Punk women write back
Women from the 1970s punk scene in the UK have not stood by as their contributions were erased from the music history books, but have documented that time with their own books and films. Cazz Blase reports
Around the middle of 2009, it gradually became apparent that a number of women largely, although not exclusively, of the punk generation were writing and making films about the role of women within the UK punk scene after (in some cases) a long period of absence, or personal distance, from that scene. As well as exploring the histories and motives of the women concerned, it was always my intention to write specifically about these essays, books, and films.
She Bop & punk rock; so what?
Music writer and former Catholic Girl Lucy O'Brien first wrote about women and punk as a student, when she interviewed Siouxsie Sioux in 1980.
She touched on the subject again in 1984, when she wrote a piece for Spare Rib about women and rock, and then with a contribution to John Aizelwood's essay collection themed around fandom, Love is the Drug.
But one of O'Brien's most enduring works, already mentioned in the course of this series, is She Bop: The definitive history of women in rock, pop, and soul, first published in 1995 (a second, updated edition appeared in 2002). The chapter on punk, 'Final Girls', marked out a clear lineage between the female punks, such as Siouxsie, Debbie Harry, Chrissie Hynde, The Slits and The Raincoats, and performers from the 1980s and 1990s, taking in both grunge and riot grrrl along the way.
Because I first read this book immediately after it was published, when I was 16, I naively assumed that all accounts of punk written around that time, or to be written later, would mention riot grrrl, but I was to be proved wrong on that one. Similarly, I also discovered later that not all writers of what would be dubbed 'women in rock' books 'got' riot grrrl, and that many were dismissive or puzzled by it. This might seem a small point to make, given the marginal, and frequently non-existent, place riot grrrl occupies in rock history, but it was very important to me at the time, and remains so. It was one of the reasons why I wrote 'But what of us?', my first essay on riot grrrl. As it was, I felt I'd found an ally when I read She Bop, and I still feel that way.
During our phone interview for this piece, I asked her if she felt that the term 'women in rock' has become problematic.
"Well, people often ask me this," she said, "and I always say I wish it was outdated in a way, and every time I think it's outdated, something happens: I hear about some form of discrimination in the music industry, or talk to a female artist about the way she's been treated by a record company, and I just think... 'No, the fight still needs to be fought.'" She explained: "There's still so much discrepancy between the jobs for men and the jobs for women within the music industry. And during times of recession it gets worse, and a lot of stereotypes become hardened because record companies play safe.
Rape is an industrial hazard, a hazard of being female, playing music in bands
"It's a curious time at the moment though because female artists are doing so well, and in some ways outperforming their male peers, in terms of pop music and... I think in electronic music they're just doing brilliantly; Lady Gaga, La Roux and doing really interesting stuff. There's a big 'but'... There's so many areas where women still are really under represented: A&R, production, music journalism... lots of the really peachy jobs, men still really do control."
At the time of our interview, she had recently attended an event sponsored by Rocks Back Pages and another website. "They'd invited 'the great and the good', and journalists who'd been around for a long time," O'Brein explained, "and there must have been about... God, over a hundred of us in this room, being treated to a lovely meal and everything, and there were only four women. There was myself, Caroline Coon, Sheryl Garrett and Caroline Sullivan from The Guardian, and that was it.
"We all sat on one table at one point and we were just laughing about it... and the rest was all guys..."
In recent years Lucy has crossed over into academia, but also continues to work as a music journalist. "I'd say my students are a complete mix of male and female," she said, "all different ethnicities; that's really nice. But in terms of people teaching the subject [popular music studies], it's still very male dominated, and, I found myself the other day... It was a conference on post punk actually, I thought 'Blimey, this is still so male,' and I could feel the same sense of bloody mindedness that made me push to write for NME, when I realised how male it was, and I just thought 'there should be more women doing this, and there aren't so I'll go and do it then, alright, I'll go and do it'."
I asked her if she was ever tempted to write She Bop III. "Yes, actually, at the moment I've got a proposal for 'She Bop III' in the works, and there's plans to do one."
The Lost Women of Rock Music: Female Musicians of the Punk Era
Helen Reddington's (née McCookerybook) book, The Lost Women Of Rock Music: Female Musicians of the Punk Era was published in July 2007. She wrote in the introduction to the book of a desire to destroy the stereotype of the 'punkette', as depicted by the tabloids. "It was always the fishnet tights," she explained, adding that, during the research period for the book, she was approached by "two or three video companies" who wanted to do something for TV, one of which was only interested in "the look, you know, the eye makeup, and spiky hair and all that sort of thing."
