The odd story behind one of heavy metal’s most obscure, salacious and elusive bands.
The problem with searching out the lost histories of forgotten cultures is that all too often, it is too lost and too forgotten. Either that or many of those involved simply don’t want to remember it, through embarrassment or disinterest. Lives move on, attitudes change and many people seem to want the past to remain dead and buried.
For many years, I had a vague memory of an article about a raunchy all-girl band that appeared in the pages of Kerrang! in the early 1980s. It was the sort of memory so specific and yet so vague that for a long time I wondered if I’d just imagined it, of somehow conflated several different articles about here today, gone later today bands of the era. As it turned out, I remembered almost every aspect of it apart from the band’s name. At some point last year, I stumbled upon the album Sex (or is it Oral Sex?) by the female three-piece Oral – and this, I realised, was the elusive band that had weirdly lodged itself into my memory for all this time. Of course, discovering that the band really did exist and that they were a luridly crude, filth-obsessed act that had the look and feel of something thrown together by marketing men rather than organically formed just made me determined to find out more. This would take me down a rabbit hole that led in some unusual directions but ultimately had more dead ends than actual information. For a while, I thought that this was doomed to be an incomplete story that would never be told. But now, I’m thinking that even incomplete stories are worth telling – and you never know, maybe this will lead to further revelations.
I was helped immeasurably by the fact that two women had already done some of the research. My first stop when researching was the website hearsheroars.com and Elizabeth Galdamez’s exploration of the history behind the album – a story that dropped a few clues to follow, not least of all the fact that the album had been reissued on vinyl by Sangreal Records, which was either a moment of genius or a mad folly. In terms of re-releases, this must stand alongside the Blu-ray editions of obscure 1980s SOV horror films in terms of unlikeliness. I had to find out more and so got in touch with label head Alejandra Amalia to ask just what inspired the reissue.
“I did not actually consider this record for reissue immediately. I have limited experience doing reissues on Sangreal. But I always wanted to find a copy of the original pressing for my personal enjoyment, which I eventually did. I am a huge NWOBHM fan. I guess you could say that I am kind of like a super fan of every band on Sangreal. So it was aligned for me to reissue it because Elizabeth was able to introduce me to the licensing rights holder. And as an Oral fan I thought it was doable because it was aligned with my sensibilities as a music listener.”
Through Elizabeth’s original piece* and my chat with Alejandra, more pieces of the mystery began to fall into place. But let’s start at the beginning.
Oral, as a band, was introduced to the world in the pages of Kerrang! issue 104, October 1985. I rather suspect that this was the band’s only interview and some of their talk with writer Mark Putterford should probably be taken with a grain of salt (Putterford is no longer with us, so we’ll never know just how much of the story was deliberate fabrication). A lot of it appears to be loosely accurate though, and I’ll refer to the facts that I’ve been able to confirm as we go along. The three-piece band consisted of singer Bev E. Lee, guitarist Monica and drummer Dee – with bassist Candy having departed the band during the recording of the album. At least, that was the official word – it seems likely that she never existed. There are question marks about Dee too – her involvement may well have begun and ended with the cover shoot. How much of the music on the album was played by the band is open to question, though there is a very good chance that the answer is ‘none’. We know that Tank’s Mark Babbs played the drums and Steve Kent from The Business played guitar. The bassist is named by sources as ‘Keith’ – it’s probably too much to hope that it was Here and Now’s Keith da Bass, though the band was recording for Conquest around this time. As for the band as shown in the rather awkward album cover shot… well, it seems likely that Bev and Monica both appear to some degree on the record, with the latter described as having some basic ability on the guitar in a punky fashion. Had the band ever graduated to live performances, she might have been able to have played rudimentary versions of the songs – though plans were already underway to form a completely new band should they ever reach that stage – which, of course, they didn’t.
