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Standing stock still next to the drummer? Helping girls and boys play together as equals, with help from Suzi Quatro, Talking Heads and Norah Jones!

Date posted: Friday 15th November 2013

incredibel string band

The Incredible String Band: wearing incredible string vests?

When I was 15 there was nothing I’d like more than to head down to the local Wimpy café with my friends. (Well that’s not exactly true: there was nothing better to do.) As a rock obsessive, I was always able to turn any lull in the conversation to my advantage, and play my favourite game: 10 Reasons Why You Think Such and Such a Band are Brilliant. The most difficult band to think of re: 10 reasons for brilliance were The Incredible String Band. I would always get stuck at five, until one day someone waved around the cover of The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter and I was off. Just take a look at Rose Simpson and Liquorice McKechnie and it’s as clear as day: those girls had style. You only have to glance at their cheesecloth smocks, home-knitted Shetland pullovers, Afghan coats and maxi skirts to see why the ISB’s music went up 10 notches when the girls joined the band. At the time I was saving all my spare cash to invest in an Afghan coat, to go with the woolly jumper my granny was busy knitting me for Christmas.

But this was 1972, when the winds of change were blowing through the pink loon pants of UK teenage. This seismic shift, which we now know as Glam Rock, was responsible for many a denim-clad die-hard rocker taking to wearing gold lamé, and even eye liner (and these were guys who were just beginning to sprout chest hair.) It was terrifying. As we were learning in physics, every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and the rock backlash was personified by a diminutive singer from Detroit called Suzi Quatro. I saw her on Top of the Pops and my life was changed forever. Yes, she was wearing a black leather jumpsuit, but this was secondary to the fact that she was the only woman we had heard of who not only fronted a band but played electric bass as well. Nor did it escape our attention that all the hunky members of the band Suzi reigned supreme over were wearing the same type of top. Could she and her band be the antidote to Glam?

Put your man in the can: Suzi Quatro

At the weekend I headed into Marks to see if I could bag a three-pack of black singlets. No such luck. There had been a complete run on black vests and the head of men’s underwear was left in a state of utter bewilderment. Luckily I was saved by a rather kindly old gent in the men’s outfitters down the road: “Perhaps Sir would consider purchasing this rather hardwearing white vest and a pot of Dylon to dye it black?” Sorted. I have long recognised that dressing and acting like your pop heroes is not dissimilar to young children dressing up and pretending to be princesses or Bob the Builder. While some of us would have liked to have role-played being Jim Morrison, by investing in a pair of leather strides, none of us (at least as far as I’m aware) wanted to buy a jumpsuit.

I recently heard Suzi Quatro claim in an interview that the whole black leather jumpsuit thing happened by accident. She used to wear a cheesecloth top onstage, but was experiencing a lot of unpleasant chafing from the guitar strap of her very weighty bass. Her manager had heard that leather reduced irritation, so invested in a jumpsuit for Suzi. The rest is history. (At one stage there were wild rumours going around that Suzi had been spotted poolside wearing a leather bikini. But that would have been totally ridiculous: everyone knows that if you rinse a leather cozzie in a washbasin after a dip in the pool, and hang it on the radiator to dry, the whole thing will be completely ruined.)

In one fell swoop, Suzi Quatro had not only changed our sartorial outlook, but had struck a blow for women in rock… and bass players. Bassists were the band members who stood stock still in the shadows next to the drum kit, while the singer and lead guitarist (and in the case of Keith Moon, even the drummer) cavorted around hogging the limelight. OK, there was John Entwhistle of The Who and Paul McCartney, but you’d struggle to think of another famous bassist, (Sting was still known as Graham Sumner and working as a teacher in Newcastle, and had yet to form The Police). You’d also be hard pressed to think of a woman who played an electric guitar and led a band.

But you can’t have a rock band without bass and drums. As Carlos Santana pointed out: “I may play lead guitar, but it’s the drums and bass that I build on… and that make everyone dance.” Enter Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads. When I think of Talking Heads I think of David Byrne. That’s inevitable, as he was the lead singer. But this band were really brilliant because everyone worked together as a tight unit onstage, and Tina Weymouth’s melodic bass playing gave the band it’s unique sound.

Rock’n’Aerobics? Talking Heads and Tina Weymouth/Tina Weymouth and Talking Heads

Tina was cool. Tina was a great role model for aspiring female electric bass guitarists. But Tina was stuck in the background. Actually that’s not true: maybe she wasn’t centre stage, because that was always going to be where David Byrne belonged, but she was an integral part of the band. And Tina didn’t want to be centre stage anyway. She says she didn’t need that experience. She wanted her bass and Chris Frantz’s drumming to be the indispensable backbone of the band’s sound and stage presence. She recognised that if she was to push herself forward as the singer she would have shredded her voice.

