A Look At Drumming’s Leading Ladies

leading ladies

Moe Tucker

1960s: Simply Psychedelic

As the idealistic days of the 1950s morphed into the turbulent ’60s, some seriously rockin’ drummer chicks emerged.

Perhaps no drummer embodies the spirit of the decade more than The Velvet Underground’s Maureen “Moe” Tucker. Remembered by many for its experimentations, improvisations, and collaborations with Andy Warhol, The Velvet Underground would go on to be considered one of the most influential rock groups of all time. For her part, Tucker brought a unique style of drumming to the mix. She was known to play standing up, with a bass drum turned on its side and tom toms, often using mallets instead of drum sticks. She rarely used cymbals. Simple but exotic it has been said of Tucker’s style.

Tucker’s contemporaries included drummers Ginger Bianco and Helen Wiggin, of the all-girl groups Goldie & The Gingerbreads and The Shaggs, respectively. Bianco and her bandmates came together in the early ’60s and were one of the first all-female rock bands signed to a major record label. At the time, there were very few all-female bands. According to Gillian G. Gaar’s book She’s A Rebel, The Gingerbreads found success touring and charting singles in Europe, but never made a name for themselves at home in the U.S. After some band mismanagement, they broke up in 1968.

Around that time, Helen Wiggin’s father had decided she and her sisters should form a musical group. Most deemed the group’s one album unlistenable, but as time went on others decided it was groundbreaking and avant-garde. A Rolling Stone review famously described them as sounding like “lobotomized Von Trapp Family Singers.” Frank Zappa and Kurt Cobain, however, sang their praises. Helen Wiggin certainly wouldn’t be the last woman criticized for her simplistic drumming style.

None of these three bands lasted very long, nor yielded much commercial success in their day, but they were paving the way for future female rockers to make even more musical headway.

1970s: Rocker Chic

Likely influenced both by the surging feminist movement and the burgeoning presence of women in rock, the ’70s were a better time for female artists.

As the decade began, Karen Carpenter was transitioning from being a teenage jazz drummer to part of a hit-making singing duo. There’s no denying she made beautiful music as a songbird, but unfortunately it meant her getting forced out from behind her beloved drums. She was a natural when she began performing with her brother Richard as part of a jazz trio. Even once she started singing, Carpenter still considered herself a drummer who sang. Her true passion shows in a 1976 TV special when she gleefully runs all over stage performing an extended drum solo on various percussion instruments.

Meanwhile, across the pond, Palmolive experienced a totally different music scene. Palmolive (aka Paloma McLardy) had moved to London from her native Spain just in time for the punk-rock revolution. She dated The Clash’s Joe Strummer, who introduced her to Sid Vicious. Palmolive played in a band with Vicious for a spell before hooking up with Ari Up to form the all-female punk band The Slits. Palmolive earned a reputation of being a wild woman on stage. Her stint with The Slits ended after just a couple of years due to intra-band tensions. And after only six months with another female punk band, The Raincoats, she reportedly got sick of the music business. But she had definitely made her mark. As Hall Of Fame inductee Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders says in the “Women Who Rock” exhibit, “That was the beauty of the punk thing: [Sexual] discrimination didn’t exist in that scene.”

leading ladies

5. Sandy West with The Runaways, 1978

Also making waves for women during this period was Sandy West. Just 16 years old when she started the hard rocking band The Runaways with teen guitarist Joan Jett in 1975, West had been playing drums since she was nine. She gained inspiration mimicking the sounds of Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith. “I always felt like the guys I was playing with thought they were s__t hot, so I had to prove myself to them. I played harder and louder than anyone and then they thought I was s__t hot,” West said. In spite of recording under a major record label and touring the world, The Runaways had trouble finding mainstream success. After disagreeing over which musical style to pursue, the group broke up in 1979. Sadly, West died of lung cancer in 2006 at age 47.

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