Written by Liz Buckley


7 Wonders: Wonder Women

Liz Buckley‘s back in charge of the Standard Issue playlist, and this week she’s celebrating the female trailblazers behind some true musical landmarks.

Hip hop pioneer Sylvia Vanderpool Robinson with Mickey Baker as the duo Mickey and Sylvia in 1956.

Hip hop pioneer Sylvia Vanderpool Robinson with Mickey Baker as the duo Mickey and Sylvia in 1956.

Music has – very deliberately – been my whole life. From the first retail job I applied for as a teenager to my current role at an independent record company, the only jobs I’ve known have been in record shops, music journalism, music publishing, artist royalties and now label management. It’s the only way I’ve ever wanted to spend my days, to love and promote music, and in many ways I’ve been incredibly lucky.

I’ve never been paid less than my peers (I bloody well checked); in 20 years I’ve never been disrespected by a single musician or colleague that I can recollect (at least within earshot) and I’ve always been properly credited for my work.

But perhaps “lucky” is the wrong word. Surely these things should be a given, not some hapless, unearned gift or something bad that happens to other people. These circumstances have actually been hard-won for me by strong women in music who have gone before me and that battle is not yet won.

While male counterparts might display equal and devoted loyalty entirely comparable to my own boundlessly enthusiastic, music-loving self – travelling the world for gigs, collecting rare records at income-obliterating cost, creating projects that help them to work with people they admire etc – I’ve yet to meet a man in those self-same scenarios being called belittling names for his troubles.

“Not one of these ladies was doing their job because it was simply the easiest route to getting a shit bunk-up on a stinking tour bus with the session guitarist from Fleetwood Mac.”

Male music fans are quite rightly called ‘enthusiasts’ and ‘collectors’; meanwhile you can guarantee the first suggestion I’m working with any male musician under the age of 50 will earn me surprisingly-well-meant quips about being a ‘stalker’ or a ‘groupie’ – albeit an incredibly successful one. And that’s just the impressed compliments from people I like.

So, let’s talk about the legacies of some of the incredible women who have worked in music before me, who have undeniably and thankfully made my job far easier, and all of whom I admire greatly and you should too. You might even think twice about what you call them in future.

They’re all legends, forerunners, inventors, artists and pioneers, to a woman. Not one of these ladies was doing their job because it was simply the easiest route to getting a shit bunk-up on a stinking tour bus with the session guitarist from Fleetwood Mac.

Delia Derbyshire
Ron Grainer (composer) / realised by Delia Derbyshire – Doctor Who (1963 Original Theme)

A graduate in mathematics and music, Delia Derbyshire originally wanted to work for Decca as an engineer but at that time – 1959 – they didn’t take on female staff. Let’s just drink that up for a moment. Such recent history and yet ‘no women’ was official, repeatable record company policy.

Undeterred, Delia went to work for the BBC, first as a studio manager and then, at her own request, as part of their fledgling Radiophonic Workshop. A quirky, pioneering sound effects unit whose purpose was to create new goofy and otherworldly sound for radio, Delia had found her paradise. Or so it seemed.

Delia Derbyshire at workRadiophonic Workshop’s composer Ron Grainer had put together a possible theme for a new science fiction show called Doctor Who and Delia worked tirelessly producing it, re-realising each note from her own techniques; cutting up, splicing, speed-changing analogue tape, filtering white noise and layering each pitch from oscillators before re-recording each note on top. It was pioneering, painstaking work and Grainer upon hearing the finished track famously queried, “Did I write this?” Although Delia’s response was apparently modest, I’d say no.

Rather painfully, the resulting original Doctor Who theme was always credited solely to Grainer, the BBC having wanted to keep the identity of the Radiophonic Workshop backroom crew a secret while apparently also finding it hard to see that either an engineer or electronic music itself could have real composition skills/merit.

A hero to the Aphex Twin, Chemical Brothers, Spacemen 3 and more, Delia sadly still never found real acclaim in her lifetime and she died in 2001 having lived reclusively and with alcoholism for some years.

To Grainer’s eternal credit, he fought for the BBC to credit (and thus pay royalties to) Delia for her contributions but it was not until the 50th anniversary episode of Doctor Who in 2013 that Delia’s name finally appeared in the programme’s credits for the theme tune. I cried when I saw it scroll past.

Sylvia Robinson
Sugarhill Gang – Rapper’s Delight
Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five – The Message

Hip hop is the domain of the alpha male, amiright? The gun totting, pool strutting, low-slung trouser wearing, ultimate harbour of male chauvinism? Incorrect. Hip hop was invented by Sylvia Robinson.

Bold claim? I’m actually underselling her – Sylvia was a musician, singer, club owner, studio owner, pioneer of sampling, svengali of rap, one of the world’s first (and still few and far between) female record producers AND a record label boss many times over.

*clicks fingers, spins on lino* “I said a hip hop / a hippie the hippie, to the hip hip hop and you don’t stop.

She’s also the writer and vocalist of a seminal proto-type disco tune with 1972’s (1972!) Pillow Talk. *lights up multi-coloured dance floor and sashays to the podiums*

Ah yeah! Sylvia Robinson is theeeee Goddam man. CEO of Sugar Hill label (a name taken from the then culturally affluent area of Harlem), she orchestrated what were to become the seminal rap/sampling records Rapper’s Delight AND The Message, both of which she made by recruiting line-ups like the pawns in her grand scheme that they were. Those groups each included a bunch of grateful and largely random guys she herded up who had the skill-set she needed and that hired help did what they were damn well told.

