By Terry Staunton
The first LOUD WOMEN festival is almost upon us, so what better time to big up a whole bunch of people doing the business on the live stage in times gone by? Please bear in mind that these are personal choices by me, they appear in no particular order, and therefore should not be interpreted as “ranked” against each other.
They’re all phenomenal, for one reason for another, although by no means the best 25 performances ever. Chances are I’ve missed some of your own favourites, and I would probably bung in a few different choices if I was compiling this next week.
Quality of available footage played a part in whittling the list down to 25, but I hope it’s clear that every single one of the following is there on merit.
BLONDIE – One Way Or Another
A Debbie Harry co-write, on the pop-tastic Parallel Lines album from 1979, and still an integral part of the Blondie live set. But let’s go back to the year of its birth for this American TV performance, and perhaps overlook the fact that it’s a fairly menacing song about stalking.
NINA SIMONE – I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free
Simone first recorded Billy Taylor’s jazz lament on her 1967 album Silk & Soul, after which it became a bedrock anthem of the US civil rights movement. This astonishing version is from the Montreux Jazz Festival in ’76, a time when (as older readers will recall) Taylor’s original was the theme to Barry Norman’s film review programme.
BJORK – Hyperballad
As inventive as her studio recordings are, there is a school of thought that Bjork’s songs are most fully realised in performance. Hyperballad made its bow on 1995’s Post album, but this version from 2001, when the singer became the first pop act to play the Royal Opera House, benefits from the filmic atmosphere a live orchestra can bring.
LESLEY GORE – You Don’t Own Me
It was her party and she cried ‘cause she wanted to, but it was a steelier Lesley who struck a blow for female emancipation on this 1963 hit. She later recalled: “My take on the song was: I’m 17, what a wonderful thing, to stand up on a stage and shake your finger at people and sing you don’t own me.”
PRETENDERS – Back On The Chain Gang
Written in tribute to original guitarist James Honeyman-Scott after his death in 1982, Chain Gang remains a cornerstone of Chrissie Hynde’s live shows, both with revolving Pretenders line-ups or as a solo act. She’s pushing 63 in this 2014 clip, but her voice has lost none of its power or persuasion.
SISTER ROSETTA THARPE – Didn’t It Rain?
Born 100 years ago in the tiny town of Cotton Plant, Arkansas (population 649, according to the latest census), Sister Rosetta did more than any other musician of her time to bring gospel into the American pop mainstream. She also won the hearts of boho Brits, as this joyous clip from Manchester in 1964 testifies.
PJ HARVEY – Dress
It’s been 25 years since Polly Harvey released her first full album, Dry, since when she’s constantly refashioned and remodelled herself to bring a savvy sense of performance to the live stage. Dress was first heard on that debut album, and sounds just as vital and fresh here, filmed at the V Festival in 2003.
ARETHA FRANKLIN – (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman
Live sightings have been increasingly rare in recent years, but the mighty Ms Aretha truly knocked one out of the park when she paid tribute to the song’s writer Carole King at last year’s Kennedy Centre Honours concert. King’s reactions are lovely to watch, and is that a tear in Barack’s eye…?
KATE BUSH – Running Up That Hill
Notoriously reclusive for the majority of her lengthy career, Kate has nevertheless popped up on the live stage intermittently. Here she is at Amnesty International’s Secret Policeman’s Third Ball in 1987, keeping company with Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, who, lest we forget, put his hand in his pocket to fund her early demos.
JANIS JOPLIN – Piece Of My Heart
Erma Franklin’s success was easily eclipsed by that of her kid sister Aretha, but she picked up a Grammy nomination for this 1967 soul classic. A year later, however, Joplin made the song her own, as Louis Walsh might say, abetted by lusty live readings like this one from German television.
X-RAY SPEX – Oh Bondage Up Yours!
Punk venom twinned with arch art school sensibilities, Poly Styrene’s hugely influential band’s one album, the landmark Germfree Adolescents, was a spirited and insightful dissection of consumer culture. This, their debut single, was decidedly more primitive, performed here on the BBC Wales programme Twndish.
