Women in punk: ‘Too Good To Be Forgotten’
Women's involvement in British punk has been marginalised and written out of mainstream histories. In the next few months, The F-Word will run a series of features on women in punk by Cazz Blase. By way of introduction, here she sketches out her own first encounters with the genre, and carries out a vox pop in Manchester to gauge whether the person on the street can name any women in punk
Never Mind The…. Ooh, Never Mind… punk and the public memory
Cazz Blase (with Sara Shepherd and David Wilkinson)
The Plan: To voxpop the citizens of Manchester
The topic: Punk, an era we deliberately did not define
The reason: To test commonly held public perceptions of punk, particularly the misconception that there were no female punk performers, and to test the extent to which these perceptions have trickled down from the punk generation to both the post-punk generation, and the iPod generation.
None of us had conducted a vox pop before, and we learnt a lot in a very short space of time about how to go about it, and how not to go about it. For example, we learnt very quickly not to vox pop in the dark, not to stand too close to exits, entrances or stairs, and not to bother trying to vox pop couples; mainly because, in our experience, even if you manage to talk one of them into doing it, their partner will immediately talk them out of it.
We asked the same four questions to each of our interviewees:
- If I say the word ‘punk’ to you, what’s the first thing that comes into your mind?
- Could you list me some punk bands?
- Can you think of any female punks?
- Have you heard of the Slits?
I chose to ask about the Slits specifically because the vox pops were conducted less than six months after Zoe Street Howe’s biography of the band, Typical Girls? The Story of The Slits, was published, and also because the band have reformed, released a new album and toured in October last year.
The responses we received at times staggered us, fascinated us, and cheered us… We voxpopped in two locations, Afflecks Palace and Oxford Road. We chose Afflecks Palace, Manchester’s famous indoor market, because of its historical subcultural connections, and its inevitable lure to teenagers. We’d all hung out there at various times, and still continue to shop there, meaning we know the layout.
There’s still a lot of work to be done when it comes to documenting and highlighting the female punk experience
As it turned out, a lot of people we approached said no, often claiming that it was because they “didn’t know anything about punk”, and our impression in many of these cases was that they were fearful of being laughed at, or thought we were testing them in some way.
Our main respondents at Afflecks therefore tended to be girls in their late teens and women in their earlyish 20s, possibly because young men didn’t like being approached by two 30-something women.
The following descriptions reflect the range of people we were able to interview. We didn’t ask to take their photos, although we did have a camera, because the majority of them were extremely reluctant to answer our questions, and we felt that asking for names, ages, and then photographing them would be a step too far for them so far as cooperation went, but we have tried to describe them instead. Interestingly, the Oxford Road interviewess were far more cooperative, maybe because the BBC regularly do voxpops there. For reasons of space, these are a selection of the responses we received…
Afflecks Palace, 21 November 2009 Vox pops conducted by Cazz Blase and Sara Shepherd, with debriefs in Coffee Republic and Night And Day. Field notes by Cazz Blase.
Oxford Road, 25 November 2009, Vox pops conducted by Sara Shepherd and David Wilkinson. Debriefs held in the Library Lounge at John Rylands University Library (David and Sara) and 8th Day (Sara and Cazz) Field notes by Sara Shepherd.
If I say the word punk to you, what’s the first thing that comes into your mind?
