But What of Us? UK Riot Grrrl – Part 1
Cazz Blase's history of Riot Grrrl in the UK is an important introduction to a movement that is often ignored and discounted by cultural critics and even some feminists. Seen through the eyes of the women and girls who were involved, the first part of this 3 part series recounts the origins of Riot Grrrl in the UK and discusses the musical and DIY aspects of the new Grrrl resistance. First published in the zine "Real Girls".
The series of mini essays that follow were originally written in November 1999 (then re-drafted in July/August 2000) to accompany a fiction based account of Riot Grrrl that I’d written, entitled “Screaming in Public” (after the Mambo Taxi song). The original idea was to publish both as a complete book that would be agreeable (hopefully!) to both Riot Grrrl’s past and present, but which would also (again, hopefully) be interesting, entertaining and inspiring enough for girls with no previous knowledge of Riot Grrrl (or feminism even) to enjoy too. I wanted it to be a book for teenage girls that, like the best fiction, could transcend all barriers of age, gender, class, ethnicity, culture, sexual orientation… whatever. I grew up reading Tamora Pierce books, so it didn’t seem irrational to me to try to write a book that would inspire others as hers have inspired me.
My focus in writing these essays was to write about British Riot Grrrl (from 1992 onwards) in a way that at least tried to be honest, fair, straightforward and – most importantly – unbiased. A lot of crap has been written about Riot Grrrl over the years and this has particularly been the case in terms of Riot Grrrl in Britain. This negative attitude to the phrase has always been a source of disappointment for me, if only because the real stories you read (in zines mainly, or – increasingly – on the internet) and hear about Riot Grrrls in this country are so much more interesting and inspiring than the more well acknowledged myths.
the real stories you read and hear about Riot Grrrls are so interesting and inspiring
Granted, there have been books and the odd report written that have featured Riot Grrrl in a positive or neutral light (many of which are listed in the bibliography that follows these essays, along with some more negative/hysterical reports), but they’ve tended to focus more on the American Riot Grrrl’s as a rule, and – at the end of the day – there has yet to be a book devoted entirely to Riot Grrrl (although after a year and a half of writing to/phoning publishers and literary agents, I’m beginning to understand why…).
It seemed pointless to me to try and write about Riot Grrrl as it was/is in America because I’m not American, neither have I ever set foot on American soil. I also came to the conclusion that the American Riot Grrrls were already highly capable of doing a good PR job on themselves, and that they were being acknowledged for that at last. So why fuck it up for them?
I would have liked to have included more in these essays about the various clutches of Riot Grrrls in Europe and beyond, but a lack of knowledge and expertise has meant that they get little mention here as well. Perhaps the lack of acknowledgment towards the European grrrls is already in the process of changing, but if not, I hope my brief mentions help.
a lot of crap has been written about Riot Grrrl over the years
The methodology employed in researching these essays was a mixture of primary and secondary research. I sent out several lists of questions to people (sixteen of whom were good enough to return them to me), and asked them to answer, taking as much time over the questions (and using as many sheets of paper) as they wanted to. If they wanted to raise something that wasn’t covered, they were welcome to do so.
In the early stages (early 1998) of interviewing, questions varied slightly to those asked on the later interviews. This was because the first three or four interviews were used as part of my A Level Media Studies coursework (the practical project, not the durational study…) I didn’t resume interviewing until several months later, whereupon the questionnaire was amended in the hope of getting rid of any problems or misunderstandings created by the first set of questions.
Although the questionnaire continued to vary a bit, the core questions were: 1) How did you become involved with Riot Grrrl? 2) How old were you when you first became aware of Riot Grrrl? 3) Was this before, after, or during the press coverage of 1993? 4) What did/does Riot Grrrl mean to you? 5) What sort of music were you into before you discovered Riot Grrrl? 6) Did it change what sort of music you listened to? 7) Did it change how you saw the world? 8) Has Riot Grrrl influenced you in a creative sense? 9) Do you see any link between the girl punk bands of the 70’s, such as the Slits, and Riot Grrrl?, 10) Do you believe any of the elements of Riot Grrrl became commercialised by the fashion, music, or entertainment industries? (Note: in the early interviews, this question referred specifically to the Spice Girls) 11) Do you believe the underground bands of now owe anything to Riot Grrrl? 12) How do you feel about press treatment of bands such as bis, Coping Saw, Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, Lungleg et al today? 13) Do you believe Riot Grrrl had an impact on how girls and women are treated at gigs? Be it on stage or as members of the audience?
