Girls on Film: Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains

stainsBored with her working-class Pennsylvania town, 17 year old Corinne Burns teams up with her younger sister and cousin to form a band. Before they can even learn how to play their instruments, they are hired to be the opening act for an up-and-coming punk band called The Looters. Corinne’s unusual style and charisma quickly propel The Stains into superstardom—until their new fans turn on the band. Their swift rise and unceremonious fall form the plot of the 1981 cult classic Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains.

Starring a very young Diane Lane as Corinne, with members of The Clash and The Sex Pistols in minor roles, the film is a fascinating look at the music business in the early 1980s. There are the usual tropes about greedy, unfeeling managers, and the disposability of pop stars, but there are some unique angles explored here as well:

1. Although the world of male rock stars had been explored many times on film (going all the way back to 1957’s Jailhouse Rock), the female side had yet to be investigated. An all-girl band was still an anomaly in the early 80s, and therefore was the perfect movie subject. This film, seen on late-night television in the late 80s and early 90s, inspired many of the women who started the Riot Grrl movement.

stains22. There are some puzzling gender stereotypes at play in the film. The Stains’ rabid (all female) fan base loves Corinne one moment and hates her the next, supposedly illustrating the vapid interests of the typical music fan—or perhaps, we are led to believe, the typical FEMALE music fan. The girls latch on to the Stains because, in seeing Corinne on television, they identify with her anger and feel empowered by her boldness. Why, then, are they depicted as mere copycats of her look and attitude? Why must they be shown trying to duplicate every aspect of her look exactly, right down to the color of her blouse? Contrast this with fans of The Looters (largely male), who are depicted as individuals instead of a mob of copycats.

3. The character of Corinne is both the film’s biggest draw and its biggest disappointment. While the viewer learns at the beginning of the film that Corinne’s mother has recently passed away, thus explaining her anger and feelings of alienation, she remains an enigma throughout the film. Why does she want to be the leader of the Stains’ “movement”? Why does she relentlessly pursue stardom in the beginning, then reject it, then embrace it again in the end? The character is brash, larger-than-life, and completely different from any other female character seen in mainstream movies of the era, and it’s easy to see why she was so inspiring to members of Bikini Kill, Hole, etc., but the viewer never quite gets to know her.

stains34. The end of the film, in which The Stains have a hit record and get their music video on a channel that looks suspiciously like MTV, seemingly predicts the look and success of The Go-Go’s and The Bangles, still a year away when the film was completed. These bands, unlike the bands of the Riot Grrl movement, didn’t have a chance to be inspired by The Stains as they had already formed by the time of the film’s release.

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains is a flawed but very entertaining film, and a real milestone in the depiction of women musicians on celluloid. The bands that it wrought would one day take its message of empowerment further, but in 1981 it was clearly in a class by itself.


Video Stars: Debbie Harry

Music - BlondieAs the most commercially successful band to come out of the New York City punk scene of the late 1970s, Blondie learned that it definitely paid to have a charismatic, photogenic and brilliant lead singer—Debbie Harry. Pioneers of the music video, Blondie showcased their dynamic songs in a way that few bands of the time were prepared to do, and they placed Debbie front and center. With her signature bleach-blond hair, off-kilter style (she performed in a ripped-up wedding dress years before anyone had heard of Madonna) and killer vocals, she stole the show.

In the clip for their first single, “X Offender”, Debbie sports a Pink Ladies jacket and ponytail:

For 1976’s “In The Flesh”, it’s a slinky black dress and beret:

In a performance of “(I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear” from Great Britain’s Top of the Pops, she is monochromatic in blue:

“Hangin’ on the Telephone”, from the band’s masterwork “Parallel Lines”, is a great example of Debbie’s playful showmanship:

1979’s “Shayla” has the band moving in a new, more dramatic direction, with Debbie exhibiting an industrial-chic look:

In “Rapture”, Blondie helped bring rap music to the mainstream, as Debbie stalks the streets in a lace shawl and high heels:

The effect these videos, and others by Blondie, would have on up and coming talent— Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, and, more recently, Gwen Stefani, to name a few— is immediately perceptible. But no other band, and no other singer, would quite match the effortless cool of Blondie and Debbie Harry.

Bobbie Gentry’s World

“It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty delta day…”

bobbieThe summer of 1967 belonged to The Beatles, The Doors, and Bobbie Gentry, who was all of 23 years old when her debut album knocked Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band from the top of the charts, where it had been the number one album for months. Her album’s namesake song, “Ode to Billie Joe”, also replaced “All You Need is Love” in the number one spot on the singles chart.

One of pop music’s most haunting songs, the Southern Gothic “Ode to Billie Joe” started Bobbie’s career off with a bang. The story of a suicide set deep in the Mississippi delta, the track raises more questions than it answers: Why did Billie Joe McAlister jump off the Tallahatchee bridge? What was the nature of his relationship with the song’s narrator, who hears the news of his death from her too-casual family members around the dinner table? For her part, Bobbie has always maintained that the mysteries surrounding the song are not the point; for her, the core of the story is in the nonchalant description of the suicide by the family around the dinner table, and the abject cruelty of this discussion in the presence of Billie Joe’s girlfriend. As a piece of writing, the song is brilliant—the plot advances solely through dialogue, and there’s enough richness of character to make Carson McCullers jealous. The arrangement, stark and absolutely chilling in places, ensured its stand-out status, while Bobbie’s husky voice sang a melody that seemed to have written itself.

