Saturday, 2 July 2011

The Thatcher Years, DUCHESS

Barbara Spitz was in the Sadista Sisters from 1977-79. Thirty years later we tracked each other down and had lunch in Marine Ices in Chalk Farm, London. Marine Ices, for the un-initiated, is the Ice cream parlour and pasta place. Opposite is the Round House where Barbara and I and half a dozen other ‘Sisters’ had originally gigged together. This line-up also gigged at The Kings Head, Islington, the Speakeasy, toured the UK and played numerous times in Berlin. I interviewed her in October 2009. Barbara now lives and works in Vienna as an actress, singer and musician.

JUDELondon was good in those days for cheap or free places to rehearse. Lets talk about that place in Euston where we rehearsed. And tell us something about your experiences when you first joined the band?

BARBARA The rehearsal room – it was some kind of factory. I remember it being above some kind of strudel factory because I think we had to walk through part of it to get to the rehearsal room.

I joined at the same time as Susie Hendrix (Tinline) and she played a bass: a Les Paul. I vaguely knew about her from ‘Painted Lady’ before it became ‘Girl School’.   The Sadistas job was quite overwhelming. First of all I didn’t expect to get the job because I couldn’t play very well– but I looked good and I think that’s why I got it.

JUDEI would say that was definitely part of why you were employed. You were beautiful in a wretched waif-like kind of way and had a lot of attitude. I assumed you could go onstage and be a good performer because of how you carried yourself. You also looked pretty cool in that Cunning Stunts T-shirt. Was there so much work for you guys? I always assumed the musicians had an easy time of it and I did all the work!  You used to go onstage with a bottle of vodka, I remember being jealous of that.

BARBARA Hell no! I remember being overwhelmed by the workload – I had a week to learn the entire show, and not being a professional – not being a proficient musician that was tough. And the music was quite complicated. There were lots of chords; most of them were jazz chords.

JUDE     I suppose I was from a background where I was playing the piano , listening and being influenced by jazz and classical music, that stuff isn’t so easy to play on guitar. Not really ”Learn three chords and join a band” stuff.

BARBARA     I came from a pop rock punk background, so yes the music was hard for me at first.

JUDEWe were a bit punkish weren’t we?  Punk before punk, even?

BARBARA    A crazy mix. I think the collision of styles was inspiring as well as the non-intellectual approach. It gave Sadistas a unique quality and sense of excitement. There was also such a mixture of people when I joined. A team, of ten musician/performers  - all women - in the band.  

It was extraordinary to suddenly land in a world that was new territory for me on every level, musically, theatricality, socially politically, everything.

JUDEThat was a conscious decision for me, for us to operate as an all female concern. I found it very shocking that the record company (in 1975) had replaced our fabulously anarchic female musicians with slick male session players, who were quite boring (sorry guys) and certainly had nothing to add theatrically. Plus it wasn’t the original ethos of the band, which Teresa and I had created, and it spoiled a lot of things. Teresa and I, however naively, wanted to make something all female. We had spent our quite short professional careers doing male-dominated stuff. (We were in our early 20’s)  Some of that work had been classy (Steven Berkoff, Rumbelow) but basically all about the way men carried on, and we wanted this to be virgin territory.

In retrospect, bringing men into the band was a kind of disaster, because there was a sense of alienation and some personally very damaging stuff. I certainly felt put down by it although I couldn’t really express it at the time.

What was it like coming into a set-up that already existed, rather than being there from the beginning? Was that hard?

BARBARA Yes it was hard to come into something. You were very well known, what was required, to stand up and stand out – first baptism by fire.  If you’re a new girl – well, it felt like a pecking order. Pretty chaotic, in retrospect. But it somehow worked, although I didn’t see so much of you, Jude, because you were always busy doing twenty things. I enjoyed working at the Kings Head enormously –with Linda Hall, Marelene Van Renen (front-liners with Jude) and in the band were Marilyn Taylor (piano and keyboards) on bass Bernadette, Angele on sax, yes she had been brought in by Deirdre and Bernadette.
By the time we went to Berlin, Marilyn couldn’t come and so Lucy Finch( now Skeaping ) came in and played violin. Denise Dufort replaced Susie Webb.

JUDELinda Hall, what an amazing voice! And maybe only nineteen years old.  And Lucy Finch was adorable. High maintenance posh girl, I liked her, she had lots of ideas.  

What sort effect did being in the Sadista Sisters have on you?

BARBARA Totally formative. I remember loving watching the scenes, fascinated by them and jumping in there like anything, even though I was very much the band, the backing band doing vocals.

What I do remember when we got to Berlin, when I got over my initial fear of knowing the technically complicated cues, which changed sometimes in the middle for chorus, was the whole show was sophisticated.

JUDEAt that particular time I felt surprisingly supported by those around me. I met a couple of young female journalists and one of them became a life-long friend, Gudrun Brug. Also Berlin was refreshingly different from London.

BARBARA The group was very big cheese there. We sold out for three weeks.

JUDEWhen we played in the Quartier Latin in Berlin, it was extraordinary for me to see how immensely popular we were. We were hugely in demand. And that the style of the band, where the lyrics and music was progressive and demanding was taken on board.

Was there a connection for you, being Jewish and involved with political cabaret theatre in Berlin? Did it give you more consciousness of that too?

BARBARA No, the Jewish thing, that kicked in much later. When I got to Vienna, when I realised what an endangered species we are.

I had spent my school life going to demos and anti-apartheid marches, and that continued into the Thatcher years, that was a given. But what I got from Sadistas? I felt comfortable being gay. It was a mixture and that felt comfortable.

JUDEI liked the non-conformity of the gay/straight/racial mix thing too. I was definitely the only straight in the village for a while.

BARBARA Berlin was good: We were stars in Berlin. I remember being amazed at how full the Quartier Latin wasIt was a huge stage compared to the Kings Head, we were spilt on two sides and the piano down on the floor and Jude walked all over the tables.

This was our fourth trip to Berlin. We had a real cult following of women. Women lying on the stage and jumping up onstage. I remember constantly being invited to go to people’s houses.

That theatre on the Potsdammerstrasse, has been recently, renovated and restored to its former glory as cabaret space, by Andre Heller.

Back in London I remember important gig in London Speakeasy where Sid Vicious got up to join us and plugged in the bass stack and fell over right into the drum kit. And there was a guy called Sean there from a band called Raped (then turned into Cuddly Toys) a bit like the New York Dolls -and Sean  - I held his hand (after a riot, The mob who were fighting onstage. That was the gig when Sid showed I think.

JUDEOne way to earn an honest crust. Did we make a difference, d’you think?

BARBARA      God I hope we did.