Pam Brandt: People I think probably assume because we were so feminist, and because we were an all-women's band, that most of the people who came to see us were women, but that wasn't true. Usually the balance in the audience would be maybe 60% women and 40% men. They were just having a good time dancing to the music, and I looked out there and thought, this is like a microcosm of the kind of world that I want to live in, so "Sweet Sweet Music" was supposedly written about experiences like that, that the music could bring you together.
Deadly Nightshade - Sweet Sweet Music (1975)
This is JD Doyle for Queer Music Heritage and that "Sweet Sweet Music" comes from 1975 and the band Deadly Nightshade. They formed in the early 1970s and were among the very first all-female bands signed to a major record label. They were the first of those bands whose music came from a feminist perspective. The members were Pam Brandt, Helen Hooke and Ann Bowen and I'm pleased to share with you an interview with Pam, and we'll hear all about it. They had two LPs in 1975 and 1976 and have just released a new CD, so I used that as a start for my questions.
JD: To your knowledge, has there been another band that went 36 years between albums?
PB: Well, let me think, ah, no.
JD: I could not come up with any...that's not something you can google, but nothing logical came to my mind either.
PB: Well, it's sort of hard to explain that in our first incarnation the Deadly Nightshade got together kind of accidentally, and in the second incarnation, we sort of got together accidentally also and a lot of it was we don't even know when the first incarnation broke up. We more sort of fell apart gradually over a period of a year or two.
JD: Well, I want to kind of keep this history kind of chronological, so let's go back to the beginning, which I think was 1968, and you were all college students and formed Ariel. Tell me how that band formed and what was the music like?
PB: Well, Ariel formed from the remnants of an earlier band called The Moppets. The Moppets were formed in, let me think, it must have been 1964, by a woman named Beverly Rodgers, who at the time was a junior at Mt. Holyoke College. The Moppets were all Mt. Holyoke students, so it was an all-women's band, and I got in it about a year and a half after that band formed. So we played various places around the country. We were signed to the William Morris Agency, a big agency in New York, and they got us some bookings. We played rock music, none of it political at all, you know, "Wooly Bully" or whatever and then later we moved into doing some more ambitious rock music, and doing dramatic arrangements and stuff like that. We got more pretentious, let's just say.
PB: So that band eventually fell apart. At our very last gig, at a place called Otto's Grotto, in Cleveland, this guy, Bob Baldori, who was then playing keyboard in a band called The Woolies, which had one big hit, "Who Do You Love?" They were on ABC-Dunhill. He came and heard us and as a result he got a contract, with ABC-Dunhill. And The Moppets just fell apart after making that record.
- Cry Just a Little (1966)
I went from the Moppets doing a Beau Brummels song to one I think a lot more amazing. Now, that band did mostly cover songs and remember that it was not a lesbian band, and Pam was not singing lead. So for them to do the Young Rascals song "Ain't Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore," with a female lead singing those female to female pronouns, at a live show in Cleveland in 1966, well, that must have turned a few heads.
So, let's get back to Pam and pick up the story after the breakup of the Moppets, and at the start of a new band, Ariel. She picked up the torch along with another Moppets band member, Gretchen Pheiffer
PB: Gretchen and I started putting together another all-female band, almost immediately, because we had dropped out of school for a year to play for The Moppets, but our parents made us promise we'd go back. So, we were both going back to Mt. Holyoke and so we started looking around for other women, and found Helen Hooke, who is in Deadly Nightshade, and we also found Anne Bowen, the third Deadly Nightshade person, to be in Ariel, which was an even more pretentious band than The Moppets by far, by far. You know, we took ourselves entirely too seriously and we did really over complex ponderous arrangements of everything. We wrote songs that sort of made very little sense, and were in odd time signatures. And the cover songs we did were only very inaccessible ones.
PB: And Ariel went on performing what we called symphonic rock, and did it for a couple of years, and got pretty close to record contracts a number of times. There were a number of record companies interested initially but it always came down to we would show up at their offices and they would say...let's see, one time we were at Apple America and some producer stuck his head in the door, and said to our A&R person, "Hey, Eddie, don't sign an all-girl band, you will only have to pay for their abortions." And then Columbia Records was a little bit interested but they ended up telling us, "no, because we already have an all-girl band."
JD: And you couldn't have more than one.
PB: Exactly, there were all these all-boy bands that were signed, but they considered them just bands. And all-girl bands was a novelty act, like, you remember that record of the Singing Dogs, they would bark "Jingle Bells," well, all-girl bands were like that and really, you only wanted one Singing Dogs, and one all-girl band. So eventually Ariel broke up, and then the Deadly Nightshade came together after that point.
Before we leave Arial, Pam sent me some music by them and I doubt they have ever been played on the radio, so I'm happy to share with you a little bit of the Buffalo Springfield song "Rock & Roll Woman." This is from a live show at Thompson's Tavern in Waverly, NY, in March of 1970.
Ariel - Rock & Roll Woman (1970)
PB: And then the Deadly Nightshade came together after that point.
JD: Was there a time lag in between those two?
PB: There certainly was, yeah, there was a time lag of about I think it was a couple years, and during that time all three of us had moved back to the New England area to base ourselves, and ended up living on the same farm, in sort of an informally communal household, like they had a lot of in those days. And the three of us were doing odd jobs to support ourselves, among which the most successful was we were garbage collectors. We would get in a truck and go around to construction sites and clean up after the builders and the contractors and take it to the dump. We called ourselves the Wrecked Wrecking Company because we, you know, partook of substances and smoked quite a bit while doing our work, and what resulted was work that was very slow but very thorough, and the thoroughness made us very popular as a garbage collecting company.
PB: Meanwhile we were not playing music then, but Anne was working also at the Valley Women's Center. North Hampton because of Smith (College) and Mt Holyoke and all of that was sort of a little pocket of very active early feminism. And the Valley Women's Center was wonderful. So they were having a conference, putting together a women's conference, and we played there, and from there other people heard us and kept offering us jobs. And we thought, sure beats collecting garbage, so we just stayed together and that was how Deadly Nightshade started.
