Robert Plant was known for wearing the blouses of the groupie he had slept with the night before onstage during Led Zeppelin’s 70s tours. Photo by Jim Summuria via Wikimedia (Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International)
50 years ago, if you were pretty and determined enough, you had a fair shot of spending the night with at least half of the Billboard Top 20. Your occupation? Groupie.
The word 'groupie' is relatively self-explanatory in its literal definition: someone who wants to be around music groups. It’s not explicitly sexual, but years have gone by since Pamela Des Barres (allegedly the worlds most famous groupie) first heard the word while hanging out with Led Zeppelin in 1969. Des Barres remembers: “I was standing there and I heard somebody say, ‘Oh, she must be a groupie.’ And I was like, woah… that must be me!” Now the word has gone on to develop less than savoury connotations.
Today the idea of girls having flings with the rich and famous is a bit morally dubious. The cult classic film Almost Famous (2000) perpetuated this view, with the main character Penny Lane left mentally traumatised after being tossed aside by the band she was on the road with.
However, for a few precious years at the end of the free-wheelin’ sixties, it seemed (at least in Los Angeles) that everyone loved each other, and you could go out with whoever the hell you wanted. Des Barres’ bestselling book I’m With the Band looks back on this time with flower-child nostalgia, portraying her relationships with the likes of Jimmy Page and Mick Jagger as romances that benefitted both her and the musician. She was a member of Frank Zappa’s girl group the GTOs, made up mostly of groupies who pranced around in 1920s slip dresses with flowers in their hair; proudly waltzing through stage doors of clubs on the Sunset Strip to go and meet the makers of the music they loved.
They weren’t dismissed as sad girls to be taken advantage of (that’s coming later), rather people with ‘style’ to have ‘good-time relationships’ with, in the words of Robert Plant. “These guys are lucky to be getting girls like these”, said Zappa in 1969 for Rolling Stone. “Groupies are very influential on the record market because they know so many people.”
So why did it all change?
1969 was struck by tragedy; The Manson Murders and shooting at the Rolling Stones’ Altamont concert ground the anything-is-possible 60s to a screeching halt, unveiling the 70s with a much darker vibe than its predecessor. Mind-altering LSD and Marijuana, hallmarks of the free-love hippie culture, were replaced with Cocaine and Heroin-- rock-star excesses becoming increasingly life threatening as a result. The death of Brian Jones in 1969 arguably kick-started a long string of early musician deaths, later known as ‘The 27 Club’.
Rock bands became bigger, richer, and sleazier, and this seemed to affect the girls who were following them around. The general feeling on the LA club was less of free love, and more of increasing hedonism.
The fun-loving, paisley wearing groupies of the late 60s were being replaced with increasingly younger, raunchily dressed girls ready to be plucked by the now well-oiled sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll machine. Meeting these musicians seemed (although I am sure many of the groupies of the mid 70s would firmly disagree) to have become less about the music, and more about the party. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards swap out the word 'groupie' entirely for the
demeaning “Starfucker” in 1973’s ‘Star Star’, and other songs from the era like Frank Zappa’s ‘Crew Slut’ (a complete turnaround from the way he discussed the GTOs in 1969) and Led Zeppelin’s ‘Sick Again’ also point to sleazy scenes of girls being taken advantage of and spat out on the other side with little to show for it.
“She was sucking cock backstage at The Armory
In order to get a pass
To see some big rock group for free” - Frank Zappa, 'Crew Slut'
Robert Plant discussed the changing groupie scene in 1975 with Cameron Crowe (who incidentally would go on to direct Almost Famous) for Rolling Stone: “It’s a shame to see these young chicks bungle their lives away in a flurry and rush to compete with what was in the old days the good-time relationships we had with the GTOs and people like that”. Two years prior his bandmate Jimmy Page had outrageously swapped out his on the road fling with Pamela Des Barres for an underage groupie by the name of Lori Lightning. “One minute she’s 12 and the next minute she’s 13 and over the top. Such a shame”, Plant continued.
Nonetheless, groupies remained a staple part of the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle as punk took hold in the late 70s, then hair metal in the 80s. “I was in a band to get laid”, said Vince Neil of Motley Crue. Groupies were essential for male rock stars to flaunt their Alpha status on the scene; this hubris is epitomised in ‘Rocket Queen’ from Guns N Roses’ Appetite for Destruction, a recording of Axl Rose having sex with a groupie interwoven into the mix. The party seemed unstoppable until 1991.
Nirvana’s release of Nevermind, and the subsequent grunge movement changed the face of rock; for the first time in nearly 30 years, outrageous excess wasn’t really cool anymore. Kurt Cobain’s outspoken feminism in interviews further established the view (in the public sphere) that being a groupie was demeaning to women. The groupie scene still existed, but now they were beginning to be shut away from the cameras as a digital age slowly took hold.
“When Nirvana became popular I didn’t blow all my money on coke and hookers, y’know. I was just like: ‘Oh my God I can get a bigger grill, this is great! – Dave Grohl
Which brings us to the 21st century, with no sign of groupies making a comeback. I have a few theories as to why:
There is quite a significant logistical problem that presents itself to the aspiring modern groupie. You can’t really approach musicians with mass followings anymore. Some point to John Lennon’s assassination as the beginning of a trend by which celebrities slowly started to distance themselves from the general public. Nowadays it is hard to imagine yourself walking into a bar and seeing Harry Styles or Alex Turner on the other side of the room really getting loose; but in the 60s and 70s it wasn’t so hard to walk into the notorious Whisky A Go Go and find yourself surrounded with music legends .
Cancel Culture has also played its part in the eradication of groupie culture, rendering most activities partaken by rock groups of other generations impossible. The lifestyle is a relic from another time.
As far as we know.
In the age of social media, it can be easy to forget that what we see is rarely what we get. One only has to look to the Me Too movement, or the Jeffery Epstein scandal to remember that a lot more goes on under our noses than we think. With a ‘clean’ image more important to celebrities than ever before, if groupies were still a presence on the music scene, we certainly would not be finding out about it any time soon.
Edited by Lucy Blackmur, Music Editor