Tuesday 16 January 2018

Comment: Anita Pallenberg was original 60s ‘groupie’ - but they’re still with us today

The death of Anita Pallenberg offers a reminder of an era when 'the groupie' was a fundamental part of rock. But, our music critic argues, they're still with us

Muse: Anita Pallenberg with Mick Jagger in Performance
Muse: Anita Pallenberg with Mick Jagger in Performance
Anita Pallenberg and Keith Richards
Kate Hudson in Almost Famous
Kate Hudson in Almost Famous
John Meagher

John Meagher

Several years ago, around the time that Franz Ferdinand released their much admired debut album, I interviewed frontman Alex Kapranos and quipped that it wouldn't be long before the band would be fending off the groupies.

It was a joke, but Kapranos didn't see it that way. He spent quite a bit of our allotted time chiding me about how rockers from a different age had taken advantage of their young female fans and how this troupe of sartorially elegant Glaswegians with art-school pretentions were very different.

The death of Anita Pallenberg this week reminded me of that rather frosty encounter. The Italian-German model is celebrated in the popular interpretation of 'Swinging Sixties' London as a groupie.

And not just any groupie - but one who had a relationship with Keith Richards and would become something of a muse for the Rolling Stones, then at the very peak of their creative powers.

Neil McCormick, music critic of the Daily Telegraph, put it poetically: "She blew into the life of the Rolling Stones like a hurricane, incredibly beautiful, utterly glamorous, totally fearless, fantastically well-connected, artily sophisticated and unshockably decadent."

Pallenberg was one of several beautiful young women who made it their business to infiltrate the inner sanctum of the Stones and she certainly did, going on to influence how they looked and, in her capacity as an actress, get up close and personal with Mick Jagger in Nicolas Roeg's sexually provocative cult film, Performance.

The authenticity of her acting stung Richards and, 40 years later, when he came to write his memoir, Life, he devoted six pages to address how it made him feel - and how it affected his relationship with Jagger. He lustfully referred to her in his book as "Anita, sexy f***ing bitch. One of the prime women of the world."

The very word 'groupie' smacks of the 1960s. It was an era when young people shook off the sexual shackles of the past and behaved with the sort of licentiousness that would have shocked their parents.

And they had an outlet for those raging hormones - young men in bands who, themselves, were keen to explore all the sexual revolution had to offer.

But few who looked on at the band-groupie dynamic could argue that the odds weren't stacked very heavily in favour of the men, and there's little doubt that sexual exploitation occurred time and again.

Led Zeppelin blazed a trail through the rock landscape in the late 1960s and well into the following decade, and their excesses have become the stuff of legend. Rock historians have tried to separate fact from fiction, but there's a well-worn story of the band and their entourage indulging in acts involving fish and naked fans. The sordid tale features in the seminal biography of the band, Stephen Davis' Hammer of the Gods, and took place during the band's US tour in 1969 and in the room of manager Richard Cole. Improbably, one could cast for fish through the window of the room (there was a lake teeming with them below).

"These birds were coming up to my suite wanting to f***, and me and Bonzo (the drummer, John Bonham) were quite serious about catching these fish." Cole then describes the "victim", who was allegedly defiled with a mud shark.

"She might have been hit by the shark a few times for disobeying orders, but she didn't get hurt."

Singer Robert Plant has talked about those sexually liberated, pre-Aids days: "I was young when I first went to America," he once recalled. "I was 19 years old, and I went crazy. I'm from a nowhere town in the (English) Midlands and here were these girls with bare breasts blatantly coming on, and of course, we went crazy."

Is there much evidence that groupies faded away around the time Plant et al went on the wane, or when the era of the rock star came to an end? I'm not so sure.

I remember seeing a big-name R&B singer play Dublin a number of years ago and after the show, a batch of scantily clad young men were approached by his minders and invited backstage.

I later heard that no fewer than 30 young fans had been entertained at the plush hotel where the star and his entourage were staying. And then there was the Irish musician - a far cry from the snake-hipped rocker of popular imagination - who told me off the record that when he started out in the music trade he had been a "bold boy" with the "star-f***ers" as he charmlessly described the young admirers who made contact with him after his shows. "Everyone does it," he claimed.

If you read the tabloids, it's regularly suggested that even the squeakiest clean of pop bands are attracting groupies with few foibles. A 2015 headline screamed: 'She's been with three of them!' Pal claims 'top heavy' fan of One Direction has slept with Harry, Zayn and Niall at separate gigs after being plucked from crowd by security.'

Social media, however, poses a challenge to discretion - in 2013, a Brazilian woman released video footage of a man she claimed was Justin Bieber asleep next to her in bed, and earlier this year, a model took to Instagram to claim that the rapper Drake had impregnated her.

Our understanding of 'groupie' may be exclusively female, but there have been examples of men willing to do anything to get close to the object of their obsession.

In one of the strangest tales of super-fandom, Abba's reclusive singer, Agnetha Faltskog, found herself attracting unwanted attention from a devoted male fan, Dutch forklift driver Gert van der Graaf.

He bombarded her with letters and even moved to the part of Sweden where she lived at the time. She made complaints to the police and yet, in 1997, they started a relationship.

"It was a very intense attention from him and after a while I felt I could not resist any more," she once said. "I wanted to know him."

But, two years later, they had split up, and by 2000 Agnetha was seeking an exclusion order again.

The groupies who changed music history

Anita Pallenberg and Keith Richards

Anita Pallenberg (pictured, with Keith Richards) may have been seen as the original groupie, but there was a legion of groupie greats in the 60s and 70s:

* Bebe Buell, model-slash-actress and mother to Liv Tyler, has said she prefers the term 'muse' and counts Elvis Costello and Steve Tyler among her former partners.

* Sable Starr, the glam rock model who courted the attention of Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop and Robert Plant.

Copy of if kate .jpg
Kate Hudson in Almost Famous

* Pamela Des Barres, the Californian who claimed to have bedded a roll-call of famous musicians including Jimmy Page, Gram Parsons, Jim Morrison and Keith Moon. She formed a comedy-band The GTOs (Girls Together Outrageously), with help from Frank Zappa, and her book, I'm With the Band, was said to have been the inspiration Kate Hudson's character (above) in Almost Famous.

Irish Independent

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