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The 10 Greatest Heavy Metal Front-Women

In times past, heavy metal was often charged with being a “boy’s club” where women were not only unwelcome, but they wouldn’t want to be there in the first place what with all the music’s fire and blood and Satan and other stuff that’s supposed to make prissy girls say, “Yuck!”

What a load of hellacious hogwash. From the very earliest days of heavy metal, female vocalists and musicians have raised an unholy racket and propelled the form forward with beautifully brutal force.

Contemporary metal is loaded with ferocious frontwomen and lady-players on par with any of their male counterparts. No true metalhead can or would dispute that. Just consider Amy Lee of Evanescence, Cristina Scabbia of Lacuna Coil, Laura Pleasants of Kylesa, Alia O’Brien of Blood Ceremony, Rosalie Cunningham of Purson, Christine Davis of Christian Mistress, Jess of Jess and the Ancient Ones, and Jex Thoth of, uh, Jex Thoth (like Alice Cooper, the band and the singer share a single name).

Let’s look back now, and raise horns all around, to ten Iron Maidens who blazed trails as classic heavy metal frontwomen.

Wendy O. Williams of Plasmatics

“Black Leather Monster” 

Shock-rock’s supreme anti-goddess Wendy O. Williams performed with a rhinoceros horn on her head, electrical tape on her nipples, a working chainsaw in each hand, and absolutely no fear whatsoever.

The Plasmatics, Wendy’s pioneering take-no-prisoners platoon, spearheaded the punk-metal crossover. She collaborated and played live often with Joey Ramone and Lemmy, and eventually sang lead on Motörhead’s 1982 slash-and-burn cover of Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man.”

Despite the extreme nature of their music and live shows, W.O.W.’s talent and charisma regularly landed the Plasmatics on mainstream media outlets. They certainly stood out in 1981, for example, on the weekly Top 40 TV pop showcase Solid Gold, where Wendy not only tore the house down wailing through “Black Leather Monster,” she joked around with the show’s bawdy house puppet, Madame.

After the Plasmatics disbanded in 1984, Wendy put out a solo album, W.O.W, produced by Gene Simmons and featuring the rest of Kiss playing on the tracks. From there, Wendy turned to acting, starring on stage in The Rocky Horror Show, before making an unforgettable villain in the 1986 cult classic Reform School Girls and later bringing sexy menace to her turn as a spy on the Fox sitcom, The New Adventures of Beans Baxter.

Tragically, Wendy O. Williams committed suicide in 1998. A fitting memorial was held for her at New York’s legendary birthplace of extreme modern rock, CBGB. W.O.W.’s impact on metal overall, and women in metal in particular, can’t be understated. So shout it loud and to truly make it count, blow up a car or shotgun a wall of TV sets just like Wendy would have (and did).

Lita Ford (solo and with The Runaways)

“If I Close My Eyes Forever”—Lita Ford with Ozzy Osbourne

British-born, Los Angeles-raised Lita Ford is a guitar sorceress of the highest order who also hits impossible high notes with her hugely operatic mezzo-soprano voice. She’s still rocking, and still incomparable.

Ford initially stormed the hard rock scene backing Joan Jett and Cherie Currie as the lead axewoman for the queens of punk-metal, the Runaways. She was sixteen when she first joined.

Following the Runaways’ bust-up in 1979, Lita commenced a slow-burn solo career that steadily built a devoted following. Ford caught fire with her 1988 album, Lita, and its breakout hit, “Kiss Me Deadly” that rocked pop radio, Headbanger’s Ball, and all listeners in between.

The follow-up single, “Close My Eyes Forever,” Lita’s duet with Ozzy Osbourne, became and all-out monster and one of the best loved (albeit spooky) slow dance numbers of the decade.

Like music, Lita prefers her men metal. For about the length of a guitar solo in the mid-’80s, she was engaged to Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi. Lita later briefly wed W.A.S.P guitarist Chris Holmes and, in 1994, she married Nitro vocalist Jim Gillette after knowing him for two week. The couple has two sons and stayed together for nearly twenty years.

Lita’s mates don’t matter, though: only her music does. Just close your eyes and listen—forever.

Janet Gardner of Vixen

“Edge of a Broken Heart”

Janet Gardner spent five years singing lead and playing rhythm guitar for Vixen before the group finally broke through to the big time in 1987 (and that’s not to dismiss Vixen’s extremely affable on-screen work in the loony 1984 teen sex comedy Hardbodies).

