Bitch - June 2011
THE BITCH IS BACK: On the eve of the re-issue of Bitch’s debut album ‘Be My Slave’ vocalist extraordinaire Betsy whips me down memory lane
The leather-and-stud-clad Bitch were one of the first bands to appear from the LA metal explosion that followed the demise of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal. Fronted by Betsy, who combined the roles of metal queen and leather dominatrix, and featuring guitarist David Carruth and drummer Robby Settles and a seemingly revolving door of bass players the four-piece whipped up a storm and for a while were one of Metal Blade’s hottest properties. Alas, it all came tumbling down as the Eighties unfolded and fads and tastes changed, but as their legacy the band left behind an interesting back catalogue, and their 1983 debut album together with the EP that preceded it have now been re-issued on one CD. It’s not the first time they’ve appeared together – Metal Blade issued the a cheaply packaged version of the same combination back in 1989 – but this time around not only does it feature a bonus track, but also a DVD of old Eighties footage and recent reformation shows. As such, if you missed out on Bitch the first time around, this re-issue is a good place to start.
The band came together back in 1980 when Carruth and Settles noticed an advert which ran something like ‘attractive female singer, unique stage presence, looking for hard rock/heavy metal band.’
“That's pretty much verbatim, how I worded the ad,” confirms Betsy now. “I placed it in ‘The Music Connection’ after leaving my band, The Boxboys, after they went ska.” And although the image might seem tame now – nothing you don’t see on the average hen party or can’t get in Ann Summers (uh, so I’m told…) – back then it was all very new, and quite upfront, too, as Betsy is quick to confirm. “When Bitch formed in 1980 and started recording, playing gigs, etc, there were few, if any, women fronting leather ‘n’ studs metal bands, let alone the S&M spin we put on things after the image evolved. But I instinctively always knew I would be good at fronting a band. My role model was, is, and always will be Alice Cooper. I was mesmerized by him at age 14, and still am to this day. I have a tattoo of his face on my left bicep. He was and is my inspiration in becoming the character of Betsy Bitch.” I pick up on the word ‘character’; having been a fan of the band from way, way back, and having interviewed the band in the early Eighties, I have always wondered whether Betsy on stage was an extension of the real person, or a completely different persona created for the singer’s performance. “Just the fact that you ask me that tells me I am doing an effective job in my role as Betsy Bitch,” she laughs. “The indication of a good performer is the ability to draw a line between the real person and the stage persona.”
Having come to the attention of Metal Blade, Bitch appeared on the band’s first sampler ‘Metal Massacre’, their track ‘Live For The Whip’ rubbing shoulders on vinyl with the likes of Malice, Ratt, Black ‘N’ Blue and Metallica – hey, where are they now? – amongst others. Was there any rivalry or competition, and did Betsy think any of those bands would make it big? She considers the question for a moment or two. “No, I’d say we were all just doing our metal thing back then, and all doing it well and in our own individual styles. It was just a matter of luck who was going to make it and who wasn’t. I always knew this about Metallica though: they always stuck to their guns and stayed as heavy as they damn well pleased, no matter what anybody else told them to do, so their perseverance and dedication to their sound and musical style was impressive and obviously afforded them much success.”
Alongside that original and now highly collectable LP there’s another rarity to hunt down, a split 7” single with fellow female-fronted LA band Hellion on Mystic Records, although even Betsy is vague about that one now. “The Mystic Records recording came, I believe, even after our first releases with Metal Blade – ‘Damnation Alley’ and ‘Be My Slave’. The song was ‘I’m In Love’, and it came out pretty good, considering the less-than-perfect conditions of the recording session at the time.”