I deliberately chose not to structure the essays around these questions, but instead waited until the questionnaires has been returned. I then read through them all, made a note of every theme covered in every interview, and then mapped out how I was going to write the essays. After that, I wrote the essays up, using quotes from fanzines and references to books, films, essays and articles to back up what I’d found out from the interviews. Again, another apology is due: I was unable to access much of the coverage of Riot Grrrl that featured in NME and Melody Maker for the simple reason that I passed all of my copies of NME onto my step-cousin after I’d read them, and most of the clippings I kept from that time turned out to be largely useless. I don’t have access to either papers archives, hence my reliance instead on broadsheets such as The Guardian/Observer, Independent and Times, who do at least all have CD-Roms that can be accessed by any computer with a CD-Rom facility installed.
I chose not to quote from any secondary sources apart from fanzines because, in the first instance, I couldn’t afford to pay the copyright needed to quote from them, and I didn’t (and still don’t) have a clue as to how to obtain the relevant permission. I wasn’t too bothered about this by and large though because I’d already decided that I didn’t want the voices of various ‘experts’ to detract from the voices of my interviewees.
I wanted to be honest, fair, straightforward and – most importantly – unbiased
The interviews themselves were administered between January 1998 and October 1999, and of the sixteen who took the time to respond, fourteen were female and two were male. To my immense disappointment, the majority (about 98%) of my interviewees were English or resident in England. I did manage to interview a couple of Scots, but – despite sending flyers out for nearly a year, and asking people to recommend friends, acquaintances – anyone, no Welsh or Irish grrrls were forthcoming. If only I’d known that Conwy Valley girls at Electra zine then – sigh!
In reference to “Screaming in Public”, this fiction-based account of Riot Grrrl has a long, convoluted history, so I shall try not to bore you with all the details. Essentially, what became the first chapter (in which Maggie meets Fliss in London after a gig and puts her up for the night at her flat) was written under timed conditions in the assembly hall at Hazel Grove High School. I was sitting my mock GCSE English Language exam at the time, and had been preoccupied by an illicit visit to London about a month and a half beforehand. I got an A- for that story, which in terms of English/Creative Writing grades I’ve received since, remains unbeaten. It took me about six months to get that story back (it was submitted as coursework as well), and even longer to finish what I’d become increasingly determined to start when I wrote it. It was October 1999 when I finally finished editing it all, nearly five years after I’d written the first draft of the first chapter. My only excuse for taking this long is that I had to teach myself to write it at the same time as actually writing it. English Language and English Literature were two of the three GCSE’s that I’d managed to pass the first time round (the other being History), and because of this, I had a year without any English teaching (when I could have really done with some) whilst I did another year of GCSE’s. Five years is a long time to dedicate to something – especially between the ages of 15 and 20, when you should really be concerned with other things I guess, but then I’ve always seen this preoccupation/stubbornness with writing this book to be a very me thing to have done. It just had to be written, simple as that.
If you would be interested in reading “Screaming in Public”, I’d be incredibly grateful if you would write to me and tell me. If enough people are interested in reading it, I would seriously consider self publishing it so that you can read it. But, because I’d really like to see this book published and in shops, libraries etc., self-publishing is an option that I’m loathe to take on. Mainly because its expensive and I’m rubbish at promoting and selling my own work.
Lastly, and by no means leastly, I should like to give my thanks to those who have supported me with this project and with the book. Thanks to all my interviewees, and to all the fanzine writers who gave me permission to quote from their work. Also, thanks to Lucy O’Brien, Kate Vickers, Mandy McKirdy, and Karren Ablaze! For taking the time to read “Screaming in Public” at its various stages, and to anyone else who encouraged me to finish it.
If anyone wishes to use or quote any of the following essays in their own work, then feel free to do so. I don’t have any objections to you doing so as long as you credit me.
Cazz Blase, 2001
But What of Us?
When Riot Grrrl first arrived on our shores in 1992, pitched her tent and took a good look around her, she must have wondered why on earth she’d bothered to come.
Britain, in late 1992, was a nation strangled by a seemingly endless economic recession, Conservative legislation for legislation’s sake, shit jobs for shit pay, Ecstasy moral panics, and grunge.
But it wasn’t as if she wasn’t welcomed.
Sensationalist hacks, in writing about the new feminist punk rock sound from the U.S of A, wrote of a veritable army of teen girl psychopaths. Girls who wore slip dresses and shit kicking DM boots (for booting men in), who wore their hair in bunches and scrawled words such as SLUT, WITCH, and SLAG on their bodies in eyeliner or marker pen. They accused Riot Grrrl of male bashing separatism, and claimed that Riot Grrrl bands were a shambolic unlistenable joke and that it was largely blokes who went to watch them anyway.
