Here's What It Was Like to Be a Female Rocker in the Sexist '80s Hair Metal Scene
Poison Dollys, in all their '80s metal glory
Courtesy Poison Dollys
During the 1980s, there was more makeup on the Sunset Strip than in the average department store. Ditto stiletto heels, blouses and Aquanet. Venue bathrooms were full of people checking their lipstick and mascara, before making their way to the bar or stage to preen.
And that was the dudes.
Removing tongue from cheek for a minute, the fashion of the 1980s hair-metal scene has been well documented and photographed. For those who were there, the images remain firmly implanted in the memory. Aerosmith's "Dude (Looks Like a Lady)," an ode to Mötley Crüe's Vince Neil, puts the whole thing in glorious perspective.
Ironically, while the men were trying to look as feminine as possible, in many cases their behavior reflected old gender divides. Groupie culture, sleazy videos featuring metal-chick style icons Bobbi Brown and Tawny Kitaen, the casually misogynistic lyrics — despite the attire, rock & roll was still very much a testosterone-fueled world.
"There were a lot of people who would book us because they thought it would be some kind of schticky thing," remembers Amy Brammer, lead singer of all-female '80s group Poison Dollys. "Normally after we did soundcheck, we proved that we knew what we were doing."
Poison Dollys were hardly the only female musicians on the Strip who could shred and wail as well as the men. But while people would line up for blocks to see guys dressed like girls, the female rockers were, for the most part, viewed as a novelty. Bands and musicians such as Phantom Blue, Femme Fatale and Precious Metal were writing and performing killer hard-rock anthems but often were greeted with an eye roll by record label execs, club owners, radio station heads and critics.
Lita Ford, who had previously made a name for herself as a member of The Runaways, and Vixen were the two acts seemingly granted permission to achieve commercial success by the industry, leaving many other ambitious, talented female musicians on the outside looking in.
Still, Hollywood was the place to be and the musicians flocked here, hoping for some success by proximity. The Strip was ground zero for commercial hard rock in the '80s, which is what lured the Poison Dollys there from Long Island, Lorraine Lewis of Femme Fatale from Albuquerque, and Phantom Blue's Gigi Hangach from Cleveland.
The Poison Dollys already had a respectable following in Long Island, and had been the opening act on an Aerosmith tour. They had milked every available opportunity from their home base, says Brammer (known back then as Roulette), and had to explore new options. The L.A. hair scene beckoned.
"We had been to NAMM a couple of times, and thought that might be cool," Brammer says of her group's decision to relocate in 1988. "We all decided to go do it and explore some new horizons."
Hangach was playing in cover bands in Ohio before coming here and scouring the classifieds for bandmates. Lewis was also playing in Top 40 bands in New Mexico, before making her way to L.A. at the recommendation of a friend.
"I was working at Tower Records on the Sunset Strip," Lewis says. "I was also waitressing at Bob's Big Boy in Glendale. We tried and tried to find members for the band, and basically what would happen is, if they looked cool they couldn't play for shit. Basically, I reached out to my buddies back home in Albuquerque, my brother being one of them. I told them to come out to L.A. to be in my band, and they did."
Lorraine Lewis of Femme Fetale
It was 1987, and the glam-metal scene was at its peak. With her all-male backing band in tow, Lewis went to work. "We had a handful of songs, and we just started rehearsing. Riki Rachtman was doing a jam night on Mondays at the Whisky. They got us on the bill, and we basically blew the doors off the place. Riki wanted to meet us after the show, and then he wanted us to start playing every Monday night. That's really how it started. I wasn't afraid of coming off too rock & roll, sleazy or in your face. I just meant it, I believed it, I wanted it and I just didn't care."
When Hangach arrived in L.A., she hooked up with guitarist Michelle Meldrum and drummer Linda McDonald, and Phantom Blue was born. The early signs were good, and the band scored a major-label deal with Geffen Records.