All of which leads us to ‘Damnation Alley’, a five-track EP issued by Metal Blade as the label’s second release. It’s not cutting edge, not by any stretch, but it’s a fun metal work-out and in the title track in particular and opener ‘Saturdays’ the band showed what they could do when they flexed their muscles. These days, Betsy views it as “pretty good for a first effort on a limited recording budget and timeframe. We ended up in pretty nice studio in the San Fernando Valley, along with a producer named John Williams, a music biz exec who took an interest in the band and produced us on spec. It was my first full-on recording experience and I remember falling in love with the creative process of tracking, layering, etc. and how it all came together to produce the finished product. I can’t really say I’m unhappy with anything about that release, to be honest. If I had to say something, I would say I wish the production would've been a little ‘fatter’ as it does sound a little thin at points.”
In ‘Kerrang!’ Paul Suter wrote a scathing review at the time, which from memory concentrated less on the music and more on the tasteful cover shot of Betsy’s cleavage. A few issues later he received a verbal lashing via a letter from Betsy which the magazine ran in full, possibly the first time an artist had been able to get such a right to reply. A little while after that though Suter became involved with the band, and it began to look like the whole thing might have been a publicity stunt. The singer shakes her head. “No. All totally authentic. He decided to write a scathing review of his own volition, poking fun at my image and looks. I fired back with a rather articulate counter-point, which Paul was happy for the magazine to publish. He then contacted me, we agreed that it was all in the name of good press and became fast friends, and he became our publicist.”
With ‘Sounds’ US column regularly featuring Bitch and the band becoming a major draw on the local gig circuit a full-length album was inevitable. Recorded at Track Record Studios in Los Angeles in May/June 1983 and released in the Autumn ‘Be My Slave’ took the EP’s template and twisted it further, although the image-based rockers (like ‘Gimme A Kiss’, ‘In Heat’, ‘Leatherbound’ and the title cut) shared their forty minutes of fame with a larger proportion of straight metal anthems like ‘Riding In Thunder’ and ‘World War Three’. “Considering it was recorded under severe time and budget constraints, and a portion of it was sung while I was fighting a cold, I think it’s stood up to the test of time remarkably well,” says Betsy. “Metal music is timeless anyway. Our recent tour of Europe is a testament to that. Metal lives and will never die, and will always be appreciated by the fans. But I’m very excited about Metal Blade’s re-mastering of the album. I have heard it, it sounds great, and included will be bonus tracks of previously unreleased songs, recent footage of our performance at Germany’s Keep It True festival, and a Bitch t-shirt. I’ll admit that certain songs are stronger than others, obviously, but ‘Be My Slave’ has its place in the heavy metal archive. And it does sound awesome now it’s been remastered.”
Two questions in one – I ask about the bonus audio track on the CD, and what her favourite track on the CD is. “That’s ‘Let’s Go’. We recorded it during the ‘Be My Slave’ sessions, but it somehow never made it onto the album. It’s a good song; I’m glad it finally made it out there for people to hear. As for the favourite track, if I had to answer that question right this second – and apparently, I do” she laughs – “I’d say ‘Let’s Go’, only because the re-mastering sort of helped me ‘re-discover’ that song. Honestly, I had forgotten that we ever recorded it, let alone how cool a song it was. We actually put it in our set for most of our recent European shows and it got a great audience response; it’s one of those anthem-y type of songs, I think, that people like.”
When I interviewed Betsy way back when, she’d remarked that they were on their seventh bass player at that time. Although the rest of the band remained constant, I wondered if this lack of stability had held them back in any way.
”Not at all,” she deadpans. “We’ve always had a revolving door of bass players, and the tradition continues! We could have done with more tour support so we could have gotten out to play to more of our fans. We did play a lot of shows, went out of town a good bit, but never went on an extended tour. This recent European tour was incredible: the fan adoration was overwhelming, whereas playing in L.A. is strange, insofar as you’re basically playing to a lot of your peers. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it just can’t compare to playing to the fans who eat, breath and sleep metal. That’s much more gratifying.”
After ‘Be My Slave’ things went a bit downhill. June 1987’s ‘The Bitch Is Back’ was glammed up and toned down, 1988 saw the band recording as Betsy (not a great album, although it features one of my all time favourite song titles in ‘You’ll Never Get Out (Of This Love Alive)’), and an EP of odds and ends ‘A Rose By Any Other Name’ in 1989 was Bitch’s swansong.
