Meet Têtes Noires, the Super Catchy All-Girl Feminist Rock Group from the Eighties
Têtes Noires performing at Minneapolis venue First Avenue in 1985.
The best album of 2013 was actually recorded in 1984. That was the year that Têtes Noires—a relatively unknown, but critically acclaimed all-female rock sextet—first released their sophomore album, American Dream. For many reasons, Têtes Noires is an important band in rock history. For one, they are touted as Minneapolis’ first all-female rock band. For two, the ladies accomplished a helluva lot in their relatively short period of being active (from ’83-’87). In that time they started a record label, self-released two albums, toured nationally and earned critical acclaim. Right about now you should be asking yourself, “Wait, how do I not know about Têtes Noires?”
After disbanding in ’87, Têtes Noires keyboardist and vocalist Angela Frucci made it a personal project to remix and remaster American Dream. The resulting album, The New American Dream, finally hit shelves in December 2013.
“I always fantasized about remaking this album, even while we were making it,” says Frucci. “It’s my favorite Têtes album and the one that best lends itself to some reconstructing because of its minimalism.”
In 1983, Minneapolis was well known as the home of two all-male rock bands: The Replacements and Hüsker Dü. When reflecting on the formative years of the Têtes, Frucci lcompares fitting into the Minneapolis rock scene to surviving in a family of brothers. “I grew up in a male family with brothers and an authoritative father. I always had to prove myself to be able to play,” she says.
By this time Minneapolis was not only known for rock, but was also growing synonymous with the Purple force in electronic rock music, Prince. With the release of Controversy and 1999 under his gender-defying belt, he was already a bonafied superstar. At times provocative and at times problematic, Prince’s gender politics put women at the front and center of the synth pop moment known as “Minneapolis Sound.” Jennifer Holt, vocalist and violinist for the Têtes, describes the energy of the moment, “The local music scene was really happening—the ‘Minneapolis Sound’ was in vogue and we were a part of that creative phalanx.”
What began as a performance art project in 1983 quickly morphed into an avant garde rock group. It was the former Miss South Dakota, Jennifer Holt, who assembled the women for a performance art project. Holt explains, “Têtes Noires started because I was becoming disenchanted with Fine Art [her band at the time], after being told my chi-chi lyrics were unacceptable. I had seen a number of cool women in bands around Minneapolis, all of whom had jet black hair, and the wheels started turning in my head.”
The transition from art project to rock band resulted in a wholly unconventional sound. Unlike the other bands of the time, the Têtes substituted a drummer with late-'70s, early-'80s era drum machines and alternative methods of percussion. Holt describes their unorthodox methods of recording: “We would get together, come up with outlandish ideas and go for it. One song featured a toy xylophone and garbage can lid. Another song featured all of us clapping while singing playground ditties. Another song highlighted each Tête singing an a cappella song about the rain with Barbie the drum machine as featured instrumentalist.”
To put it one way, this was not Prince and it was not the typical rock music that Minneapolis had become known for.
The Têtes performing their song "Kids in France" from their EP in 1983.
The Têtes released their first two albums through their independent music label, Rapunzel. What their relationship with Rapunzel lacked in funds, it made up for with artistic freedom. “Heck yeah it gave us more control!’ says Frucci. “We were not going to get signed to a commercial label. We were so unusual musically, plus we were all girls, and no one was going to sign us, touch us. So, we went indie. We went Rapunzel.”
Filled with vibrant melodies and unexpected methods of percussion, the albums refined a unique sound and received wide critical acclaim from Spin to Billboard. Just as significantly, these LPs were ripe with feminist critical commentary.
The song “Lucky Girl” from their debut EP pointed out the heterosexism that permeated the treatment of girls and women in society with lines like “Gosh but it’s nice to be a girl, and live in this enlightened world.” They didn’t just gripe about the injustice in the world, they made fun of it.
Beyond lyrics, their onstage performances illuminated a culture embedded with double standards for women musicians. Writing for The New York Times, Jon Pareles described the Têtes’ tendency to cover songs written by popular all-male rock bands as providing a new perspective on songs by groups like Motorhead, “that, without a word changed, can suddenly seem absurd.” But for Têtes, for their female fans, and for many women making music the world of music where men composed songs, performed them, and critiqued them, this world was already absurd.
Angela Frucci’s The New American Dream, is not the typical remix project. “I think when most people think ‘remix’ they think of a dance beat that’s thrown over a song from back in the day. The sexy Sadie segue. This instead is a reimagining,” says Frucci. Years after the Têtes, Frucci went on to work for Digidesign (now Avid), a company that music geeks will recognize as the creator of the music production software, Pro Tools. The New American Dream showcases Frucci’s in depth knowledge of production work alongside her proximity as an artist to the original LP.
Co-produced with George Cochrane, The New American Dream adds a digital production lens to the analog sound of ‘80s art rock and introduces a new generation to an important musical moment. But it was at times a difficult process. “Try to imagine coming back 20 years later and playing drums to a song whose beats and rhythms are constantly changing. It’s like auditioning for a ghost band and it’s nearly impossible,” says Frucci.
Outside of its artistic relevancy, The New American Dream carries political urgency as well. The lyrical content is disturbingly pertinent, or, as Frucci put it, “prophetic.” While Frucci admires the successful business model that current pop superstars like Miley Cyrus have capitalized on, she also recognizes that not a lot has changed for women in rock music since the Têtes were around.
But all is not lost. In Minneapolis the Têtes have left an indelible mark on the music scene. This year alone there were two major breakout all-women music groups: the garage rock outfit Kitten Forever and hip-hop scenesters of Grrrl Prty both commanded critic’s attention and elevated Minneapolis on the national level.
For artists who are frustrated with the current musical landscape, Frucci shared some words of advice: “Women, stop thinking about it, take action. Pay no heed to the naysayers.”
Check out this special mixtape of all-women Minneapolis bands, featuring songs from The New American Dream.
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