She: The Raunchiest of 60s Girl Groups

Before Janis, before punk, She, the raunchiest of 60's girl groups, were ready to scandalize the nation.

  • Who were these explosive, boundary-busting women—and why didn’t they kick down every door in front of them, incite a girl revolution, and take over the world?
    Illustration by Cargo Collective/Kami Jeanne Atwood
  • 7-inch single cover for "Outta Reach" by She on Causeway Records.
    Illustration courtesy Causeway Records

When I ask Sally Ross-Moore if she and her sister Nancy were “rebellious” teenagers, she lets out a low, knowing chuckle. “We were,” she says. For a minute it sounds like she might elaborate, but instead she trails off, lost in a hazy, private memory of the band that she and her sister channeled their delinquent energy into.

In an interview with another journalist about a decade ago, though, her sister had been more than happy to fill in the blanks. “We’d go upstairs in the state capitol building to the rotunda and spit on senators’ heads!” Nancy said, recounting the sisters’ favorite after-school activities. “And we used to get kicked out of movie theaters all the time.” Other extracurriculars included milling around their hometown of Sacramento, playing pranks on salespeople in overpriced boutiques (Sally, who’s now 60, would ask to try on child-size garments and then throw mock tantrums when the shopkeepers suggested a larger size), and—the preferred entertainment of most teenage hell-raisers in the early 1960s—going to rock shows. After one particular concert (a Beach Boys show in 1964, on a school night no less) Nancy had an experience that would change the girls’ lives forever. “I woke up—I’d only been asleep about 15 minutes—and I’d had this clear dream, vision, whatever you want to call it, of a group of girls onstage. In my mind it was just like the Beach Boys, but girls.” Sally and Nancy (then 13 and 17, respectively) first called their band the Id, then they switched to the Hairem (“That name got pushed on us by someone else …we never did like it,” Sally recalls), but the name they finally settled on was, simply, She. “We were women,” Sally says. “You might as well figure it out in the beginning.”

I first came upon She’s music decades after its inception, thanks to a collection of their songs put out by British imprint Ace Records, called Wants a Piece of You. Though I wasn’t around in their heyday, I’ve always had an affinity for the kitsch of ’60s girl groups like the Ronettes, the Shangri-Las, and Goldie and the Gingerbreads: the matching outfits, the angelic harmonies, that hair. Judging by what I’d heard about She, I figured Wants a Piece of You would be more of the same.

But nothing quite prepared me for what I heard—particularly coming out of frontwoman Nancy Ross’s mouth. “I had my first man a little after I was ten,” she snarls in the opening moments of the psychedelic incantation “Bad Girl,” before launching into a series of unruly, protopunk shrieks (“I taught you to scratch and to bite!”) that would make Jim Morrison blush—or, better yet, bow down. Driven by the slinky, unhurried pulse of Sally’s bass and Nancy’s taunting cool, She’s sound falls somewhere between psychedelic pop and garage rock. It’s at once dreamy and grounded by grit—head in the clouds while boots insistently stomp the floor. Which isn’t to say they couldn’t write a memorable pop hook, too (She wrote all their music and lyrics, as well as played their own instruments). The raw, Farfisa-driven “Like a Snake” ostensibly takes the familiar form of an early girl-group “advice song” (like the Marvelettes’ “Too Many Fish in the Sea”), as it warns the female listener of a smooth-talking bad boy’s tricks, but both the sound and lyrics (“All the girls he makes get the shivers and the shakes when he moves ... like a snake”) were much coarser than any ’60s girl-group song I’d heard. “Da Doo Ron Ron” this was not.

But She’s music was at its most radical when it was about something other than boys, which was pretty much the only topic that other girl groups of the time were concerned with. The Jefferson Airplane–esque “Braids of Hair” recounts a dream Nancy had about attending a utopian Woodstock-era music festival. “Not for Me” is a fiery (and gender-neutral) declaration of independence (“Don’t wanna look like the guy who lives next door”). And the sprawling, six-minute ballad of innocence lost, “When I Was a Little Girl,” yearns for the days of catching pollywogs and splashing in mud puddles with a childhood best friend. At a moment when the image of the male Svengali (à la Phil Spector) still loomed large over girl groups, She’s unbridled, uncensored expressions of female subjectivity and desire—years before Janis! An entire decade before punk!—were staggeringly ahead of their time. As scholar Jacqueline Warwick writes in her book Girl Groups, Girl Culture (2007), female musicians in the mid-’60s were expected to “pose no threat to the accepted beliefs about propriety.” But She sounds so oblivious to the mores of the era that they might as well be time travelers from the future.

Aside from the reissue’s liner notes (which unfortunately feature annoyingly, tritely sexist descriptions like “[She ended the performance] with their classic ‘Outta Reach,’ Nancy grunting and groaning like the lusty wench she truly was”) and a few short online blurbs, I couldn’t find much information about She. How could this be? They were far and away the most fascinating and uncompromising ’60s girl group I’d ever come across, but even in the canon of feminist bands they’re a footnote within a footnote. I’d been full of questions about them since I first heard their music: Who were these explosive, boundary-busting women—and why didn’t they kick down every door in front of them, incite a girl revolution, and take over the world?

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