The criminally underrated female-led pop sounds of the 1970s explored in an essential collection.
It’s perhaps because of an underlying misogyny in music criticism, or maybe because pop music is a field dominated by the tastes of teenage girls who are hormonally pushed to gravitate to boy bands, but if you look at the history of popular music, then it is very much a sausage party. Certainly from the 1950s through to the 1990s, the acts considered important and historically significant by those who tell that history have been primarily male, the female acts all too often seen as outliers and exceptions to the rule. Things might be a little different now – though we have yet to see how the last twenty years will ultimately be written up by the historical revisionists of music criticism – but women have often struggled to take seen as being as significant as their male counterparts. Admittedly, for much of this era, women were solo singers, hired guns and pop artists performing other people’s material, and that is never going to get you taking as seriously as a group who write and produced their own material; but it does seem that a lot of great performers and great records have been somewhat overlooked in the process.
Of course, pop acts – male or female – often have the additional problem of not really having a substantial career for historians to write about. In this world, it’s often one or two songs that have cultural significance and while the music is the thing that ultimately matters, rock history is never about the songs, but the singers. If you don’t have a body of work – popular work at that – behind you, then you’ll probably be dismissed as a footnote in history, even if everyone loves that one classic track.
Albums like RPM’s Right Back Where We Started From – a collection of hits and misses alike from female singers in the 1970s – are all the more important in this scenario. Far from being mere ‘greatest hits of the Seventies’ collections that pull songs together from the same small pool of well-known chart-toppers, these collections gather together several hours worth of significant but often overlooked music, often with a rather loose connecting theme, to celebrate the under-appreciated and historically important. The theme, in this case, is female singers over a decade where pop probably reached its peak of poppiness – music designed to be throwaway – again while it has been so overlooked – but which effectively defines what pop music should be – catchy, infectious, well crafted but without pretension; something it has long since forgotten how to be on the most part. Many of these singers might have had brief moments in the sun as recording artists, but they often had solid careers in theatre (lots of them appeared in Hair and Oh! Calcutta), cabaret, television and as backing vocalists. Success isn’t just about hit singles.
This compilation is perhaps deceptively created, at least for buyers with short attention spans who might reasonably expect it to be three CDs worth of Northern Soul bangers, as indeed the first disc is. But there’s more going on here and the collection is a fascinating, vital snapshot of female-led popular music in the decade. And it has a genuine flow to it – there’s nothing haphazardly placed. There is considered curation here.
The Northern Soul aspect – the Seventies pop that mainstream critics are allowed to find credible – is a fascinating collection of songs. These are not chart smashes, by and large – Northern Soul was, after all, about digging out the obscurities and lost records. As a movement, it is fascinating because – contrary to what some people believe – it was not a musical style or genre, more a loose hybrid of sounds and beats enjoyed by nostalgia-driven club kids in Northern towns. It was, initially at least, a genuinely organic movement that combined dancing, fashion and a geeky collector mindset that is hard to imagine being duplicated today. And when you listen to the records now – the ones picked for this collection, the ones that have appeared on other compilations from Cherry Red’s assorted labels – the thing that stands out is just how archetypally Seventies pop these songs often are. Let’s take the collection’s title track and opening song, Maxine Nightingale’s Right Back Where We Started From. This is an immediate, infectious number, driven by a glam stomp, brass and strings and Nightingale’s pitch-perfect vocals – if someone asked you to play one track that encapsulated the glory of 1970s pop, this would be as good a pick as any.
The same can be said of several songs across the collection – Val Mckenna’s Love Feeling, Penny Lane’s Rock Me in the Cradle (Of Your Lovin’ Arms), Salena Jones’ Baby Don’t Ya Get Crazy, Barry St. John’s My Man, Cissy Stone’s Gone But Not Forgotten. These are big-voiced, powerful singers who often never really had the breaks, but their records ought to be seen as classics.
Then there’s the pure pop of The Playthings’ Stop What You’re Doing, Eleanor Keenan’s Born to Be Loved By You, Wilma Reading’s Two Can Have a Party and The Angelettes’ I Surrender; the rock-soul groove of Linda Rothwell’s Tell Me (sounding like a fuzz-driven clone of Shocking Blue’s Venus) and Birds of a Feather – actually Irene and Doreen Chanter – blasting out Leaving the Ghetto (the pair also appear under their own name with a cracking version of Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye); the infectious pop-soul of The Flirtations’ Little Darling (I Need You); the thumping beats of Maria Morgan’s Tell The World; the smooth groove of Polly Niles’ If I Let You, recorded in 1973 and lost until 2019. Glam-girl group Mother Trucker (yes, really) offer up the thundering Explosion in My Soul, and Carol Woods is smooth as silk on I Wonder What Will Happen.