“A Rose By Any Other Name” was indeed the last official Bitch release,” Betsy confirms, “although we’ve since been featured on the Metal Blade 25th Anniversary box set. But I’ve always kept active musically since. In the Nineties, I joined an all-female hard rock band called Sister Strange and we recorded a demo to shop, and played a handful of gigs. I also put Bitch back together with different players in
various incarnations of the band. We played the Bang Your Head festival in
Germany in 2003 with bands such as Dio, Twisted Sister, Dokken, Y&T, Thin
Lizzy, etc. That was an awesome experience – we played to about 12,000 adoring
metal fans from all over the world.
“And then this reformation was prompted by interest by promoters to book the band, and the fans being so supportive and never forgetting about Bitch and our music,
even though we ducked out of the spotlight for a good long time. This particular line-up hasn't been together all that long, so the highlight would definitely have to be our recent European tour where we played three gigs in Holland, two in Belgium, and wound it up with Keep It True in Germany. Awesome!” she adds, perhaps unnecessarily, given the excitement in her voice.
I asked if she could remember the band’s first gig. “Certainly, it was at the Troubadour in Hollywood. We went on at midnight on a Sunday night and a band named Dante Fox opened up for us, fronted by Jack Russell – they would go on to become Great White. I remember falling in love with the way things felt up there on stage, playing the Betsy Bitch character and wielding my whip. I knew we were onto something, and the rest, as they say, is history. Or ‘Bitchstory’, if you will...”
Other interesting gigs include “one in a place in Fresno, California that was a combination rock club and bait and tackle shop. We shared a dressing room with a trough of swimming live minnows and jars of worms. Oh, and the gig was in December so they were also selling Christmas trees in the parking lot. Pretty much something for everybody! We also played a gig with the actors who played the musicians in the movie ‘This Is Spinal Tap’, who, once they’d put on their wigs and spandex pants borrowed most of our equipment for the gig. And last, but not least, Metallica opened up for us at the Stone in San Francisco in 1983.”
So what did Betsy Bitch learn from those early days? “I learned that people want to see my band Bitch,” she replies, “watch me perform and hear me sing, and that people liked us – a hell of a lot! It’s very validating as a singer and as a performer to know that you can make an impression on people, and that you can stand out in a certain musical genre.”
Standing out, of course, made Bitch amongst others a target for the PMRC, the Parents Music Resource Centre, led by Al ‘Saviour Of The Universe’ Gore’s wife Tipper, who at one time wanted lyrics censored, albums rated for age and parental approval, and heavy metal fans to be given compulsory haircuts… OK, I made that last one up, but for a while they were a force to be reckoned with in the so-called land of the free. “The PMRC, and Tipper Gore’s penchant for taking our ‘Be My Slave’ album along with her wherever she went to campaign for her cause was some of the best publicity Bitch ever got. If anything, it upped our album sales! I remember the congressional hearings, which were televised on CNN. One of the speakers actually read our lyrics aloud. They paraphrased from our song, ‘Gimme A Kiss’, which is a tongue-planted-firmly-in-cheek tune featuring subject matter about rough sex; it was hilarious to hear those stuffed-shirt politicians reading our provocative lyrics, along with those of The Mentors, WASP and others.”
Having had fun at the expense of the PMRC, I was brought down to earth when Betsy talked about the death of the band’s drummer and one of it founder members, Robby Settles. “He passed away a little over a year ago, of leukaemia. He was married to my older sister and they had three daughters. I used to call him my ‘drummer-in-law’. He was a major part of my musical life and my family life for almost 30 years and it’s just so freaky to not have him around anymore. I miss him a lot; an amazing person, a loving husband and father, and an awesome drummer.”
It seemed a downer to end things there, but fortunately Betsy asked for the last word, and who am I to refuse a lady? “Can I just say thank you to the journalists, the promoters, and last but certainly not least, to the fans for your support of my band after all these years. It gives me reason to go on rocking. The bitch is definitely back!”
Amen to that!
© John Tucker June 2011