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An edited version of this story appeared on Venus Zine’s website back in June of 2007.

Cheap Perfume

NYC’s first all-female Punk band discuss the joys and hardships they faced while paving the way for the next generation.

By Bess Korey

Cheap Perfume Band Picture

Thirty-years-ago Rock N’ Roll was still a boys’ club. Even though all-female rock bands had existed before 1977, many of these bands were driven into obscurity. Most were seen as novelty acts, had short-lived careers, and/or were not given a proper chance to record their music.

In recent years, the music of many all-female Garage and Psychedelic bands from the ’60s has resurfaced, including: She, the Ace Of Cups, the Luv’d Ones (whom I have also written about, and the article is posted in this blog), and the Daisy Chain, and has been released by retro-themed labels like Ace and Sundazed. But by the mid-late ’70s, this rich musical history of all-female bands remained mostly lost. Female musicians who wanted to play in bands had to create a new path for themselves.

The members of Cheap Perfume (Lynn Odell on vocals, Susan Palermo on bass, Brenda Martinez on drums, Nancy Street on rhythm guitar, and Bunny on lead guitar), an all-female band that began in 1977, certainly felt like that was what they had to do. Born out of the early New York Punk scene, the fact that they were breaking new ground for female musicians, made them stand out from other bands, but it also sometimes worked against them. In regards to this, Bunny says, “That there were so few female musicians at the time proved to be helpful, but we felt we had more to prove to our audience — that we could actually play as well as the next band of male musicians — so in a way there was more pressure on the band to shine musically, as well as visually.”

But despite this added pressure put on them because they were an all-female group, Bunny still feels that, “The punk scene was definitely more welcoming to female musicians. Before punk, the music scene was mainly male bands and disco, with female singers, but without all-female bands.”

Punk not only opened a door for Cheap Perfume as female musicians, but it’s DIY mantra proved to be inspiring as well. Palermo says,“I was working as a waitress at CBGB, and after watching several other bands perform, I decided to form Cheap Perfume. I thought, ‘hey we could do this just as well’. Everyone was eager to hear and watch female musicians and I was just as anxious to get the music out there.”

Through CBGB’s scene, Palermo was fortunate enough to know a few other female musicians who shared a similar goal and desire, and was able to find the rest of the members through auditions. Funny enough, both Palermo and Bunny started playing guitar at the age of 13, and Palermo also tried to form her first all-girl band at that age as well, but unfortunately not to much success. Bunny stuck to her playing, but Palermo gave it up for a number of years. It wasn’t until closer to the time that Cheap Perfume formed, that Palermo learned to play bass. She was dating the bass player of the Tuff Darts, John DeSalvo, and he played a role in her wanting to learn the instrument.

The group did not have much confidence in themselves early on. Palermo says, “When we started, Brenda, Alison [was the name of the original guitarist, Bunny was her replacement, and did not join until later] and I would play for 3 hours every Saturday afternoon at Cottage & Castle, no matter what. It took us almost a year before we were competent — and confident — enough to start looking for a singer. You have to remember, there were few female musicians, and we really had no role models at that time. Once Lynn and Nancy joined the band, we auditioned at CBGB’s about 3 months later.”

Once they started writing songs, the band used influences from both the past and the present to carve out their own sound. The fact that they were 5 unique individuals with different musical tastes shows through the versatility of their music. Unfortunately, the group never put out an album, but there are a handful of tracks that have been recorded. “You Won’t Stop Me” is a straightforward punk song, loud and fast, with defiant lyrics, which could even be considered feminist, since the girl in the song refuses to let a boy stand in the way of what she wants to do. “Forever Damaged” verges on having a metal sound, and not only does it rock hard, but it also tells the tale of a woman who has lived too hard.  A cover of the Shirelles’ “Boys” which they make their own, completely switches gears from the latter songs by being poppier, as well as being heavily influenced by the music scene of 1966. It is a gender-bending response to the Chocolate Watchband’s “Let’s Talk About Girls”, with a little bit of Tommy James And The Shondells’ “Hanky Panky” and the Capitols’ “Cool Jerk” thrown in for good measure. Like “Boys”, “Bittersweet” also has more of a pop feel, and it’s verse is reminiscent of Johnny Cash’s “Ring Of Fire”, but it is more like Blondie’s cover of the song than it is the original.

Their musical diversity doesn’t only point out the conflicting tastes amongst the band members, it also serves as a testament for the scene they were a part of, which had such a wide range of bands, with very different influences, all being considered Punk.

