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Rockbitch

Rockbitch

We get a lot of submissions from bands that like to perform in various states of undress, up to and including full genital exposure. It will not surprise you to learn that 99% of these bands are dudes. Guys love whipping it out in public, and doing so in the name of rock ‘n’ roll stopped being a transgressive act a long time ago. When Blink-182 does something, it’s officially no longer any big shakes.

For women, it’s different. Thanks to our society’s inherent sexism and double standards, female sexuality is still taboo in ways that male sexuality is not. So the fact that a band like Rockbitch ever existed is a fairly remarkable thing.

Rockbitch was a British hard rock group that emerged from the ashes of another band called Red Abyss. From the start, Red Abyss embodied many of the same principles that later came to characterize Rockbitch: It was female fronted (though the drummer, and occasionally other members of the revolving lineup, were men), communal and sex-positive. But compared to Rockbitch, Red Abyss’s lyrics and stage show were comparatively tame: “We were hiding our lifestyle behind a facade,” reads the band’s official bio, written by their guitarist, Lisa “Babe” Wills, “self-censoring our natural behaviour.”

Part of the problem was that, while fans and promoters encouraged and even rewarded outrageous behavior by male rock bands, they tended to frown upon similar antics coming from the ladies of Red Abyss. “Male bands with whom we were sharing a stage would perform screaming out their fake rebellious bullshit about sex and satan — then insult us to our faces saying that we shouldn’t be fucking all those men and women in our dressing rooms, and did our parents know how we behaved?”

Red Abyss also encountered straight-up sexism at every turn: booking agents refusing to deal with their female manager, male sound guys and venue employees assuming they didn’t know how to play their instruments or outright sabotaging their sets, venue owners insisting on handing the money to a male roadie rather than to a female band member. “We were, bluntly, being treated like shit.” This, by the way, wasn’t happening in some pre–women’s lib Mad Men past. This was in the ’90s.

Eventually, the women of Red Abyss had had enough. They became the darker, heavier, more sexually aggressive beast called Rockbitch.

For a few years, up until they disbanded in 2002, Rockbitch was probably the raunchiest band on the planet. Many of the band members performed naked, or nearly so. Songs like “Fistfuck” would be acted out onstage. During every show, they’d toss a “Golden Condom” into the audience and invite whoever caught it, male or female, to come backstage and fuck several members of the band. (“Babe” Wills liked to point out that, of everyone who ever caught the Golden Condom, the only ones who would chicken out were the men, some of whom apparently assumed it was a joke. Rockbitch’s in-your-face female sexuality was, and still is, highly intimidating to many men. Including, we must admit, us.)

None of this was done for shock value, at least not primarily. As outlined in various essays and manifestos on the band’s website, Rockbitch’s mission was to destigmatize female sexuality and sex in general. And hard rock seemed like the perfect vehicle for doing so. “When a woman can’t even strip to the waist and play a bitching, head-down guitar riff, have her lead singer fuck her with a strap-on whilst a stage surfer licks her feet without authorities wanting to ban over 18’s from coming to see it — well, what has the world of rock and rebellion come to!?” their website playfully asks. (And no, that’s not an exaggerated description of their live show.)

By 2000, Rockbitch’s lineup had become all-female: founder/matriarch Amanda “The Bitch” Smith-Skinner on fretless bass, Julie Worland on vocals, Lisa “Babe” Wills on lead guitar, Luci the “Stage Slut” on rhythm guitar, Nikki Fay on keyboards and Jo Heeley on drums, plus two or three “Sex Magick Priestesses” who danced and facilitated some of the sexual rituals. The band’s former lead guitarist, Tony “The Beast,” stayed on as the band’s manager and producer — no doubt in part to run occasional interference with sexist bookers and venue owners.

Musically, the band played theatrical, heavy rock, highlighted by Worland’s operatic vocals, The Bitch’s fluid, often funky basslines and Babe’s scorching guitar. Here’s a good example, a track called “Sex & The Devil” that also happens to features a weirdly witchy video, with the Rockbitches cavorting half-naked in the forest:

As you probably got from that video, besides all the sexual themes and imagery, an element of paganism runs through Rockbitch’s music and philosophy — though Babe is quick to point out on the band’s website that they are neither Wiccans nor Satanists. As best as we understand it — and I admit, as a couple of uptight dudes in monogamous relationships, our understanding is probably shaky — they celebrate sex itself as sacred, particularly the acts of cunnilingus and vaginal penetration, which they describe as forms of “cunt worship,” the vagina being the source of all human life and therefore the most sacred component of human sexuality. This worship/celebration of sex extends, paganistically, to the worship of nature in general; although their website stops short of describing many of the group’s offstage rituals, or explaining the full meaning of their many onstage ones (“we are intensely private people,” Babe explains in her “brief and grudging account of part of our belief system”), their are a few photographs showing things like an “earth-fucking ritual” and a “serpent initiation ritual,” suggesting that the cult of Rockbitch is a fairly elaborate one that extends far beyond just the music and sex acts.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the authorities tended to lose their shit over Rockbitch. The band was banned from performing at many venues, and their music and album artwork was heavily censored in many countries. It’s not clear what role if any this played in the band’s eventual breakup. but it couldn’t have been easy for the women to tour or get distribution for their music.