As a man, I can only put forward a suggestion as to why there aren’t more females rocking at the front of bands: maybe they just don’t need to do it. Perhaps it’s mainly the guys who leap around and show off in front of the adoring crowd because it fulfils a need deep inside them. I just don’t know, but I’d really like to find out. I checked this out with a female bass player (and Talking Heads fan) that I know. From her point of view, women just don’t need to leap around whipping the crowd into a frenzy. Maybe female rocker musicians are looking for something more cooperative and fundamental: providing the real substance to the musical experience? It is, after all very hard to be a lead singer, lead guitarist and front person at the same time, and especially if you want to play and sing well. (Whatever we may think about Jimi, Eric and even David of Pink Floyd, they are not great singers.)

And these are the kind of thoughts I have when I plan how to draw little girls into the type of outdoor play activities that they might not normally associate themselves with: involving massive buckets, wheelbarrows, shovels, stones and sand and role-playing being builders. A few years ago I was asked by staff in a foundation unit in a primary school to involve their children in mark-making activities outdoors. I thought it would be a great idea to link making marks to something real, like measuring pieces of wood using real tape measures and then writing numbers with thick pencils on the wood – just like real carpenters and joiners do. I got all the kit ready: yellow hard hats, high visibility vests, metal tape measures, big pencils and large pieces of wood.

“Let’s pretend to be builders!” was my first instruction. Enter lots of boys and exit most of the girls. The boys got stuck in: happy to wear all the gear and make all the moves and use the language of the building site and motorway roadside. The girls were not impressed. I was a bit baffed and disappointed that they had chosen not to join in. Here, after all, was a chance for them to strike out for equality and take part in an activity normally the reserve of males. Luckily I had a sensible female colleague working with me who had the girls sussed. “What you need to do, Michael, is to help the girls see the point of this activity. When was the last time you saw a woman digging a trench or whacking up some scaffolding, let alone measuring a piece of four by two? Why should these girls pretend to be men?”

It was a very valid point, and I watched and learned very quickly as my colleague went off with a group of girls to find some minibeasts. “Shall we make some houses for our minibeasts?” she asked the girls. In no time they were all measuring, mark-making and building. They weren’t bothered about wearing the high-viz vests or hard hats, because they weren’t role-playing being construction workers: they were building houses for a good reason. And while the boys had gone indoors because their little hands were getting cold, the girls had to be begged to come in because they were getting soaked in the rain.

The following week I decided to involve the children in building a wall. I had all the gear there: cement, black buckets, water, trowels, shovels and bricks. All the lads were getting stuck in with gusto. One little girl was busy mixing up the mortar in the bucket, ready for her turn to add another brick to the wall. “Are you enjoying mixing up that mortar?” I asked with a self-satisfied smirk on my face, confident in the knowledge that I’d finally struck a blow for equal opportunity through play.

“No I’m not,” little Flossie replied, “I’m making a cake.”

I finally have learned. When I arrive at your nursery or reception class with a van-load of resources for involving children in outdoor play: including sacks of gravel, shingle, slate, pebbles and cobbles, and collections of sticks, pine cones, buckets, wheelbarrows and shovels, I will also have a large crate of old cooking pots, wooden spoons, washing up bowls and baking trays. Because you never know who might prefer to knock up a quick batch of rock cakes in our makeshift mud kitchen, in between shovelling sand and grit into their huge purple bucket, or filling their small pink bucket with every shiny little stone they can lay their hands on.

Not all boys have the same interests as each other, and not all girls want to do the same things as boys (though some do, and good for them). What we need to do is make sure that all children get a chance to play in the way that they would like. This not only increases their language development and learning, but builds their positive self-image and confidence. So if the girls grow up to play in a band, they can be happy being in the position they want to be in. If not, they can quit and form the next Spice Girls, or be like Norah Jones.

And here’s Norah Jones: cool, comfortable, cooperative and fundamental, and fronting a band with an electric guitar. She doesn’t need to be centre stage, or wear a black leather jumpsuit and leap around to get noticed: all she does is sing and play. And I don’t think it’s an accident that she’s wearing a red cotton blouse, bright red lipstick and playing a bright red guitar, while the rest of the band blend into the background wearing grey or black. Cool.

Norah Jones: feminine, cool, leading a band and playing an electric guitar

Take care out there


To find out more about mark-making and construction play outdoors click here.

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2 responses to “Standing stock still next to the drummer? Helping girls and boys play together as equals, with help from Suzi Quatro, Talking Heads and Norah Jones!”

  1. hervé says:

    excellent cette video des “talking heads” en concert.

    Dommage que je ne comprenne que peu de mots !!


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