Released today in 1985: Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves

RCA PB40339

RCA PB40339

It was once suggested that the three most influential and powerful people in Britain during the 1980s were women: the Queen, Elizabeth II; the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher; and consumer rights champion and charity campaigner Esther Rantzen. But in the British music industry during that time, to what extent were sisters indeed “doin’ it for themselves”?

The biggest selling single of the period was released almost exactly half-way through the decade. The Band Aid charity effort Do They Know It’s Christmas? first appeared in the shops on 3 December 1984 and sold more than a quarter of a million copies in its first three days. Surprisingly few women were involved in the recording. The song was written by men, produced by men, and all the solo vocalists were men. In fact, of the 37 performers on the track, there were just four women: Jody Watley and the three members of Bananarama. (Although when the call for the ladies’ vocals to be recorded was given, Keren Woodward allegedly quipped, “Coming, Marilyn?”) This wasn’t unrepresentative of the British music scene at the time. Most of senior posts in the industry were held by men, the biggest selling records were by men, and the music press focused primarily on the work of male musicians and performers. The latter was certainly true of the ‘serious’ music press (NME and the like), but was also true of the pop end of the market – of the 41 pop stars who appeared on the cover of Smash Hits during the same year, 35 were men.

The following year, 1985, there were signs of a change – in some respects, at least. While ALL the stars on the cover of Smash Hits that year were men, in the charts women were having more of an impact. Madonna placed an astonishing eight singles in the Top 5 during the year, one of which was the third-biggest selling single of the year. The singles that beat her were also by women. The top seller was Jennifer Rush, whose The Power Of Love made her the first woman to sell a million copies of a single in the UK. She was followed by Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson, their I Know Him So Well being that rarest of things, a hit duet between two women. It had topped the singles chart for four weeks at the beginning of the year. Over in the year-end albums chart, three of the ten top-selling ‘artist’ albums were by female soloists. Madonna’s Like A Virgin was at #3, but she wasn’t yet in full control of her recordings: Nile Rodgers produced the album and Madonna didn’t receive a writing credit for either of its biggest singles. Alison Moyet co-wrote all but one of the songs on her album Alf, the seventh-biggest seller of the year, but again she did not produce it. It wasn’t until the ninth biggest seller that a woman who wrote and produced her own music could be found: Kate Bush wrote, recorded and produced all the material on her album Hounds Of Love at her home studio in Welling.

Bush had already broken some ground for female soloists earlier in the decade. In 1980, she was the first British woman to have a #1 album with Never For Ever, which she again wrote but on that occasion co-produced. Shortly afterwards, American Barbra Streisand also had a best-selling album in the UK with Guilty – the fourth-biggest seller of the year. She was joined in the year-end Top 10 by three groups fronted by women: ABBA, Rose Royce, and Pretenders. The latter had also been responsible for ensuring the first new #1 single of the decade, Brass In Pocket, was sung by a woman; while it was only the 35th biggest selling single of the year, three female soloists (Streisand, Kelly Marie and Fern Kinney) placed singles in the Top 10 bestsellers, as did two groups fronted by women (ABBA again, and Blondie). Male/female duo Ottawan were also in the Top 10 that year, meaning that more than half of ten biggest selling singles of the year featured a female lead vocal. But in 1981, the male domination returned to the year-end charts.

Many of the women mentioned in this article had greater control over their recording careers by the end of the 80s. Madonna was co-writing and co-producing all her material. Bananarama were named in the Guinness Book of Records as the most successful British girl group of all time. Barbara Dickson had her own record label; Kate Bush was allowed to work at her own pace and without record company interference. Debbie Harry was enjoying the successful years of her solo career away from Blondie, and Chrissie Hynde was the only remaining original member of Pretenders still in the band. How had the latter, for example, successfully managed to navigate the macho world of rock and pop in the 1980s? Early in the following decade, she wrote a witty list of tips for emerging female talent, entitled “Chrissie Hynde’s Advice To Chick Rockers, or ‘How I Did It’”. It ran as follows:

1. Don’t moan about being a chick, refer to feminism or complain about sexist discrimination. We’ve all been thrown down the stairs and fucked about, but no one wants to hear a whining female. Write a loosely disguised song about it instead and clean up ($).
2. Never pretend to know more than you do. If you don’t know the chord names, refer to the dots. Don’t go near the desk unless you plan on becoming an engineer.
3. Make the other band members look and sound good. Bring out the best in the them; that’s your job. Oh, and you better sound good too.
4. Do not insist on working with “females”. That’s just more b.s. Get the best man for the job. If it happens to be a woman, great – you’ll have someone to go to department stores with on tour instead of making one of the road crew go with you.
5. Try not to have a sexual relationship within the band. It always ends in tears.
6. Don’t think that sticking your boobs out and trying to look fuckable will help. Remember you’re in a rock and roll band. It’s not “fuck me”, it’s “fuck you”!
7. Don’t try to compete with the guys; it won’t impress anybody. Remember, one of the reasons they like you is because you don’t offer yet more competition to the already existing male egos.
8. If you sing, don’t “belt” or “screech”. No one wants to hear that shit; it sounds “hysterical”.
9. Shave your legs, for chrissakes!
10. Don’t take advice from people like me. Do your own thing, always.

NEW SINGLES on sale from Oct. 21
The CURE (Robert Smith) The Love Cats (Fiction FICS19)
JIMMY THE HOOVER (Derek Dunbar) Kill Me Kwik (Inner Vision IVLA3735)
Kirsty MacCOLL Terry (Stiff BUY190)
SFX (Samantha Fox) Rockin’ With My Radio (Lambourgini LMG4)
The ASSOCIATES Take Me To The Girl (WEA YZ47)
EURYTHMICS and Aretha FRANKLIN Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves (RCA PB40339)
The HOUSEMARTINS Flag Day (Go! Discs GOD7)


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