|Afflecks Palace – Shoppers and Shop Assistants||Oxford Road – Students and Academics|
|If I say the word punk to you, what’s the first thing that comes into your mind?|
|“Johnny Rotten” (Man in early 20s)||“Wild hair” (laughs) (Young woman, 20-ish. Dyed black hair, leather jacket, headphones on, skinny jeans, cowboy boots. Said she “didn’t listen to punk or anything”.)|
|“Like, big spikes and baggy jeans and crazy music” (Slightly bemused girl, sounded a bit like Keira Knightley. About 18.)||“The Clash” (Male lecturer in the English Department at Manchester University.)|
|“The word punk? Erm, well, punk music.” (Female shop assistant from Rowfers. Long black hair, pale, with 1950s period type clothes, in her 20s.)||“Sex Pistols” (Young male student, 19-21 age range, Longish foppish hair/metal-y, parted in middle, neck length. Middle-class, leather jacket, slightly apologetic for his perceived lack of knowledge. Interviewed outside Manchester University Student Union.)|
|“Um, the image of punk, sort’ve like the Mohawk, typical look.” (Female shop assistant, in her early 20s.)||“Not something I like very much!” (Male student, early 20s, London accent. Short blonde hair, carried on texting during vox pop, smoking a cigar. Outside Manchester Metropolitan University Student Union.)|
|“Alternative” (Female shop assistant, in her 40s.)||“Like, retro images of like people with Mohicans, and stuff like that.” (Young female student, trendy, red hair in ponytail, cheerful and bright. Outside Manchester Metropolitan University Student Union.)|
|“Sid Vicious” (Female shop assistant from Enigmatic, 20-something, silvery blonde short hair and pierced lip. Exquisite voice.)||“Er… obviously a Mohawk, and, y’know, slit jeans and Rancid.” (Young male student, smoking a fag outside John Rylands University Library, dark curly hair, pleasant and cheerful, strong Lancashire accent.)|
|Can you list me some punk bands|
|“Erm? Misfits? I don’t know, I don’t know any punk bands.” [One of the girls he is with intervenes at this point, and says]: “Leftover Crack, my boyfriend’s enamoured of them.”||“(Silence) I might, but I don’t know to what extent they’re punk… Good Charlotte, I dunno, Blink 182, but I don’t think they’re punk I think.”|
|“I get mixed up between punk and rock sometimes, erm, I dunno.. Offspring?”||“Erm, the Clash, Sham 69, Sex Pistols, X-Ray Spex, er, the Damned, erm… were Siouxsie and the Banshees punk?” (That’s not for me to answer!) “Misfits.”|
|“The Ramones, Buzzcocks, erm.. I s’pose the Sonics, but I quite like early punk, like garage punk, like the Sonics, stuff like that. Sex Pistols.”||“Um, Grateful Dead, probably be one of the best ones, erm, probably the Clash are probably the better known of the punk era, Ramones, from America, were the best, Sex Pistols, that I just said, they’re kind of the ones people know. They’re the ones that I can think of, off the top of my head.”|
|“My favourite punk band are Oi Polloi. But I think more commonly known punk bands would be things like the Misfits, and things like that.”||“Erm, local bands? Oh… er, erm, Leftover Crack, that’s one, erm, ar! There’s an American one that I really, I actually do like, but I’ve forgotten the name of it, completely… Lemuria, that’s right, Lemuria, and a few others, like, erm, there’s one that I really like, forgotten the name of it, I’m not the biggest fan, I like a few songs.”|
|“”Er, well, you’ve got the Sex Pistols, you’ve got Death, Death Do I Die, er… let me think…”||Erm, like, ar, I can’t even remember, like ‘God Save The Queen’, all those types of songs, and that era of music, yeah…”|
|“Erm, the Clash, Amen is like… they’re like hardcore, metal core ish punk, aren’t they? I don’t actually like them… Sex Pistols, erm… Oh God (laughs) now that’s a bit bad.”||“Er… don’t know really… Rancid, er, Black Flag, I can’t really name that many, so…”|
|Can you think of any female punks?|
|“The lead singer from The Garbage? Garbage. What’s her name? Can’t remember…” (Shirley Manson?) “Shirley Manson”||“Well, I think she’s a wannabe punk, but, Avril Lavigne!”|
|“Ooh, um, Pink maybe? Kind’ve erm (struggling) Avril Lavigne? (laughs) I don’t have a clue…”||“Erm, well, Siouxsie Sioux, Poly Styrene, erm… punk and new wave’s a problem, I dunno, Blondie’s probably… erm, er… the entirety of Crass, erm, and whatever her name is in Throbbing Gristle, but I can’t remember…” (Cosey Fanni Tutti?) “There you go! That’s what her name is! Erm, but no, er… Oh, and well is, Oh God, I’ve forgotten her name, shit… Quite a young one, journalist…” (Julie Burchill?) “As in Julie Burchill!”|
|“Ooh… I’d probably think Debbie Harry was kind’ve like, although she was sort’ve post punk, but… Oh, Nancy, whatsername, of course.” (Spungeon?) “Yeah, yeah, yeah – she’s a classic. Erm, can’t think of any others… there’s not that many.” (laughs)||“Females in punk? [sounding a bit surprised] Today? Now? or just in general?” (Any time) “Erm… there’s probably been a few that I’m, obvious ones, that I’m completely missing, erm… I suppose you could probably say Debbie Harry, was probably the first lady of punk, back in her time, but I wouldn’t know who’s in it, I wouldn’t know any females who are in it now, I can’t think of any really… not that I know much about what counts as punk scene in 2009!”|