Monica is the one who seems to have been the band’s ‘leader’ – she is the one interviewed in Kerrang! – and the one we know most about. While the album only lists the members by Christian names, she was Monica Ramone – a suitably rock ‘n’ roll name, you might think – and was a glamour model who had appeared in Penthouse and other UK girly magazines and would pop up on TV from time to time in small parts – her three credits listed on IMDb are all as strippers, in Minder (where she appears alongside Candy Davis), the sitcom Chance in a Million and the mini-series Hideaway. She is also, apparently, in the video for Iron Maiden’s Two Minutes to Midnight. Attempts to locate her have been fruitless, as have efforts to ask her glamour girl contemporaries if they remember her at all.
Bev, on the other hand, seems to have been a bit of a renegade – she was said to have been caught up with criminal gangs, though again, we have to take all this with a pinch of salt and a dose of hype. Nevertheless, she seems to have been less reliable than Monica when it came to promotion. Who knows? Maybe she was also out of the band by the time the album came out.
The album was released on Conquest Records and was not well received. Music critics of the time managed to both take the LP too seriously and dismiss the band out of hand because they were women – and sexually provocative women at that. Alejandra Amalia:
“I don’t think the male-dominated press leered and dismissed Oral, I know they did. I’ve read a lot of male opinions criticizing the record and they really just don’t get it. They don’t get that it’s meant to be funny and the musicianship is not bad. As far as Oral’s sex appeal as women undermining their ability to be taken seriously I’m sure that’s true. I don’t think Oral was ever meant to be taken seriously. However, I do think that some credit that’s due isn’t given because of gender bias. A group like Girl School who wore denim and leather didn’t go out of their way to sexualize themselves and were very technically proficient didn’t always have the respect of men, either. There’s really not a ‘right way’ women in music can present themselves to be respected by men. Critics of Oral were operating under false information that the women on the cover were the players. In reality, it’s a bunch of dudes from iconic bands whom I’ve never seen criticized for poor playing. There’s an understanding when men play a little sloppy it’s punk. Oral pretty much got labelled as incompetent instead of getting acknowledgement that there was a bit of a punk style to their playing, most notably in Babbs’ drumming. So you can see examples of the inability of male audiences to sometimes give something an honest listen. I’ve released two other bands with all femme/non-male membership and navigated a lot of the exact same criticisms from men. Only those releases are meant to be taken seriously. Regardless of what women in metal do they’re going to be dealing with douchebag misogynists. This issue isn’t dated. There is still a lot of growth that needs to happen.”
People not getting the joke might have been the ultimate downfall of Oral. Because what’s clear is that this was a project put together by members of the punk scene as a bit of a satirical poke at metal bands. The band was originally conceived by Lol Pryor and Dave Long of Syndicate Records, whose acts included punk and Oi! bands like Cock Sparrer, Blitz, The Business, the 4-Skins and the Gonads. The band’s manager was Si Kelly, who had worked running Soho sex shops and the producers were credited as Ron Rouman and Brian Bonklonk – in reality, Pryor and Long. Si Kelly had initially agreed to talk to me about the band but after a few attempts stopped responding.
There’s one other significant name behind Oral: Garry Bushell.
Garry Bushell is a well-known figure on British television these days but in the 1980s he was a writer for Sounds as well as a member of the Gonads. At the time, Bushell was at the forefront of bridging the (ludicrous) gulf between punk and metal, singing the praises of the NWOBHM movement and Iron Maiden in particular.
“When I first saw Iron Maiden, I got it and got them entirely. I loved the energy and the power and imagery, and the sense of humour. I saw them not as punk-metal, but as a parallel development. There was quite a bit of overlap between punk, rock and metal back then though. Motorhead played a lot with the Damned, the Cockney Rejects were huge UFO fans (Pete Way produced their rock album) and later Rose Tattoo had punks and skins in their audience. Most working-class punk bands felt they had more in common with rock bands than they did the rather pretentious folk who had colonised the fast-changing punk scene.”
