There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Remember women? It was just a few years ago that they controlled the charts and even put the hard-rock boys in their place by organizing the top-grossing summer tour. There are still women on the charts, of course, but mostly not ones who make a case for self-determination. The “Hot List” issue of Rolling Stonethat would be the one with “The Girls of American Pie 2” on the coverreveals that current female chart-toppers are often glamorous types with powerful producers, managers, label executives, or other father figures lurking just offstage: Alicia Keys, Destiny’s Child, Jessica Simpson, and so on. Virtually the only challenges to patriarchy in the Top 100 are Melissa Etheridge and, uh, Enya.
So it’s time for 2001’s best corrective to 2001’s music: rooting around in the vaults. Two recent reissues show two very different approaches to beating the boys at their own game: the fussy, behind-the-scenes pop of mid-to-late-’60s American artisan Margo Guryan and the raucous, untutored post-punk of late-’70s/early-’80s Swiss upstarts LiLiPUT. Both labored in obscurity, of course, but they kept their dignity. What are the chances that Simpson’s complete oeuvre will be reissued 33 (Guryan) or 23 (LiLiPUT) years after the fact?
At this point, it should be obvious that women pop musicians can, should, and will control their own artistic destinies. Yet the story of women in rock keeps starting over from zerowhich explains why Lilith Fair, merely the latest flowering of the female singer-songwriter subgenre that dates to the ’60s, could be treated as a revelation just a few years ago. When I was working on Dance of Days, the one theme that really didn’t resonate with me was the transition from the boys-club atmosphere of the early Dischord scene to the riot-grrrl uprising of a decade later. After all, when bands such as the Teen Idles and the Untouchables began, many of D.C.’s established punk bands had women members. But each pop generation seems to start by shoving women back into the traditional roles of spectator or chick singer.
Women first started asserting themselves in rock in the early ’60s, the golden age of “girl groups” such as the Ronettes, the Crystals, and (a little later) the Shangri-Las. These groups had little control of their music; indeed, if they were produced by Phil Spector, they weren’t even necessarily allowed to appear on the records released under their names. Many of their songs were written, however, by Brill Building boy-girl teams such as Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. (Yes, the men’s names always came first.) And if King didn’t embody the zeitgeist as utterly as Alison Anders’ fictionalization of her in Grace of My Heart, she did become a major star (and Lilith Fair precursor) in the ’70s.
The same thing could have happened to Guryan, but she didn’t especially want it to. A classically trained pianist who started writing songs for jazz singers in the late ’50s, she made her first sale when Chris Connor recorded “Moon Ride” in 1957. Hanging out with jazz players, she was ignorant of rock’s growing sophistication; it was jazz pianist Dave Frishberg who told her that she had to hear an impressive new record: the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.” Instantly converted, she wrote songs that were recorded by Claudine Longet, Jackie DeShannon, Julie London, and Mama Cass Elliot. Her biggest success was “Sunday Morning,” a hit for both Oliver and Spanky and Our Gang.
Guryan’s version of “Sunday Morning” opens Take a Picture, her one and only album, which flopped on its 1968 release but has subsequently become a collectors’ fetish item. As the list of singers who’ve recorded her material indicates, Guryan never had a hard edge. But her album, whose sound melds mainstream ’60s orch-pop with the baroque rock of bands such as the Left Banke, is manna for contemporary not-rockers such as Tindersticks, the denizens of the Shibuya scene, and Belle and Sebastian and its spinoffs. Not all of Guryan’s gambits would have sounded fresh even in 1968, however: “Someone I Know” turns the melody of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” into a background riff, a trick pulled by the Byrds’ “She Don’t Care About Time” three years earlier. The crypto-serialist intro to “Love,” though, is definitely ahead of its timeor out of it.
The songwriter never liked performing and didn’t play live to promote her album. “If you wrote and you could breathe, you got a record deal,” she recently told Douglas Wolk. “It forced terrific performers to write material that was less than fantastic, and it was a death knell to songwriters who did not want to be performers.” As the late-’60s pop-rock renaissance faded, Guryan retired from recording, becoming a music teacher. The reissue of Take a Picture is accompanied by another disc, 25 Demos, which features versions of songs Guryan penned for Elliot, Longet, and Mae West, and also includes several curiosities she wrote in response to Watergate. But Take a Picture is definitive by itself, the first and last testament of a woman who knew when to quit.
That’s about the only thing that Guryan shares with Marlene Marder and Klaudia Schiff, the two members of LiLiPUT (originally Kleenex) who stuck with the band through its entire 1978-1983 runand haven’t made music since. LiLiPUT is the first American edition of a complete compilation (the group’s entire 46-song output) released in Switzerland in 1993. Although one Kleenex/LiLiPUT trackthe irresistibly exuberant “Ain’t You”was released on a U.S. Rough Trade sampler, the bulk of the band’s work was available only on import. Critics liked to link the group to Zurich’s early-20th-century bad boys, the dadaists, but LiLiPUT had more in common musically and temperamentally with such anarchic, women-led British groups as X-Ray Spex, the Slits, and the Raincoats, most of whom made a tremendous noise and then vanished.
The members of LiLiPUT were riot grrrls before the term’s time: One of their inspirations was a youth riot that shook Zurich in 1980. Yet the band’s music is not heavy on message, in part because it’s sung in a mixture of German, French, English, jabberwocky, and “la la las.” (In 1998, Marder told Jason Gross that this was because “[o]ur English isn’t that good. It’s a foreign language. It was nonsense anyway!”) Yet the songs’ essence is liberatinggleeful rule-breaking that turns insurgency into joy. Arraying sax, whistling, and traded vocals atop a rough but rollicking groove, LiLiPUT effortlessly breaks down musical hierarchies.
LiLiPUT’s 20-year-old outbursts constitute one of the freest-sounding albums of the year so far, but it could be more than that. Perhaps it will provide a model for a new insurrection against the airtight pop that today’s young women are supposed to produce and consume. If women’s struggle to break the rules of Barbie-doll pop has to start again from scratch, let it start now. Mark Jenkins
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