I mean sure, thanks to sampling she is also the Mother of The Copyright Infringement, but let’s take that as a positive.

Sharon OsbourneSharon Osbourne
Ozzy Osbourne – Mama I’m Coming Home (written about Sharon)

You already know who Sharon Osbourne is, but is it for the best reasons? You might know she’s the squeaky-voiced poster woman for the few times plastic surgery has gone right. You might know her as the reality TV star best known for telling Ozzy Osbourne and Simon Cowell to stop being pricks. But do you realise how fucking hardcore she is?

Sharon is the daughter of legendary old-school fearsome gangland music manager Don Arden – and Don was, quite frankly, absolutely berserk: a man frequently accused of violence, blackmail, false imprisonment and much more besides. Even his heavy metal charges Black Sabbath freely admitted to being terrified of him.

Sharon not only took over Sabbath singer Ozzy’s management from her father but she married Daddy’s prize cash cow, which is a heroic amount of fuck-off in anyone’s book.

How did Don react? He reportedly set his dogs on her while she was pregnant and she lost the child. Arden also put his company debts in Sharon’s name before then dying, which certainly cemented any doubts you might have had about his feelings.

Sharon recalls that everyone in the music industry assumed she would fail – saddled with debt, rumour, family legacy and alcoholism, she and Ozzy would fight openly, sometimes even on stage. She recalls: “Everyone expected him to have a big-titted blonde trophy wife and he’d got me, a short, fat, hairy half-Jew. I had a lot to fight against.”

But fight she bloody well did – and eventually not with Ozzy. Becoming rapidly known as one of the most fearsome, uncompromising managers in the industry, Sharon added Gary Moore, Smashing Pumpkins, Lita Ford, Motörhead, Coal Chamber and more to her books all while she was her company’s sole employee.

Her business style? She’s been known to knee rip-off merchants in the groin and trash the offices of those who crossed her. One time having to go back as she left her car keys in their office.

Now a cuddly self-made multi-multi-millionaire who reportedly enjoys a relaxing night in front of the TV with her kids, she also reputedly said no to managing Guns N’ Roses, Fred Durst, Courtney Love and, very quickly after signing them, also to the Smashing Pumpkins because they annoyed her with their worthiness.

Kneel at the feet of Sharon. What’s also amazing is, despite all the fighting, debt, drugs and inter-family violence, she’s still bloody alive. Chalk that up too.

Photo: Annie Leibovitz/Columbia Records.Annie Leibovitz & Pennie Smith
Bruce Springsteen – Born in the USA
The Clash – London Calling

We’ve talked of brilliant, pioneering, determined female musicians, producers, writers, singers and managers but let’s not undervalue the importance of the artwork department.

Over the course of the 1970s, legendary US portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz defined the look of Rolling Stone magazine. She was the God-damn tour photographer for the Rolling Stones. She took a mirror to musicians and politely wiped the coke off it for you. She made every cover of Rolling Stone (and her next employer Vanity Fair) a collector’s item.

The photo of John and Yoko with him curled up naked on the floor clinging to her? Annie’s. The last professional photo of Lennon before he was shot? Annie’s. The album cover of Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA? Annie’s. That berk Sting covered in mud standing in a yoga position like a tree? Annie’s.

Photo: Pennie Smith/Sony.Back in the UK, Pennie Smith was the NME’s defining photographer, known for her stylish and emotional black and white shots. Pennie has photographed everyone from Led Zeppelin, The Who and Blondie to Blur, Oasis and The Strokes, growing up with the UK music scene and seeing fashions and movements come and go, while her style has never gone out of fashion.

The Elvis-homaging album cover for The Clash’s London Calling picturing a blurred Paul Simonon smashing his Fender bass has been voted the greatest music photograph of all time and it’s so instantly recognisable and part of our heritage it’s even been on a stamp with the Queen. That photo was one of Pennie’s cast-offs.

Carole King – (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman

In a column that focuses on the backroom female talent of the music industry, the women who have made immeasurable contributions to successful records by the men you already know, it felt only right to end with one of the greatest examples of that once unheralded talent stepping out into their own limelight.

Carole King is the ultimate for going from the unsung to the… sung. Having spent her early career in the 1960s as part of a songwriting team with her then-husband the lyricist Gerry Goffin, they co-penned strings upon strings of smash hits, bolstering the careers of countless artists: Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield, Marianne Faithfull, The Byrds, Ben E King, The Drifters, The Everly Brothers, The Monkees, The Righteous Brothers… essentially, it’s easier to say “everyone” than continue with a list.

Carole King in 2012. Photo: Angela George.

Carole King in 2012. Photo: Angela George.

Far from that being an exaggeration, let’s just think about the fact that Carole has written a staggering 120 top 100 chart hits and have a sit down in her honour.

Gradually, Carole began to realise she could be the performer. Success was not instant, having failed to find fame as the singer with a fantastic lost album by her band The City, and it wasn’t until her second solo album Tapestry in the early 70s that the public really embraced her in her own right. But when they did, boy did they embrace her.

Tapestry was number in the US charts for 15 weeks straight and didn’t leave the charts for six years. One of the most successful songwriters of all time, the first woman to ever be awarded the Gershwin Prize For Popular Song, she’s also an actor and now her life story is a successful musical. I think by next year she’ll probably also be a saint. At least I bloody well hope so.

You can hear more of Carole King & Gerry Goffin’s many amazing songs on these four volumes of their songwriting story, available on Ace Records.


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Written by Liz Buckley

Department manager at an independent record company. Liker of Frank Sinatra and Nick Cave. Very sudden laugh. Pasty but tasty. Quite tired.