Bushell was roped in to write the lyrics for Oral’s songs – salacious numbers like Head, Love Pole, Pearl Necklace and Gas Masks, Vicars and Priests (and if that last title doesn’t tell you that no one was taking this very seriously, I don’t know what will). Sadly, he has no memory of actually crafting these classic tracks.
“I was doing a lot of speed in 1985 and drinking a lot. But I was also compiling albums, writing books, managing bands and doing shifts on Fleet Street. There was another album I compiled back then, called The Beerdrop Explodes, that I had also forgotten about until recently. My memory was never great though. When I bumped into Steve Diggle a few years ago he told me we’d met in 78 when I’d interviewed the Buzzcocks for Sounds. I thought he was confused. I had no memory of that at all but he was right, I had.”
He does, however, confirm that the music was not performed by the credited musicians.
“They were an attempt to hype/sell a band on image alone. I don’t believe any of the women contributed significantly to the album. This was quite common. Chris Spedding played guitar on the Pistols demos… Spandau Ballet were signed on the basis of one or two gigs… Def Leppard sounded a lot different live to how they sounded on the records back then…
“But the worst offenders were pop. Most rock bands prided themselves on their musical ability. Steve Hackett hated the fame side of the business so much that he wouldn’t have his picture on the first two Genesis albums he played on. So, in that sense Oral were different from the authenticity that rock fans expected and if the album had been as successful as Lol and Longy had hoped, I expect there would have been significant personnel changes.”
As it was, the album didn’t sell even as a Bad News/Spinal Tap style spoof – perhaps because it wasn’t actually sold as that in the first place. Had people known that this was essentially a satire, perhaps it might have made more sense, though metal fans would probably have been no more responsive – no one likes to have the piss taken out of them. While more material was recorded, it was never released, at least not as an Oral project – Bushell believes that the backing tracks ended up being used on a Business spin-off album.
What happened to the Oral girls after this remains a mystery. The girls vanished without trace – something that is easy to do when you are only credited by one name that might not even be the one you were born with. For Alejandra Amalia, this had its benefits:
“To be honest it’s much easier working with a band that has vanished. I can control how to honour the legacy of a band the best that I can through a reissue. I can be in more creative control in regard to production values and graphic design. I don’t have to listen to ego-driven feedback or navigate eccentric personalities.”
She also found the reaction to the album’s revival to be pleasantly positive.
“The album was received with way more excitement than I anticipated. I had to repress it. It’s such a cult classic that I assumed a really limited amount of collectors would take an interest in it. But it was so cool to see how many women bought the records. The majority of the people who usually purchase the releases I do are men. But the Oral album is both a rarity and an important part of the history of UK metal and women in metal – even if the ghostwriters are all dudes. A lot of people who didn’t know this record existed purchased it, too, because it’s so unique. I’ve really enjoyed the feedback from serious record nerds, too.”
Many of those involved in Oral have vanished – either by choice or because the whole thing was so obscure that no one ever bothered finding out who was really behind the record or who the women who fronted it were. As I’ve found in digging into the story, this was seen at the time as disposable culture and so no one has bothered to track the history of the music. It seems likely that the whole thing was forgotten, even by those involved, almost as soon as it was released. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that no one wants to shout about their involvement – for everyone, even the girls, it was probably a minor part of their lives. Monica Ramone is likely to be in her Sixties now and who knows what she thinks of her former life as a glamour model and fake rock star? I hope she looks back on it all fondly.
Garry Bushell, at least, is proud of his achievement and its second life as a cult album.
“I’m genuinely pleased and quite touched. I might have been drunk, it might have been thrown together like a Gonads album and it might be puerile (or Gonadian) in parts, but at least it hasn’t been forgotten. And if it gives people pleasure, that’s even better. I just wish Monica was around to ride the wave of interest.”
* In keeping with the elusive nature of this piece of research, hearsheroars.com no longer seems to be online.
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