Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Birtha - Birtha

Birtha


Released 1972 on ABC Dunhill/Probe
Reviewed by Mrs Ahab, 10/11/2005ce


Hiding in a box under the frills and petticoats of a Victorian costume shop I spied “Spirit of Rock – The Probe Family Sampler”, It’s wild psychedelic cover featuring a naked green woman, adorned with strings of beads, throwing her head back in ectsasy had such an impact visually that I had to take her home. The opening track instantly blew me away. That was Birtha’s first single Free Spirit, female fuelled rock like I never heard before, even my ovaries where banging along.

Birtha pioneered the all female rock lineup, successfully breaking the mould of an almost exclusively male dominated genre they paved the way for the likes of The Runaways and the Slits. These four ladies were highly accomplished musicians who totally kicked ass. Hailing from Los Angeles, Rosemary Butler (Bass) and Shele Pinnizotto (guitar) met at school where they formed their first band The Rapunzels. Rosemary went on to join the Ladybirds who opened for The Rolling Stones in 1965, whilst Shele got a job in a recording studio. In 1967 they came together again along with Sherry Hagler (Keyboard) and later joined by the extraordinary Liver Favela. Birtha had been gigging for four years playing on the west coast before they were signed. During their early performances they tested the water with their own material whilst throwing Motown and Rock covers into the mixture.

In November 1971 all female blues rock act Fanny took off with their hit single Charity Ball. ABC Dunhill saw their chance and quickly signed up Birtha, taking up rank amongst label mates Three Dog Night and Steppenwolf. Birtha never earned the same commercial success as Fanny, though were both marketed as heavy rock. After two albums and a final single (a cover of Steely Dan’s Dirty Work) Birtha’s success waned and they were dropped by Dunhill before 1973 was out. For me, Birtha totally overshadow Fanny’s comparatively average blues sound. Birtha have huge rock appeal in a way that fanny just don’t, so Fanny you can just get to the back of the queue and stay there, I only heard two of your pansy girl songs and I don’t wanna hear no more, your not big, your not clever and you definitely aint as hard as Birtha!

On the cover of Titbits

Fanny’s label Reprise Records decided to brand their girls with the slogan “Get Behind Fanny” perhaps it was felt that rock audiences of the time would be put off by an all girl group, whatever the reason Dunhill would not be outdone and had to go one better with “Birtha Has Balls”. The slogan was a winner especially when slapped onto their infamous T shirts. When they played the 1972 Rockingham Festival, members of Alice Cooper, Fleetwood Mac and the James Gang all chose to wear them for their own sets and revelers could clearly see the logo disappear from view as Alice left the arena hanging out of a helicopter still sporting his Birtha shirt. Oddly enough Playboy magazine had a problem with the tastefulness of the Advert and refused to print the slogan on their matchboxes when they played at the Chicago club. Supporting the Kinks, Birtha hit the UK and even bagged an appearance in the brittish coffee table mag ‘Titbits’, posing topless on the front cover proclaiming “We want male groupies”. They were serious contenders who really lived up to their allocated metaphor, they are 100% women but there is no doubt that Birtha unquestionably has balls.

I wish there were lots of all female bands I could say cut it the same, but Birtha have to be my favorite all female band ever. They skillfully combine numbers which are gritty and heavy along side soulful blues numbers and ballads, well I’m not so keen on the ballads but they can do it all. They are seductive, solid, funky, from the heart sisters whose sound is unmistakably their own. Only Rosemary Butler went on to have a continuing career which disappointingly went in the totally opposite direction singing with the likes of Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, and Dolly Parton.
BILLBOARD MAGAZINE - 9/9/72:

Pick of the week!
There is no getting around it. Birtha has it! They're an all chick group and we all know that you've sort of got to make allowances . . . well forget it, they project more power and drive than most male groups with similar instrumentation. The intensity and proficiency they exhibit is total rapture excelling both instrumentally & vocally. Rock on with "Free Spirit," "Judgment Day" and "Feeling Lonely."
This first eponymous album was produced by Steppenwolfs producer Gabriel Mekler whose high credentials definitely work to their advantage. Birtha is a mammoth stomper and has to be the most powerful and versatile record ever made by an all girl band. They got the same kind of groove as Grand Funk, heavy funk and blues laden guitars with crystal clear vocals, great harmonies and that all American sound. They are always bass driven; Rosemary has that deep humming sound that really pounds some seriously exiting energy into the songs. These girls are serious rockers; they kick the shit out of loads of male rock bands of the time and all time for that matter. Out of the four, three of them take lead vocal. For the main part though it’s Liver Favela, who has all the guts and rasp of Janis Joplin. With an abundance of untamed fervor she is by far the coolest, and she’s without doubt the wildest singing female drummer you ever heard.