JD: Well, I have to ask how the name of the band was picked.
PB: The Deadly Nightshade was actually a name we thought of back in Ariel, when...Ariel had real business cards, like all businesses do, but a lot of the guys who would come up to us and ask for our business cards were just pests, trying to hit on us. So we would make fake business cards. We would take big pieces of pasta...I don't know what kind of pasta you call it, a big rectangular piece of pasta, about the size of a business card, and we would write down fake band names and fake phone numbers and everything on these business cards. And to these pest guys we would just give one of these fake business cards, and one of these fake band names we thought of at the time was The Deadly Nightshade. And we just thought it was funny.
JD: These were cards made of pasta?
PB: Yes, well we didn't want to pay to get cards actually printed up when they were fake cards, so yeah, we thought of all sorts of different names and The Deadly Nightshade stuck and we decided to use that name and didn't even realize at the time that there could be feminist interpretations to it and stuff like that.
JD: So you attracted enough attention by now that you were signed by RCA.
PB: We decided to come down to New York and try playing a club there because we thought we might like to do some recording, and called up our old...Ariel's old manager, Ron Shelley, invited him to come down and see that we actually had become a band that people liked. And he was impressed that there were lines of people outside the door wanting to get in, because we were building up a reputation as a really fun band. And eventually Lucy Simon when we were at Max's Kansas City...Lucy urges some people from RCA to come down, actually she dragged them down, and they liked us, and we were signed, to Phantom, which was a custom label of RCA.
JD: Did RCA know how to promote the band?
PB: (laughs) Oh, no...
JD: That was kind of a leading question.
PB: No. Well, we gave them a few hints, for example, in our recording contract we insisted on a clause where we had a lot of control over our advertizing. We said they were not allowed to publicize us in any way that would be insensitive to feminist sensibilities, and we actually used that clause, because they had no idea what was insensitive to feminist sensibilities and they took a big ad in Rolling Stone, full-page ad, that was just rip-roaring wrong. I think one line was "male chauvinist pigs will not be offended." Which is absurd, of course they're going to be offended, and so we made RCA buy another full-page ad. And what we did, we ran the same ad over again but we scratched out everything that was offensive in the ad and scribbled in, hand-written, our own corrections, the obvious one being changing "male chauvinist pigs will not be offended"...we just crossed out the "not." So yes, male chauvinist pigs will be offended.
PB: So they pretty much were getting the idea of how to promote us in that sense, but they always kind of had this idea that what we would be is a hit pop band and they kind of wanted to ignore that we basically had an alternative music audience. And we also had a large country music audience. They wanted us to be just pop. So with the second album, when the second album came out, they didn't want us to do any country songs, cause they didn't want us to be seen as a country band. "Regular" was a word that they used a lot. The Deadly Nightshade in each album about half the songs were outright feminist songs, so it was a mix of feminist songs, outright feminist songs and what they called "regular" songs, and they kept saying to us, "why don't you just stick to the "regular" songs?" Okay, a band like the Rolling Stones can go out and write a song that is just vile about women, a real sexist song, and that was not considered a political statement, but if we wrote a song that was anti-sexist, that was considered a political statement. So again, those were the times.
This is a great time to hear about one of those songs that was very anti-sexist, and it's one of their best known and most anthemic ones, called "High Flying Woman."
PB: Well, it's really just sort of a feminist anthem, only it doesn't sound like an anthem. It sounds like...well, when we play it live, it sort of sounds like a country rock song, and the way it is on the first album, they made it into sort of more of a little pop song. Words were very important to feminists in those days. Well, like the word "chick," you were all supposed to be a woman, not a girl if you were over a certain age, because the way the words had been used in those days for men and women, even when you were 80, men would say "Hi, girls." But they were men, you know, it was girls and men, it wasn't girls and boys. And then chick was one of those words also, which we really hated, because as band people it was okay for women to be in bands if they were just the chick singer, for a male band. What was considered to be inappropriate was for women to actually be the band, be the players, so the whole chick thing really rubbed us wrong. So that's what the whole song originally started out as, you're not a chick, you're a free-flying woman, a high-flying woman. And it sort of got more general as the song went on about how women should not be in a cage, you should set yourself free, take yourself for a glide, you're a high flying woman.
Deadly Nightshade - High Flying woman (1975)
JD: How were the two RCA albums received. I'm talking critically and with respect to sales?
PB: They were critically received very well, and sales-wise they were very disappointing to RCA. I think we sold somewhere around thirty thousand of each, which...we would be very happy to sell thirty thousand of our new CD...and even if we had sold two hundred and fifty thousand records I think they would not have been happy.
JD: How feminist and how political would you say the band was in the 70's?
PB: We were never ever non-political definitely. I mean, at least half of the songs on each of our albums I think anyone would describe as outright feminist. They were about certain situations, like a former secretary with a sexist boss, turning the tables on him, and that was "Dance Mr Big Dance." And there was "High Flying Woman, " which was a typical feminist support song. I think we were really in the middle between bands who were all-women's bands, who were definitely not political explicitly, and bands who existed for the purpose of politics, which would be like the New Haven band and the Chicago band (New Haven Women's Liberation Rock Band, and Chicago Women's Liberation Rock Band). Those were bands that were formed by political activists and they were formed really for the purpose of singing about political issues, feminist issues, and bringing people to be aware of them through music, through the songs that they wrote. Those bands were formed by political activists, they were not musicians, that wasn't their primary purpose in forming the bands.