Rockbitch only released one studio album, 1999’s Motor Driven Bimbo, plus a live album, Rockbitch Live in Amsterdam; during their brief run, the Netherlands seemed to have been one of the few countries where the band was able to tour on a regular basis. A second album, Psychic Attack, was never officially released but has been widely bootlegged and can be found on various torrent sites. Motor Driven Bimbo is out of print, but copies occasionally surface on Amazon and elsewhere, often selling for $100 or more.

Post-Rockbitch, the band’s full lineup resurfaced in a clothed, less theatrical incarnation called MT-TV. But that group soon disbanded, as well. Amanda Smith-Skinner and Jo Heeley later teamed up with singer-songwriter Erin Bennett to form another all-female band called Syren, but tragically, that group dissolved after Heeley died of breast cancer in 2012. Other former Rockbitch members have, as far as we’ve been able to tell, retired from making music — though according to their Facebook page, they still live and work together as a commune.

We’ve known about Rockbitch for years, but were reluctant at first to add them to the Weird List because to do so seemed sexist. So it was a bunch of women with guitars and their tits out — so what? A bunch of men doing the same thing would be met nowadays with a collective shrug. To add them to our compendium of extreme music felt like yet another example of the very double standard in music that Rockbitch railed against.

But as well researched the band further (while our wives were at work), we decided that regardless of their gender, Rockbitch were truly unique. No other band in history, male, female or coed, ever randomized the groupie selection process as radically as Rockbitch did with their Golden Condom, or made oral sex and vaginal penetration such a routine part of their stage show. Rockbitch incorporated sex into rock ‘n’ roll performance in a way that’s never been done before or since. And as powerful, liberated women, they made that sex a political act. A Rockbitch show was a rock concert, neopagan ritual and radical feminist performance-art piece all in one. And lots of people got laid. That’s the truly awesome kind of weirdness this blog was designed to celebrate.

We’ll leave you one more video, for a track from Psychic Attack called “Breathe.” This appears to be a fan-made mashup of strange naked zombie go-go dance animation and video from one of several concert documentaries made about the band, probably 2002’s Sex, Death and Magick (which, if you’re so inclined, and are over 18, you can watch in full on YouTube).

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Waylander

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Usually, we don’t get to post much around St. Patrick’s Day, because we’re too busy dodging drunk hipsters and scarfing down free tacos at SXSW. But we’re skipping the Austin trip this year, which means I finally have a chance to honor the patron saint of Ireland with a discussion of one of my favorite obscure subgenres of heavy music: pagan Celtic folk metal.

1993 was year zero for this stuff. That year, apparently by sheer coincidence, three bands popped up that came to define the sound: Cruachan, Primordial and Waylander. Cruachan is probably the most “traditional” of the three, mixing melodies and instruments swiped from Irish folk music with a classic headbanger sound. Primordial is more of a straight-up black metal band that only sounds Irish if you pay attention to the lyrics. But for my whiskey money, Waylander was and is the coolest of the three, since they sound like a knife fight between Sepultura and the steerage band from Titanic. Tin whistles have never before sounded this awesomely evil.

You might think heavy metal inspired by the music and history of pre-Christian Ireland would be a limited field, but there are actually a shit-ton of bands from all over the world who mix some combination of “pagan,” “Celtic,” “folk” and “shred” into their music. Some of the most Celtic-sounding ones aren’t even from Ireland…take Eluveitie, for example, who are from fucking Switzerland of all places and sound like some kind of horrendous mix of the Chieftains, Evanescence, Enya and your kid brother’s shitty screamo band. Technically, I suppose their clash of styles is even weirder than Waylander’s, but I don’t wanna piss off St. Patrick by picking a non-Irish band for this week’s feature.

Two other Celtic metal bands worth mentioning, just because they’re fucking awesome:

Mael Mórdha have been around almost as long as the O.G. Celtic metal bands, but they describe their sound as “Gaelic doom metal,” which basically means they sound even more evil than Waylander. They once appeared on You’re a Star, which is sort of an Irish version of The X Factor, with predictably sad/funny results: The clueless judges forced them to play a cover of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” before sending them packing. (It’s immortalized on YouTube, if you’re into watching noble Irish metal bands humiliate themselves before the gods of television.)

Celtachor are the new kids on the Celtic metal block, but I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say they rock the hardest of anyone in the genre yet. Give this track “Rise of Lugh” a spin and tell me it doesn’t lay waste to all before it.

Still, I gotta give the weird props to Waylander this week, for being one of the first bands to come up with this stuff, and for still rocking it nearly 20 years later. As I write this, they’re back in the studio hard at work on their fourth album, Kindred Spirits, which they plan to release later this year. I hope they’ll take a break this Saturday to down a pint of Guinness or five.

Bonus video! Here’s a clip of Waylander’s live show. That guy playing mandolin and tin whistle would probably be wearing a kilt if they made one big enough to cover the gigantic balls it must take to play mandolin and tin whistle in a metal band. Oh, and I guess kilts are Scottish, not Irish. So there’s that, too.

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