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Making Music Together : Remember the old days when all we heard from were the boys in the band? And when women were left to join forces in all-female groups? Well, it's the '90s, so forget all that. The sound you hear is gender bending.

March 19, 1995|Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

John, Paul, George and Ringo . . . Keith, Mick, Brian, Bill and Charlie. . . . Jimmy, Robert, John Paul and Bonzo . . . Bono, the Edge, Larry and Adam.

It's easy to understand why rock 'n' roll was strictly a men's club for decades when you hear a top executive at prestigious Geffen Records admit to a prejudice in the '70s and '80s against aspiring female musicians.

"When I used to see a girl holding an electric guitar, I thought it looked strange," the executive says. "Except for Chrissie Hynde, who was tough and cool, it just didn't work for me. In general, girl bands looked like they were just playing around."

What makes the statement especially revealing is that it's not a sexist male talking.

The Geffen executive is a woman: Roberta Petersen, a 24-year industry veteran who heads Geffen's admired talent acquisition and development department.

Petersen smiles when she talks about those old days, because there has been a revolutionary gender change in rock--especially at Geffen, where three of the most promising bands on the roster are female-dominated: Hole, Veruca Salt and Elastica.

Unlike the days when women banded together in all-female groups or fronted otherwise all-male bands, all three of the acclaimed Geffen acts are in the forefront of what is emerging as the strongest new component in pop: co-ed rock.

Welcome to the world of Courtney, Eric, Patty and Melissa (Hole) . . . Nina, Jim, Louise and Steve (Veruca Salt) . . . and Justine, Justin, Annie and Donna (Elastica).

"This isn't just a trend," Petersen says of the co-ed rock movement, which also includes such highly regarded acts as Belly, the Breeders, Madder Rose, Stereolab and Bikini Kill. "This is a new reality in the record business . . . a natural progression."

Cliff Burnstein, a partner with Peter Mensch in one of rock's most powerful management firms, shakes his head over the changes since the '80s when his company was a bastion of male hard rock--with a client list that included Metallica and Def Leppard. Burnstein admits he would have thought twice about signing a female rock band in the past--even if he had found one that he liked.

"Our history was in hard rock, and most of our acts got play on album-oriented rock stations, and I can tell you album-oriented rock wouldn't play a woman," he recalls. "You couldn't get a female record on the radio . . . except maybe Heart, for a minute.

"One reason is a lot of the female acts that came up in the '70s were seen as gimmicks in one way or another--bands who simply didn't deliver the music."

It's a sign of these new co-ed bands' captivating imagination and blistering energy that Burnstein and Mensch now manage three of them, including Hole and Veruca Salt. The pair, who still represent Metallica and Def Leppard, are even eyeing a fourth co-ed group.

"You know, it's funny," Burnstein says. "Someone asked us, 'How can you have all these female bands?' And Peter and I just laughed and said, 'How could we have had all those male bands in the '80s?' "

*

The gender realignment has been so swift that Janet Billig, who managed Hole before recently becoming senior vice president of Atlantic Records, says that almost a third of the 16 unsigned bands she is actively scouting have women in them--and she's surprised more don't, given the speed with which women are becoming a force in rock.

Todd Boyd, assistant professor of critical studies at the USC School of Cinema-Television, believes that the rise of women in rock is at the forefront of a sociocultural swing that will be felt in other areas of the arts.

"If we look at other aspects of society, we have seen women gain prominence in places that they had never been before . . . starting with Hillary Clinton," he says. "I think music probably takes the lead in setting trends as far as culture is concerned because rock is a phenomenon of a younger group of people--people who have grown up in the last 20 to 25 years (amid) these changes."

Boyd's views are seconded by the co-ed rock bands themselves. Unlike many of their predecessors, most of the band members interviewed never had to deal with the male dominance of the music in earlier decades. For that reason, they don't claim any victory in breaking down barriers.

"I never lived through any other time, so I don't know what it was like then, but I'm actually surprised whenever I read women talking about how tough it is to be in rock," says Justine Frischmann, the 25-year-old lead singer and writer of Elastica, an acclaimed new British band that consists of three women and one man.

"I am not sure whether it is something that's brought up by journalists who want to talk about it as an angle or whether it is something that women still really feel. You definitely have specific problems as a woman in the music industry, but I'm not sure they aren't any more or less true of being a woman in general."

Atlantic's Billig, 27, echoes the thought.

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