|“Erm, Slits, erm… Blondie I guess.”||“Yeah, the lead singer of Lemuria is a female singer, and then someone in Leftover Crack’s a female singer as well.”|
|“The only female that was mainstream was Debbie Harry in the ’80s, erm… punk is an ’80s vibe, it’s not really current in the 2000s, it’s now called grunge.” (laughs)||“No, I don’t know any.”|
|“Er, yeah, I know one actually, she waxes her hair into a Mohawk with a kind of wax!” (laughs)||“Er… not any particularly, apart from, kind’ve, that girl from Paramore, as sort’ve a folk-punk girl, but that’s about it.”|
|Have you heard of the Slits?|
|“No”||“No, I have not.”|
|“No”||“I have heard of the Slits, yes.”|
|“Oh yeah! Yeah, I have actually, I saw them last year at Zion Arts Centre [in Hulme] they were amazing! They’re still together!”||“Yes, I have heard of them, I couldn’t tell (sounds very cautious) you much about them though. There’s a female singer, is that the link?” (All female) “[Sounds a bit surprised] Are they all female? Oh, OK… It’s a name that sounds familiar, but probably because I’ve just, like, heard a couple of their tracks on mixes and things, but I couldn’t tell you, couldn’t name anything that they’ve done, to be honest.”|
|“Yeah, I think I have actually. I don’t know, I’d probably know more if I let myself have a bit of a looser definition of punk.”||“Slits? I have heard of them, but I’ve no idea about them.”|
We went into our vox pop with no agenda other than to get some kind of an idea as to commonly held perceptions of punk, outside of the music press, outside of academia, from a largely younger generation. We could theorise from the 16 vox pops, but we also know that it was a small and unrepresentive section of the population of Manchester.
Had we done the pubs, the Arndale Centre, and got a much less white sample, we would have had different responses again.
We did all feel that it provided food for thought, however, and that it showed that the essential image and mythology of punk is a very male one, for example:
Nine out of 15 of our interviewees hadn’t heard of the Slits, but seven out of the 15 mentioned The Sex Pistols in their list of punk bands. In fact, four of our interviewees mentioned the Sex Pistols, or a Sex Pistol, as the first thing that came into their mind when we said the word ‘punk’ to them. Only two of our interviewees mentioned bands that featured women when asked to list punk bands in the general sense, whilst five of our interviewees could not name us any women in punk (across all eras) at all: that’s a third of our interviewees.
Of those that could name some punk women (however tenuous) the most named were Debbie Harry (Blondie) with five mentions and Avril Lavigne with two. Interestingly, the number of interviewees who had heard of The Slits, but who didn’t mention them until explicitly prompted at the end was six, suggesting that people do not think of the Slits as a punk band.
That Debbie Harry was the most indentified female performer from the punk period may be testament to the fact that she continued to have a successful pop career into the 1980s, and because Blondie have since reformed. All of which would suggest that there’s still a lot of work to be done when it comes to documenting, and highlighting the female punk experience.
Tales of misspent youth, or I was a teenage subcultural anthropologist…
September 2001, Manchester. We had planned to go to Voodoo, an old school punk night held in the basement at Retro Bar. We’d been to Retro Bar a few times, mainly for X Offender, a club night that was the offspring of Get In!
We were used to bouncing around the dance floor to the likes of Le Tigre, Kenickie and Sleater-Kinney, along with songs that had found a way onto the playlist by sheer quirk of stroppiness: Neneh Cherry’s ‘Buffalo Stance’, Salt’N’Pepa’s ‘Push It’, En Vogue’s ‘Free Your Mind’ and Dolly Parton’s ‘9 To 5’. We weren’t sure if we could take a night of 1970s punk, on its own, but we were willing to give it a go on the understanding that the flyer mentioned X-Ray Spex.
First though, me and Karen were meeting up with two other girls, Helen and Jo, students newly arrived in Manchester, who Karen had met at Ladyfest Glasgow. Karen had her hair in bunches and was wearing a Ladyfest t-shirt with a cord skirt and black tights layered with sparkly fishnet tights. Jo, also sticking with the theme, was wearing a lime green homemade Gaye Advert t-shirt that she’d made with a heat-transfer kit, over a red and black diaphanous shirt. She was also wearing fishnets, in her case, black fishnets over lime green tights, worn with a tiger skin patterned skirt. Helen wore hipsters and a short shirt, and I wore a very short, very tight, and rather low cut purple dress We were all very hairslide laden.