PB: Deadly Nightshade, we were all experienced musicians. Out thinking was, there are women's bands out there now, most of them are like the Berkeley (Berkeley Women's Music Collective) or Chicago people, they're playing for our own people, mostly, for other feminists. They're playing for audiences of all women. And that is great. I think someone from either the Berkeley or Chicago bands said something about wanting to get the message to all women, and you're not going to get the message to all women by just playing political gigs, because an awful lot of women don't go to things like that. So, how you get the message to everybody is you play everywhere and you hit them from all sides. So we were thinking, you know, we're accomplished enough musicians that we can get a major label contract, and we're just hitting them from another side. As Berkeley or the people who were in the women's music community, to us we were all part of the same thing.
JD: With much hindsight, and acknowledging that the early 70's were very different times, how closeted would you say the band was?
PB: Too closeted, closeted enough that I rapidly grew ashamed of it. It was what was done at the time, and as matter of fact much later, in the mid-1990's, when I was co-writing a book for Simon & Schuster called "The Girls Next Door: Into the Heart of Lesbian America," and I was traveling the country interview...you know, tried to cover different aspects of lesbian culture, I was doing Women's Music, I spoke to Margie Adam, and she was just laughing at how many women in the women's music community, who played to virtually exclusively lesbian-feminist audiences...the musicians were not out themselves. There was even a Cris Williamson interview from a little later than that time, maybe 2000, where she said something like, "I never said I was gay, I never said that," (laughs) to an interviewer who assumed that she was out...please...and Margie was laughing. She was going, "who did we think we were kidding, and why did she think we should kid them." I mean, there were real reasons in the mainstream music industry. RCA used to give us enough trouble just about writing outright feminist songs. There was that business of "why don't you write regular songs?" They sure didn't want us to write gay songs.
JD: Did RCA know that this was essentially a lesbian band?
PB: Oh, they knew. It was sort of one of those things like everyone knew, we just didn't say it. Yeah, they certainly knew because sometimes they would explicitly throw things in our faces, about Laura Nyro, or "oh, Dusty Springfield, she came out in Rolling Stone as bisexual and it ruined her career." They would say stuff like that to us. And it wasn't that we had even said, hey, we're going to write a gay song or something.
JD: They were warning shots.
PB: Oh, yeah, you've gone far enough, you've gone too far already, don't go farther. And also the truth is even though we played gay bars, all-women's events, we played three or four in New York gay pride rallies, so some people would think that was automatically coming out to an audience of ten thousand people. We played gay benefits for various organizations and political candidates, and stuff like that. We were personally not entirely open about our gayness. Helen and I had never discussed it with our families, for instance, and we were a couple for, like nine and a half years, which included through the whole Deadly Nightshade. We were out who knew were a couple and everything like that, but not our families.
JD: It's interesting, in all the research I did about the band prior to our talking, that little morsel you just talked about, I found that once, mentioned just once.
PB: What, that Helen and I were a couple? Yeah, well, we had never come out and said in an interview that we were a couple, so I guess it had never even come up in an interview. This was back in the days when everybody was being sort of like overly considerate of each other, and protective about not outing people. The gay community was almost like encouraging artists not to talk about it openly, because so many of us in all walks of life were in some aspects of those lives in the closet.
JD: Tell me about "Someone Down in Nashville"
PB: "Someone Down in Nashville." It was a song to explain sort of the appeal of country music to people. Country music is sort of known particularly for dealing with personal relationships, either positive or more often negative or something like that. It's like, when you don't know what to say to somebody that you're in love with, someone down in Nashville has doubtlessly already said it for you.
Deadly Nightshade - Someone Down in Nashville (1975)
JD: Why did the band stop, and I'm talking about the first time.
PB: Um, pretty much Anne wanted to have a life, is the reason why. Part of the old band's dynamic with Helen and I being a couple and being the main songwriting team, it sometimes seemed like two against one, or a couple and then a person on the outside, when we were on the road or something like that. And Anne had a girlfriend, she wanted to see more of that girlfriend and live with the girlfriend and that kind of thing. She wanted to have a personal life. And the Deadly Nightshade is not one of those bands, like the Rolling Stones or Isis, which went through many personnel changes. But with the Deadly Nightshade we were always three very distinct personalities working together. That was our whole charm. That was a major part of our whole appeal to people. So, one person couldn't just drop out, even though she was not the main songwriting team. She was essential. Anne was always essential to the band, as essential as Helen or me, and we could not have a Deadly Nightshade with anyone else except the three of us.
JD: Tell me about the band's connection to "Sesame Street"
PB: (laughs) Someone from Sesame Street came to see the band, when we were playing in New York, and at the time they were much more free-wheeling. Sesame Street wasn't that old of a show, so they got to be creatively a little more off the wall. They didn't have so many rules about an educational, developmental guidelines...what you couldn't do, and everything. So they were just seeing us as a good time band, and thinking, "they'd be great on this show," so they asked us to come on, and we did "Keep on the Sunnyside," which is the song we almost always open with, and still do, an old song that the most famous version was recorded by the Carter Family, only we do it about 500 times faster. And there actually still is a YouTube video of us on Sesame Street playing that song, at speeds that some YouTube viewers have commented seem like we were on some kind of drug, you know, some really speedy drug. But it wasn't, it was just us.
Deadly Nightshade - Keep on the Sunny Side (1975)
JD: On to the second album, the next year, which was called "Funky & Western," and the big hit was "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman," and I'm wondering, did it seem kind of disconcerting that that song, which is like no other song you released, was the only one to make it to the charts?
PB: Well, uh, no, we didn't really expect our songs to make the top 100 charts. "Mary Hartman" was sort of the obvious hit, because disco was very big back then, and we basically didn't play any disco, which is why the song sort of started as a joke. Some people think it was RCA imposing a disco style on us, but that much was not true. The idea came from us and it happened sort of small. We were playing on a radio station in Boston. They were televising a concert we were doing at Passim's . We used to play there a lot. So we were doing this live broadcast and Anne broke a string, which means we couldn't continue playing until she changed the string. So I was just trying to fill time by telling people about what our next projects were going to be. And I don't know, maybe we didn't have any next projects so I was kind of making them up. "Mary Hartman Mary Hartman" had a huge cult following at the time. So I said...do you remember the theme song from "Mary Hartman"? It was very slow and sappy, it was like this (sings), like that. So I said the next thing we were going to do when we got back to New York was to write and record a disco version to the theme from "Mary Hartman Mary Hartman."
