Infamous History of The Deadly Nightshade
When the Smithsonian Institution asked The Deadly Nightshade for band “artifacts” at one of the band’s last gigs in 1977, no one was more puzzled than the female trio (lead guitar/fiddle player Helen Hooke, rhythm guitarist Anne Bowen, and bass player Pamela Robin Brandt)… except, perhaps, the Smithsonian. It was, after all, the first time that a women’s band would appear in the museum’s women’s history archives.
As the Division of Political History’s assistant curator Edith Mayo explained in a 1978 letter thanking the band for their donation, “Our holdings in women’s history are primarily in the political field: suffrage, ERA, women in politics, women’s conventions, International Women’s Year, etc.”
Hence the dilemma: Where, among all the serious political treatises et al, to place an Appalachian dancing doll, some very loud electric instruments, and a disreputable cut-off black T-shirt bearing what Mayo referred to as the band’s mysterious and “rather ominous-sounding name?"
Right next to Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s desk, as it turned out. “I found your materials so fascinating as an example of the types of entertainment at feminist conventions and conferences, in addition to your feminist music, that I find it a good addition to our collections,” Mayo wrote. “You may be pleased / amused / awed or whatever to learn that your materials will be keeping company with such figures as Stanton, Anthony, Catt, Dr. Mary Walker, Bella Abzug, and the like.”
The honor was not the first “first” for Brandt, Bowen, and Hooke, who began playing together as Ivy League college women (Bowen and Hooke at Smith, Brandt down the road at Mt. Holyoke) circa 1968, in the ambitious “symphonic rock” band Ariel. At the time, there were female rock singers fronting otherwise male bands, but virtually no bands of women who played their own instruments. Ariel was one of the first.
The music business in the 1970s was a very different from what it is today. The business was dominated by the major labels, who controlled the recording, manufacturing and distribution of albums. There were few alternatives, especially for popular music. And we were determined to get a major deal.
The five-woman band got as far as the Fillmore East in 1969, which resulted in an article in Newsweek and interest from several major recording labels. There Ariel dead-ended, along with the surging US economy and restructuring of the major record labels which had courted them, in 1970.
The extended and more colorful account in the form of a conversational interview:
Helen: “We were sitting in one record executive’s office, and another executive popped his head in the door and said, ‘Don’t sign an all-girl band. We’ll just have to pay for their abortions.’”
Anne: “Another major label said we were great, but they were passing because they already had an all-girl band.”
Pam: “Of course every label had a zillion all-boy bands. All-female bands were novelty acts; you could only use one. It slowly dawned on us that we were being treated with the same respect accorded The Singing Dogs.”
Anne: “I swore I’d never play professionally again.”
As if. Landing back in their old western Massachusetts college stomping grounds, the three were pursuing different career paths in 1972—Anne, grad school in philosophy; Pam and Helen haunting early feminist conferences in an unsuccessful search for other electric ladies. They supported themselves doing various odd jobs, including construction site clean-up.
Then Northampton’s fledgling feminist Valley Women’s Center, which Bowen had helped found, needed musical entertainment for an International Women’s Day event.
Anne: “We couldn’t find any women rock musicians, and we still had the amplifiers. So we put together a quick and dirty band to perform there.”
Pam: “But since it was just the three of us, with no drummer, pretentious Ariel-type stuff wasn’t possible. Darn. So we just played songs we liked, and thought a hugely varied audience would like.”
Helen: “The response was incredible! And immediately, offers for other gigs started coming in. We thought, ‘Hmm. Sure beats collecting garbage.’”
Pam: “So we learned around 100-150 songs. We wanted to be able to play anyplace that wanted to hire us.”
Anne: “Four sets in a rock club? Sure. A dance? We did many Motown songs. One of our best jobs ever was a benefit concert in Detroit, hosted by Lily Tomlin, where we got to be the back-up band for Flo Ballard of the Supremes” (as mentioned in the book Dream Girl).
Pam: “If a C&W club called, Anne sings a wicked Patsy Cline; Helen, who studied violin at Eastman School of Music back in high school, plays absolutely kamikaze fiddle, so we did lots of bluegrass, too. And when there were holes in our repertoire, we wrote songs to fill them.
Helen: "We started writing our own feminist anthems.”
Pam: “We also wrote songs about food, plastic surgery, and laundromats. Very few mellow songs, though. The Deadly Nightshade was high energy. We’d always hit the stage at 110%, and escalate from there.”
Anne: “Mostly we were a dance band, even without a drummer. People would always dance. At concerts they’d dance in the aisles.”
After three years of packing venues ranging from the Saints (a legendary Boston women’s bar) to the equally legendary Max’s Kansas City in New York, The Deadly Nightshade signed a recording contract with the RCA custom label, Phantom. The contract featured another “first”—a clause prohibiting sexist exploitation.
Anne: “We only had to invoke it once. RCA ran an offensive ad in a bunch of national publications. So we scribbled corrections all over it with a big red marker, and made them re-run it.”