These girls, such critics argued, were involved in a fashion. Riot Grrrl was a phase, a music fad that was stylised and invented by trend hungry music journalists eager to shift copies of their ailing publications. These girls, they would argue, grew out of Riot Grrrl. They moved on and disowned the phrase once it was no longer ‘cool’.
But what of these girls? And what of the girls who didn’t fit the above stereotypes? The girls who didn’t move on, and who instead stuck by each other and believed that they deserved better. What of them?
This is a story of those girls.
But What of Them?
What is a beginning?, if such a term can be defined in relation to Riot Grrrl. Traditionally, the term refers to the start of something, to the point at which something or someone commences to travel along a particular path. For those who live their lives outside of Riot Grrrl, the how’s and where’s of individuals and their involvement with the phrase can be a little puzzling. Indeed, for some of us who are or were involved it can also be a little puzzling. It is often difficult for us to put our finger on a particular instant at a particular time on a particular day and say “That is how it happened, that is when it started, that is when it all began” Yet in questioning these sixteen individuals, that is what I have asked them to do. For whilst I recognise that each story is different, I wanted to see if there were any similarities within the group when it came to comparing their various introductions to Riot Grrrl.
In the most literal of senses, every story was different, yet there was an emotional thread that ran through each one, and that thread was self discovery. What came across was the need for Riot Grrrl, and in many ways, the how and when became less important.
By far the most striking story of introduction I received was from Rosie, a fanzine writer from Lichfield, who wrote:
“When I was about 13 I stole and L7 tape from Woolworths and it all began there…” she added: “I had a Maths teacher who was into that kind of music and he helped me to find more bands I liked. I came into contact with other grrrls through Wiiija label and at gigs”
Although Rosie’s introduction was experienced at a relative distance and over a prolonged period of time, a combination of curiosity and encouragement kept her interested. Angel, a fanzine writer from London,
received a more direct introduction to Riot Grrrl, as she explains below:
“I first became involved with ‘Riot Grrrl’ in the summer of 1992 although it was not branded Riot Grrrl until 1993 when the press got involved. I went along to a gig one night alone, just chose a random band to see, the band happened to be Lungleg an all girl pop-punk explosion unlike anything I’d ever heard before. They were cool and sassy and in control, I was captivated. After the show some girls came up and talked to me, they told me about some other gigs coming up by bands called Huggy Bear and Skinned Teen, they invited me to go along with them. I kept in contact with them and soon became close friends. When I saw Huggy Bear at the Sausage Machine I was totally hooked, never before had I witnessed a band with so much energy. They sang about truth, injustices and love in such a cool way, the three girls in the band were so powerful and the two boys were on their side. I have never since seen a band live that have managed to move me as much as that first Huggy Bear gig did.”
What these two separate accounts begin to reveal is the importance of music as a form of communication. This is significant if only because all of those I interviewed had received a music based introduction to Riot Grrrl. However, whilst Riot Grrrl gigs were important when it came to introducing girls such as Angel to the phrase and its possibilities, perhaps the most common introduction was a variation on Helen’s experience:
“For me, Huggy Bear came into my life in 1996, when I was fifteen and feeling a bit terrible” she wrote “and, as we all know, it is THE LAW for 15 year old girls to feel utterly miserable about everything – body, appearance, sexuality, feeling distant from your mates… but I felt so alone in all of this and just generally was having a bad time. A friend gave me a tape entitled Cool Grrrly Stuff For A Cool Grrrly Grrrl in the summer of ’96. That tape turned out to be the most influential, important tape I have ever received. On it (amongst Kenickie, Hole, Bikini Kill, Voodoo Queens etc) was Huggy Bear. I can’t remember which song, and I don’t think it really matters. But this is where it all began. It wasn’t just the Huggy Bear track that inspired me, it was everything about the tape – girls with guitars singing about stuff that mattered to me” (1)
With that last line, Helen manages to sum up what was for many the initial attraction of Riot Grrrl: the discovery of bands and music that they could relate to. Or, as she put it, the discovery of “girls with guitars singing about stuff that mattered to me.”
Whilst it is simplistic to suggest that Riot Grrrl was/is only concerned with music, the music of Riot Grrrl has become the most associated (some might say “infamous”) expression of the phrase. It seems only fair then to focus upon the music of Riot Grrrl next.
Be Crap: Who Cares?
