This article appears in our 2014 Winter issue, Food. Subscribe today!
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 10,” 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 groups 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?
“We weren’t good in the beginning,” Sally Ross-Moore laughs when I finally get her on the phone. (We’ve had to reschedule our conversation because of an unexpected visit from her granddaughter. “Yep, the girl rocker is a grandma now,” she writes me in a Facebook message.) Nancy started taking music lessons when she was very young, and (after her post–Beach Boys concert vision) she began writing her own songs and teaching the bass parts to her younger sister. Their parents were unequivocally supportive, even when the girls got so serious about their music that the living room became overrun with amps and guitars. Did Mr. and Mrs. Ross have any objections to the songs’ lyrical content? “I’m sure they did,” Sally says (a recurring adjective she uses to describe the band is “raunchy”). “They just didn’t say. They knew better. They knew we were going to do what we wanted to do.”
But the sisters wanted more than the living room, they wanted shows—a surefire way, they reasoned, to reach the kind of people who’d eventually help them cut a record. They assembled a couple of other girls to round out the lineup, and by 1967 (Sally’s junior year of high school) they were regularly booking gigs: frat parties, school dances, any place that would have them. But She had two strikes against them right off the bat: Not only were they an all-female band, but they were an all-female band playing original material. “Back then, when you’d book a band, they wanted someone to come in and play other people’s stuff. It was very difficult. We just weren’t taken seriously at all.”
But they kept at it. As their live show gained a local reputation, they began booking the occasional one-off in San Francisco—usually they were the openers for the openers (though the headliners were sometimes worth sticking around for: Grateful Dead, Steve Miller Band, Quicksilver Messenger Service). “We hauled all our own stuff,” Sally says, sounding as proud as if she’d done it that afternoon. “We didn’t have guys carry it—and that was when amplifiers were big and heavy, too.” The sisters liked being on the road; they always got along harmoniously and the drives in Sally’s old station wagon were a chance to clear their minds and spend time together. “Nancy never drove,” Sally says. “We had this odd relationship: The younger sister always drove her everywhere. The other band members always drove with their boyfriends or their dads, but the two of us always traveled together.”
In fact, Sally says one of the hardest things about being in She was finding other girls who were as committed to the band as she and Nancy: “All our members came and went, so when you listen to our songs, the backing band is constantly different. It was just a revolving door behind us,” though it wasn’t always the girls’ faults. “Boyfriends didn’t like it. They didn’t want their girlfriends up there on the stage performing.” (The Ross sisters, on the other hand, came up with a solution: “We only dated fellow musicians because they were the only other people who understood our schedule and our lifestyle.”)
The band kept at it for years, gradually building a local following. As the beginnings of the women’s movement bubbled toward the mainstream, some things changed for women in music. In the late ’60s, the Ross sisters were heartened by Janis Joplin and Grace Slick’s sudden presence on the scene—but only to a certain extent. “Not that I didn’t love them—I did!—but they always did have a whole group of men behind them, and it was mostly men writing the music,” Sally says. “There just wasn’t a whole group of raunchy women out there, still. That was our biggest obstacle.”
Eventually, though, their hard work paid off. She cut a demo of “Like a Snake” at a local studio, and the group’s first and biggest fan, Mrs. Ross, sent it to every record company she could think of. Much to the girls’ surprise, calls started coming in. A few different labels (including Liberty Records, later an affiliate of EMI) expressed enough interest in She to fly them to Los Angeles. Having their pick of a few different labels, She decided to sign with Kent, the only company that seemed to understand the grandeur of their vision—the only company offering a contract to make a full-length record.
In 1970, She recorded more than a dozen songs during the Kent sessions, but in hindsight, Sally is unsatisfied with what the label had to offer. “Kent was more of a Motown[-esque] label at the time. I don’t think they quite had an understanding of how to mix rock music…. It wasn’t a good fit.” But the clash went deeper than production styles. After hearing the initial batch of songs, the label executives—fearing that the band’s sound was too raw for a group of girls—acted out that time-honored record company cliché and demanded something more radio friendly. Nancy quickly threw together a poppy tune called “Boy Little Boy,” which Sally calls to this day, with fresh disdain, “a fluffy, stupid, cotton-candy song.” It’s certainly the odd track out on Wants a Piece of You, and listening in the context of the rest of their output, you can almost imagine it being composed out of spite. Nancy sings the ultrasaccharine melody through gritted teeth. The whole song has the air of an errant tomboy who’s been dolled up in ringlets and an exaggeratedly frilly dress and told to sit still in church, repressed but fidgeting just below the surface.
