Battling record industry politics, stereotypes, lack of funds and more, members of the band The Catholic Girls have, for decades, bucked trends and now have released a two-disc set, Rock n’ Roll School for Girls, on the JSP label. It features 18 remixed and 23 previously unreleased tracks, spanning their 42-year career.
Recently, singer, guitarist and co-founder Gail Petersen discussed the release and the band’s history.
“The Catholic Girls started approximately 1979, when we were just finishing up high school,” she said. “(Lead guitarist) Roxy (Andersen) had put up a little sign saying that she was looking for an all-girl band, and I had been looking for a band myself but I wasn’t having as much luck working it out with guys because, you know, you got hit on all of the time. So I said, ‘Why not?’ So we got together.
“Roxy and I kind of knew each other but we weren’t in the same circles, so to speak. But what we had in common was the same music we were interested in. The U.K. invasion, the second one that was coming in at the time: Split Enz, The Police, Elvis Costello, The Sex Pistols, Roxy Music. That was all starting and we were excited about that … The other thing we had in common was that we were both night owls and we still are. We were never on an early schedule and we got along very well because of that.
“So we put the band together and we added the drummer Marilyn (O’Connor) and Joanne (Holland), the bass player, and I have to say that none of us really had any musical training whatsoever. We had all been self-taught because we didn’t have any money. I had to sit and look at the guitar and figure it out myself, and the same thing with Roxy … I composed the songs and we wanted to do our own music and we worked very hard … We spent a lot of time formulating the songs because we wanted tunes that stuck in your head. We went from about 1979 to 1982 and basically did everything ourselves … we were very into the music, perfecting everything, making everything sound right, things that would be radio-friendly in our minds but also appealing to the audience that would hit them in the heart and the soul.
“It was always meaningful to me to have lyrics that meant something and that weren’t just fluff. What they tried to do was kind of pigeonhole us into being a girly-girl kind of band and we always looked at ourselves as being no different (from male bands). It may sound weird now in these times, but in those times you had to say, ‘Yeah we’re like the boy bands, we’re like the guy bands, same thing.’ ”
The late ’70s and very early ’80s was the pre-MTV era. Yet part of that “girly-girl” image that was so prevalent in the videos that would eventually surface on the music channel also involved a bit of a sexy edge. Petersen explained the band’s name and stage attire.
“We were all from that that area of New Jersey: Bloomfield, Springfield, Union, Clifton … We went through 12 years of Catholic school and when we started the band, first we tried the spandex route and we said, ‘Ya know what? This is not us at all.’ So, we were thinking about it and we said, ‘Why don’t we just be what we are? Catholic girls. And wear what we’re used to.’ We had our own uniforms made because of course we couldn’t use the real ones.”
The struggles seemed to pave a road for their success — they released two singles and a self-titled 1982 album on the major label, MCA — until a corporate shakeup changed their course, leaving them frustrated and powerless to do anything.
“I think back in 1982/1983, MCA dropped the ball totally because the new president, Irving Azoff, took over and he just happened to be the manager of The Go-Go’s,” Petersen said. “As soon as our record was starting to come out, he started firing everybody we knew who had brought us in and all the funds dried up for us. There was talk originally about us going to the U.K. and Japan, and that all went away. So we lost our second album. We would’ve had a second album, but thanks to Azoff we did not. So it was music politics there … we were all set to do that and had they put the music support behind us, we would’ve been able to open for bands like Adam Ant, who was pretty big at the time, and even an MTV video. They didn’t have the money for it. Actually, we had to borrow money to make the actual video ourselves.
“That’s the sad part. We had amazing reviews in The Hollywood Reporter, Playgirl, of all things … I was embarrassed that I had to go buy that magazine as a kid (laughs). And all the New York papers, the Boston papers, the L.A papers gave us amazing reviews at the time. Variety, even. But because of Azoff coming in, they didn’t push us at all.