Because Riot Grrrl in Britain received a lot of its initial coverage in the music papers NME (New Musical Express) and Melody Maker, the music of Riot Grrrl was, and in many ways – still is – tagged to the kind of wishy washy, vague, ‘indie’ sensibility that these publications promote. It was not surprising them to discover that most of those interviewed had come to Riot Grrrl via the nineties indie scene. As Casino, a fanzine writer from Baddesley put it, she hadn’t been aware of Riot Grrrl until 1997 because in 1993, for her, things were:
“all Blur Pulp and Britpop, ‘Catcher in the rye’ and revolutionary training bras”
The British ‘indie’ scene – characterised in 1992 by bands such as Suede, the Levellers, and Blur was ostensibly ‘right on’ in its anti racist, anti homophobic, anti sexist posturing, and fashionable elitism. But the arrival of Riot Grrrl in Britain served as a reminder that all was not as it should have been in the idealistic land of alternative culture. As the Manchester Grrrls wrote:
“We’ve woken up to the ways males and females in bands have always got slightly different treatment, how little women have ever had to do with a lot of alternative music/this very male orientated image its got. I love that kind of music, but I hate its image and attitude – you’ve got to be cool, you have to have a trainspotterly seriousness about it, you must show that you’re either harder or more of a bedroom wallflower than anyone else…” (2)
That Riot Grrrl positioned itself in direct opposition to such characteristics meant that it also drew in girls from outside the indie scene.
“Before I was 13 I really had no idea about music” wrote Rosie “I liked Madonna and Bananarama!” she added “But a lot of the bands I got into then wouldn’t really be considered ‘Riot Grrrl’ – L7, Blondie, PJ Harvey etc”
Sophy from Canterbury, writer of Sista Yes!, a feminist and rock music zine, also came from a pop background.
“Between the ages of ten and eleven I had a weird obsession with The Bangles. This was after they’d broken up and it wasn’t very trendy to like them at that point. Considering that most peoples taste is pretty awful during childhood, I don’t think they were that bad a choice, seeing as they were an all female rock band (well, O.K, maybe ‘rock’ is too strong a word – they were a pop/soft rock band) and they played all their own instruments and wrote their own songs. Susannah Hoffs even played the Lilith Fair last year… but O.K, I’ll stop trying to make a case for my ‘The Bangles were cool’ argument. Let’s face it, they weren’t. But they weaned me off pop and on to rock. Sort of.”
In many cases, Riot Grrrl has had a profound effect upon the listening habits of those interviewed, changing not only the music that they listened to, but also the very way in which they consumed music. As Kate Vickers, a singer/musician from Manchester wrote:
“I found myself listening to bands which were more of a challenge. As I became more involved in a band myself so I listened to the music which excited me differently. I felt part of the music – it wasn’t them and me, but us”
This sense of inclusion, rather than exclusion, was echoed by Rachael from High Wycombe, a fanzine writer, tape label boss and guitarist/singer in Riot Grrrl bands Pixie Meat and The Charlottes.
“I looked out for bands with girls in them, and stopped listening to boring male bands that sang about their pain and self disgust.” She wrote “I realised that they weren’t singing about anything that affected me, and they were all too self-obsessed to change. They were singing the same thing as everyone else, whereas all the riot grrrl bands sang about different things ie – Bikini Kill were very straightforward in their approach to certain issues, but Babes in Toyland used loads of metaphors and bizarre imagery.”
Not only did Rachael feel included by the the Riot Grrrl bands, she also felt – for the first time – that she could identify with the bands that she was listening to. Bands like Bikini Kill and Babes in Toyland implicated her, as a girl, within their songs in a more varied, less passive, more interesting way than the “boring male bands” that she had been listening to previously.
Through Riot Grrrl’s focus on the female, this sense of musical inclusion has another effect: it made some (but by no means all) of the women involved with the phrase aware of previous ‘difficult’ women. As Angel wrote:
“Before I was into Riot Grrrl bands I listened to a lot of mainstream punk, which was predominantly male (or so I was led to believe!) I liked The Clash, Buzzcocks, Ramones etc and for a while I came to terms with the fact that this was as close to my way of thinking as music could be, but something didn’t quite click. What Riot Grrrl did for me was to help fill in my missing history (by ‘my’ I mean women’s) it helped me discover amazing bands practically ignored by the music magazines and rock family trees. Bands like X Ray Spex, The Au Pairs, Patti Smith, Joan Jett, The Slits and The Raincoats filled in those missing gaps and sang punk/rock’n’roll from a female perspective, suddenly it all made much more sense, it put me as a female into the scene.”
Angel’s predicament was not uncommon. Whilst some of those interviewed has a knowledge of women in music, and – in particular – women of the punk era, many only had a vague knowledge, and many more still had not become aware of these bands until they became aware of Riot Grrrl.
