The Greatest Band That Never Was

The B-Girls opened for The Clash, and counted Debbie Harry as a fan — so how come they didn't make it?

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Not every band makes it. The B-Girls, a Toronto all-female rock band, formed in the late '70s. They opened for the Clash on the East Coast dates of their London Calling tour. They played regular gigs at CBGB and Max's Kansas City. Numerous labels wanted to sign the B-Girls, and even more people wanted to produce their debut record. But it just didn't happen.

The B-Girls wanted something more than the music industry would offer them. They wanted to play their own instruments, write their own songs, and craft their own identity. Then, as is too often the case now, all they found were men at record labels who wanted to turn them into something else, something more marketable.

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Now, on the band's 40th anniversary, bassist and singer Cynthia Ross has reunited with original member Lucasta Ross (no relation) to reform the B-Girls — one of the great female bands that never came to be. The group is releasing Bad Not Evil, their first record on August 11 crafted from demos recorded between 1977 and 1982 that were produced by absolute legends, including Debbie Harry of Blondie, Mick Jones of the Clash, Craig Leon (producer for Blondie and the Ramones), and themselves. Fans can get a special edition on pink vinyl.

Here, Cynthia Ross talks to Lenny about forming the band, why they didn't release an album, and what it was like to be a self-sufficient group of women in the punk-rock scene.

Courtney E. Smith: How did the B-Girls form?

Cynthia Ross: The B-Girls formed in early 1977. At the time, punk rock was exploding in Toronto, in New York, in London, and in basements around North America. We actually formed in Phil Lynott's [the singer of Thin Lizzy] hotel bathroom after his band played a concert. We went to the show that night, and we were just hanging out with the guys in that band. I think I was just turning 21. There were a few other girls that I had seen at every concert that I'd gone to — you know, New York Dolls, Roxy Music, Iggy and the Stooges, the Velvet Underground, that type of band. A lot of bands were starting to form then with guys who really couldn't play their instruments, so I saw it as a time of opportunity to form my own band.

I met another girl, whose name was Lucasta Ross. We were in the hotel bathroom doing our makeup. I said to her, "Have you ever thought of starting a band?" I was tired of standing around watching guys doing it, and I thought that we could do it too. Why not?! She responded that yes, she thought about it every day. So I said, "Let's do it."

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CES: Why did you decide to form an all-girl band?

CR: Because there really weren't any, besides the Runaways, who were playing rock and roll. I'm a girls' girl. We were a girl gang. We were hanging out together. We liked each other. We looked up to girl groups from the '60s like the Shangri-Las and the Ronettes, so we brought that aesthetic into what was then the modern day. I think we were ahead of our time. Some of our song titles, like "Who Says Girls Can't Rock," "I'll Be Your Alibi," and "Fun at the Beach," they sound like pretty inane topics. But we're singing about things that we were going through at the time. We weren't trying to be intellectual or political. We weren't an art band. We weren't punk, but we emerged during the punk time because it was a good opportunity to come out.

Lucasta said she wouldn't be in the band unless her best friend Xenia could join. I asked if she could play any instruments, and she couldn't, so I said, "OK, I guess you can join." Then I asked my sister Rhonda if she wanted to join — she also couldn't play any instruments [laughs], but she could sing, she sang jingles. She had a trained voice and was ahead of the rest of us in that way. I had played piano as a child. We decided there and then who was going to play what instrument. I knew I was a bass player. We put my sister Rhonda Ross on drums. Xenia became the guitar player, and Lucasta played guitar and became the front person. We proceeded to start rehearsing in earnest in my poor parents' basement in the suburbs of Toronto. [Laughs.] They endured quite a lot.

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CES: Once you formed the band and found all the right people, what did you do to get it going?

CR: We were learning how to play our instruments at the same time that we were writing songs and learning how to play them. We figured out it would be easier to write our own songs than play other people's songs because no one would know if we made mistakes. We didn't want to be a cover band. We were very innocent and naïve about the whole thing. But it felt like everybody wanted us to succeed. We had been going to New York to CBGB and Max's Kansas City to see our friends play. We would drive back and forth — not necessarily the whole band, but I was going and one or two of the other girls had come a few times. We just knew that there was more happening in New York City, and we were excited about it. We started playing CBGB's about once a month very early on.

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CES: What was your band's relationship with Debbie Harry of Blondie?

CR: Debbie is a wonderful, super-intelligent, gorgeous, talented person, and she always was. To me, Debbie has always been like my older sister. The B-Girls and Blondie did a lot of gigs together in the very beginning. She let us open for her, and we sang backup vocals on Blondie's album Autoamerican. We've maintained this great mentoring relationship, all these years. I still talk to her.

They were ahead of us, and she was the only woman in her band. She was very protective and gave us some advice that I might have taken too much to heart — that might be why we never signed a major record deal. She warned us that as four good-looking young women who play their instruments, every guy from every record company and every management organization was going to see us as their male fantasy. She explained that they would try to change us and that we could lose creative control — and that we shouldn't allow that. Debbie told us they would tell us that guy musicians would have to play on our records instead of us. She warned us that they would try to send us to choreography lessons, say one of us has to lose weight, say one of us can't play — you know, the divide-and-conquer thing. And she was right.

CES: That's basically the story of what happened to the Go-Go's.

CR: The Go-Go's — that's an interesting thing. I was the manager of the B-Girls. I wrote most of the songs. I booked the gigs. I did all the flyers. We had a look, an image. And we had this fan club, the B-Girls fan club. I still have a fan letter from Charlotte Caffey of the Go-Go's, asking me asking me how to start an all-girl band. The funny thing was, one of these record companies that we had spoken to during the time when a lot of people were courting us was I.R.S., and they did exactly what Debbie warned us about. They wanted to have guys play guitar on our records, and I said no. So they signed the Go-Go's six months later.

CES: The story of the B-Girls is so hard to read, because it seems like for every step forward, you took two steps back. Would you go back and do anything different?

CR: I think I was overly cautious. There are things that I know now, with experience, that I completely didn't know then. For instance, that documentary on the Wrecking Crew, the band who played on records [instead of the actual band] for the Beach Boys and the Mamas and the Papas. At the time, I really believed that the Runaways played all their instruments on their records. Same for the Go-Go's, and you know, some of them did, but some of them didn't. The difference was those bands were created by men who put a band together and picked girls from auditions. We came together in a much more organic way. We were four young girls who were determined to learn to play our instruments and be a good band. I wasn't going to settle for signing a deal where we weren't all together, being who we were, playing our own instruments. I was afraid I was going to sign the wrong deal and that we weren't going to [be able to] stay true to who we were.

CES: Does putting this album out now help you cope with that?

CR: Totally. I think what I'm doing now, it's unfinished business.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Courtney E. Smith is a freelance writer based in Texas and the author of Record Collecting for Girls.

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