You can count the pioneering female musicians of heavy metal and hard rock on two hands. That said, these artists — from the Runaways to Vixen to the late Wendy O. Williams — set the stage and set the bar high for those who came after. And there are plenty of them – the Butcher Babies, Lzzy Hale from Halestorm, Otep Shamaya from Otep, Angela Gossow and Alissa White-Gluz from Arch Enemy, and Sharon Janny den Adel from Within Temptation – and their numbers keep growing.
Once upon a time, folk music, a seated and often demure acoustic guitar performance, was a “safe” musical activity for young girls. Then came the “women’s liberation” movement of the late 1960s, a phrase that today sounds as archaic as pantyhose. You’ve had a few women deeply exploring heavier, wilder music like, say, Grace Slick in Jefferson Airplane. But then, in the 70s, came the advent of heavy rock/metal, and the too few women who innovated to spread it.
Although there is still a huge disparity between the number of women and men in heavy metal and hard rock bands, thanks in large part to the trailblazing women below, the doors have opened. These days, the scene is more welcoming to a heavy music aspirant who identifies with women than it ever was.
Listen to the best of The Runaways on Apple Music and Spotify.
The story of the Runaways – five young teenagers in mid-70s Los Angeles – is part of the films. And their story actually became one in the 2010s. runaways. While the Queens of Noise shocked some with now-iconic songs like “Cherry Bomb” and were initially fronted by a real Svengali, Kim Fowley, The Runaways stepped into their musical chops and themselves. Several core members, including vocalist Cherie Currie, guitarists Lita Ford and “I Love Rock & Roll” hitmaker Joan Jett, forged careers that continue to this day, and deservedly so.
Detroit firecracker Suzi Quatro created The Pleasure Seekers, a family pop group with her sisters. In the mid-’60s, the sight of the little Quatro singing and playing bass – playing with his fingers, not a pick – was an anomaly. Quatro normalized sight and sound with her tough, catchy take on rock in a solo career that saw her gain international fame with glamorous songs like ‘Can The Can’ and ’48 Crash’. Although musically more popular overseas than in the United States, her role in the late 1970s in Happy Days while Leather Tuscadero brought Quatro to almost every TV in America. The special one rolling stone cover girl has also written books, including the hurricane and Unzipped.
Bam Bam / Tina Bell
Before pearl jam and Nirvana, there was the Seattle group Bam Bam, led by Tina Bell. Dubbed the “Queen of Grunge Punk”, a 1984 demo of Bam Bam’s “Villains” [Also Wear White]finds Bell’s bluesy, powerful vocals at the pinnacle of punky musicality, while additional tracks, including the speed and attitudinal demon “It Stinks,” are collected from various streaming services. A 2012 article in Seattle’s the stranger felt that “Bam Bam struggled, in part because audiences disagreed with an African-American punk singer.” As the late singer’s son observed, “The press compared her to Tina Turner, like that made sense.” Despite their too-short tenure and Bell’s subsequent death, Bam Bam’s groundbreaking influence and songs are not forgotten.
Warlock’s irresistible 1987 anthem “All We Are” was the introduction for many for German singer Doro Pesch. Like Canadian Lee Aaron, Doro has been dubbed “the queen of metal,” and it’s a title the friendly, always-busy Pesch easily lives up to. First with Warlock, then solo as Doro, she has released 18 albums, living between her hometown of Düsseldorf and New York. The singer, with her cool and engaging charm, is constantly on tour. At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, his classic ballad, “Fur Immer” (Forever), was given a remake, reminding audiences of his talent as a songwriter.
Lemmy Kilmister from motor head didn’t suffer fools willingly, and as the all-female British outfit Girlschool was one of his frequent collaborators, you can be sure they were the real deal. Core members vocalist/guitarist Kim McAuliffe and drummer Denise Dufort have been with the lineup since its inception in 1978. With a jeans and leather image similar to their New Wave of Heavy Metal brethren Iron Maidenthey first broke up with the 1981s Hit and run album. Other highlights include their Motorhead collaboration “Please Don’t Touch”, “Race With the Devil”, and “Cmon, Let’s Go”.
Mohawk singer Wendy O. Williams spewed intense punk-metal with her band The Plasmatics. His character on stage was in the vein of Alice Cooper, pushing the boundaries of rock to shock. Six albums ahead of the Plasmatics, five solo albums plus screen work – including an SCTV sketch with John Candy in 1981 and the 1986 exploitation prank Reform school girls are just part of the legacy she left behind. The multi-faceted entertainer was an Amazon force in everything she did, but despite the impressive niche she carved out for herself, Williams took her own life at the age of 48.
Vixen had big hair, sparkly, skin-tight outfits, and plied her trade on Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip…just like a lot of dude bands of the day. Hailing from Minnesota, Vixen signed a major label deal with EMI/Manhattan and their self-titled debut album in 1988. Vixen sold gold and nearly dropped into the Top 20. With millions of Spotify streams, Vixen’s irresistibly melodic 1988 single “On The Edge of a Broken Heart” still has legs; ditto the tune “Crying”. As of 2019, the band continues with Lorraine Lewis, a veteran of another Los Angeles-based all-female band, Femme Fatale.
Before drummer Julie Turner was even 10, she was making music with her sister, singer/guitarist Jody Turner, 13. bands like Judas Priest and Girlschool. Songs like “Hell Hath No Fury” and “The Party Never Ends” captured ’80s fans, as well as shrill rockers with deft guitar solos, including the stellar “Raiders.” Despite a long hiatus, Rock Goddess now continues as a trio with the Turner sisters and bassist Jenny Lane. The trio’s 2019 record, This timewas an exciting metal throwback.
Grow up a fan of Led ZeppelinThe Strawbs, Fleetwood Mac, Heart, and The Runaways, in her mid-teens, the versatile Karen Lynn Greening was asked to join a band called “Lee Aaron.” Joining as vocalist, keyboardist and alto saxophonist, Greening took the name of the group as his own. She also became known by another name – the impressive title “Metal Queen”, after her 1984 album and hit song. With a dozen albums between 1982 and 2018, Aaron explored a variety of styles, even the jazz and blues. In fact, 2016 fire and gasolinewas his first all-rock album in two decades.
Do you think we lack female pioneers in heavy metal and hard rock? Let us know in the comments below.