It doesn’t seem fair that Pat Benetar is a cultural touchstone, the quintessential ’80s tough girl, while Holly Beth Vincent is all but lost to rock history. These two contemporaries share a pop aesthetic strongly influenced by both ’60s girl groups and ’70s punk rock, but while it didn’t take Benetar long to win international fame, Vincent has continued to languish in relative obscurity, despite the fact that she’s the real deal. Sure, we all love to sing along with “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” and “Love Is a Battlefield,” but Benetar didn’t even co-write those hits. Vincent not only writes her own songs, but also collaborated with Joey Ramone on a 1982 cover of “I Got You Babe.” Given the choice, I know who I’m picking.
It was Vincent’s first album, as the frontwoman of Holly and The Italians, that caught my eye in a record store bargain bin. The album cover features Vincent holding her guitar, looking tough but vaguely out of place in a pink dress and matching gloves, with short, ever-so-slightly mullet-ish hair. The bold, trashy title of the single “Tell That Girl to Shut Up” sold me, but I didn’t expect much beyond novelty value out of the LP. In that song, Vincent tears apart the girlfriend of a guy she likes, derisively noting, “She likes to seem intellectual/ and to be a musician.” It’s everything that a song called “Tell That Girl to Shut Up” should be — bratty, snarky, and full of high school kitsch, but impossibly catchy at the same time.
The rest of The Right to Be Italian exceeded my wildest expectations. Though the songs focus on themes that are so common as to be clichéd, Vincent injects each with such vitality, via a unique combination of quick-witted commentary and upbeat melodies, that the album never feels trite. In “Youth Coup,” the obligatory exhortation to teenage rebellion, Vincent’s voice sounds neither angry nor disaffected. ’60s pop influences are obvious on “I Wanna Go Home,” in which hand-claps and boy/girl harmonizing back lyrics about the singer’s homesickness for Los Angeles, with its Burger Kings and 7/11 Slurpees, written after the band relocated from the States to London. The Italians really cook on the rockabilly-flavored “Means to a Den,” with the killer line, “It takes intelligence to change the world.” A faithful but knowing cover of The Chiffons’ dreamy “Just for Tonight” confirms the band’s source of inspiration.
The Right to Be Italian is a radio-ready pop classic that just never took off. For some reason, “Tell That Girl to Shut Up” didn’t even make it to the singles charts. And though Holly Beth Vincent will never appear alongside Pat Benetar (or Chryssie Hynde, or Debbie Harry) on VH1’s I Love the ’80s, she remains the real deal, continuing to [write and release music->http://www.myspace.com/hollybethvincent] more than 25 years after her underrated debut.