The tipping point proved to be “Edge of a Broken Heart,” an omnipresent radio single and music video that ran in nonstop heavy rotation on MTV. The ’80s wouldn’t be the ’80s without it.

Come the latter part of the decade, Vixen toured with Ozzy Osbourne, Kiss, Scorpions, Deep Purple, and Bon Jovi before becoming major-league headliners themselves. Alas, when hair metal fizzled out in 1991, so did Vixen, although the group got together one last time in 2004 on the VH1 series, Bands Reunited.

Janet Gardner and Vixen may have risen hard and flamed out fast, but we’ll always have their hits, her voice, and, of course, Hardbodies.

Cherie Currie of The Runaways

“Cherry Bomb”

In 1976, Cherie Currie took the mic for L.A.’s teenage punk-metal legends the Runaways and immediately scorched a before-and-after line in hard rock history. Upon first seeing Cherie in concert, Bomp magazine perfectly captured her onstage persona as “the lost daughter of Iggy Pop and Brigitte Bardot.”

Backed by Lita Ford and Joan Jett on guitars, along with bassist Jackie Fox and drummer Sandy West, the Runaways might never have cohered into a perfect blend of metal brutalism and scandalous punk bubblegum without Cherie up front. The fact that she wore lingerie may have attracted gawkers, but her fierce talent and rock-goddess mastery of the stage is what convinced the rockers.

Cherie’s star power, in fact, prompted her to depart the Runaways in 1977 and take up acting. Her moving, award-worthy turn as a doomed youth opposite Jodie Foster in the 1980 cult classic Foxes indicated a long future of screen roles but, alas, issues typical of teenage rock stars complicated Cherie’s career path for a spell.

In time, Cherie beat her demons, and she’s long been a beloved rock icon and super-survivor who continues to both act and make terrific music, including a 2013 cover, with Glenn Danzig, of the haunting Nancy Sinatra-Lee Hazelwood chestnut, “Some Velvet Morning.”

Doro Pesch of Warlock

“All We Are”

Teutonic metal battle-goddess Doro Pesch first descended from Odin’s realm in the human year 1984 to front German headbangers Warlock’s debut album, Burning the Witches.

While only a cult act in the America, Witches turned Warlock into a global phenomenon, especially in Europe, by way of their classic releases throughout the second half of the ’80s Hellbound, True Steel, and Triumph and Agony.

Pesch went solo, performing simply as Doro, with 1989’s Force Majeure, and subsequently collaborated with Gene Simmons, hopped genres to do a country record called True at Heart, and continued to never quite find a breakthrough hit. Regardless, Doro remained a superstar in Germany, even after she largely took a break in the ’90s.

Doro came back big and bold at the turn of the century, and has remained a vital force in contemporary hard rock, very much earning the title bestowed upon her by fans: Metal Queen.

6.66 Jinx Dawson of Coven

"Wicked Woman" 

A mesmerizing Nordic ice witch (by way of Chicago), Jinx Dawson not only fronted Coven, the very first blatantly satanic rock band to score a record deal, she also posed nude atop a sacrificial altar as the gatefold image of the band’s initial 1969 LP, Witchcraft Destroy Minds and Reaps Souls.

Coven’s first album is notable as well because, a solid year before Black Sabbath’s debut, the group featured a guitar player named “Oz Osbourne” and its first song, through sheer demonic coincidence, is titled “Black Sabbath.”

While Witchcraft’s sound is not as hard and heavy as metal proper would become, the subject matter laid the diabolical blueprint for all occult music to come. Consider songs such as “Pact With Lucifer,” “Dignitaries of Hell,” and “White Witch of Rose Hall.” Side two, in fact, boasts “Satanic Mass,” which is said to be an actual 13-minute recording of a real black magic rite.

Jinx makes Coven work. Her vocals are seem to arise up gloriously from Hades itself and, in performance, she is said to have won countless converts to the band’s dark spirituality.

Weirdly, Coven’s only Top 40 hit was “One Tin Soldier,” the theme song to the cult drive-in favorite Billy Jack (1971). It doesn’t sound metal, but Jinx Dawson’s outraged cry against the hypocrisy of the self-righteous will always raise horns high and hard.