KD LANG – In Care Of The Blues
Kathy Dawn’s torch singer roots are showing in all their cowgirl glory on this 1987 clip, the first of her many appearances on Johnny Carson’s long-running US talk show. Instead of plugging her debut album, Angel With A Lariat, she opts to cover a lesser-known song by her spiritual godmother Patsy Cline.
DUSTY SPRINGFIELD – Mockingbird
Outside of The Beatles, no other ‘60s British star did as much as Dusty to promote American R&B and soul. She lobbied the producers of TV pop show Ready Steady Go! to broadcast an episode dedicated to Motown acts, and here she ventures beyond Hitsville to put her own stamp on the Inez & Charlie Foxx call-and-response classic.
PAUL WELLER & AMY WINEHOUSE – Don’t Go To Strangers
It’s Weller’s show at the BBC’s Electric Proms in 2006, but it’s the guest appearance of Amy that really raises the Roundhouse roof. The song was originally recorded in 1954 by doo wop pioneers The Orioles, but this version owes more to the smoky jazz of later readings by Ettas James and Jones.
BOBBIE GENTRY – Ode To Billie Joe
Southern gothic country noir, filmed for the BBC in 1968, with Mississippi native Gentry inspired by her own back yard. Debate continues over the song’s meaning (gay suicide or the shame of unwed motherhood are both popular theories), but its singer and writer says only that it concerns “the indifference of grief”.
SIOUXSIE & THE BANSHEES – Metal Postcard
Famously, the Banshees were the last of punk’s initial movers and shakers to land a record deal, and the first version of this song dates from a John Peel version a year before they signed to Polydor. It subsequently appeared on debut album The Scream, and was later re-recorded with German lyrics.
LAURYN HILL – Ready Or Not
The most recent performance of these 25, Hill’s exuberant return to her old hit with the Fugees was broadcast earlier this month (August) on the long-running US cable show Austin City Limits. “The story of her voice is the story of a generation,” claims the blurb on the programme’s website.
RICHARD & LINDA THOMPSON – A Heart Needs A Home
The First Lady of British Folk is a contentious title, and Thompson has as much claim to it as anyone. Hubby Richard may have written this and other equally eloquent gems (Bright Lights, Withered And Died, The Great Valerio), but it’s the crystal clarity of Linda’s voice that gives the songs their space and delicacy.
PATTI SMITH – Free Money
Smith wasn’t exactly primetime light entertainment in 1977, so eyebrows were raised when this track beamed out of TVs via the daytime gabfest The Mike Douglas Show. Originally on the iconic Horses album, it was later covered by Pauline Murray’s County Durham punks Penetration.
JONI MITCHELL – Chelsea Morning
California-based Canadian writes and performs the ultimate love poem to New York. From a US show in 1969, the song signposts Mitchell’s growing interest in fusing jazz phrasing with traditional folk tropes, which would come to full fruition on a string of albums the following decade.
GRACE JONES – Slave To The Rhythm
From a 2004 Prince’s Trust concert to celebrate producer Trevor Horn’s 25 years in the business. As one might expect, (a) the band is tight and funky, (b) Grace puts on a proper good show, and (c) she’s wearing something big and silly on her head. Legend!
SAVAGES – Adore
When you’re slogging across a big country, knackered from travelling and the like, lacklustre automatic pilot performances on daytime telly are par for the course. Not so the mighty Savs, who brought their A-game to Ellen earlier this year, and subsequently saw a sizeable boost to their US record sales.
THE UNTHANKS – The Testimony Of Patience Kershaw
Folk traditionalist sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank in amazing form on Frank Higgins’ 1960s ballad based on genuine evidence given by a 17-year-old miner to the Children’s Employment Commission 100 years earlier. The studio version can be found on their high watermark 2009 album Here’s The Tender Coming.
BEYONCE – If I Were A Boy/You Oughta Know
Pulling out all the stops at 2010’s Grammy Awards. Listen for the sneaky detour into the Alanis Morissette breakthrough hit that bagged the 1995 Song Of The Year– a gong Ms Knowles would pick up later in the evening for Single Ladies. Which was nice.
JANIS IAN – At Seventeen
Teen angst, peer pressure, high school cruelty, imaginary boyfriends and the illusions of beauty and popularity all feature in this evocative paean to young women “lacking in the social graces”. Ian was initially reluctant to release the song commercially, saying its lyrics were too personal to share.