Back when women were struggling to get a foothold in rock music, there was The Deadly Nightshade. They called themselves “gals with guts and guitars,” and for most of the 1970s they scorched a trail of what one critic called “sly, back-alley, side-street truckin’ music” across the country as one of the first feminist rock bands in the United States.
Made up of Helen Hooke ’69 on lead guitar and fiddle, Anne Bowen ’68 on vocals and rhythm guitar and Pamela Robin Brandt of Mount Holyoke College on bass, the group emerged from what was, at the time, a thriving music scene at Smith and in the Pioneer Valley. “There was music everywhere,” Bowen recalls. “Students were forming bands all the time because the college and the community really supported you.
HOOKE STARTED THE FIRST ROCK BAND AT SMITH. “We were called Maggie’s Farm,” she says. “In high school, the boys wouldn’t let me play, so I said that when I get to Smith I’m going to start a band and we’re going to play our own instruments. That’s exactly what we did. It was a whole new great adventure.” Meanwhile, Bowen played in a campus jug band: “spoons, washboard, guitar. We were the real deal,” she says.
THE DEADLY NIGHTSHADE GOT ITS START IN 1968 as a five-piece band of Smith and Mount Holyoke students called Ariel. Great word of mouth made them a hit on the club circuit; eventually a number of record companies came calling. But the labels turned skittish about signing an all-girl rock band, and the group itself didn’t want to be treated like a novelty act. “All of us had a very strong sense of who we were and what we wanted to accomplish,” Bowen says. “We weren’t especially welcomed from the business side of the industry.” Ariel disbanded in 1970.
HOOKE, BOWEN AND BRANDT REGROUPED as The Deadly Nightshade, perfecting their foot-stomping, hand-clapping, hip-shaking vibe by playing gigs in and around Northampton. “There was such a demand for live music back then. We could play five nights a week and actually make a living at it,” Hooke says.
NATIONAL SUCCESS FOLLOWED, with the band signing with RCA Records, going on tour with Billy Joel and scoring a hit with a dance version of the theme song to the 1970s television show Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.
THEIR SONGS RESONATED BECAUSE THEY WERE ABOUT LIFE. The ’70s was a period of great social change, especially for women, and Hooke, the group’s main songwriter, took what was happening in the world as inspiration. “We were riding a huge wave of women discovering who they were and what they could do. We took the universal and made it personal,” she says.
THE GROUP’S PERSPECTIVE WAS DISTINCTLY FEMINIST, but their approach was to deliver the message in a fun and tongue-in-cheek way. “We were devoted to being entertainers, first and foremost,” Bowen says. “Our music is fun, and that brought people from these diverse backgrounds together.” It helped, too, that their harmonies were impeccable. “Our three voices together formed one voice,” Hooke says.
EVENTUALLY, LIFE OFFSTAGE BECKONED. By 1978, Bowen was done with living on the road, so the threesome called it quits. Hooke began a career in finance, while still releasing music on the side. Brandt became a journalist and continued to play with other bands. Bowen, meanwhile, worked for the Women’s Action Alliance, opened a restaurant in Arizona and later ran a school cafeteria in Tucson.
IF YOU DIDN’T CATCH THEM THE FIRST TIME AROUND, DON’T WORRY. Hooke, Bowen and Brandt are dusting off their fiddles and guitars for a short reunion tour this summer, which is set to include a stop in Northampton. “We really had something special,” Hooke says of the band. “We never get tired of playing together.”
Spring 2015 SAQ