Our first stop was Fab Café on Portland Street, where we got drinks and nibbles, and chatted for a bit before going onto Vanilla on Sackville Street. We met up with members of the band Valerie in Vanilla, and went on with them to Retro Bar, where we chatted upstairs about the forthcoming film and graphic novel Ghost World, bands and fanzines. After a while, Voodoo was due to start, so Valerie departed and we went downstairs.
Two punk bands were on the bill that night: the Rammalamma Fa Fas, who were a covers band, and Monkey Island, who were a garage band. The DJs played tons of 1970s punk, including X-Ray Spex, and yes, we were probably the youngest people there.
On the way out we had to walk past two enormous punk blokes who, upon spotting us, called after us. We turned around, warily, unsure as to what to expect. “Who’s that on your t-shirt?” one of them asked.
“Gaye Advert” replied Jo.
“Fuck!” he spluttered, “how old are you?!”
They obviously decided that we were worth talking to after this because we were there for over half an hour. When we declined their offer to go back into the club and have a drink, the first bloke, whose name was Iain, chastised us, “Where’s your rock’n’roll spirit?”
“It’s sleeping,” said Helen.
In the next few years, Helen and I got on with our respective English degrees, writing fanzines and going to gigs. Karen formed the gig and club promotion outfit Blame The Parents with her girlfriend Isi, whilst Jo was one of the organisers of Ladyfest Manchester 2003.
I discovered punk in 1992, when I was 13. Prior to 1992, I was already into a number of bands that would lead me in that direction, chiefly Siouxsie and the Banshees, who I had discovered the year before, but also grunge bands like Nirvana and L7, who I discovered in 1991/1992, and pre-grunge, post-punk bands like Sonic Youth, who I got into in the summer of 1992.
There was no local scene in Stockport in the 1990s – Stockport and Hazel Grove were very rave-y, musically speaking, and mainstream dance music was the currency of the playground, along with pop, and – weirdly – Guns ‘N’ Roses.
By contrast, Macclesfield and Poynton, where my step cousin was in the sixth form, were both very grungy, and had more of a live scene. I wasn’t old enough to go to gigs in Manchester at the time, but I’ve been told by older friends that the city was still emerging from its post-baggy/Madchester hangover at this point, a process that ultimately took about 10 years. Our step-cousin Jenny attended sixth form at Poynton High School, and she would relate the style tics and musical passions of her contemporaries to us when she stayed with us in the holidays.
The main bands seemed to be Sonic Youth, Nirvana and Violent Femmes in Poynton, and she and her friends would rub intricate designs into their jeans using coloured chalks, the idea being that the jeans would never be washed. I was very drawn to grunge at that stage, possibly because it was loud and angst ridden, musically, but also because I was very happy to embrace a subcultural style that gave me licence not to wear makeup, to wear big huge boots, not care about clothes but instead sling a plaid or tartan shirt on over whatever happened to by lying on the floor that day, and – most importantly – to not brush my hair for six months.
My sister, step-cousin and I would traipse around Stockport town centre in our grunge gear that Easter, getting gawped at and shopping at Double 4 Records and Cobwebs, the alternative clothing shop, on Hillgate.
It was on a record buying expedition to Double 4 that October that my sister and I found, quite by chance, my first punk record: Siouxsie and the Banshees’ Peel Sessions 1977-1978. I wanted it because it had ‘Hong Kong Garden’ on it, a song I’d heard the week before on a radio documentary about Peel Sessions, which had also featured the Slits, X-Ray Spex, the Damned, and Adam and the Ants.
I’d heard the Clash in 1991, when ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go?’ and ‘Rock The Casbah’ were both reissued on the back of the former’s usage in a Levi’s commercial.
But none of it had really had any impact on me, possibly because, tempo wise, they weren’t very fast records and, by mid-late 1992, I was into fast, which is why the Damned and the Slits sessions, coupled with the Banshees’ early sessions, had much more of an immediate impact on me – because they were fast, loud, aggressive, and sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before.
I was given the Banshees’ session album for Christmas that year by my sister, and it was approximately a month after that that I discovered riot grrrl, via a confusing and contradictory series of reports in NME, and the more immediate, less confusing, more informative John Peel show.
