fronting Ten Wheel Drive. But for every band featured here, there were a dozen of others out there, all providing ample, empirical proof that even in a less enlightened era, testosterone was never a requirement for rocking.
“San Francisco in 1967 was breaking down stereotypes in so many ways that it was the perfect place for us to emerge,” says guitarist Denise Kaufman, who co-founded the Ace of Cups in the Summer of Love. They found more support than many of their peers. “There were the occasional macho guys in bands who rolled their eyes,” Kaufman says, “but much more often we were mentored and encouraged. Jorma Kaukonen, lead guitarist in Jefferson Airplane, lent me a beautiful Gibson 345 to play for about a year and shared scales and licks when we were together. Jefferson Airplane took us on tour with them and invited us to sing background vocals on their album Volunteers. The Electric Flag, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Sons of Champlin were brother bands who mentored and encouraged us. And Jimi Hendrix was really supportive of us after we played together in Golden Gate Park.”
Despite being where the action was, Ace of Cups never made a record before they finally split in 1972 after multiple personnel changes. But in 2018 the original lineup finally released an album, featuring guest appearances by Bob Weir, Taj Mahal, and Buffy Sainte-Marie. “In May of 2011, we got together to play for Wavy Gravy’s 75th birthday benefit,” explains Kaufman. “George Baer Wallace of High Moon Records came out for that show and loved it. He offered to help us keep going together. For the next couple of years, with George’s support, three of us came in from all parts of California to play and write together every couple of months. When George heard our new material, he offered us the chance to make the record we never got to record in the ’60s.”
Sacramento sisters Nancy and Sally Ross were a couple of teenage troublemakers who literally had a vision (it came to Nancy in a dream after seeing a 1964 Beach Boys in concert) of creating a band “like the Beach Boys, but girls.” They started out as The Id, then becoming The Hairem, and eventually renaming themselves She. By the time they graduated from the living room to the stage a couple of years later, they were sharing bills in San Francisco with the likes of Quicksilver Messenger Service and The Grateful Dead. Older sister Nancy’s songs were full of piss and vinegar, and so was the band’s sound. “Like a Snake” and others boast raw riffs and venomous vocals that foreshadow the arrival of No Wavers like Lydia Lunch a generation later. By 1970 they were calling themselves She and recording for Kent Records, but that partnership proved abortive, and the band broke up the next year. Their demos and unreleased Kent recordings were released in 1999 on the collection She Wants a Piece of You. For more in-depth info, see Lindsay Zoladz’s interview with Sally at The Utne Reader.
The Sandoval Sisters/Moon Maids/The Girls
Another sister act, these East L.A. Latinas made more mainstream headway than many of their peers, recording for Capitol Records, appearing on TV, and nabbing a Fender guitar sponsorship. Diane, Margaret, Rosemary, and Sylvia Sandoval spent the first half of the ’60s working as The Four Queens, The Teen Bugs, The Sandoval Sisters, and The Moonmaids. In these early incarnations they bore a poppy, ’50s-indebted sound, but that changed by the time they became The Girls in 1965. It was under this name that they released the Capitol singles “Chico’s Girl” (penned by the legendary songwriting duo Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil) and “My Baby,” a rugged but jangly rocker written by singer/drummer Margaret Sandoval.
One of the first and most celebrated female rock bands, Goldie & The Gingerbreads formed in New York in 1962. Singer Goldie Zelkowitz had previously been in the otherwise male Brooklyn doo-wop outfit Goldie & The Escorts. After hearing drummer Ginger Bianco play, she decided to start the all-female Goldie & The Gingerbreads. They were signed by Atlantic Records co-owner Ahmet Ertegun, and when Eric Burdon and his manager heard them, the band was booked on a British tour where they opened for The Rolling Stones, Kinks, and Yardbirds. Atlantic distributor Decca released three G&G singles in England; the first, “Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat” became a Top 40 hit in England, but Herman’s Hermits’ version, released right around the same time, hit No. 2 in the U.S. The others, overseen by The Who’s producer Shel Talmy, didn’t make much impact.
The band was admired and hailed by many of the era’s biggest British rockers, and they appeared on Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s TV show, Not Only But Also. But though they toured the U.S. as well, they didn’t gain as much traction at home, and by ’68 they’d broken up. Goldie soon found fame as Genya Ravan, fronting brass-rock band Ten Wheel Drive, while Bianco and Gingerbreads guitarist Carol MacDonald formed another all-female band, jazz-rockers Isis. But Goldie & The Gingerbreads eventually achieved more posthumous renown than most of the bands documented here — they were included in the Rolling Stone Book of Women in Rock, honored with the Women in Music organization’s Touchstone award, and featured in an exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame museum.