During their career, The Deadly Nightshade recorded two albums featuring original songs ("The Deadly Nightshade" and "F & W") for RCA/Phantom. Both received Grammy nominations for Best New Artist. The Deadlies also released two singles, including a disco version of the theme from “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”. It charted number 67 nationally, and went top ten in Miami and Toledo.
After the release of the first LP, they began performing nationwide as Billy Joel's opening act on his 1976 national "New York State of Mind" tour, and opening shows for the likes of Sister Sledge, Commander Cody, Poco, Peter Frampton, Elvin Bishop, Don McClean, Lily Tomlin, and Kermit the Frog, among others. They performed at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, the Boarding House in San Francisco, the Quiet Knight in Chicago, the Cellar Door in Washington, DC, and the Main Line in Philadelphia.
They also played many women’s functions, including national conventions for the National Organization for Women and the National Women’s Political Caucus, political fundraisers for candidates such as Mary Ann Krupsak and Barbara Mikulski, and appeared on several episodes of Sesame Street, for which the band wrote almost a dozen songs, one of which, “Wheels on my Feet,” was recorded on Big Bird’s Greatest Hits CD.
Pam: “We appeared on lots of TV shows, but several segments on ‘Sesame Street’ were the biggest thrill.”
Clubs that The Deadly Nightshade headlined include the Bottom Line, the Other End, and Folk City (New York), the Troubadour (Los Angeles), the Boarding House and Wild Side West in San Francisco, Passim (Boston), the Main Line (Philadelphia), and similar quality venues, plus many country music joints with bullet holes in the walls. (In the mid-1990s, The Deadly Nightshade was inducted into the archives of the Country Music Hall of Fame.)
As for larger concert venues, the band was the loudest act to ever perform at the Philadelphia Folk Festival. They played Nassau Colliseum, Miami’s Gusman Auditorium, Nashville Civic Center, and Town Hall in New York. They played the National Women’s Music Festival (three times), and blew out the electrical power at the New England Women’s Music Festival.
During the four times they played New York’s Gay Pride Rally in Central Park, they performed in front of over 10,000 people. At the famous End the War Rally to celebrate the end of the Vietnam War, they performed for a crowd of 50,000, along with Paul Simon, Joan Baez, Richie Havens, Phil Ochs, Harry Belafonte, and other stars and politicians.
Anne: “There were too many political rallies to remember. I do recall one where New York’s lieutenant governor Mary Anne Krupsak polkaed with Senator Barbara Mikulski, to ‘In Heaven There Is No Beer’. And many NOW conventions. In Atlantic City we locked the custodian in the closet because he was trying to shut the show down at the end of his shift, and we wouldn’t let him because all those NOW women were having such a fabulous time.”
Pam: “What I liked best about how The Deadly Nightshade affected audiences is that people always had a fabulous time together, even in the weirdest places. I looked out on the dance floor one night, in this tough hole-in-the-wall C&W bar, and there were straight-as-boards couples in square dance outfits dancing next to these lesbian couples who’d told me they usually only felt comfortable at all-women’s venues. And doing a circle dance around the room was a bunch of gay guys wearing long dresses… and beards. It was like a microcosm of the world as it ought to be. No fighting, Big Fun.”
So… the ominous name?
Pam: “Deadly nightshade is a poisonous plant which, utilized respectfully, can be quite fun. It’s an aphrodisiac, and medieval witches used it to give them the feeling of flying. Abuse it, though, and pfft. You’re toast.”
Helen: “Also, another name for the deadly nightshade plant is belladonna, which, in Italian, means ‘beautiful woman’.”
Pam: “Um… But actually, we only looked up all that meaningful stuff after people started asking us about the name.”
Helen: “Really, I just always wanted to name a band The Deadly Nightshade.”
Anne: “So we let her.”
Formally, The Deadly Nightshade’s final gig was at the first International Women’s Conference in Houston, in 1977. But they played occasional other “absolutely-the-last-and this-time-we-REALLY-mean-it!” jobs after that, and reunited for "just a few more" tours in 2008.
Pam: “Back in the day, when young women weren’t supposed to play in rock bands, we helped to break that barrier by doing it ourselves. Now, thirty years later, old ladies for sure aren’t supposed to act so outrageously. We’d like to take a crack at that barrier, too.”
A few years after losing Pam to a sudden, massive heart attack, Helen and Anne decided the best way to honor her was to keep the music alive with duo and even trio performances (featuring Lisa Koch on bass) when travel and life allows.
Anne: “As the song says, Breaking Up Is Hard to Do.”
Helen: Our records from 1975 and 1976 were and still are owned by the record company… first it was RCA, then they were bought by Bertelsmann, then they were bought by Sony. We had no rights to the records, only to the songs we wrote. Finally, in 2019, Sony Music, who now owned our 1975 and 1976 albums, digitized and put our records on Spotify and all of the Digital Music streaming services for all the current world to enjoy.