PB: Which was ridiculous, because disco is one genre that we definitely did not play in any shape or form. We got back to New York and went into...you know, Monday morning, went to our record company's office, and it was like, "har har har, listen to what we said on the radio," and he said, "that's a good idea, why don't you do it?" So we quickly wrote an arrangement, we recorded it, and we stayed up for 48 hours straight just to get it in early. It seemed like it was an idea that anybody who was serious about doing it would probably have it immediately if not sooner. And sure enough, we turned it into RCA and they had already that week gotten I think eight or eleven or something other disco versions of the "Theme from Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman." But RCA ended up picking ours to release, over the others.
And here's the song, which made it nationally on the Billboard charts to #79 [in 1976]
Deadly Nightshade - Mary Hartman Mary Hartman (1976)
JD: I understand you were honored by the Smithsonian Institute, could you tell us about that?
PB: Yeah, sort of near the end of Deadly Nightshade, someone from The Smithsonian who had been at a number of our jobs for women's organizations, like NOW conferences and stuff like that, asked us to contribute...what did she call them...artifacts, yes, Deadly Nightshade artifacts (laughs) to the Smithsonian, and at the time the Smithsonian didn't even have...they didn't have any other women's bands in the whole museum. That meant a lot to us, because it was really important to us to have the Smithsonian recognize that feminist musicians were also politicians, not just Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Caty Stanton and Gloria Steinem and those other people.
JD: Talk about "Ain't I A Woman?"
PB: It's a song we wrote from a famous speech of Sojourner Truth, who had been a slave and was an early first wave suffragist. She had a very famous speech, I think it was at the Seneca Falls Conference, where she basically said, I spent my life working as hard as a man, and ain't I a woman, and she just kept repeating different experiences in her life as a slave woman. And I really adore the song.
Deadly Nightshade - Ain't I a Woman (1976)
JD: I've read about the band backing up Flo Ballard, and I'd really like to hear you talk about that.
PB: That could have been the greatest single gig we ever had. What happened was in Detroit, which was the home of the Supremes, of course, some women's organizations were having a benefit for Joan Little. They were having Gloria Steinem, Lily Tomlin, they were having us, and they had talked Flo Ballard into coming in and singing. Flo Ballard at that time...she was an original Supreme...the powers to be at Motown had thrown Flo out of the group, and it was a really traumatic experience for her, and she hadn't sung since that, which had been years and years and years before. So it was a big deal that they had talked Flo into essentially having this benefit being her first come-back gig. They asked us if we could possible back her up, did we know any Supremes. And we were like, do we know any Supremes! Because, we had their picture, of the original Supremes, on our practice room wall, to give us inspiration. We adored the Supremes.
PB: Well, when we got there it turned out that Flo refused, she did not want to play any Supremes whatsoever. She was anti-Supremes, it was still like a raw wound on her, the whole idea. And she was living in poverty at the time, but she didn't want to do Supremes. And there was only one song that she wanted to do, which was the Helen Reddy song, "I Am Woman." So the evening came, she went on, she sang "I Am Woman." It was her crowd. Most of the people in the audience hadn't come for Gloria, or Lily, or for us. They had come to see Flo, making her comeback. So the crowd really applauded her and it was a really warm reception, and she walked off the stage, and they were yelling, encore encore encore. And so she got off the stage, but she was all kind of like wide-eyed and not knowing what to do, and so I took her hand and said, "you have to do more, they really want you" and started pulling her on the stage. And as soon as she got out of site range of the stage, she shrugged my hand off, and was like, okay, and went back to stand with the rest of the Deadlys. And she just strolled very slowly and fiercely and evil-like across the front of the stage, and as she was passing the Deadlys she sort of swung her head back across her shoulder and said to us, "by any chance would you happen to know 'Come See About Me'?" (laughs) so of course we did. And so we played "Come See About Me," and we also played "Back in My Arms Again." And then the crowd absolutely went wild, cause of course what they wanted was Flo singing old Supremes. So, boy, that was an amazing musical experience.
JD: Tell us about the process of the band getting back together and the decision to record the new CD.
Well, I think I got into it before that the Deadly Nightshade had
always been a band that needed all three of us, and so it wasn't a
band after Anne dropped out. With the three of us together there was
a sort of magic that happened. Practically speaking it just came out
of a reunion of Ariel, that was just done at Helen's summer house
that she has. And it was just a private party where Ariel got together,
but without Anne Bowen. And Helen and I realized it was really fun
seeing Gretchen and Beverly, but musically what we wanted to do was
get back together and play with Deadly Nightshade. So, a year later
or two years later, that's exactly what we did. Helen booked a couple
of gigs, and we got back together to see what it would be like, and
it was wonderful. The very first day we all remembered our parts and
we were playing together as usual, even after...what, 35 years, or
whatever. So we like it, so we wanted more of it.
PB: Well, we can't play live very much, unfortunately, because we live in different parts of the country and work where we have jobs, where we live. But we did want to play more and we wanted to write some more new songs and arrange some more new songs, and have a recording experience that was different from the first two albums, in that it really would be us playing on the record and not a lot of studio musicians. And that it would sound like us and we could play those songs live, and it sort of gave us an opportunity to write and record all of those songs that actually had been developing in our minds ever since the first incarnation of Deadly Nightshade fell apart, so we decided we wanted to do it.
PB: I would like people to know exactly what is on the new Deadly Nightshade CD. It's a mix, like in the old days of silly songs and serious songs, and songs that are political and songs that are not explicitly political. And they there are, what is it, five songs that are audio and video from the old days of the Deadly Nightshade.
