There was a time when being backstage had some meaning.
When what happened there happened in the moment, living on only in whisper and hearsay. When there was no Instagram filtration to immortalise the moments of debauchery and, sometimes, tragedy. One place to watch a gig and one place to be when the curtain fell.
This time was 1968 when the groupie ruled. It was co-founder and first Chief Photographer of Rolling Stone magazine, Baron Wolman, who first noticed the ‘silent subculture’ of stylish and savvy groupies emerge. Rumoured to be prolific sexual predators on a similar wavelength with their intended prey, nobody was around for too long and everyone was on good, though somewhat short terms.
Wolman and Rolling Stone magazine stunned the world in 1969 by publishing a ‘supergroupie’ issue. The “Special Super-Duper Neat Issue” issue of Rolling Stone, which opened with a 14,000-word introduction to the phenomenon of the rock groupie, explored the difference between the featured groupies and (the lesser) so called “star-fuckers”.
The issue highlighted Wolman’s unrivalled access to musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, The Doors and The Rolling Stones through the series of black and white photographs of the girls who inevitably came along side them.
Chief of the ‘supergroupie’ scene was Pamela Des Barres. Recognised as the “Queen of the Groupies”, she was the lead figure in Frank Zappa’s constructed ‘supergroupie’ group The GTOs and is widely assumed as the inspiration behind Penny Lane in 2000 film Almost Famous.
The GTOs (aka “Girls Together Outrageously, Orally or pretty much anything starting with an ‘O’” as Wolman referred to them) were a mixture of theatrics, singing, and dancing with a supporting band (as few of them could play instruments). Made up of Miss Pamela, Miss Mercy, Miss Cynderella, Miss Christine, Miss Lucy, Miss Sparky and Miss Sandra, they released their one and only album, ‘Permanent Damage’, in 1969 shortly before disbanding due to a number of members being arrested for drug possession.
The recently published book Groupies and Other Electric Ladies teams Wolman’s original portraits of the GTO’s amongst the other women featured in the issue with contact sheets, interviews as well as new essays on the subject.
The openness with which the women talk of pursuing the most desirable “cats” is met by reproachful attitudes from the journalists. Although many of the girls liked the portraits, they favoured the less-than-complimentary surrounding text less.
One of the “other girls” alluded to in the title of the Rolling Stones issue was Trixie Merkin. A Radcliffe graduate and bassist in the band Anonymous Artists of America, she was keen to be featured in the issue but less thrilled to be associated with the ‘supergroupies’.
That Merkin’s only opportunity to be featured in Rolling Stones magazine was in the ‘groupie’ issue can be taken as reflective of how few female musicians there were on the music scene. Ironically she decided she wanted to appear topless amongst the otherwise largely chaste portraits of the groupies.
So what made these women so fascinating and entranced Wolman to dub them a ‘subculture of chic’? Beyond their devotion to music and musicians they also had a huge influence on fashion. Their on-the-fly street style which heralded 1920s bohemia, bordello chic, Victorian lace and mod remnants made up their iconic vintage rock look.
Icons in their own right, their unique style can still be seen as inspiring the likes of Anna Sui, Catherine Malandrino and Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen today.