“We had been working very hard prior to that. We were doing these incredible gigs where we kept building it up and building it up in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. We were everywhere in the East Coast area and building it up. We had started to get to the point where we were opening for well-known names like The Clash, The Ramones, and you couldn’t just be a nothing act to do that. You had to be able to pull it off as an opener to go up against somebody like that. We had a manager who was helping us, but they were not a big well-known manager at that time. They did get us signed, but you had to have all kinds of pull there. But we did come back in 1999 and said, ‘The heck with this, we are gonna keep going,’ and we did.”
Driven by that determination and a never-say-die mentality, they pushed forward, and an old friend from a legendary underground Trenton nightclub opened the doors to their latest release.
“Randy Now booked us at City Gardens back in the day. He also booked us to open for Melanie (at the Open Arts Stage Theatre in Bordentown) … we had to be all acoustic. That was in 2016 and that was kind of odd for us, but we did it, and it was a great show, and Melanie was a real sweetheart to us. Then, as it turned out … John Haley and Vinnie Mazella, who put this CD together, were in the audience. Vinnie had been a fan since he was a kid like us, and John had been working and doing restoration projects of CDs — things like Judy Garland and Yma Sumac. He had never really done rock or pop, but he got very interested after he heard us and that’s how the whole inception came about to do this current CD.”
Petersen says that it was quite an undertaking to assemble the material for the Rock n’ Roll School for Girls retrospective.
“When we got back together around 1999 we were strictly indie. We put out five CDs ourselves. We were an actual indie band, but John Haley had a connection with JSP Records in London, and the U.K. has always been very open to American artists. I wish they had been available back then for us, but they were very excited about doing this project and I thought, ‘Great!’ So between myself and Roxy, we dug out tiny, messed-up cassette tapes and sent them to John and he did a lot of work on those. Some couldn’t be salvaged but some could, and that’s all we had because we didn’t have 24 tracks or anything like that.
“It was mostly me and some Roxy that were involved. Because her and I were always the core of the band. We found what we could and tried to sift through and find demos because we had done so many demos prior to MCA, and we even had demos on this that were destined for the second record. So we found what we could and we sent it to John Haley and he went back and forth with us, explaining very well. I had no clue what goes on. We also sent him CDs. For instance, some of the newer songs are from the indie CDs that we did and I didn’t even know how much time and the elements and all of that stuff can go into the wear and tear on cassette tapes and even CDs. There’s all these things that you don’t know where it can change the pitch of just one note or partial phrases. So it’s a very painstaking process that I give the man incredible credit for.”
Petersen said the band was always “a little bit ahead of our time.”
“We were never like the girl bands like The Go-Go’s … we were not into being all about dance or fun. There’s always that side of things, but we had things like the nine-minute epic ‘God Made You for Me,’ the one that got us banned, by the way, in Rhode Island. It was just a misinterpretation of the lyrics, that’s all (laughs). We were very into doing that, some serious things at the same time. I mean, you could have songs about boys, which we always did, but there are many levels of meanings to the songs. If you look closely, there are other things going on. ‘C’est Impossible’ was about abuse, at the time, and that was carefully put in there, and then there’s ‘Make Me Believe,’ which came out in the early 2000s, and that was a response to Columbine and how I thought it was very upsetting and terrifying that any child would have to be afraid to go to school. It’s like a little prayer for anyone who has ever been afraid. Then more recently there’s ‘Without a Country’ and feeling that sense of homelessness. So, we always had a serious side to us, we’re going to keep doing that. Both sides of the coin.
“Right now, a lot of fans have written in that have already purchased it and they are very happy about it. They’re saying, ‘You really did a lot for us during this time of lockdown and sadness; to be able to hear this music, it made me feel good.’ Now that meant a lot to me.
“Meanwhile, I’m always writing. I’m still writing songs, I have three novels that I’m in the process of trying to get published — I had one published back in the ’90s — so I’m still doing that, and I don’t feel like stopping. I’m still writing, playing and the world is changing and that’s not a bad new start.”
Currently, The Catholic Girls line-up consists of Petersen, Andersen, Doreen Holmes on drums and percussion and Steve Berger on bass guitar. For more about them, visit thecatholicgirls.net.
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