A year ago, I posted a blog on British Female 1960’s Pop Stars. It has subsequently gone on to be one of my most read pieces even though the majority of this site is about spoken word. So for my 500th blog, and with over 15,000 site visits this year I thought that I would take a look at the 1970’s. The following artists are not “the best”, or the biggest selling. But they all follow the tradition of great British female pop stars. They are also, in my view, amongst the most interesting and influential.
When I compiled the 1960’s blog I was overwhelmed with choice, both of singer and song. The first thing that struck me in looking at the 1970’s was how few British female singers there were who had made it. There were some notable women who enjoyed success as part of, but not fronting on their own, bands, such as Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac, and Lyn Paul of the New Seekers. Otherwise the list was pretty thin. Elkie Brooks with Vinegar Joe is an exception- more of her later.
Siouxsie Sue, who fronted Siouxsie and the Banshees was seminal in numerous respects. Hitherto, women rarely fronted rock bands on their own . American Suzi Quatro, with her eponymous band, had led the way in the early 1970’s with some mainstream pop. Again in America, Janis Joplin had crashed and burned in the late 1960’s and Grace Slick was probably the most notable pioneer with Jefferson Airplane then Starship. In Britain there was nothing.
Punk is , and was, probably the most misrepresented of all popular musical genres. “Three chords, anyone can do it, you don’t have to be able to play you just need the spirit” were the popularised mantras. Individually they were true. But collectively punk offered muck more than that. Rather than providing a free pass to the untalented, it opened the door to those who had talent, but whose talent had been suppressed by prevailing trends and institutions. Her musical influences are obvious in her music; David Bowie, Lou Reed, Marc Bolan, Bryan Ferry of Roxy Music and Iggy Pop of The Stooges. She chose wisely in who she gathered around her. Multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Steve Severin provided a solid musical base, in succession, John MCKay, John McGeoch and Robert Smith were amongst the most talented guitarists of their generation, and writer and friend Caroline Coon was crucial in promoting the band in the early days.
I first saw her at the Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park, 1979 on April 7th playing a benefit for MENCAP. It was her first headline show at a major venue, which had sold out in hours. Rema-Rema opened, the band put together by original banshee guitarist Marco Pirroni who later encouraged Adam Ant whose band he played to copy Siouxsie’s image. They were followed by the Human League boasting Phil Oakey and Martin Ware before the Heaven 17 split. They were sensational, Being Boiled, Circus of Death and a wonderful slowed down version of You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling soared, although possibly soared over the heads of a rabid, boisterous punk crowd. Then came Siouxsie.
Dressed in pirate jacket, white blouson, tight leggings and boots and with white make-up and a shock of black hair standing as if electrified she commanded the stage from start to finish- and oozed sex-appeal. Although then the music was raw, the invention and arrangement of a fairly minimalist sound was evident, and her charisma and power subsumed any technical shortcomings. Hong Kong Garden was her hit number, and this is as good a representation of her as anything she did.
Shirley Bassey’s career spans an incredible seven decades now, her first hit coming in 1957, her career paralleling that of veteran Cliff Richard. As a consequence, deciding what decade she should be in is arbitrary. She made her name and fortunein the 1960’s, such that she went to live in tax exile at the end of that decade removing her from the domestic limelight. However the 1970’s was when she was at her commercial peak. This recording of her performing Something from 1971, her recording of the song outselling that of the Beatles ,showcases all that made her a star, her voice, her stagecraft, her phrasing- unusually she is not wearing one of her trademark shimmering evening dresses.
Tina Charles only had one hit, I Love to Love (But My Baby Just Loves to Dance), but it was a huge hit and has been played at discos pretty much ever since its release in 1976. America had lots of disco queens, Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor, Patti Labelle, Thelma Houston et al, but Tina is OUR disco queen, and she, and the song, are superb here, perfectly capturing the era. She had a perfectly respectable minor career after that, which would probably have been far more commercially successful if punk had not swept disco away in the popular zeitgeist in the following twelve months. Tina herself had a wholesome likeability. It is impossible to listen to this song without smiling, tapping your toes, humming the melody and mouthing the lyrics with visions of glitter balls, makeshift discos and martini and lemonade seeping into the sub conscious.
