Back in 1974 there had been a lot of talk about Blood Sweat & Tears since they had taken over the airwaves in recent years with their brilliant tunes even after Al Kooper left the band. Unfortunately, there wasn't much talk about the female version of that same sound. Carol MacDonald and Ginger Bianco formed this musical vision, developing the somewhat original concept with horns, congas, bongos, and heavy emphasis on the all-girl band, sounding a little like another band from that same era (and good friend from Goldie & the Gingerbreads) Genya Ravan & Ten Wheel Drive. 1975's follow-up album was produced by Allen Toussaint and featured June Millington from another significant all-girl group, Fanny.
Carol MacDonald lead vocals, rhythm guitar, writer, arranger
Ginger Bianco drums, co-leader, co-founder, co-writer
Suzi Ghezzi lead guitar
Stella Bass bass, vocals, writer
Nydia “Liberty” Mata percussion, congas, bongos
Lauren Draper trumpet, French horn, vocals
Lolly Bienenfield trombone, vocals
Jeanie Fineberg tenor saxophone
In 1973, ISIS was the name chosen for an eight person all-female rock outfit founded by Goldie and the Gingerbreads alumnae Carol MacDonald and Ginger Bianco. In an age when the phrase “all-woman rock-band” was synonymous with the term “novelty act,” ISIS was a band made up of immensely talented women who were world-class instrumentalists. ISIS was a self-contained band, writing and performing original material and playing every note of it themselves. They decided on a conscious level to reach their audience through their music rather than through their sexuality.
From the beginning ISIS was competitive musically with the best male musicians of their day, but the playing field was decidedly uneven. Signed to recording deal with Buddah Records, and only the third all-female rock act to win the opportunity to record an entire album for a major record label behind Fanny and Birtha, ISIS was forced to fight the novelty-act stereotype each time they took the stage. Every gig they had to earn rock credibility, a quantity that all-male bands of their caliber could simply take for granted.
In the '60s and '70s, the role of the professional woman-musician was at best undefined. A handful of women and a handful of bands lead by women defined the role of the woman-musician in rock music. They stood their ground with a resolve that resonates throughout the music industry to this day. They took all the crap that comes with breaking new ground - took it with sweet smiles on their faces - and then simply refused to go away. They would not be marginalized. And to a woman, every one of them loved to be underestimated, but only a fool did that.
ISIS was a great live band, capable of blissful improvisations. They needed to be seen live to be fully appreciated, where their energy and ability to draw in an audience was legendary. Concert reviews from the era show that audiences loved them. In the beginning, they shared billings with Fanny, another notable all-female band, then on Reprise Records. Invitations and tours followed with the likes of Three Dog Night, Leon Russell, the Beach Boys, Kiss, ZZ Top and Aerosmith, among others.
Their body of recorded work includes three albums. Carol MacDonald was once quoted as saying that ISIS "served as a great training ground for women musicians, going through 73 members in seven years. ISIS became a school... And I encouraged women to go out and work in other places because there were so few jobs [for women], and we weren't getting work all the time." * Supporting her statement, the personnel on the three ISIS albums varied from 8 members on their first self-titled effort in 1974, to 10 women on the following year's AIN'T NO BACKING UP NOW, to 6 band members on the band's introspective final offering, 1977's BREAKING THROUGH. This does not include the many notable additional session players - all women - who also performed on the three albums.
The cover art on the first ISIS LP created a bit of a stir when it first hit record stores. The band members are pictured nude and painted chrome metallic on the front and back cover. In the days when album covers were 12" x 12", it was a bold statement, a pronouncement worthy of their namesake, saying in effect, "WE ARE HERE." The cover likely sold a few thousand units on its own, but the music on the LP backed up that statement. It remains energetic and confident from start to finish. Carol MacDonald's strong and soulful vocals were compared at the time to those of Janis Joplin and Maggie Bell (Stone The Crows, Rod Stewart), as well as Carol's long time cohort in Goldie & the Gingerbreads, Genya Ravan. The songs on the album are generally fun and show a diversity of influences. Of particular note are the percussive congas and bongos of Nydia "Liberty" Mata (Laura Nyro). Many critics at the time compared ISIS to the band Chicago because the two bands had similar instrumentation, but in retrospect the comparison seems pretty flawed beyond the fact that both bands were "horn bands" as opposed to "guitar bands."
From the beginning the women of ISIS faced comparisons to male acts by the press, even by those journalist who loved their music. These types of gender-related comparisons worked to trivialize their music. The underlying point was that the band was "different." Good different or bad different hardly mattered, ISIS was made up of women and that became the story, with their music made a secondary consideration. Every article characterized them either as feminists or else seemed to suggested that they had abandoned their femininity by virtue of their career choice.
In fact, the true legacy of ISIS may well be something beyond their music. They managed to make music and survive as a musical unit for 7 years during a period when they logically should have failed miserably. A revolution was occurring at all levels within Western culture to change stereotypical thinking and core societal norms relating to what a woman was capable of doing and being. In the music industry, it was particularly slow going.
Genya Ravan, AKA "Goldie Zelkowitz," the lead singer of Goldie and the Gingerbreads and the only member of that band not to take part in ISIS, went on to front Ten Wheel Drive and later became the first established female record producer of note. The four remaining individual members of Goldie and the Gingerbreads, and later ISIS, were in both the first and fifth all-woman bands to be signed to a major label recording contract, with almost 9 years separating those two events.
The music of ISIS reflects the times in which it was created, of course. But one extraordinary point which should be made in any biography of ISIS is the openness with which the band expressed the lesbian point of view. Two songs on the band's 1975 second album AIN'T NO BACKIN' UP NOW, "She Loves Me," and "Bobbie and Maria," explicitly speak of sexual love between women. Societal attitudes toward gay partnerships in the US during the mid to late '70s were generally intolerant, to put it mildly. One needs only to look at the near fatal career slide of Elton John following his official 1976 "coming out" in a Rolling Stone interview to see evidence of that intolerance.
Like the intrepid goddess whose name they championed, the members of ISIS were courageous indeed to make such a personal expression. And just to be sure, the album was issued with a lyric sheet for those who might want to check out what they MIGHT have heard while listening to the record. It certainly didn't help album sales, however, and likely helped bring about the band's ensuing label change, personnel shake-up and eventual demise. Carol MacDonald on that very subject: "I had too many years of being in the closet. I did that with Goldie and the Gingerbreads - it drove me crazy! I hated it! ISIS may have made it if I hadn't come out. Maybe. I don't know that though. The girls that [joined] the band, they were ... gonna get a rep as being gay because of me, and I would tell them that from the beginning - because most of them weren't [gay]." ** ISIS was truly a band ahead of its time. The women in ISIS tore down barriers for future women musicians by surviving in the music industry, a system designed for men by men, for 7 years.