I often get asked which female musicians inspired me to become one myself. The question presupposes that I grew up confident of my destiny and only needed a pioneering woman to light my path. In truth, what made music an all-consuming passion was out-of-control teenage hormones. My friends and I would swoon over televised performances of our chosen crushes, groaning melodramatically, “I’m so OBSESSED!” and lusting after the boys playing on the records we loved.
I recall, at age 15, being in a gaggle of autograph hunters crowded around Julian Cope, whose band—the Teardrop Explodes—I had seen a few months earlier. I got him to sign my arm, and then, following the lead of the other girls around me, dared to ask for a kiss. My 1982 diary babbled excitedly: “I got a real smacker! He put his arm around my neck and pressed his lips right against mine! Wow!” I warmed myself with the memory of this thrilling encounter for months after, but was just as struck by the presence of his wife, Dorian, who stood by patiently as he ministered to his fans. (“She’s got black spiky hair and gothy makeup!” I wrote.)
Dorian was interesting because not only did Cope publicly extol her, which made her compelling in her own right, but she bucked the cliché of the trophy catwalk-model girlfriend—something I had zero interest in ever becoming. For my purposes, she represented a potential entry point to a fantasy world. Sure, I could hone my skills as a songwriter and guitarist in the hopes of becoming a recording artist myself, but the many women in bands I admired seemed so unattainably fabulous, I couldn’t for a second dream of emulating them. The role of the rock wife might, however, be more easily achieved.
And it hadn’t escaped my notice that Siouxsie, Debbie Harry, Poison Ivy, Brix Smith, Gillian Gilbert, and many more were romantically linked to men in their bands. This was no less prevalent when I started attending smaller pub and club gigs. The Delmonas were the girlfriends of the Milkshakes, Sally Timms of the Mekons was Jon Langford’s partner, and although Bilinda Butcher joined My Bloody Valentine via an audition, it didn’t take long for her and Kevin Shields to become an item. Rock wives themselves, in a sense.
That’s not to diminish the achievements of these women. Lots of bands are born from male friendships, where the relationship is as much a driver as musical ability is, but no one implies that some male drummer chiseled his way into the lineup by cozying up to the talent. In any case, far from being an easy route, going out with a successful musician can be hell. People can be unspeakably rude to girlfriends of the band, who are often eyed with suspicion by other members, accused of disruption and interference if they aren’t mutely compliant, and loathed and competed with by other women keen to take their place. “Jumped-up groupie” was a common insult.
Everyone seemed happy to blame the siren temptress rather than the quisling male
There have been efforts to reclaim the word “groupie” via the narratives of footloose girls after some no-strings excitement and fun, but among the players in my world, I’d only ever heard it used as a slur. Groupies were girls on the make, with little to offer but their orifices, who deserved to be exploited and discarded. This was mostly said by men who liked to “win” at sex, using a woman to prove their virility, then vilifying her for being either an easy conquest or unreasonably clingy. But women who worked with or dated musicians knew they were themselves one precarious misstep away from the groupie insinuation, so they’d join in the scapegoating to establish themselves on the right side of the divide.
I watched this play out when a man I knew fell head over heels during a two-night stand in New York and immediately resolved to ditch his partner and children. By the time the tour reached London, he’d reframed the entire episode, claiming a lucky escape from a “psycho groupie” who had schemed to destroy his stable at-home relationship. Everyone seemed happy to blame the siren temptress rather than the quisling male, while his wife received a few murmured sympathies and was left to piece together the remnants of her tattered self-esteem.
But the lack of sisterhood cut both ways. One of my own male band members once picked up a girl who would be frostily uncommunicative with me, then sit fiddling with his hair and wiping food remnants off his face anytime I tried to hold a conversation. I was glad to see the back of her. I imagine Elastica’s “Line Up” was probably written from singer Justine Frischmann’s firsthand experience of ex Damon Albarn’s dalliances, the lyrics describing a “drivelhead” who “loves all the stars, loves to suck their shiny guitars.”
For myself, I’ve only once been approached by a self-described male groupie, whose opening line was an offer to “lick me till I scream.” Even if I hadn’t found him revolting, inviting a complete stranger into a hotel room for sex carries risks for a woman, not least if you decide you aren’t interested after all and want him to leave. If things turn ugly, you’re likely to be at a disadvantage. For the most part, the term only ever applied to men in an emasculating sense—fawning and starstruck, stripped of the sex.
And yet, most of the men I met in and around bands didn’t crave an endless stream of faceless fucks. They yearned for love as much as any hormonal teen girl. Sure, they’d be tempted by a no-strings one-nighter, but the women were just as capable of meaningless sex when there was no risk to personal safety or reputation. I hope things have changed—that today’s rock wives and groupies are freed from the snide connotations, and that in these more enlightened times we’ve learned to judge women and men on equal terms. But I’m not holding my breath.
Miki Berenyi is best known as a singer and guitarist in the beloved Britpop band Lush. Her first book, Fingers Crossed: How Music Saved Me From Success, was released in 2022.