"We got signed but then they hung onto us and we were just languishing for like three years before they finally did something," Hangach says. "Even then, they just wanted to shut these girls up. Roadrunner Europe, our label over there, was amazing. That's why I think anybody ever heard of us, because of them."
Hangach recalls a meeting with Phantom Blue's A&R guys at Geffen after months of phone calls. When the meeting eventually occurred, the women were presented with white roses as an apology. In fact, all they wanted was to be treated as professional musicians. "They wouldn't have given flowers to Axl Rose," Hangach says.
Just as Susannah Hoffs has said that the press and industry would try to pit The Bangles against The Go-Go's, so Lorraine Lewis was pitted against Lita Ford, or Vixen against Phantom Blue.
"The stations would really only play one rock female at a time," Lewis says. "It wasn't like how it is now. If I went to a radio station and Lita's poster was on the wall, I knew the chances of me getting played at that radio station were zero. One token female rock girl. It was so fucked up. I took it all with a grain of salt and a smile on my face, but looking back, it's so outrageous to think that radio and airplay was so limited in their thought."
Leslie Knauer of the L.A.-based band Precious Metal agrees that breaking through on the radio was the toughest challenge. "The radio stations would tell us that they had one spot for an all-girl band," she says. "One spot. Why not seven spots? Why not 30 spots out of 100? They would say, 'Between you and Vixen, it's whoever can pay for the most ad time.'"
The '80s being the '80s, image was a huge part of the scene. With the girls in the Poison and Warrant music videos hyper-sexualized, the girls in the bands were expected to look a certain way, too. At the time, for many bands, playing up to that image was part of the fun.
"We all dressed like that because, when you were in the clubs back in those days, that's just how you dressed," Brammer says. "My mother was a seamstress, so I would design stuff and she would help me create it. I don't know if it was to amp up the sex, or just to amp up something that people look at and go, 'Wow, where did she get that?'"
Women in bands were sometimes pressured to alter their appearance in other ways. "When I came to L.A., all of these stripper girls had big knockers," says Lewis, who describes herself as small-breasted at the time. "It was boob nation, for sure. What eventually happened is I got picked up at Front Line Management. I remember going in there in my regular attire — jean cutoff shorts, cowboy boots, some glitzy black and gold top that I got at the Salvation Army or something, my hair was really big. I went into Howard Kaufman's office. We had a blast, and one of his first questions was, 'If I buy her boobs, would she wear them?' I said, 'Abso-fucking-lutely.' So that was the plan. Howard Kaufman bought me boobs."
Femme Fatale had a few MTV hits back in the day before falling apart. Lewis got out of music completely before re-forming Femme Fatale as an all-female band a few years ago. They play occasional shows and Monsters of Rock cruises.
Precious Metal's Leslie Knauer
Similarly, Precious Metal play a show when it feels right. Phantom Blue are no longer a going concern, though they re-formed for one show in 2009 to pay tribute to guitarist Meldrum, who had died a year earlier from a brain cyst. The Poison Dollys haven't played together since splitting at the start of the 1990s.
Lita Ford and Vixen still perform regularly, milking the rewards of the lucrative hair-metal package tours. But it's undeniably more difficult for women after a certain age, particularly within the metal genre. It doesn't matter how overweight the dudes get, how rough their faces look — they can still play Hair Nation Festival. But for women, the standards are still different.
"You've got to be able to afford a plastic surgeon if you're going to put yourself out there, or you're open to ridicule," Hangach says.
Precious Metal's Knauer says that she's been hearing that crap since she hit her 30s and doesn't let it bother her.
"I was signed four times to different labels, but it was never good enough to sustain something," she says. "I think it's harder for girls. Just think of Phil Spector. Just think about how people want to control women. Some people are not cool. But," she adds, even if a career in rock & roll is harder for women, "it's just as much fun."
Lewis, for her part, is unperturbed as ever, determined to ride the nostalgia train (or cruise) and have a great time doing it.
"I have a great band — over the top, boobs, hair flying, boots and energy," she says. "We're aware that now, Femme Fatale is kind of a novelty. We didn't sell a zillion records, but we're still here."
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