Left to right, Holt, Alexander, Kayon, Frucci, Bartell and Gage backstage at First Avenue. Photo by Catherine Settanni.
|Genres||Rock, alternative rock, punk rock, folk rock|
|Past members||Polly Alexander
Têtes Noires was the first all-female rock band from Minneapolis, Minnesota, best known for their "casually mocking" feminist lyrics and for three- and sometimes up to six-part vocal harmonies. Founded by former Miss South Dakota Jennifer Holt, they gave concerts from 1983 until about 1987, and recorded three albums which received positive reviews nationally. As Susan Borey wrote for Spin, the name means "black heads" in French, which they used to describe their hair color (like birds and not a complexion problem).
Founding and personnel
Holt (vocals, violin) formed the band in 1982, as a one-time performance art project. (Vixen, the first all female rock band in the Twin Cities, formed in Saint Paul a year or two earlier.) Acceptance and critical acclaim made them a sextet. Along with Holt were: Polly Alexander (guitar), Cynthia Bartell (bass, vocals), Angela Frucci (piano, keyboards), Camille Gage (vocals, keyboards), and Renée Kayon (percussion, vocals).
They used a 1950s drum machine named "Barbie" until their third album when drummer Cristel Little joined. Gage, Holt, and Kayon did lead vocals. Gage and Holt were the primary songwriters. As they explained to a writer for Spin, the band was a self-managed collective: Holt and Gage did public relations, Alexander did the finances, Bartell did record distribution and promotion, Kayon took care of graphics, and Frucci drove their truck.
Gage said about their first show in 1983 at the Pride Festival in Loring Park, "What we were doing was very unusual. The music was unusual. What was frustrating is that you reach a point where you want people to listen to the music and get past the novelty aspect and pay attention, which I think people do relatively quickly".
The band toured for five years, playing CBGB, Folk City and the Walker Art Center. They played the Bottom Line twice in 1985, once opening for Richard Thompson. At the time, Minneapolis had a healthy indie music scene that included Prince, The Replacements and, booking acts from across the world, the nightclub First Avenue where the band played about 10 times from 1984 through 1986.
Recordings and critical reaction
Critics loved all three albums, and more universally applauded their first two, both self-produced on their own indie label, Rapunzel. Trouser Press thought their second album, American Dream, showed what they could do as songwriters: topics covered included the Unification Church, the American family, world peace and gay murder. They also thought the singers "could blow the Bangles off the map".
The band then worked with Victor DeLorenzo and Brian Ritchie of Violent Femmes who produced their third album. In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Holt explained the addition of a drummer, "the feeling was our music wasn't weird enough to get art grants and yet without a drummer it wasn't accessible enough to a lot of people". Holt said of their song "Bless Me", an "irreverent" look at religious confession, "it's just in fun for us, and that's kind of the way we are ... we like to poke fun at American institutions". A review for iTunes said it, "mixed folk and choral influences with the kind of lighter new wave sound of Blondie and the B-52's" and that:
The problem with the album may not have been that it was too commercial for the group's existing fan base, but that it wasn't commercial enough (or released by a powerful enough marketer). "Dear Jane," for example, was a pop hit waiting to happen; that is, if it could have been produced in an even more pop style and if America were ready to embrace a song about the breakup of apparently gay lovers.
In 2007, Jon Bream, music critic for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, called them the "late, almost-great 1980s arty popsters". Writing during the same year in his book, Music Legends, Martin Keller calls the band "highly influential" and says they paved the way for Babes in Toyland and ZuZu's Petals.
Multi-talented, artsy but fun outfits like Têtes Noires can only add to the credibility and stature of women in rock.
John Bush, writing for Allmusic, said their third album, Clay Foot Gods, "proved a disappointment, much more commercial than the first two LPs." Spin said in 1987, however, reviewing the same album:
But don't think Têtes Noires are just a clever cover band skipping through a potpourri of styles; on the contrary, this gang has carved an original sound: stellar harmonies and sharp lyrics tempered with humor.
- Têtes Noires (Rapunzel) 1983
- American Dream (Rapunzel) 1984
- Clay Foot Gods (Rounder) 1987
- The New American Dream 2013
- Walsh, Jim (October 31, 2005). "Tetes Noires founder Polly Alexander dead at 47". City Pages (The Village Voice). Retrieved January 24, 2012.
- Pareles, Jon (July 27, 1985). "Pop: Tetes Noires In Concert". The New York Times. Retrieved January 24, 2012.
- Borey, Susan (January 1986). "Têtes Noires is French for blackheads.". SPIN 1 (9) (Spin Media via Google Books). p. 10.
- "Têtes Noires". Billboard. Retrieved January 24, 2012.
- Walter, Kate (Nov–Dec 1987). "Têtes Noires: Clay Foot Gods (Rounder)". SPIN 3 (7) (Spin Media via Google Books). p. 32.
- "Vixen". Rita van Poorten (metalmaidens.com). Retrieved January 27, 2012.
- Huet, Timothy (September 30, 1987). "Têtes Noires will turn heads". The Michigan Daily. Retrieved January 24, 2012.
- Fleischmann, Mark and Robbins, Ira. "Têtes Noires". Trouser Press. Retrieved January 24, 2012.
- Jurrjens, Julie (July 17, 1985). "Tetes' Novel Style Brings House Down". The Michigan Daily. Retrieved January 24, 2012.
- McCormick, Moira (June 8, 1985). "Tetes Noires: West End, Chicago: Tickets $5". Billboard 97 (23) (Nielsen Business Media via Google Books). p. 45.
- "The History of Women's Music in Minnesota". Rebekka Fisher. Retrieved January 24, 2012.
- "Camille Gage: The Art of Co-Creation". On the Commons. Retrieved January 24, 2012.
- "Time Line". The Bottom Line. Retrieved January 24, 2012.
- "First Avenue & 7th Street Entry Band Files". Minnesota Historical Society. 1977–2004. Retrieved January 24, 2012.
- Walsh, Jim (April 2000). "Back in the Days: Minneapolis, 1985-86". Spin 16 (4) (Spin Media via Google Books). p. 166. Retrieved January 26, 2012.
- "Clay Foot Gods". iTunes. Apple. Retrieved January 25, 2012.
- Bream, Jon, Chris Riemenschneider and Tom Surowicz (December 27, 2007). "The big gig". Star Tribune. Retrieved January 24, 2012.
- Keller, Martin (2007). Music Legends: A Rewind on the Minnesota Music Scene. D Media. pp. 90–91. ISBN 978-0-9787956-1-0.
- Bush, John. "Têtes Noires". allmusic. Rovi. Retrieved January 25, 2012.