General ‘ideas’ surrounding what punk is/was have lingered in the British consciousness, particularly in the mass media/music/fashion industries. In the late nineties, punk derived fashion littered both the high street and the catwalk, punk styled bands stared out from the pages of magazines, and the word itself has become commonly accepted. However, this lingering set of ‘ideas’ about punk appears only to have recognised and incorporated the themes and styles of male bands such as the Sex Pistols and The Clash.
Where are the female punks in all of this? The Siouxsies, Poly Styrenes, Slits and Raincoats? They have been hidden and buried by history, and by a wave of nostalgia that – as nostalgia always does – has simplified and distorted punk for mass consumption. Punk commodity is little more than a leather trousered, safety pinned rock’n’roll cliché, and women do not fit the commodity view.
“I never really heard many of the 70’s girl punk bands until a year or so ago” wrote Simone Ivatts, a musician and fanzine writer from Leeds “I’ve not read much about them, but what I have read and heard makes me feel there is some connection (with Riot Grrrl), as they were being overtly feminist in an overtly male environment – totally progressive and cool”
This connection between punk and Riot Grrrl that Simone mentions was picked up on by the press almost immediately. Riot Grrrl was/is our punk, if you like, and the many musical and cultural links between the two have been debated and speculated upon a good deal since 1992. But just how close to punk do Riot Grrrls view themselves as being? Are they as likely as the journalists have been to make that association?
When I posed the argument to my interviewees, I received quite a mixed response. I found that the age of the interviewee and the degree of knowledge they had of seventies/eighties punk bands tended to have an impact upon the responses given.
The youngest of my interviewees tended to have the least knowledge of the whole area of punk, as did those who had not been involved with Riot Grrrl for very long, and – understandably so perhaps – they were often confused by the question. Older interviewees and those who had been involved with Riot Grrrl or the underground scene generally for a long period of time were more likely to know about the purported link, as they had heard the argument before, and were also more likely to be aware of bands like the Slits and the Raincoats – however vaguely.
Many interviewees were hesitant to link punk to Riot Grrrl unless they felt close to the era, for example, if they were old enough to remember the tail end of punk in the eighties, or if they felt particularly well versed in their knowledge of the bands and the argument.
Kate Vickers, for example, did not feel sufficiently close to the era to judge the argument absolutely.
“There’s a link, of course” she wrote “but I don’t think they necessarily follow on – they compliment each other, but in some ways are quite diverse. Punk bands like The Slits were very positive for girls, but they did not advocate the same kind of exclusivity as Riot Grrrl did. The DIY element was very important in both areas – but possibly for different reasons!”
Rachel, of Newcastle’s Slampt Underground Organisation could see the importance of the girl punk bands, but – like Kate – didn’t feel sufficiently close to the era to make an exact pronouncement.
“Rosie (Pussycat Trash guitarist) was very into the Raincoats, Slits etc and I got into it later. I think in some ways it almost gives you permission to do something if women have done it before. And The Slits or Raincoats were totally doing something more (musically) interesting that their male contemporaries. Also they dealt with more female issues than the boy punx.”
It would be simplistic at best to suggest that punk was the only musical inspiration behind Riot Grrrl for, as the acoustic pop of Lois Maffeo, spoken word pieces of Chia Pet and Kathleen Hanna (working as Julie Ruin), and jangly garage pop of Mambo Taxi and the Voodoo Queens would seem to suggest, inspiration could be taken from anywhere and everywhere. Mambo Taxi, for example, were inspired by sixties garage rock, by retro bands such as Thee Headcoats/Headcoatees, and soundtracks to films like American Graffiti and Hairspray as well as by punk. Pussycat Trash had a wide variety of influences too – everything from the Slits and Huggy Bear through to Beat Happening and Mecca Normal. In fact, many of the British Riot Grrrl bands – particularly the earliest bands – had been teenagers at the time of another bad mouthed ‘scene’ – C86, and as such had some affection for the bands who had come out of that scene: Talulah Gosh/Heavenly, The Field Mice, Felt… all bands of a rather fey, delicate nature. C86 was also known as “twee pop”.
The overlap between many of the female based grunge bands – such as Hole, Babes in Toyland, L7, and the Riot Grrrl bands would also seem to suggest that the music of Riot Grrrl cannot easily be confined to one category.
Whilst to link the nineties born Riot Grrrl to the seventies born punk is problematic, there is at least one claim that unites both punks and Riot Grrrls, and that is the insistence that both terms refer/red to considerably more than ‘just’ music.