Tina Harvey’s cover of the Vandellas’ Nowhere to Run is a rocked-up version that is heavy in the true meaning of the word, crunching and powerful with the criminally underrated Harvey belting out the song and making it her own. It’s a Jonathan King production, and King – like other legendary 1970s svengalis, songwriters and producers like Tony Hatch and Jackie Trent, Tony Macauley, Larry Page – is an inevitable presence on this collection. The cover versions also include a cracking B.J. Arnau version of Motown hit I Want to Go Back There Again that is impressively epic, Grazina’s glorious version of It’s My Party, a decent stab at Dusty Springfield’s What Good is I Love You by Emmaline Jones, a solid cover of Same Old Song by Paula Knight, and Diane Jones cloning Millie Jackson’s My Man’s a Sweet Man. Most unexpected – if only because they really don’t look the sort – is a stomping version of Credence Clearwater Revival’s Born to Move by the Surprise Sisters that is all sorts of magnificent, while Bee’s Tired of Waiting has a weirdly impressive flat vocal that positively sneers its way through the Kinks song. Very 1978. Yvonne Elliman’s version of I Can’t Explain is extraordinary, a ripping performance complete with first-rate backing vocals and Pete Townsend on guitar. And Blonde on Blonde, with their disco-punk cut of Whole lotta Love, we’ve written about before. An inspired choice to include here.
The album also includes Sixties stars taking a final stab at the pop charts (Helen Shapiro’s solid That’s The Reason I Love You, Petula Clark’s unexpectedly brilliant peaceful protest song Right On, Eartha Kitt’s magnificent Hurdy Gurdy Man from her gob-smacking Sentimental Eartha LP) and Eighties stars making an early appearance (Hazel Dean’s prophetically-titled 1975 disco tune Our Day Will Come). There are singers who issued records under different names – Margie Miller turns up as Etta Thomas before appearing under her own name for a frantic funk version of Fever; Jill Saward recorded as Diana Foster, Samatha Jones and Ruth Swann, using the latter name to cover Tainted Love because the Gloria Jones original was only available on US import – it’s this version that Marc Almond first heard, complete with a lyrical mistake that the Soft Cell version duplicates. Of course, you couldn’t seriously have a collection of 1970s female singers without the ubiquitous figures of Lesley Duncan and Katie Kissoon, both with impressive tracks.
While the first disc in this collection is very much Northern Soul based, other discs in the collection open up the musical styles, kicking off with jazz-funk of Madeline Bell’s That’s What Friends Are For and the multi-octave smooth groove of Linda Lewis’ Rock A Doodle Doo. Doris Troy’s smooth soul number Stretchin’ Out sounds like it belongs on the Shaft soundtrack while Doris Duke’s A Little Bit of Lovin‘ is equally slick and funky and the mysterious Tommi offers a collision of big vocals and weird electro-funk on Let Your Love Fall Down. In contrast, Chrissy Roberts’ Something Good is laid-back, hippy trippy tranquillity, as is the swirling psych-lite of Milly Scott’s Sunshine in My Rainy Day Mind. Also impressive are the acid-funk of Linda Kendrick’s Music Brings Us Joy, the twee novelty vibes of Carol Hunter’s Dr Pepper, the lounge stylings of Delsey Mckay’s Cast Your Spell On Me and the ultra-smooth On A ‘Plane to Nowhere by Samantha Sinclair (the best movie theme song never to appear on a movie, possibly).
The Sixties girl-group revival sound of the Seventies is present here with Patti and the Patettes performing Summer Heartbreak, complete with the faux-Spector Wall of Sound (more a Fence of Sound on many of the pastiche records of the era, but I appreciate the effort) and a truly fantastic version of the Shangri-Las’ Give Him A Great Big Kiss by Flirts. Tiger Sue’s version of When You Walked in the Room is suitably epic, capturing the Sixties sound while also having a modern feel to it.
There are familiar names and hits – Tina Charles’ I Can’t Dance To That Music You’re Playin’, Dusty Springfield’s iconic version of Spooky, Dana Gillespie‘s All Cut Up On You, Twinkle’s glam-rock stomper Caroline – and the curios, namely Lisa Collings (better known for appearances in Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter, The Mutations and Love is a Splendid Illusion, which she sang the theme tune of) performing the lively I’m Getting Hungry for Your Lovin’. There’s also Millicent Martin popping up with the fantastic title song from hit British comedy Every Home Should Have One, singer-turned-actress Adrienne Posta singing Neil Sedaka’s Express Yourself and former Avenger Linda Thorsen struggling through You Will Want Me.
Even across almost four hours of music, this collection can, of course, only begin the scratch the surface of what is out there, almost forgotten. But it’s a good starting point for further exploration, and to see these records and artists – often lost in time and ignored by the musical establishment – finally seeing the light of day is deeply satisfying.
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