The Ode to Bille Joe album featured ten songs, nine of them authored by Bobbie Gentry. It invited listeners into the world of the midcentury south—hot, hazy, and populated with interesting characters. There were songs about bugs, dressing up in one’s sunday best, going to town at the end of a hard work week, and overcoming poverty. Bobbie wrote these songs from her own experiences.

bobbie3Born in Mississippi in 1944, Bobbie was raised by her grandparents on their farm. When she showed an early interest in music, her grandmother traded a cow to their neighbor in exchange for a piano, which Bobbie used to write her first song at age seven. She later taught herself to play guitar, bass, and banjo, before moving to Las Vegas to become a showgirl. From Vegas, she travelled to Los Angeles, where she enrolled in UCLA and began performing her songs in night clubs. When a producer heard her demo recordings in 1967, she snagged a record deal.

Set up for super stardom after the success of “Ode to Billie Joe”, Bobbie promptly began writing and producing songs for her second album, The Delta Sweete. When it was released in 1968, it barely charted, despite containing high-quality songs. This set the pattern for the rest of her career, as her subsequent albums never repeated the triumph of her first. She fared slightly better on the country charts, although no matter which chart she landed on she was always labeled a “crossover”—a little too pop for the country sphere, her Mississippi twang rendered her hopelessly exotic in the pop world. Finally, in 1970, Bobbie hit the Top 40 again with “Fancy”, a song she referred to as her “strongest statement for women’s lib.” The tale of a girl in dire poverty, turned out by her mother to work as a call girl, the song would be resurrected twenty years later and turned into a massive hit by Reba McEntire. Bobbie’s version of the tune is, as always, more harrowing and leaves the listener feeling unsettled.

bobbie2Shortly after the relative success of “Fancy”, Bobbie retired from the music business and now lives a quiet life in California. Her legacy— six albums of exquisite stories and character sketches— is largely neglected today. But one listen to songs such as “Casket Vignette”, “Courtyard”, “Seasons Come, Seasons Go”, and “Papa’s Medicine Show” reveals a supremely gifted writer in the vein of Eudora Welty.  It’s possible that her songs and skills are continually overlooked by people who are more likely to notice her beauty, her miniskirts and her now-kitschy bouffant hairstyle. An adept musician and producer, she was ahead of her time during the span of her career. And, thanks to Bobbie Gentry, it is possible to put on a record and be instantly transported into a vivid, fascinating world called the Mississippi delta.

The Secret Sisters

In the liner notes to the White Stripes’ seminal Elephant, released 10 years ago this spring, Jack White writes:

“This album is dedicated to, and is for, and about the death of the sweetheart. In a social plane, impossible to exist, and in memories, past defeating present. We mourn the sweetheart’s loss in a disgusting world of…the thirteen year old tattoo, the hard attitude, devil may care, don’t call your parents, drink, insult, thank only yourself, and blame the rest if you don’t get buried in the boot of the rocker, the trunk of the car, and they get laughs, they get home late, they missed the rent, they forgot your money, they’ve got a new friend, they won’t be told they are wrong…

Honesty in bloom, heart on sleeve, life ever exposed and safe, courtesy to them and all you know, cinnamon and cider mills part last night’s drenched roof shingles, down and cotton covered breath, out in the open with nothing to hide, mention of soft paper and pine, soda powder and brown paper bags, angora and hound’s tooth, youth and canvas, fresh color, blind chance and forward stumble, scarlet mood, and white ivory shimmering laugh, safe in mind and comfort in home, absent of flies and anger, blankets of your own, peaches in cellar, subtle hair and skin, sand and leaf, felt napkin and clothing line, warm air from heating vent, snow on ground, reunions of sane unforced presence, motherly intervention held in suspense, enraptured holy sight, reception in halls, your Sunday go to meeting, your helping hand, your summersault, your attic, your home and your preservation, so simple, so untouched, this is as wise as raven and easy to trust, yet have they known, and yet may they wonder, with words and thought and thorn, this spirit and persona under.”

It’s no secret that sincerity has been making a comeback lately (see the success of Moonrise Kingdom, or even The Hunger Games), but surely the days of innocence evoked by White’s closing passage have passed—the sweethearts have gone, never to return.

Enter the Secret Sisters.

ssalbumComprised of actual sisters Laura and Lydia Rogers, the duo burst onto the Nashville scene in 2010, collaborating with Jack White (of course) on a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Big River”. Their debut album was executive produced by Americana aficionado T Bone Burnett, and was released later that year.

Image-wise, the sisters exactly fit the description of sweethearts—performing in vintage dresses, with hairstyles and lipstick that evoke a bygone era, the ladies seem ready for a date at the soda shop—but it’s their distinctive, heavenly sound that captures imaginations and induces tears. Intricate harmonies that could belong only to sisters, wound around irony-free traditional country tunes, are positively exotic today. The Secret Sisters manage to make songs that are 50 years old sound fresh, while never straying from the original spirit of American country music.

Songs on the album can be divided neatly into two categories: upbeat honky tonk, and bone-chilling ballads. George Jones’ classic “Why Baby Why” and Buck Owens’ “My Heart Skips A Beat” keep things country, while “I’ve Got a Feeling” casts the duo as the female version of the Everly Brothers. An original song, “Tennessee Me”, conjures up lazy summer days on the front porch:

Ballads like “The One I Love is Gone”, “Do You Love an Apple”, and the cover of Frank and Nancy Sinatra’s “Somethin’ Stupid” emphasize the almost supernatural harmony between the sisters. In their closing cover of Hank Williams’ “House of Gold”, they sigh,”What good is gold, and silver too, when your heart’s not good and true?” As the final harmonies swell and the last chord is strummed, one wonders how this world could deserve something as good as The Secret Sisters.

Note: In 2012, The Secret Sisters’ song “Tomorrow Will Be Kinder” was featured on the Hunger Games soundtrack. They have recorded their second album, and it is due for release in 2013.