The single was set to be “Outta Reach,” an aching yet venomous ode (Nancy ends every chorus with a Patti Smith–worthy “YEAH!”) to female in-between-ness that feels like a thematic ancestor to No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” (“I’m so near and yet so far/ I can’t even drive a car”). But when the label started sending out the 45 singles, the girls were furious: Without telling them, Kent had released “Boy Little Boy” as the A-side and relegated “Outta Reach” to the B, guaranteeing that the former was preferred for airplay. The girls felt cheated, duped, and just plain pissed. Rather than compromise, they ended their relationship with Kent (even as “Boy Little Boy” was, much to their embarrassment, racking up spins). With She’s record contract and future in a state of limbo, everyone but the Ross sisters left the band shortly afterward. Sally and Nancy decided they were too exhausted to find new members. Around 1971, rather than try to reconcile with the label and put out music they didn’t believe in, She broke up.
Decades later, a bootleg 7-inch of “Outta Reach” backed with “Boy Little Boy” started making the rounds. (When a friend of mine heard I was writing this article, she texted me a picture of its cover: a cartoon of two stylishly dressed female cats, one of which is kicking a high-heeled foot straight into a male dog’s crotch.) Since it wasn’t an official release, the Rosses saw no royalties from it, but Sally says that, in a way, she was glad to see it out there: The contrast between the two sides of the record speak volumes about the gap between what the world wanted She to be and what they actually were. “All you gotta do is listen to that 45, one side and then the other,” Sally says, “and that pretty much sums up our whole band.”
The room feels heavy right after I hang up with Sally. Toward the end of our conversation, she tells me that Nancy died in 2011 at age 62; though she’d given up drugs and alcohol later in life, years of hard living in the ’60s and ’70s eventually took their toll. Given the dearth of information out there about She, I didn’t know about Nancy’s death until Sally told me herself. As this news sinks in, it strikes me what I’ve always found so compelling, and even oddly poignant, about Wants a Piece of You: how unfinished it sounds. The recorded output that She left behind is a sketch, a frustrating hint of what might have been had the world been a little more receptive to their vision, had a record company entrusted a group of ambitious, fearlessly blunt women with the resources to make the record they wanted to make. Unfortunately, in the ’60s, Nancy’s dream of “just like the Beach Boys, but girls” was just that—a dream, a more progressive reality that was still just out of reach.
Nancy continued playing and writing here and there (including a stint composing children’s music) until she died. Sally, on the other hand, pursued a career in child health services and didn’t stick with music (“Bass was my instrument, and that’s not really something you sit around and play by yourself”), but she delights in the Facebook messages she gets here and there from fans—the large majority of whom are “very young men.” “I tell them, ‘I’m a lot older now, you know,’” she laughs. “‘That was a long time ago.’”
A few years ago in the indie-music world, there was a popular narrative that female-driven garage rock bands (and especially those indebted to the sounds of the ’60s) were making a “comeback,” helmed by artists like Dum Dum Girls, Vivian Girls, and Best Coast. I greeted their presence enthusiastically: From my vantage point, these bands added some much-needed diversity to the dude-centric indie scene and provided a gritty, revisionist spin on the stifled history of ’60s girl groups. Talking to Sally, though, reminds me of the limits of this narrative. These bands made an important impact, true, but one that was limited to underground communities. Sally hasn’t heard of any of them, and she’s still waiting for an all-female rock band to break through in the 21st century. As she tells it, She’s story is a refreshing reality check: a reminder of both the tradition of creatively suppressing female artists and the work left to be done.
When I tell her the world just wasn’t ready for She, Sally replies without missing a beat: “I’m still not quite sure they would be.”