JD: Well, we haven't heard any of the new music yet, so I want to start with a bit of the song "She."
PB: The she, it's about leadership, more than about any particular she. The she is not your girlfriend or your mother. It's really about sort of leadership from a feminist perspective and from the perspective of a feminine or female principle, what people think of as feminine or female values. It's thinking of leadership in a new way, that it's not based on what are commonly thought of as masculine traits. And then there's a rap section in the middle where we kind of go through actual female leaders and everything. That's a good song, I like it.
Deadly Nightshade - She (2013)
PB: There's a song called "The John Deere Song," that is a true story, about encountering a naked woman riding a John Deere tractor. It was a perfect stranger who bought tickets to the Deadly Nightshade concert, and then came the wrong night. And we felt bad because she had gotten a baby sitter and everything, and baby sitters are hard to come by. So we decided we'd to up, and sing a few songs for her and sort of make it up to her a little bit. She owned this bed & breakfast that was out in the country. We got there, the three of us, and she was nowhere to be found, no one was at home it seemed. And then we heard this vroom vroom vroom and a tractor came over the hill, over the grounds, the grounds were extensive, acres and acres. And it was a huge tractors, not just one of those ride-on lawnmowers. And as it got closer to us we saw that riding on top of the tractor was this woman, and she was stark naked, which was kind of stunning, sure surprised the hell out of us. So she got next to us, and leaned down and said, with this big grin on her face, "there's nothing like riding naked on a John Deere tractor."
Deadly Nightshade - John Deere Tractor Song (2013)
JD: Another part of the CD I want to mention is the video part.
PB: Oh, yeah, in the old days the Deadly Nightshade was not famous, or semi-famous or almost famous, but we realized that from when we first got together that many of our old fans probably wouldn't remember us, and probably there were people even our age who were feminists who had never heard of us, cause, you know, we weren't that famous back then. Then there were people who we'd like to reach, who weren't even born when we were originally together. So we wanted to put the revised Deadly Nightshade in the context of the old Deadly Nightshade to give people an idea of the band's whole journey. So we wanted to include some old stuff, which is...we played in 19...oh, what was it, 1986, I think, '84, at the tenth anniversary of the National Women's Music Festival, in the Midwest, and a woman there had videotaped us, with the clunky equipment of the day, but the gig actually sounds very good. It has some songs from the old days and actually shows us, so you don't just get the musical part of things like "Dance Mr Big," but you can see Anne playing the dancing doll, and so on.
JD: I was surprised at how good the audio quality is on that recording.
PB: Well, we were too. The audio quality sounds pretty good, and the band sounded pretty good. You know, it's enjoyable and it puts the new, or the revived Deadly Nightshade in the context of the old Deadly Nightshade.
JD: I know the history of Deadly Nightshade is not over, but what do you consider your place in music history?
PB: Well, we were not the first all-female band, which some people seem to think we were, but the Deadly Nightshade was the only all-female band signed to a mainstream major record label that recorded songs with explicit outright feminist content, subject matter. And so I think that was important, and we were one of the first female bands. So I think how accomplished we were musically is also a contribution, because in some of the really first female bands there wasn't a high level of musicality. It was really more like you were getting to play jobs because you were a novelty group.
PB: I think what this new album shows, which was also on the old album is that you can stand for something and not have all your songs be explicitly about it. I mean, the Deadly Nightshade always did a mix of serious songs, with messages, and silly songs. The only way that the silly songs could be considered political is that we deliberately never wrote offensive songs, songs that were offensive to minority groups, anyway, we did write deliberately songs that were offensive to homophobes and sexist pigs and will continue to do that forever. But for us back in the day it was considered inappropriate for young women like us, like we were then to play in live electric bands. Now many more young women are playing in bands, thank heaven, but it's still considered inappropriate for old ladies to play in loud electric bands. So that's sort of another reason we got back together. We thought, seems like it was time for us to have some more fun, and you know, back then we behaved inappropriately, now we're behaving inappropriately, for different reasons, and I hope we continue just sort of breaking down doors for the rest of our lives.
I want to add to Pam's answer about being one of the first female bands signed to a major label. The two main others who fit that were Fanny, signed to Reprise, and Isis, who recorded on Buddah and United Artists. They had lesbian members but were not all-lesbian bands, though I grant that to the public Deadly Nightshade were not openly lesbian, a sign of those times.
This is JD Doyle thanking you for listening and Pam Brandt for the wonderful interview. You can find more info on Deadly Nightshade at www.thedeadlynightshade.net, and get their new CD at CDbaby.com. And, you know, I've got more of my interview with Pam on my site, queermusicheritage.com, and in Part 2 I ask her about another ground-breaking band she was in, called Lowlife, in the early 1980's. That included one of my gay music heroes, Michael Callen. They were in a mixed gay & lesbian band, which it turned out, was quite ahead of its time. Anyway, of course I saved a special Deadly Nightshade song to close this show. I asked Pam to tell me about a new one, called "Don't the Lovers Ever Win."
PB: Right, that's actually the first song with outright gay subject matter that the Deadly Nightshade ever wrote or performed or recorded. It's a song about gay rights and the people who want to foil those, the oppressors and the homophobes. The original Deadly Nightshade should have been writing about some gay subject matter, I feel in retrospect. And then there were 35 years since we broke up, so when you go to tackle a gay rights song, and a song about homophobes, there's been a lot of homophobia and a lot of gay rights issues in the last 35 years, so basically you have a tendency to say, okay, I'm going to write about every single gay rights issue that ever occurred, if it's your first song. You just want to say it all at once, say everything that you should have said for years before that. But, couldn't do that, so basically I just decided to tackle the gay rights issues and the homophobes that were not only oppressive, but were totally stupid, couldn't be stupider, stupid with a double-O stupid, you know, s-t-o-o-p-i-d, that stupid. So the song was supposed to be gently ironic, don't the lovers ever win? It points out these things that people are trying to do to us, or haters, and just asked the question, don't the lovers ever win?