Because I discovered punk and riot grrrl in such close proximity to each other, and because I heard a lot of female and female-fronted bands very early on into my discovering punk, my experience of both scenes in undoubtedly coloured as a result: I discovered everything out of context, back to front, sideways… wrong in every way, and I was in and out of approximately three different scenes, sometimes four, more or less simultaneously: ’90s grunge, ’90s riot grrrl, ’70s punk, and ’90s post C86 twee – all of which interacted with, influenced, and confused each other, and – not surprisingly – me.
At the same time though, all I remember is the huge sense of excitement I felt at discovering, and experimenting with, such a wide range of music and fashion. It was a long, long time before all the different strands got untangled and un-confused, and began to make sense and form something that began to look like a coherent picture.
When I was a riot grrrl – no one expected anything of me, and I could just observe, experiment, and enjoy myself
I can sum up my ‘subcultural career’ quite easily, it goes something like this: 1991 through to 1993: the musically pluralist, experimental stage. 1993 through to 1995: the riot grrrl years, during which period I was still finding my feet as a fanzine writer, and was still little and cute enough to get away with sitting on the sidelines, soaking things up. I got ‘adopted’ by a lot of older people in this period, who tried to take me in hand or look out for me in various ways.
1995-1996: the transition period, when the underground scene shifted a bit, away from riot grrrl, onto bands like Kenickie and Bis. 1996-1999: the insufferable years. I don’t tend to look back on this period with much fondness because the scene that I was involved with at the time, the post-riot grrrl ‘Teen’ scene, which was made up of a variety of younger bands, including Kenickie and Bis, was very arrogant and exhibitionist, which inevitably rubbed off on me.
I was in the sixth form, hung out with bands, fanzine writers and small label bosses, was a bit of a ‘face’ on the scene (it was a small scene – it wasn’t difficult to be a ‘face’ on it) so it’s no wonder I was a pain in the arse at the time.
By 2000, a much stronger local scene was emerging in Manchester, and I came to identify with an evolving post-riot grrrl, post-queercore, just pre-Ladyfest punk scene, which revolved around local bands like Valerie, Hooker, (to a lesser extent) Red Vinyl Fur (who were from Stockport and were a bit more indie rock), and Flamingo 50 (Scouse, but ‘honory’ Mancs).
The club nights were equally as important, and were, in approximate chronological order: Get A Grip, Get In!, X Offender, Mass Teens On The Run, Blame The Parents, Killing Fantasy, Shake-O-Rama!, Kaffequeeria, and – these days – Club Brenda. This scene was a marked contrast to the ‘Teen’ scene, in that it was much more obscure, much less concerned with perceived dress codes and glamour, was much more female-dominated, and also, much more gay.
A lot of the club nights, and some of the gigs, were held in or around the fringes of the village in Manchester, but this scene existed, and still exists, as a critique of the mainstream village scene. Our main pin up in 2000 was probably Kathleen Hanna; now it’s indisputably Beth Ditto. Within this scene I was, and still am, very much on the fringes, and spectacularly invisible, both of which I love. It takes me back to the position I was in when I was a riot grrrl – no one expected anything of me, and I could just observe, experiment, and enjoy myself. I didn’t have to entertain anyone, or dress a certain way, or be a mouthpiece for a certain view, I could just be me.
I did want to write about this scene, and it did inspire me to do some background reading for a potential piece exploring the relationship, at various times, between the punk scene and the gay scene, how they interacted at certain points with certain scenes from the late 1970s onwards, how they didn’t at other points. I gave it up when I realised that I was staring down a long, stony road, with many obstacles and booby traps, and with little clue as to how to proceed. The decision was cemented by the fact that I injured my shoulder in late 2006, and got the commission for a book on riot grrrl in early 2007. I also knew that the music press wasn’t interested in this Manchester scene, and probably never would be, and that if I wanted to write about it I’d be better off pouring it all into a fictional account instead, which is what I did.
I have never really given much thought to my relationship with punk, over the years, mainly because – until I started interviewing people for this piece – it had never really occurred to me that I had one. Because I am not of the punk generation, punk never really felt like something that was mine to own, and it’s only been over the past six months that I’ve really started to think about this. I think this experience is perhaps quite common amongst people of the post-punk generation, and it’s a theme I shall be returning to later. In the meantime, let me finish this section by saying this: although my experience of punk is perhaps unusual, and has influenced how I think and write about it, I wouldn’t change it for anything. My mother once caught me dancing around my bedroom to X Ray Spex when I was about 15, and said ‘Are you trying to tell me that you think you were born 20 years too late?’ and even then I said ‘No’. I would still say ‘No’ today.