“Sometimes I wonder if my life is in vain” - Riding in Thunder
If you thought it was about the tits, you were right. But it wasn’t about sex, it was about power, gender-politics, and feminism. Believe me, this was not clear to me when I bought this album at the tender age of 15. I bought it because of the tits, and the leather, and the endless, intoxicating promise of sky-cracking heavy metal thunder. But head-bitch Betsy was, it turns out, a pioneer. Along with Wendy O Williams and…well, really, no one else in the casually sexist circus of 80s metal, Betsy presented a second option to the hordes of hairsprayed and fishnetted female flash metal fans relegated to groupie/girlfriend status or “girl bands” forced to look pretty and let the boys do the talking.
Betsy saw a world where women could own their sexuality, no matter how extreme it might be, where a girl could be just as tough, vicious, and filled with gnawing lust as the fellas. Betsy’s new strain of feminism involved knuckles and muscles and screaming guitars, and she was unafraid of whatever dangers that held. It is only now, some thirty years down the line, that the fruit of her labours are beginning to take root. Pop music in the mid 2010’s is littered with empowered females, some of whom are half-naked and leather-bound on a fairly regular basis, and female musicians abound in every genre of music, even the heaviest of heavy metals. Clearly, this is not solely the work of one Betsy ‘Bitch’ Weiss, but still, she helped, man. You better believe it wasn’t easy being a Bitch in the middle of a testosterone orgy like the Hollywood metal scene.
Bitch was formed in 1980 by guitarist David Carruth (ex-Bad Axe) and Betsy, who had just left a ska band called The Boxboys. Carruth was friends with future Metal Blade kingpin Brian Slagel, who was just putting his label together at the time. They appeared on the seminal first volume of the Metal Massacre compilation (1981), which also featured the likes of Metallica, Cirith Ungol, and Avatar (later Savatage), and a year later, Metal Blade released Bitch’s debut, the raw, crunching Damnation Alley EP. Along the way, Bitch had garnered a rabid local following in Los Angeles, due in no small part to Betsy’s leather n’ latex bondage outfits, and her onstage routine, which involved whipping ‘slaves’ yanked from the crowd, and other such kinky gimmicks. Many years later, goth-dustrial bands like the Genitorturers and the Women of Sodom would cop Betsy’s routine and take it to bloody, pornographic extremes, but at the time, Bitch was about as sexy as rock’n’roll was gonna get.
Meanwhile, a dramatically active metal scene had erupted all around Bitch. Slayer’s first gig was opening for them, and they routinely shared stages with the likes of WASP, Armored Saint, Steeler, Motley Crue, and Ratt. Surprisingly, during this feeding frenzy, when major labels were handing out contracts to every gang of guitar-toting cross-dressers on the Sunset strip, Bitch stuck with the fiercely independent Metal Blade, releasing their first full-length, Be My Slave in 1983.
If Bitch ever had a ‘classic’ album, this was it. Certainly the cover is a classic. Betsy’s on her knees, draped head to toe in spikes n’ leather, surrounded by S&M gear, beckoning you with one crooked finger, and wielding a whip with her other hand. The Bitch logo is pretty fantastic too, every hand-scrawled letter representing one of Betsy’s sex-weapons: handcuffs, a riding crop, silver daggers. In a world as macho and prosaic as 80s metal, Be My Slave invited you into a shadow-realm of danger and outright deviance, a sexual neverland of bondage and discipline that never bubbled up to the surface before, at least not in the vanilla-scented realm of mainstream rock’n’roll. Musically, well, it did the job. Vocally, Betsy wasn’t too far away from power-pop champ Pet Benatar, which mellowed Bitch’s crunching bludgeon-metal quite a bit, but songs like Riding in Thunder, Leatherbound, and Heavy Metal Breakdown are pleasantly over-the-top slabs of cock-rock laced with punk energy and proto-speed metal riffs.
Be My Slave should’ve been Bitch’s breakthrough, but things just didn’t go their way. How do you market hardcore S&M to MTV? Can you even say ‘Bitch’ on the radio? Should they shave off the raw edges and go for a more melodic sound? Management issues kept them off the scene for a couple years and when they finally returned with the underwhelming Bitch is Back album in ‘87 – featuring a full-on power metal sound and a naked Betsy on the cover - the world had already moved on. A year later, they re-dubbed themselves Betsy, figuring it was the Bitch name holding ‘em back from radio airplay and national success. When that didn’t work, they went back to being Bitch for another album, ‘89’s A Rose by Any Other Name, but by then, everybody had already gone on to other diversions. It was pretty much impossible for both Bitch and Big Black to be operating in the same musical universe, so one of ‘em had to go, you know? So away Bitch went.
And that’s a shame. Ultimately what happened here is that Bitch lost the plot. They attempted to play it safe when they were supposed to be the exact opposite. Bitch was the fang-toothed roar of female sexuality at a time when women in rock were expected to be submissive. I mean, the goddamn album was called Be My Slave, you know? Still, it’s about time Betsy got some accolades for her pioneering work in heavy metal. Bitch were one of the very first female-fronted metal bands in operation, and Betsy was as tough and ballsy as any of her male counterparts.
And here’s the good news: although they haven’t released an album since 1989, Bitch is still together, in one form or another. You can still be Betsy’s slave, if you’re man/woman enough.
Next week: Motor City Resurrection