Every time I listen to the opening track Free Spirit, I love it more. It’s got all the 70’s rock hooks that I crave. O.K., Given the Steppenwolf connection I want to play with it a little, although I think musically they are easily as adept as Steppenwolf I don’t want to compare their sound to them, I do however wish to make a comparison between the structure and sentiment of Free Spirit and Born To Be Wild. Born To Be Wild has a great opener, four bars that grab you by the scruff of the neck, punch you round the face a couple of times and then yank you head first toppling over into the song. Free Spirit has the same instant gusto right from the intro. Rosemary Butler’s entrance comes in throbbing only to be interrupted by what are initially teasing guitar licks which wind and grind all the way through, then hurtle headlong into a wild crescendo. I love the way the vocals on the verse to Born To Be Wild are laced with that easy little bass line that just trips along, punctuated in-between by brief but hugely powerful, perfectly spaced attacks on guitar. Building up the verse until the chorus explodes like a volcanic eruption every time, reinforcing the power of the song; Free Spirit does exactly the same thing. Akin to Steppenwolf’s male counterpart in attitude and vigor it similarly enforces a sense of youthfulness, personal identity and liberty which is overtly female. Demanding life on ones own terms and that it be lived to the full.
Free Spirit is essentially about a relationship with a possessive and authoritarian man who dosn’t knows what he has in his wild honey. She loves him, but she ain’t taking no crap and won’t let him go getting any ideas that she is about to become anybodies possession least of all his. She’s fucking insulted at his assumptions that she’s so shallow she’d “run away with the first good looker I see”. She’ll do what ever the hell she wants and never mind his ego. He should be honored to be graced by her company because but as you guessed; she’s got a free spirit.

I ought to mention that the sleeve does not credit the songs with any vocalists so I have had to match the voices from their second album which does, if I got any wrong I’m sorry and girls if you reading this, I’d love you to put me straight.

Sherry, Shele, Rosemary & Liver prepare for a day at the races

Liver Favela’s voice is incredible, her sound is young and she’s absolutely determined to prove herself, she’s raucous, gritty, commanding yet soulful and sexy. Rosemary Butlers bass sound is deep and constant, she proves an outstanding musician throughout the album, knowing just where to hold it down and when to lay off. I know it’s bold but her incessant grounding rhythms do compare to Mel Shaker. The backing vocals support Liv’s heartfelt assertion as she belts out “I Got Freeeeeeeee, Woah Yeah, Free Sprit” raising the power right up she lets out an ear splitting wail to rival Ian Gillan any day. Free Spirit is so 70’s rock, it has everything of an all American classic, I don’t know why it’s not heard on every radio station and party set list, it’s such a crowd pleaser you wont believe that you never heard it before.

Fine Talking Man is written and sung by Rosemary Butler. It’s got a great Doorsy intro, the bass line is almost exactly like that on Maggie McGill and struts along right through the song. The Keyboards are soft and schmooze their way in subtly as Shele’s guitar riff echoes the bass line, giving it real force. Rose has a voice which when it needs to be is incredibly pure but she also knows when to turn the gravel on. Shele wields a great guitar solo on this track and the girls as usual accentuate all the right lyrics with their gospel soaked backing vocals. The song is about female sexuality and assertiveness fighting male dominance. I usually hate he kind of woman who complains about wanting a decent man who can love her in the right way she deserves but gets some kind of thrill from being with a bully boy because he says all the right things and is a good lover as is the sentiment of this song, but it makes for a good blues ethic so I let them off. “I said No” and the girls in the gospel choir raise their hands to the lord as they reinforce the “No”, “he says yeah, It’s just what you want, come on girl and love me tonight”. Vocally for the most part it’s little one liners that band about in various forms full of raw energy, pounding with earthy rhythmic passion until the whole thing suddenly slows into a lovely harmony and all the pain floods out. The music stops and Rosemary begins her verbal attack “Oh Baby, Baby, Baby, Baybeeeee..” grinding she’s Janis as hell, followed by little pants like those quick breaths you snatch in between sobs or when your at your most sexually aroused, her voice then becomes so pure “I Need Ya” then back with a full on venom “ But Your Such a Dirt-eh, Low Down Lying Cheat-aah” then seductively she oozes “But you make me feel so good inside” switching between good and bad Rose like in Animal house where Larry has the battle between his good and evil conscience, the devil saying “Go on fuck her brains out” and the angel saying “If you lay one finger on her you’ll despise yourself for ever”. She’s really fired up as she belts out the remainder “I said I can’t STAND it” Sherry stabs the organ and means it, “I said I did everything I knew how to do for that man, but I ain’t never gonna work for his hand”, hey Birtha got you by the balls boys.

Feeling Lonely- (Butler). So far it’s been the boys who’ve done the dirty on the girls; now the girls have done it back and broke the heart of a good man, just because they can. But they have the honesty to own up to it as its all about the blues, I hurt my man and now I’m paying the price. The verses are gospel drenched till the middle eight where Rose rips up the tempo and Liver breaks some great cymbal action, Sherry’s keyboard sounds always fit in really neatly when the rhythm section comes into it’s own, she’s not flamboyant or tricksy she just keeps on pounding away. So Birtha are bad girls too, they still want a decent man who’s honest and true, but they will always get their way, cos they got your plums under their thumb haha.