Once the group started playing gigs on a regular basis, they would go back and forth between CBGB and Max’s Kansas City every weekend. Peter Crowley, who was manager of Max’s Kansas City at the time, remembers them as being one of the most popular groups to play at the club. The fact that boys found the band attractive only helped their popularity, but Crowley feels as if there was more to it than that. He says, “I remember they had lots of boy groupies, but also -because they played with as much energy and skill as any of their “competition” – they attracted a much bigger following than they got from being pretty girls.”

Two of the “boy groupies” who went to see the band play back then were Michael Zuko and Freddie Katz. Both men look back quite fondly at the Cheap Perfume shows they witnessed in the ’70s. Zuko says, “I used to see CP at CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City. Yeah, yeah, all girl band, very cute – but the songs really struck me, very hooky choruses, harmonies, good musicianship, etc. I would remember them from time to time. I do shows quite a bit in NYC, would talk to people about them, and remember the titles of the tunes – “Tommy”, “Ordinary Girls”, “Overnight Angel” – so their songs did stay with me. I remember our girlfriends would get in a huff, ‘…oh, you wanna see Cheap Perfume because they’re cute, right?’ (well, yeah, sure!), but they were great live – 5 girls, full sound, always an element of ‘uh, oh, what’s gonna happen here’ – in my opinion, better than similar groups that were out there at the time.”

Their music also left a lasting impression on Katz. He says, “The fact is they were a great rock-n-roll band.  Part of the proof I can offer of this fact is that although I have no recordings I still can remember many Cheap Perfume songs all these years later. Titles like “Haunted”, “Too Bad”, “Tommy’s Such A Tease”; I could play them on the guitar and sing them for you right now!”

Katz is currently a sound engineer in NYC, and has kept in touch with the band after all these years. Despite their popularity in the city, he feels that since they did not have a chance to record an album, it made it difficult for them to gain recognition outside their hometown.

Not having an album to promote wasn’t the only slight that hurt the band. In general, they felt very misguided. Bunny says, “We were a young band. We really did not have the management. We had no knowledge of which direction to go in a field that was not really open to female musicians til later.”

The gap that had always existed due to them having differing musical tastes grew larger over time, and there were some personnel changes as well. Bunny ended up leaving the group and things were never the same after that. Susan was the next to leave, and they were unable to recover. The band broke up shortly after her departure in 1981.

Cheap Perfume Group

The reunited members of Cheap Pefume playing together in 2006.

Flash forward 25 years later to 2006. Max’s Kansas City is long gone, and CBGB is on it’s last legs.

The members of Cheap Perfume were feeling a common bond of heartbreak over the impending closure of CBGB, and it ended up bringing them back together. This led to them playing CBGB again before it closed for good, and wowing both new and old fans alike.

Shaunda is a new fan that witnessed that 2006 show, and she says, “I remember standing in the back area with my friends and Cheap Perfume went on. I could not take my eyes off of of the drummer Brenda and guitarist Bunny. The entire band performed with such confidence and flair. I mean New York Dolls unspeakable cool. Brenda and Bunny made me want to get up and play right at that moment!”

Shaunda is not the only new female fan that the band has gained since they reunited. Bunny says, “I feel we have a lot of new young female fans, so our audience is pretty well balanced now. Since there are so many female musicians performing now–unlike the ’70s and ’80s–the audiences now are very receptive.”

Cheap Perfume still have a hold over their former “boy groupies” as well. Zuko, who is a musician himself, recently got to play a gig with them, and had this to say about their set, “When the girls took the stage after midnight, it all came back to me – the raw energy, even as a trio- Bunny’s straight ahead locomotive guitar (she also handled lead vocals), Susie’s stylistic bass lines, and Brenda’s powerful backbeat (that girl packs a wallop!). They did a few of the songs I remembered – hell, I sang along! Cheap Perfume played the way I’ve always liked it – fast, loud, kinda sloppy R&R, and no encores, dammit. Ok, they’re cute, too!!!”

The group will be playing gigs at NYC venues such as Siberia and Don Hills, during May and June of this year [2007], and have also started to work on their long overdue album. Drummer Brenda Martinez says, “We are currently working in the studio recording some new and older material. So, we will be releasing more music…we will keep everyone up to date on our MySpace page. We weren’t able to record all that we wanted in the ’70s and ’80s…which is something to look forward to now because recording has changed and improved so much…we are really excited!”

Even though the closing of CBGB was quite a blow for the band, Bunny feels as if, “…Rock N’ Roll never dies and we believe the spirit of CBGB and the New York punk scene will always live on and that is proven if you give a listen to some more recent Punk bands out there that have kept that spirit alive. Hopefully everyone will help keep it alive by supporting Cheap Perfume and all the other bands that are keeping that message out there.”