Nightshade - Don't the Lovers Ever Win (2013)
Lowlife - Uh Oh (1985)
I'm JD Doyle and that was "Uh Oh" from 1985 from a band called "Lowlife." This is Part 2 of my interview with Pam Brandt of the band Deadly Nightshade, but this time we're talking about a different band, one whose history I think deserves more exposure. They did not have any commercial success, and in fact released nothing to be sold to the public, so I'm pleased to have some private tapes of their music to help me tell their story. I think the band's claim to a place in our music history is that its goal was to be a mixed band, with mixed meaning made up of lesbians and gay men, with a premise that they were all equal, and there was no leader of the band. The members, as you'll hear Pam describe, were her and Michael Callen, Richard Dworkin and Janet Cleary. Michael Callen went on to be one of my gay music heroes, for his solo work and also for being in the band The Flirtations. He was also very well known for his AIDS activism. So I was anxious to hear from Pam about how the band Lowlife was formed and what was unique about it.
JD: Tell me about the group Lowlife, such as how and why was it formed and what was unique about it?
PB: Lowlife was formed in early 1982, well, actually in the middle of 1982, I think, and it was shortly after a gay man named Michael Callen, who became an AIDS activist, was first diagnosed with a small group of gay men. At the time, that was so early in the AIDS that it was even called GRIDS, and by the time I met him he had decided that gay men had a lot to learn from gay women, in terms of incorporating political thinking into your personal life. You know, the whole personal is political thing. So, he put an ad in the Village Voice, thinking it was also time for gay men and women to work together. So, he put an ad in the Village Voice saying he was looking to put together a band of gay men and women, a rock band. I answered his ad because I didn't want to just free-lance. I also was looking to put together a band that was another equal band, where I had creative input and the other people had creative input.
PB: We arranged that I would go over to his house, and it was supposed to be your normal 45-minute audition, mutual audition where you try to play together and see if you're musically compatible and all that. So I set off at like eight o'clock at night, and told my then-partner, Lindsay, oh, I'll be back in an hour, hour and a half. And I got back at four o'clock in the morning. Lindsay was ready to call the cops, something dreadful had happened to me. But really, Michael and I just hit it off well that we just talked and talked and talked and talked and talked. That happened and we were just really excited about playing together, and what we could do. And the very next week a drummer answered the ad, and so we all met down at Michael's house, and that turned out to be Richard Dworkin, who became the drummer of Lowlife.
JD: They hadn't met yet?
PB: No, they hadn't because Richard answered the ad for Michael's band, and the first time they met was that very night, and I was there and we did some playing, and we did some talking. And again it was very exciting, but at a certain point I began to realize that some of the excitement in the room was vibes passing forth between Richard and Michael, so I left, earlier than the last time. And sure enough, Richard became our drummer and also they became boyfriends.
I'm going to pause Pam's telling of the story at this point, because when I was editing this interview I remembered that I had done an interview a few years ago with Richard Dworkin, who is a very talented drummer. We had talked about the many areas of our music history he had touched, such as also working with Blackberri, Buena Vista, Doug Stevens & the Outband, and we had just finished talking about his working with Steven Grossman, but I never had chance to use this section where he talks about Lowlife.
JD: And now we pick up Pam's interview about the formation of the band
PB: And it took us a while, you know, we wanted it to be two men, two women, because the whole idea was gay girls and boys work and play nicely together, which was not happening in those days. We were looking for a female guitar player but it took us a while. In the meantime the three of us began playing out as just a trio, as Lowlife the trio. I think at the time we were not playing original songs, but we were playing things that could be...cover songs we picked, like the Deadly Nightshade picked certain cover songs, that in the context of those bands, could be considered political, like Lowlife did "You Don't Own Me" and we did "Love Potion #9," which in the context of a gay guy singing it, the "when I kissed a cop down at 34th and vine" line is quite different. Finally Janet Cleary came to an audition. She wasn't particularly political and her songs weren't particularly political, but that was okay also, and she was gay.
JD: The band released, I think, one professional tape, in 1985, with five songs, was that tape sold at all?
PB: No, we didn't really release the tape, we just recorded it, and we used it as an audition tape for a lot of gigs. We might have had it in mind also to use it as an audition tape to try to get a record contract, but I don't believe we ever actually did that.
JD: Okay, it contained tracks that would eventually appear on Michael's debut album "Purple Heart," that was '88. Those tracks were "Living in Wartime" and "Where the Boys Are." First, could you tell me about "Living in Wartime"
PB: Well, that was an AIDS anthem. Michael wrote that, and the message is pretty clear, more die every day, this is war. As gay people we're living in wartime, just a different kind of wartime. And it ended up being used. And it ended up being used in the Broadway play, Larry Kramer's play, "The Normal Heart," which was new then . The play itself was not a musical. They took that recording, it was the music that they played as people were walking out of the theatre. So it did end up being heard by the public, and not just on Michael's solo album.
Lowlife - Living in Wartime (1985)
I want to insert that Anne Bowen, of Deadly Nightshade, was studio producer for the two tracks Michael used on his own album.
And, I guess I should mention that the recordings in this segment will be of varying audio quality. For example, that last one was originally on the band's demo tape, but received considerable remastering by the time it was heard three years later on Michael's solo album, "Purple Heart." You'll hear all five songs from the demo tape, and you'll notice the difference, and there are couple more that were from practice tapes or even live shows. So, lots of differing audio quality, but history too important not to share with you. So, back to the demo tape, and a song by Janet called "Mama."
PB: That's a song like, in a way like "Where the Boys Are." It's not a political song. It's just a regular rock song, but most male rock bands they would sing it, and it would just be a song about guys saying, "hey, mama, keep me warm." And when a woman is singing it, it takes on political implications. It's a good song.