She Was Good To Me- (Pinzzotto) is like the Lake Isle of Inni sfree of the album. It’s a frothy, soapy ballad that just sounds like a Carpenters track. Shele Pinzzootto writes a lot of the tracks on this album but, from what I can work out, this is the only one she sings (I might be wrong though). I think it’s very personal to her, sounds like it’s about her dead mother or something, maybe the other girls didn’t have the heart to chop it out for this reason, they should have known better though, Birtha have definitely not got balls on this number.

The first track on the second side Work On A Dream-(Pinzotto) has a ferocious intro, Liver thrashes about on the crash while Shele heralds the arrival with a great big brash of sound on guitar. Rose on vocals, it has a similar tempo and feel to Deep Purples Hush. I think this is Sherry’s best number she really gets down as John Lord as she can. Liver obviously adores her cymbals and flexes some great patterns and fills on this track, she really whacks it out, what a pity she doesn’t take lead vocal here. Themed around ambition and independence It’s full of funk and spunk, naturally cos Birtha has Balls.

This last part of the album is all Liv’s, she is a tornado. Too much Woman (For A Hen Pecked Man)-(Turner) Aaargh I can’t even get to grips with the right words, it just rocks so good, this is one of the best and heaviest tracks of the album and it totally floors me. Opening with a 4/ 4 high hat, I can just picture Liver sat behind that kit bouncing up and down and beating the shit out of those skins, her long hair whipping and flying all over the place sticking to her sweaty body, while she hollers and oozes sex appeal, “I wanna be loved not teased, I don’t want no man on his knees, Hen pecked man I can’t respect, cos I’m a hard one to handle and I know that” God she sounds so cool. As per the lyrics, she grew up working hard for a ‘mean Mama and a cruel Daddy’ and all she wants is some fun with a guy who can match her zeal. The song is not backward in coming forward as her only other perquisites are that he’s available and can use his hand to turn her on. Shele really plays low down and dirty on this track her guitar sound is somewhere between Uriah Heaps Gypsy and Grand Funks Got This Thing On the Move in sound and energy. Birtha know what they want and at end of the song the girls demand repeatedly that you “Turn me owwwwun”. It finishes as recklessly as it started with a great slayer of a chord change from Shele. It slogs you in the guts and grabs you by the nuts; even I can feel it hurt and I ain’t got none!

Judgement Day-(Vegas) is the heaviest track and Liver not only carries out some brilliant drumming but she also takes on a different voice to the rest of the album, it’s much deeper and more masculine. The vocals are pretty sparing and we get a good three minutes or so of Birtha style freak-out, including some great euphoric vocal noises from Liver, as the girls harmonize Liv pounds her skins like she’s wielding Thor’s hammer and can hardly contain her excitement, it’s an absolute joy. It’s a real builder and you really get to see what the girls are capable of as everyone gets their solo. Liver tackles every bit of the kit and righteously congratulates herself when she pulls off a pummeling roll round the toms, Go Liv, I love ya babe.

Forgotten Soul- (Favela/Mekler) is a soulful blues anthem. Starting simply with Liver singing over Sherry’s keyboards she shows the full strength and professionalism in her voice, slowly it introduces a blazing Lynard Skynyrd style guitar sound, Liver hams up the Janis as she wonders why her lover left her. Rose comes in with totally unexpected ‘doof’ which winds me every time, crafting a lush and low bass line which smolders along in the feel of Demon’s Eye. Liver socks it one with a few indomitable “Ughs” and the song gradually disappears onto the paper in the centre of the vinyl with no full stops whatsoever.

Which is why the only hope for rock'n'roll, aside from everybody playing nothing but shrieking atonal noise through arbitor distorters, is women. Balls are what ruined both rock and politics in the first place, and I demand the world be turned over to the female sex immediately.
Lester Bangs, Feb 1981

I think what Lester meant was actually slightly derogatory towards women’s ability to play and its probably a totally veiled compliment (hmm did you hear the band that inspired that remark). But as a statement it works perfectly to help illustrate why Birtha didn’t get the commercial success they deserved as musicians. They rocked hard and It could have just been a marketing disaster but I think in order to make any kind of dent at all in the scene in those days it was imperative they actually tried to be the men. Good for them, I love them for it, they did it better than some of the men and from a female point of view they had just as much sex appeal, but who was going to buy their records? Women mostly want to hear music from guys singing about sex with women and build a fantasy they can put themselves into, Birtha tried to do the same but in reverse, they took the rock ethic, flipped it onto it back and climbed on top. In their feminist effort they actually took on the role of the boys, just look at the cover of Titbits, their dignity is intact however this smacks of a male rock photo shoot, all denim and bare chests and the headline suggests really do wanna fuck the men, literally. But I don’t think the men wanted to hear rock chicks singing about freedom and their sexuality, they wanted music that makes them feel like their in control and I think a lot of women did and still do want that too. I mean check the climate, that Billboard review sums it right up “we all know that means you’ve got to make allowances”!!!!.

So where did that leave Birtha? Maybe they were ahead of their time, by the time Lester wrote that quote it was no problem and all girl rock bands were really thriving. Birtha equaled everything the boys did because they had balls, but maybe it was as Lester said, and it was simply the balls what ruined em!


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