LIBERATED AT LAST
A landmark recording of second-wave feminism is reissued and updated
by Sara Marcus
reprinted from Time Out New York Issue 495: March 24-30, 2005
The feminist movement of the 1970s won unprecedented rights for women. But three decades later, their bodies are still used to sell everything from booze to cars, Roe v. Wade is on life support and a guy who claimed men might be better at math is the president of Harvard.
If this bothers you, take heart: The soundtrack for your righteous indignation may been reissued. A 1972 album by the Chicago and New Haven Women’s Liberation Rock Bands, originally called Mountain Moving Day, is now out in remastered form with the title, Papa, Don’t Lay That Shit On Me. Tackling topics such as rape and the politics of marriage, the 15 songs capture the radical exuberance of early second-wave feminism and the inventiveness of amateur rockers with more than one ax to grind
Many of the groups’ members – there were eight in New Haven’s group and six in Chicago’s, which was formed by friends of the Connecticut musicians – had never played in a band before, and they knew they weren’t raising any bars for virtuosity. They didn’t care.
“It was like, we may not be good, but nothing else exists,” Jennifer Abod, who sang in the New Haven band, says. “We were saying we had a right to play loud music and to mess up.”
The bands formed in 1970 as a retort to music like the Rolling Stones’ power happy “Under My Thumb.” (“We loved to dance,” Abod says, “but we were dancing to lyrics that were degrading to us.”) Yet they also challenged other aspects of the rock experience: They kept the lights on at shows, to encourage audience members to see themselves as part of the performance; they arrived early to gigs, and kept the volume eardrum-friendly; and their tours bypassed rock clubs and bars in favor of campuses and feminist gathering throughout the eastern half of the country.
The crowds – mostly women – responded enthusiastically. On the album, some are heard pleading with the musicians to “Play it again! Play it again!” A gig at a Connecticut women’s prison by the New Haven group even sparked an uprising of sorts: The inmates had been ordered to remain seated for the whole concert, but when the band launched into “Sister Witch,” the whole audience danced. Even today, it’s easy to understand why: The song, one of the reissue’s highlights, is a groovy, laid back number that opens with a tentative funk bass line, which is later topped by two simutaneous trippy guitar solos, flourishes from the band’s formidable horn section and a jazzy flute solo. And the lyrics convey an idyllic vision of lesbianism without ever mentioning the l-word: “When I feel my sister’s embrace / There’s all the space and the love that l need.”
While the skill level on these recordings varies widely, cleverness and passion are constants. “Abortion Song” borrows the bass line from the Beatles’ “Lady Madonna,” critiquing mythical motherhood and male rock paradigms in one economical gesture. The era’s unaccommodating spirit also animates the antirapist song “Shotgun” : “Hating them and angry now/Shoot ’em full of holes now.”
Both bands broke up in the mid-’70s, and their members have followed various routes since. Abod hosted radio shows for ten years and recently produced a documentary on the late feminist poet Audre Lorde. Kit McCIure, who played trombone and tenor sax in the New Haven band, has for 23 years led a successful all-female big band that bears her name. Naomi Weisstein, the Chicago founder, has been bedridden with chronic fatigue syndrome for 25 years, but looked after the bands’ original tapes and coordinated the reissue – which includes two new tracks by latter-day feminist rockers LeTigre and several previously unreleased live performances by the Chicago band. She says the time was ripe for the songs to be heard again.
“A lot of people don’t understand the spirit and the barricades mentality of early feminism,” Weisstein says. “But they should, because the Bush administration is snatching [our accomplishments] right out from under us. People have to realize that you can’t just be for equality – you have to fight for it, you have to be in the streets together with your sisters. If we’re going to hold on to the gains of feminism, we’ve got to be militant, and we’ve got to have music to go with it.”
Papa, Don’t Lay That Shit on Me is out now on Rounder.