The Origins of the Riot Grrrl Ethos

Girls Don’t Play Guitars: How John Lennon Got It Wrong

Stephanie Burgess takes a journey back to the Liverpool beat scene in 1963, where four musicians are about to change the face of rock and roll music forever.  

"I mourned the loss of so much good music that could have been made had the industry provided a support system for women to go through childbirth and motherhood and still do their job of musician.  I cried because I felt that there is a void of albums that would never sit in my record collection; an empty shelf, their presence felt by their absence. Musical ghosts of what might have been."

For a moment, let me take you back to Liverpool in the early sixties.  There are four musicians hanging out backstage at the city’s infamous beat club, The Cavern.  These four musicians are about to take the world by storm. They will go on to have international success, they will tour extensively and will gain further notoriety during their time playing the Star Club in Hamburg.  Who were these four pioneering musicians? Well, of course, they are The Liverbirds. The first ever all female rock band.

Having grown up on a staple diet of stories of the glory days of The Cavern and the whole merseybeat scene, I couldn’t believe that I had never heard of this band until I began researching my post-grad dissertation into women in rock.  So when an old friend posted a link to me for a new musical, which is the story of The Liverbirds, showing this autumn at Liverpool’s Royal Court, I had to go and check it out. What I didn’t know as I got my ticket scanned by the guy on the door, was that I was not only going to learn more about these ladies through the magic of theatre, but I was also in for a very special surprise.

The stage is set as I head in and take my seat in the stalls, the traditional theatre rows of red uncomfortable chairs have been replaced with booths, sofas and bar stools and the whole down stairs area has a club feel about it.  Glass of wine on my little table, the lights go down and the actors/musicians take to the stage. The girls’ instruments are hooked up to the very apt Vox 30s while the whole set has the look and feel of a 1960s TV show. Bright orange stage floor; television screens and vinyl records making the wings, while a lit up guitar fretboard stands in center stage and to the keen eye, the lights can be followed down and we realise the whole stage is in the shape of a guitar.

The whole performance is full of songs from the time.  The actors have not just been chosen for their acting ability, but they are all extremely talented, tight musicians.  Each song takes us through the development of the band and the speaking parts tell the story to us, not as it happened but in a narrative prose, speaking straight to the audience, a spoken biography.

The Liverbirds formed in 1963 in Liverpool.  They decided to get an all female band together and while a couple of members came and went during the formation, the final line up of vocalist-guitarist Valerie Gell, guitarist-vocalist Pamela Birch, bassist-vocalist Mary McGlory and drummer Sylvia Saunders would be the one that stuck through thick and thin.  But it wouldn’t be an easy ride for the girls as they set out to become the first ever all female rock band. Mary came across some resistance from her father when she asked him to buy her a bass guitar, luckily for us, Mary’s mum stepped in and supported the instrument purchase on credit from the local music store.  But most significantly and maybe the thing that inspired them the most was when they were hanging out with the Beatles at The Cavern one night. “The comment was from John Lennon when we got introduced to him as the first all female band” Mary McGlory told BBC Breakfast a few weeks ago. “He just looked at us and said, ‘No, girls don’t play guitars.”  But what was their response? Mary goes on, “We’re bloody well going to prove him wrong!”

And they did.  Throughout the show we see how they played with bands like The Rolling Stones, The Searchers, The Kinks, Chuck Berry (in fact, Pamela pushed Chuck Berry’s manager off stage during a show when he wasn’t happy that they’d played Roll Over Beethoven as part of their set).  They were offered a US tour with Berry, but their manager advised them to turn it down as they would be expected to play topless at some venues in the states.  

Their main residency was at the Star Club in Hamburg, where they performed regularly between their active years (1963-1968).  They fondly remember smoking pot backstage with Jimi Hendrix, with Mary apparently being the best person for rolling joints although she never smoked it herself!  And we get to see them hanging out with Mick Jagger in the studio with him and Dave Davies providing backing vocals. One of the funniest scenes is when Mary’s priest pays her a surprise visit in Hamburg and she takes him sightseeing around the seedy red light district of the city, past drug houses and ladies of the night.  

But by 1968 the band would be no more.  However, these ladies didn’t break up due to bruised egos or the usual ‘musical differences’ spin that we hear time after time from other bands.  “We started as four friends and we finished as four friends” Sylvia commented. It couldn’t be more accurate. The night that everything changed was when Pamela’s boyfriend, who was supposed to meet her at the Star Club after celebrating his 18th Birthday with his parents didn’t show up.  The whole band could feel that something was wrong and decided, in order to distract their friend, they would keep playing until he arrived. They played for hours and hours until finally, they knew he wouldn’t come. His car had come off the road and he’d been left paralysed from the neck downwards.  Pamela made the hardest decision of her life and chose to be with him and support him, giving up everything she’d worked hard for to nurse him day and night. It also came at the time when Sylvia knew she had a child on the way and again, in an age where a female musicians couldn’t get anything close to maternity leave, she chose family.  I was in floods of tears as the heartbreaking story unfolded in front of my eyes, my glass of wine now empty. I cried not only for their stories, but for all the female musicians out there that have had to make that choice. I mourned the loss of so much good music that could have been made had the industry provided a support system for women to go through childbirth and motherhood and still do their job of musician.  I cried because I felt that there is a void of albums that would never sit in my record collection; an empty shelf, their presence felt by their absence. Musical ghosts of what might have been.

Towards the end of the show, they asked each other individually: What happened to me?  The rest of the girls telling each others biography beyond the band. They suggest through their dialogue that, as true friends, they were all there with Valerie when she passed in 2016.  Pamela had it hard looking after her boyfriend for his years of disability. Eventually, she fell in love and lived a long, happy life with Susan. “We didn’t see that one coming!” The girls say on stage.  “Yes you did!” Pam’s voice replies. “Yeah, we did,” they agree and laugh. She died in 2006. Mary went on to have a record company in Hamburg while Sylvia had a bar out in Spain with her husband. But The Liverbirds story doesn’t end there.

The actress playing Val comes up to the mic at the end of the performance.  “Ladies and Gentlemen, we have some very special guests in the audience tonight…. Please welcome on stage Mary and Sylvia, the original members of The Liverbirds.”  and before we know it the ladies are up on stage. Mary grabs the bass and Sylvia sit comfy behind the drums. They kick in with one of their international hits, Peanut Butter.  The audience are rocking and I truly feel like somehow, the spirit of those early days of The Cavern Club is being invoked right there in the heart of Liverpool. The original club only a stone’s throw away from the Royal Court’s location.

My day was made complete with Mary and Sylvia stopping in the corridor to sign autographs and take photos with the members of the audience.  In true fan-girl style, I take a moment with them. The photo hangs now on my inspiration board at home which is full pictures of the greatest female musicians from throughout the last fifty years, with the autographed leaflet for the show, written in their honour: Girls Don’t Play Guitars.  Well, John, if you actually believed that, I say to you: “Yes they bloody well can.” You just have to look at where we are now.

Stephanie Burgess is one of the original riot grrrls, having played in bands throughout the 90’s. She currently runs her own fanzine and blog ‘Marina is Red’, which forms part of her postgraduate research into female representation in the Spanish alternative music scene, but also covers Riot Grrrl and feminist bands from throughout Europe. She is an avid fan of rock music and has an extensive record collection dominated by female musicians. She can still be found most weekends flicking through the vinyls and CD’s at her nearest music shop.  
Twitter: @marinaisred
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