Girl Bands and Their Male Svengalis: A History

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Since the idea of an all-girl band first appeared in American popular culture back in the Jazz Age, with ladies-only orchestras (think Marilyn Monroe’s traveling band of misfits in Some Like It Hot), music historians have been putting them in the context of the more successful men around them — and often giving those men all the credit for their successes. The svengali mentality became especially prevalent during the days of ‘60s girl groups, when puppet master producer/manager/writers not only controlled the destiny of the girl groups in their stable, but owned the legal rights to them. While punk rock may have gender neutralized music, it didn’t stop us from contextualizing all-girl bands and their importance in terms of the men involved in creating them, writing their songs, or (re)discovering them. After the jump, we examine 10 girl bands and their relationship to the guys who were credited with their success.

The Runaways

Where would The Runaways be without Kim Fowley? Probably a lot richer to start, and less of a one-trick pony entirely dependent on teenage sexuality. It is easily divined from both the documentary Edgeplay and Cherie Currie’s memoir Neon Angel that Fowley kept them out of the business side of things while triple-dipping on their success, grabbing money as their manager and producer while also snagging publishing royalties for songwriting credits. While they undoubtedly would have been better off, and possibly gotten along better, without Fowley, The Runaways also wouldn’t exist without him. He literally put the group together and taught them to play and write songs. He would be the ultimate girl group svengali, if it weren’t for…

The Crystals

The Ronettes were perhaps more famous, but The Crystals suffered the brunt of Phil Spector’s girl-group svengali wrath. He owned the group’s name and likeness, affording them no recourse when he opted to swap out lead singers, even bringing in an outside woman named Darlene Love, when he was annoyed with the girls. He recorded an entire album with Love and back-up singers which he released as The Crystals in 1962. Oh, and let’s not forget his undefendable decision to have the group cut the single “He Hit Me (It Felt Like A Kiss),” which was summarily rejected by radio stations and audiences. The Crystals wouldn’t have been nearly as fascinating without Spector’s legendary Wall of Sound production, but under Spector’s watch they weren’t always actually The Crystals anyway.

The Bangles

At the time of their emergence, there were two things you could expect to hear music journalists say about The Bangles: 1) that they were the next Go-Gos and 2) that Prince wrote their first hit single “Manic Monday” for Susanna Hoffs. All of the furor about Prince’s song brought his infatuation with Hoffs to the forefront, placing her at the center of the press and marketing focus for the band. That ultimately lead to their first break-up.

The Shaggs

The Shaggs are the epitome of outsider art: a girl band that can’t play. They became a cause célèbre among music luminaries like Frank Zappa and Kurt Cobain after their demise, but the real svengali in their story was the girls’ father, Austin Wiggins, who insisted they form a band despite their disinterest and complete lack of musical ability. By all accounts they stayed together because he would have been disappointed if they didn’t.

Luscious Jackson

The big headline on Luscious Jackson is, was, and always will be: “zomg Kate Schellenberg was the original drummer in the Beastie Boys! And they’re friends! And then the Beasties signed them to their label! Beastie Boys!”

GTOs

Girls Together Outrageously were a girl group that probably never should have been, but Frank Zappa was bored one day and pulled a bunch of Sunset Strip groupies together, including Pamela DesBarres, and convinced them they had a legitimate chance at being a band. That’s just mean.

Goldie & the Gingerbreads

Goldie & the Gingerbreads were a very talented all-girl rock band. Their All Music Guide biography makes sure to note that they were signed by the famous Atlantic Records head Ahmet Ertegun and handpicked by Keith Richards (who was not at all incidentally, in a band signed and groomed by Ertegun, in the U.S. at the same time) to open for the Rolling Stones and a stable of British invasion bands who they toured with on a 1965 jaunt. They became the first all-girl rock band to sign to a major label, but found themselves continually packaged as a novelty act on rounds of U.K. tours with no chart success in the U.S. or U.K.

Fanny

Much like Goldie & the Gingerbreads, Fanny are remembered in rock history for the industry dude who signed them in the late ’60s (Mo Ostin at Reprise Records), the famous dude who discovered them (George Harrison. Perhaps you’ve heard of him?), and the respected artist who lauded them after no one cared (David Bowie, who started randomly praising them in the ’90s as being before their time). Absolutely no one but Bowie remembers what they sound like or why they were important. Here’s a hint — it’s because they were the first all-girl band to actually release a full-length album on a major label.

Vixen

Embarrassing, meet embarrassing. Vixen were a band on the L.A. scene are far back as 1981. But they didn’t have an album or a hit song until 1988. Why? They finally got that fine songsmith Richard Marx to write “Edge of a Broken Heart” for them. Yes, Richard Marx goes down in music history as being responsible for Vixen — and for Vixen going down in flames. Never mind that grunge stuff; this all-girl band failed because Marx became a mainstream solo star in his own right and stopped working with them.

Girl In A Coma

In all fairness, Girl In A Coma kind of did it to themselves by going out so hard with their Morrissey fangirl faces on and naming themselves after a Smiths song. They were quickly asked to join Moz opening for him on a Latin American tour, because his sense of irony has grown exceptionally large in his old age, and now they are forever linked to the saddest man in rock.