- Mama (1985)
That was one Janet Cleary wrote and sang lead on, called "Who Hit Me." And, Pam, There's another song that you and Michael sang together that to me it was kind of unexpected. It was the Louvin Brothers song "If I Could Only Win Your Love"
JD: There's another song that you and Michael sang together that to me it was kind of unexpected. It was the Louvin Brothers song, "If I Could Only Win Your Love."
PB: Oh, right, well that's sort of a song that we learned just so that we could play four sets at a country, in a country music club. We learned it mostly just because we liked it musically. We realized that singing it together people might assume that we were a couple, but nobody could possibly look at or listen to Michael and think that he's my boyfriend. So it seemed safe to be able to, with that song, just do that.
- If I Could Only Win Your Love (1985)
And those two are from around 1985 and a rehearsal tape, and you could hear Michael camping it up on the chorus of "Great Balls of Fire." And from another rehearsal tape you can pick out Richard's bass voice, as Michael camps even more, and kissed a cop at 34th and Vine.
Lowlife - Love Potion #9 (1985)
JD: How was the band received and how long did it last?
PB: Lowlife lasted for around four years, and it was basically received well. We were very much like the Deadly Nightshade in that we played all sorts of venues. For Lowlife it was gay benefits, AIDS benefits, proms...we did a lot of proms for the New York queer center, but we also played a lot of mainstream music clubs. We wanted to be a working band, and yes, we were an out gay band, but we also wanted to be a working band, like the Deadly Nightshade had its purpose of playing music, that was really important to Michael because one of the revelations he had come to, as a result of his diagnosis, and resulting in his putting his ad in the Voice and wanting to work with lesbians, was that he had wasted an awful lot of his life in having meaningless sex, 3000 times, that he could have been devoting to something that really, really meant a lot to him, which was his music. He had virtually put that on the sidelines. He hadn't been doing it. He hadn't been serious about it. It wasn't just wanting to make a statement about gay men and women working and playing together, it was him really wanting to throw himself into his passion for music.
JD: I can't really think of another gay and lesbian band prior to this.
PB: No, I don't think there were any. Well, like I said, it was very separatist then. I don't know if you kept up with New York gay pride rallies, but after about the first three what were gay male issues and what were considered lesbian issues, they were so different that lesbians, a whole large group of lesbians split off and had their own rally for a few years, instead of having one rally together, I mean, the tendency back then was for gay men and women to not work together and not play together and, you know, socialize together, whatever. Michael was ahead of his time in wanting to do it in 1982 also, because really, he thought the time was right. I thought the time was right, but when the time would have actually been right was like 1990, when Queer Nation formed. First ACT-UP formed in like 1987 and a lot of lesbians got behind gay men to work on the AIDS crisis, which sort of opened the door for lesbians and gay men to work and play together around other issues, and just socially, they would hang out together. Back in '82, the tendency was to go in the opposite direction, be separate.
JD: What caused the band to end?
PB: Ah, well there wasn't any real one reason. We got well received when we played, but we didn't play as many jobs as we wanted to, we didn't get discovered by a recording company, get a record contract. The whole business of thinking that we might find ourselves some sort of mixed lesbian and gay audience, or the kind of audiences that the Deadly Nightshade drew, which was large audiences that were also very varied, as far as lesbian, gay, young, old, conservative, liberal, da da da da da. And Lowlife was sort of thinking, well, yeah, like the Deadly Nightshade we have political message songs, ours were gay, theirs had been feminist. But we want to play for our own people and also for mainstream audiences, and that just did not happen.
In their live concerts the band loved to cover Girl Group songs of the 1960's, such as the Ronettes song "Be My Baby," and one by the Chantels called "Maybe." Live concert versions I have of those two unfortunately are not even close to being of radio quality, but these next two are better, so I'm glad to play for you two songs done at a New York City club called SNAFU, circa 1984. Originally by Little Eva and Lesley Gore, here are "Locomotion" and "You Don't Own Me."
Lowlife - Locomotion / You Don't Own Me (1984)
JD: Do you have any special memories of the band performing live?
PB: Yeah, yeah, certainly. One thing about Lowlife that was again like the Deadly Nightshade, the songs we did, that Lowlife did, that were political, that were out gay, we did them no matter what kind of venue were playing. We did them when we were playing gay proms, but we also did them when we were playing mainstream clubs. So there was a song that I wrote, a song about a very important love affair that I had had one night, in the ladies room of the Providence, Rhode Island, train station. It was called "We Did It Anyway"..."we shouldn't have done it, but we did it anyway," and it was full of details about the sinks and the toilets, and this and that. It was sort of your gender...oh, I can't say that word...gender fudge song? (we laugh)...it was a funny song, but it was a song about a gay woman engaging in behavior, you know, toilet sex, that gay men would have been expected to engage in. It really was pretty funny, but it was also kind of vulgar.
Did It Anyway" partial lyrics
was a faucet in my back, and the walls was all greazy.
PB: We did a lot of political songs and those were very meaningful to me, but I also loved...there was this one song, "Let's Do Something Cheap and Superstitious?...[superficial?]...superficial, right, that Michael claimed his mother had sung to him when he was a mere lad, which I doubt. But be that as it may, it's one of those country songs, and then we get to the end of it, or what should be the end, and then we go into a double-time rhythm, and Michael starts yodeling, which he actually did really well, really really really well. And then he does that through, and then he goes into a repeat of that, also in double-time, and while he is yodeling, he twirled a baton. It was one of those electric batons that had light-up ends, so it almost looked like you're twirling flaming batons, only it's electric. And he was yodeling and twirling the batons at the same time, and it was this country song, and it was just so weird. But that went over with all kinds of audiences also. They weren't thinking they were being threatened by gay men, you can't be threatened when you're lying on the floor laughing, and it was absolutely amazing.
JD: The last song on that demo tape was Michael's, I believe, called "No No No."