The handful of tracks The Untouchable recorded were never released, but decades after their breakup they gained unexpected renown for their influence on The Stooges. They came together in Princeton, NJ in 1965, having evolved from a 1964 incarnation as a folk group. Once they started rocking, The Untouchable began playing all over the East coast, opening for the likes of The Beach Boys, The Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, and more, and appeared on a number of regional TV shows. Their foothold in rock history came in 1967 in Greenwich Village when they met the young men who were just about to form The Stooges. “When we told them we were in an all-girl band, they scoffed,” remembers guitarist Geri Lombardo. “We told them to come and hear us play then. They decided to do just that. They drove us from Manhattan down to my parent’s home in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, where at the time, we were rehearsing in my parents’ basement.” Over the years, Iggy Pop would continue to recount the experience in multiple interviews, including the Stooges documentary Gimme Danger. “They were completely shocked at how good we were,” recalls Lombardo. “We found out years later, from multiple interviews with James [Osterberg a.k.a. Iggy], that we shamed them that night. It was because we were just so much better than they were at that time.” The encounter proved to be a formative one that cemented the future Stooges’ decision to forge ahead.
In 1967, The Untouchable signed a management contract with Koppelman & Rubin, famous for shepherding the careers of The Lovin’ Spoonful, The Turtles, and others. The pair sponsored a recording session with famed producer John Boylan, including the rather psychedelic tune “Tollbooth,” which was slated to be their debut single. But after drummer Kathy Pettit quit the band, The Untouchable started imploding and soon broke up before the record could be released. Lead guitarist Dodie Pettit (Kathy’s sister), moved on to another all-female band that we’ll hear about next, and continues to have a rich life in music to this day.
The Enchanted Forest
The Enchanted Forest was actually two separate bands that occupied the same space in the universe at different times. The first formed in New York in 1966 and only stuck around long enough for one single, but what a single it was. Released on Bell Records subsidiary Amy, “You’re Never Gonna Get My Lovin'” was written by renowned songwriters Mort Shuman and Kenny Lynch, who were also responsible for The Small Faces’ “Sha-La-La-La-Lee,” among other things. The tune was a gorgeous slice of baroque pop, replete with harpsichord riffs and Beach Boys-esque harmonies, something of a lost psych-pop classic. The shimmering cover of Leonard Cohen’s then-new “Suzanne” on the flip side was none too shabby either.
Shuman was also the band’s producer, and when they split up not long after the record’s release, he decided to keep the concept going by simply by drafting a new batch of female musicians to be The Enchanted Forest. He settled on a band from Long Island called Act IV, slapped the Enchanted Forest moniker on them, and oversaw another single, the more rocking “The Word is Love,” which was released twice with different B-sides. Towards the end of the band’s time, erstwhile Untouchable guitarist Dodie Pettit came on board for a while. Before splitting in 1970, The Enchanted Forest ended their saga on a surprising note, becoming Tiny Tim’s backup band for a bit. You can see them in his 1970 performance of “Earth Angel” on The Ed Sullivan Show.
The Pleasure Seekers are one of the better-known bands of the movement, probably at least in part because they provided the launching pad for ’70s hitmaker Suzi Quatro’s career. Suzi started the band in Detroit in 1964 with her sister Patti (another Quatro sister, Arlene, would come aboard in ’66) and a few other teens. They became a regional success, appearing live on local TV and releasing their 1965 debut single, “Never Thought You’d Leave Me,” on Hideout Records, which released Bob Seger’s earliest cuts.
After a couple of years of national touring, The Pleasure Seekers earned a high enough profile to nab a deal with Mercury, who released the band’s second single, 1968’s “Light of Love,” with its big, brass-punctuated production. The following year, they reinvented themselves as the harder-rocking Cradle, with Arlene leaving and yet another sibling, Nancy, coming on board. By 1971, Suzi signed a solo deal with British pop kingmaker Mickie Most. She scored her first U.K. No. 1 single in ’73, by which point the band called it quits, with Patti going on to join seminal ’70s distaff rockers Fanny. Fun fact: Arlene is the mother of Sherilyn Fenn.