Kiki Dee was an industry stalwart who performed cover versions and backing vocals professionally across the industry. Three hits define her career. Amoureuse, I’ve Got The Music in Me, and her No1 duet with Elton John, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, the latter of which unfortunately left the public with a taste for more with Elton, restricting he subsequent appeal. As versatile as Cilla Black, she would certainly have prospered if she had been older and she had been able to launch her talents in the 1960’s when the market for solo female singers in Britain was so much greater. This performance of I’ve Got the Music in Me in 1974 shows her at her funkiest and punchiest with a lovely Motown feel to it.
No resume of female British talent in the 1970’s would be complete without reference to Kate Bush. Kate was extraordinary, with the right talent and voice at the right time. Progressive Rock had peaked, visuals had been pushed by Genesis. Dave Gilmour protege Bush ,helped by mime artist Lindsay Kemp who had assisted David bowies embryonic career, had the talent and the help at the right time to launch the wonderfully preposterous Wuthering Heights on an unsuspecting British public. The consensus was that she was mad- but good.
Ridiculously talented, and with numerous fine albums , her career has always been stymied by a refusal to tour, she has only ever been on the road once, for six weeks in 1979, other appearances have been one offs. Her sense of the dramatic, her vocal talent, and inventiveness are every bit a match for lady Gaga, whose contemporary success she would surely have emulated if she had been prepared to tour her music.
This performance of Wuthering Heights in 1978 sets the agenda for her career, although conventional songs like The Man With the Child in His Eyes show off her mainstream talent more effectively:
Another wacky Seventies star was Lene Lovich. An erstwhile radio one road show go-go dancer she found fame with Stiff records and a series of off-beat but catchy songs, Lucky Number, Home and Bird Song amongst the most successful. Yet it is a cover which I regard as being her finest work, her interpretation of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons hit The Night recorded at Liverpool University in 1979. Although not possessing the vocal quality and range of Kate Bush, unlike Bush she toured hard and her bohemian eclectic dress sense anticpated many of the trends developed by the male new romantics.
Poly Styrene enjoyed a relatively brief, but influential period of fame with X Ray Spex. Their only album Germfree Adolescents was acclaimed at the time alongside the Clash’s eponymous debut album and has grown in stature as time has gone on as have their five singles Oh Bondage, Up Yours,Identity, The Day the World Turned Day-Glo, Germ Free Adolescents, and Highly Inflammable. Wholly anti-sexual in her stage appearance ,she embodied an anti-consumerist girl power stance and anticipated the Riot Grrl movement. Although she , and the band, were about attitude and politics, the band could play, and she knew how to front a band. This performance of Identity is from 1978
Elkie Brooks is curiously often overlooked as a British talent, yet she released her first single in 1964 and is in her sixth decade as a performing artist. Once again, deciding which decade to place her in is arbitrary. Her solo album career commenced as a mainstream pop singer in 1975. In 1977 she had two top ten singles with the enduring Pearls a Singer, and Sunshine After the Rain, yet her credibility on the professional circuit was established by a distinguished stint with Robert Palmer’s Vinegar Joe. Her wild woman of rock reputation somewhat at odds with the schmaltzy cabaret style singing which made her subsequent fortune. But Elkie could rock, as this clip, recorded in 1973 of her singing as part of Vinegar Joe with Robert Palmer demonstrates.
I offer honourable mentions to the following; Pauline Murray from Penetration, Ari Up from the Slits, Ana da Silva from the Raincoats, Faye Fyfe from the Rezillos.
Those curious as to which artists caught my eye and ear in the 1960’s may wish to check this earlier blog: