Type ‘Australian women in rock music history’ into any search engine and you’re likely to get a results list containing absolutely nada of any relevance. There’s a sad lack of note-taking on the influence female musicians have had in Australian rock history, but the ICON exhibition Rock Chicks is hoping to reverse all that.
Featuring over 300 articles of music memorabilia from Missy Higgins and Suze DeMarchi to Deborah Conway and Margret RoadKnight, the exhibition is all about getting the complete picture. According to chief curator Janine Barrand, it’s all about the whole story: “I think there has been an unwritten focus on the “big names”, like Chrissy Amplett and the Divinyls, but not on a big “epic story” on women in music.”
When you’re starting with words like epic, it’s probably best to have done your research. Barrand spearheaded the search to track down artists willing to contribute to an exhibition, wanting to define the true ‘rock chick spirit’.
“It’s not about sidelining women; it’s why context was important,” Barrand notes. The exhibition looks at the ‘archaeology’ of Australian female rock history, hence a big emphasis on context; on the fact that in the thirties and forties, the Second World War allowed women to gain some independence while the men were away fighting. Suddenly the saxophone and drums, previously off-limits for the refined woman, were now open sources of inspiration. The end of the war and the return of the men inevitably influenced the look and style of fifties and sixties, with a tendency towards the clean-cut, virginal female musicians, but the style changed yet again with the advent of the feminist movement, Vietnam war and greater social and musical experimentation at universities.
If you’re a ‘50s or ‘60s fan, you’ll see the likes of Judith Durham of The Seekers fame, Little Pattie and Margret RoadKnight, seventies icons like Helen Reddy and Renee Geyer, and the eighties and nineties-era artists of Suze DeMarchi of the Baby Animals, Girl Monstar, and Deborah Conway. Gen Y also gets a good reception, including Katy Steele of Little Birdy, Missy Higgins, Adalita of Magic Dirt and Stephanie Ashworth of Something for Kate. Most musicians happily donated material for the exhibition, with items ranging from a costume from Deborah Conway to Missy Higgin’s sheet music and a make-up case from the days of Girl Monstar. It’s all part of the delicious fabric of Australian music heritage which, astonishingly, hasn’t really been chronicled until now.
It’s something Sherry Rich can probably identify with. The lead singer from all-female band Girl Monstar, who played around Australia from 1988-1993, Rich remembers the moment she thought, ‘Hang on, where are all the women?’ in the ‘80s St. Kilda music scene. And she does admit that in a male-dominated industry, you need a certain type of personality to be a female rock musician in Australia. If you’re a woman, does that mean your music is particularly feminine or female, or is that a pointless division? “It’s probably a bit of both; there’s a female influence and a “stick-it-to’em” attitude,” Sherry argues, noting that some stereotypes might be harder to kick than others. “My five-year-old came home from kinder the other day and said ‘Mummy, some boys said girls can’t play rock ‘n’ roll’. Women believe it and instead of joining a band, they get a musician boyfriend.’”
As if designed to illustrate a point, Bonnie, the first drummer for Girl Monstar, left the band before they played their first gig because she ‘wanted to spend more time with her boyfriend’. Rich was a bit more lucky, as her mother Noelene Rich was an acclaimed country music singer. Even now, Rich notes that if you’re over 40 and a female musician in Australia, you’re more or less put out to pasture unless you’re ‘very versatile’. It might perhaps explain why Rich is now based in Tennessee, where she seems to have just about every project under the sun running right now, but it’s a sad indictment of the limits of Australian rock for female musicians.
Perhaps the ICON exhibition can bring us back into the light. For a free sampler, a Rock Chicks exhibition concert, featuring Adalita (Magic Dirt), Diana Anaid, Clare Moore, Margret RoadKnight and others will be held on November 12 from 6-7pm at the Arts Centre forecourt.