PB: Yeah, that was a song about gender roles also, from the moment we were born, or even before we're taught that we're supposed to be, you know, either a girl and do girl things or a boy and do boy things. And if people try and teach you that, tell them no. I guess if you just talk about it, its political message, it sounds serious, and of course it is a serious message. But the song itself is really cheerful.
Lowlife - No No No (1985)
JD: Any final thoughts on the band Lowlife?
PB: Oh, I think I just regret that we were ahead of our time. I really wish that the time had indeed been right for a band of gay men and gay women working and playing together, because I think it was a darn good band, and I wish we had gotten more recognition when we were doing it. I wish we had gone farther. That's why I'm always happy to talk about Lowlife, like now, on your show, because the band deserved more publicity when, during its time, when it was a band. And so any way to help give it its place, the place it deserved in queer music history, I want to do that.
This is JD Doyle and it's been a treat for me to finally do a segment about this band, and naturally I saved for last perhaps the most dramatic song they did. It's "Where the Boys Are" and has always been a favorite of mine. And the version you'll hear is the re-mastered one that appeared on Michael's solo album, "Purple Heart."
JD: Talk about his version, the irresistible version of "Where the Boys Are"
PB: Oh, that was so, so good, it still pops up in my head all the time. It's an old Connie Francis song we heavily re-arranged, and some of the back-up parts are so much fun to sing...shooby shooby shooby wop bop...(laughs) I can't even do it, you'd have to listen to it. You have to really practice singing all those syllables to be able to do it that fast. It was really fun. That's an example of another song that Connie Francis sang it and it was just another sort of yearning, straight love song that isn't much different from any other yearning straight love song. But when a gay guy sings it, it comes into...it becomes an entirely different thing. Michael singing "Where the Boys Are"...and he would camp it up like crazy when he sang it, of course, and sing really high, much higher than Connie Francis ever sang. It was also a vehicle for Michael...he had had a life-long musical goal of holding a note as long as the longest note that Barbra Streisand ever held on a recording. So at the end of the song that's exactly what he does. He holds "someone waits" and then he holds "for"...you know, before "me," and he holds that "for" three seconds longer than the longest note that Barbra Streisand ever recorded.
Lowlife - Where the Boys Are (1985)
As they say on late-night TV, but wait there's more. There is music I wanted to include in the first hour of the show and there just was not enough time, so this is my opportunity for that. And I'm going back to The Moppets, the band Pam Brandt was in, and we told you about their 1966 single and you heard the song "Cry Just a Little." Here's the other side, a cover of the Supremes early hit "Come See About Me."
- Come See About Me (1966)
That of course was "California Dreamin" from a live show by The Moppets in Cleveland, at Otto's Grotto, in August of 1966. This is JD Doyle and I'm ready to close Part 2. And thanks to Pam, I've got more of the band Ariel to bring you. As you may recall, that band included Deadly Nightshade members Pam, Anne and Helen, along with Beverly Rodgers and Gretchen Pheiffer, who by then was Gretchen Luddhesi. And they loved the Jefferson Airplane, so from a live show in 1970, at Thompson's Tavern in Waverly, New York, is "Young Girl."
Ariel - Young Girl (1970, live)
This JD Doyle and welcome to Part 3 of my Deadly Nightshade Tribute, which I admit took a couple side trips, like grabbing some history of the bands The Moppets and Ariel, and in Part 2, Lowlife. In this part I want to share with you a special radio interview the band did in 1975. It was unusual in that it was pressed on an LP and released to radio stations only, and appropriately called "The Deadly Nightshade Radio Show." In it they talk between song clips from the first LP and it is cool in that it gives you a glimpse of their personalities and how they interacted. They obviously enjoyed working together. But that's a bit later in this segment.
First I want to bring you some music from Helen Hooke, as she was the only Deadly Nightshade member to release solo albums. And there were four of them over the years. The opening song, "Sugar Momma," was from Helen's debut album, from 1988. It was called "Verse-ability." Oh, that album had a very cool cover. Once you've seen it you will likely remember it, and you can see it on my website.
So, moving along to her 1992 album, called "Rocker," is the song "Baby I'm Gone."
Helen Hooke - Baby I'm Gone (1992)
In 1995 she released what I might think is her favorite album, "Patterns of the Heart." I think it might be her favorite because when I asked her to pick one or two songs for me to play, she picked two from that release, "Immortality Blues," and "A Little Sin."
Hooke - Immortality Blues (1995)
From "Patterns of the Heart," I gave you one more, "Let Me Be Your Baby." And I've got one more by Helen, from her last solo CD, "Romancing the Soul." This one was called "You're Sorry You Got Caught."
Helen Hooke - You're Sorry You Got Caught (1997)
You know, there was so much Deadly Nightshade music that I wanted to include in Part 1, but time constraints just held me back, but there was one I now have a chance to play for you here. And it was one I had asked Pam about. It was kind of a revenge song, called "Dance Mr Big Dance."
PB: Yeah, that was kind of like a role-reversal song. It's about a female former secretary who had had a very sexist boss, and the tables are turned now. She is the boss and he is on the unemployment line. And so she puts him through the same paces that he had formerly made her go through. You know, asking not questions about leadership abilities or anything, or leadership potential, but can you type, can you file, can you make coffee, you know, this and that and the other thing. Yeah, it was a revenge song.
Deadly Nightshade - Dance Mr Big Dance (1975)
And I've not mentioned Janet Cleary much, but in addition to being in Lowlife, she put out a lot of music during the 1980s. You can hear, and buy, most of it on her website, at jancleary.com, which is where I found these two songs. From 1980 is "Do It Again" and from 1987 is "Hold On."
Cleary - Do It Again (1980)
Now, as promised, here comes the 1975 radio interview with Deadly Nightshade that their record label sent out to radio stations, and you'll hear the complete disc, all 26 minutes of it, and it starts with the song they used to start all their live shows, "Keep on the Sunnyside." This is JD Doyle and thanks for listening to Queer Music Heritage.
Deadly Nightshade Radio Show (1975)