The Debutantes got together in 1964 Detroit too, and played on the same circuit as The Pleasure Seekers. Led by singer Jan McClellan, who was just 14 at the band’s inception, they mostly performed covers, like The Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” Mickey & Sylvia’s “Love is Strange,” and The Drifters’ “On Broadway,” lending them all a raw, garage-band edge. But they snuck some of their own tunes in there too. The B-side of their second single featured one of their best, McClellan’s “A New Love Today,” produced by Terry Knight, who would help guide Grand Funk Railroad to fame.
They chugged along for a good few years, with McClellan remaining at the forefront through several personnel shifts. They ended up touring not only across the U.S. but abroad as well. But a disastrous 1969 tour of Southeast Asia to entertain American troops put an end to the band. A Korean booker held their passports hostage until they’d played enough gigs to turn a profit for him, <i>and</i> their equipment was stolen along the way. Though they released only three singles, in 2018 Sundazed Records put out a full album that also included previously unreleased material.
Formed in the teensy town of Fulda, Minnesota in 1963, The Continental Co-Ets are reckoned to be one of the first female rock bands in the upper Midwest. Operating through 1967, they released only one single, 1966’s “I Don’t Love You No More” b/w “Medley of Junk.” They started out as an all-instrumental group before eventually adding vocals, and perhaps oddly for a bunch of Minnesotans, they seem to have been heavily influenced by surf music. That influence is apparent in “I Don’t Love You No More,” a primal slab of rock ‘n’ roll deserving of “lost classic” status that comes off like a cross between The Ventures and The Shangri-La’s, and is even more overt on the instrumental flip side.
Fortunately for The Co-Ets, their sound made more sense than their name, and they toured extensively in the Midwest as well as working in Canada, where their single, despite being released in a very limited pressing, even made it onto some regional record charts. Though they split in ’67 without much further ado, the Co-Ets spirit lived on — in 1994, two previously unheard tracks were posthumously released as a single by garage-rock mavens Get Hip Records. In 2002, due to “I Don’t Love You No More” having been cut in Milford, IA and released on the IGL (Iowa Great Lakes) label, the band was inducted into the Iowa Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, even reuniting for the occasion.
One of the first bands of female rockers in England, let alone Liverpool, The Liverbirds had their roots in The Squaws, a mostly speculative band formed in 1962 by a crew of Liverpudlian teenage girls after seeing The Beatles at the legendary Cavern Club. With the introduction of a couple of more experienced musicians the following year, they evolved into The Liverbirds. Next thing they knew, they were gigging around town with The Rolling Stones and The Kinks, the latter being impressed enough to try to connect The Liverbirds with their manager. In fact, when The Kinks’ gear was stolen right before they were set to record “You Really Got Me,” The Liverbirds loaned them their instruments.
Beatles manager Brian Epstein was interested in the band, but The Liverbirds followed The Beatles’ example by establishing a residency at Hamburg’s Star-Club in 1964. In Germany they were hailed as “the female Beatles” and became a local sensation, performing constantly, appearing on TV, and recording two albums and several singles for the Star-Club’s own label. Unlike The Beatles, they never went back to England, remaining in Hamburg until their breakup in 1968, and then living in Germany the rest of their lives.
Another British group that fled for the greener pastures of Germany, Mandy & The Girlfriends formed in Hull in 1965. With a repertoire full of songs made famous by other British bands, like “Money” and “House of the Rising Sun,” they did well in and around Hull, as well as working in London, where they opened for The Animals in 1967. But shortly after that, they made their way to Germany, where they’d gotten a gig playing at American air bases.
They were so well received in Germany that they were asked to make an album, cutting a dozen songs in only four hours for a self-titled LP on the independent Kerston label. But by 1968, drummer Hilary Morgan quit the band to marry an American solider, and Mandy & The Girlfriends fell apart. In 2013, band members Merle Phillips and Margaret Brown published a book about their rock ‘n’ roll experiences, It’s Different for Girls, which was adapted for a British musical of the same title in 2017.
A clever bit of chicanery led to the formation of Sweden’s Plommons. In 1964 Maud Lindqvist and Eva Hankansson met a local reporter who they informed that they were Sweden’s first all-female pop group, a flat-out lie. But when the reporter wanted to write an article about them, they were forced to come up with a band quickly, creating Plommons in the process. They were soon playing gigs around Sweden, and eventually landed an appearance on TV program The Grona Lund Hip Pop Show.
The manager of popular Swedish rockers Tages soon took on Plommons, and arranged a tour for them in 1965. In October of that year they opened for The Who at the Johannishovs stadium. The next month they played another TV show, Drop-In. They released two singles in 1966 and one more in ’67, but Plommons broke up later that year after two members went off to college. However, they began playing reunion shows in the ’80s and they remain active to this day.