Kim McCauliffe of Girlschool

“Race With the Devil”

Girlschool graduated with honors from the New Wave of British Heavy Metal—not just for being the only major all-female group in the class that also produced Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and Saxon, but as simply one of the most fist-pumping, boot-stomping leather-and-shredding combos, period, from N.W.O.B.H.M.’s late-seventies onslaught of “metal played with punk attitude.”

Kim McCauliffe led Girlschool’s charge on both vocals and rhythm guitar. The South London siren commanded the stage with sound and fury intense enough for the band to be embraced as mates by Motörhead. The bands trashed the planet in 1979 on the legendarily debauched 1979 Overkill tour and later recorded an EP together titled St. Valentine’s Day Massacre under the moniker MotörheadGirlschool.

Throughout the ’80s, Girlschool became UK superstars. They issued a series of classic LPs, played with the biggest names in metal, and, ultimately, split apart and got back together and then split apart and got back together again—over and over.

On the platform heels of a few rocky decades, Kim McAuliffe presently tours and records with Girlschool, routinely educating audiences in the proper might of metal at festivals all over the globe.

Donita Sparks of L7

“Pretend We’re Dead” 

L7 heralded the arrival of grunge as a mainstream force with their 1990 SubPop Records EP, Smell the Magic. On first listen, the disc’s punk-drunken bruiser metal sounded like something new, from the band’s ace sludge-stomp musicianship to the ass-beating attitude to, up front, the power-snarling of throat-shredding vocalist Donita Sparks.

Each member of L7 stood out as a formidable force, requiring Donita to rise above that ruckus and lead her musical crew forward with wrecking ball force. Upon being fully embraced by metal, punk, and alt-rock he group scored numerous hits throughout the ’90s and loom now as a hard-and-heavy touchstone of the Lollapalooza era.

Music aside, Donita Sparks pulled off a monstrously metal on-stage maneuver that may well have made Alice Cooper blush—and, truly, only a woman could do it. While performing at the 1992 Reading Festival, L7’s audio equipment broke down, prompting attendees of the huge outdoor gig to pelt the stage with mud. Donita responded by reaching into her own body, removing a sanitary napkin that was being employed, and bellowing: “Eat my used tampon, f-----s!”

Angela Gossow of Arch Enemy

"Under Black Flags We March"

The thrashtastic Swedish death metal supergroup Arch Enemy consists of former members of Mercyful Fate, Carcass, Armageddon, and Carnage. That level of hard-and-heavy lineage demands a mega-talent and almost superhuman personality up front. That is exactly what Arch Enemy got in 2000 when mezzo-soprano wailer and outspoken anarchist Angela Gossow joined the band to sing lead.

Angela actually replaced original (male) singer Johan Liiva. Her presence instantly reinvented the group and, upon debuting live, Gossow’s simultaneously terrifying and invigorating hyper-growl technique set a new standard for death metal vocals.

Early on, Angela developed throat nodules that prompted doctors to recommend she quit growling. No way. Instead, Angela worked with vocal-coach-to-the-metal-stars Melissa Cross on “piano and screaming lessons.”

Seven incomparably intense albums later, Angela announced she would step from Arch Enemy in 2014. Her growl, though, is forever.

Betsy Bitch of Bitch

“Leatherbound”/”Live for the Whip”/”Skullcrusher”

Betsy Bitch piloted the shock-metal group that shares her last name through the dawn of ’80s thrash, bringing Alice-Cooper-like theatrics and intoxicating female rage to the newly erupting forefront of extreme American rock.

Decked out in heavy-kink dominatrix gear, brandishing whips and chains, and laying to waste all comers, Betsy Bitch fronted her band early on stages alongside Slayer, W.A.S.P., and Armored Saint.

Bitch’s 1982 debut Be My Slave, aroused the ire of Tipper Gore’s record labeling Parents Music Resource Center for its S&M content and “explicit lyrics.” Betsy responded in her signature style by thanking Tipper “for keeping our name in the press” on the liner notes for the 1987 LP, The Bitch Is Back.

Come the end of the ’80s, Bitch disbanded, but Betsy kept banging heads all along. She put together a new line in 2014 that played an anniversary party for the Sunset Strip metal mecca the Rainbow Bar and Grill, and they’re presently recording new music. Ain’t that a Bitch?

[Photo: Getty Images]