Her other main reason for writing the book was because the image of punk that has been set in stone did not match her own first-hand experience, and that if she didn't write the book then the experience of a whole generation of female musicians might well disappear from history. "It's a social history of a unique moment in British music making, when women were a vital part of the instrumental contribution to bands," she explained, citing the avant garde musical experimentation of The Slits and The Raincoats as examples of this.
Her mission was to document and explore the experiences of the punk generation of women instrumentalists, whilst also taking into account the socio-political context of the time.
There is also a chapter on rape and sexual harassment within the punk scene, which makes for very harrowing, and shocking, reading. I asked Helen if the extent of rape and sexual harassment within the punk scene had shocked her.
There was a long pause before she answered, carefully: "Not really." She added: "I think what happened was my heart would sink when that conversation started happening, and..." she broke off, then added, in much fiercer tones, "I started to get very, very angry, VERY, VERY angry... I would love to say who it was, and put it on record, all of the people that did it, to all of the women... Since the book came out, one of the women phoned me, absolutely out of the blue; this was about... two months ago? So it must have been in her head... and I did ask her at the time, 'did anything happen to you?' she obviously needed to tell me, and so I suspect that... there are other people who haven't told me things."
She added: "There are so many men, and women, who refuse to believe that rape is as frequent as it is: it is very, very frequent, and as far as the women in bands were concerned, it was a control thing - 'If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen, I'll show you what the heat is' and, you know, all power to them, they carried on, they didn't let it stop them, and that is them triumphing over it.
"I actually got so upset about it that I went to my second supervisor, Julie Seaton, and I said 'I don't know what to do, because I've got this story here, I didn't want to write this story, I wanted to celebrate, but I've got this sub-story that's just total sexual violence, what shall I do?' and she said, 'Well, your intention was not to write about victims, it was to write about people who have survived, and who have created something really good, so you do that'.
"She was the person who gave me the [chapter] title, 'Industrial Hazard', which I think is a brilliant title, because it... says 'Well, this is a serious assault, and it actually is an industrial hazard, a hazard of being female, playing music in bands,' and it still happens, I know for a fact, it still happens... So I deeply regret not being able to mention names, 'cos every time I mentioned a name it would be like going like that" she mimes throwing a punch, "to the person who did it, but I can't."
Now I've got a better camera, I've got a better perspective and I'm ready: now is the right time
I said that her experience showed that she obviously had good ethics, in that her interviewees obviously felt that they could trust her with such sensitive information.
"Well it allows me to talk about that aspect of things, in a non-sensational way, in a matter of fact [way]." She explained: "It is a matter of fact that this happens, and it happened all these different ways, and therefore it's not just a coincidence, it's not just a couple of one offs, it's an everytime off. So it allowed me to do that, and I think that's quite important, because most people who get raped, they don't report it, or they don't tell people, because they think it's just them and they think it's their fault. I hope in that chapter I'm sort of saying 'well actually, it's normal, and isn't it horrible that it's normal?'"
Helen is at work on an updated paperback edition of the book at present, which is due to be published in September 2011. It will include a number of new interviews and pictures, and will retail at less than £20. She continues to perform as Helen McCookerybook.
She's A Punk Rocker UK
I was not able to arrange an interview with Zillah Minx (née Ashworth), singer in punk band Rubella Ballet and director of the excellent She's A Punk Rocker UK. which I deeply regret because, as the film reveals, she would have had some fascinating takes on the subject of women and punk.
The film made its debut in 2007, and it focuses on a range of punk women, both well and lesser-known. It also encompasses women from a number of different areas (musicians, fans, music journalists) and from all across the class spectrum. "Tremendous" is the word that springs to mind when summing it up.
Amongst those interviewed are Julie Burchill, who is rarely included in discussions of women and punk, Gaye Advert of The Adverts, Caroline Coon, Poly Styrene, Vi Subversa, Justine from Gretchen Hoffner, Crass and Hagar The Womb, amongst others, including Zillah herself. There's lots of great archive footage, some of which had possibly never been seen outside of Rubella Ballet circles before, and the overall impact is very energised.
Because Zillah included such a range of interviewees, it means that the film features a number of people who maybe haven't been heard or seen before, who bring all sorts of fascinating insights to it, these include Poly Styrene's bodyguard, Mad Mary, Justine from Gretschen Hofner and Nettle Baker, daughter of Ginger Baker.
Whilst the film is a series of punk snapshots, they do form a clear narrative, and themes touched on include DIY fashion, image, confrontation and sexuality. There's a clear sense of feminism running through the film, which is never actually named, but is definitely present throughout the interviews.
Zillah has also made a second film, She's A Punk Rocker USA, which focuses on women involved with the US punk scene. You can download She's A Punk Rocker UK on MySpace.
The Raincoats Fairytales - A Work In Progress
Gina Birch's film, The Raincoats Fairytales - A Work In Progress premiered at the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival in March 2009, and Gina has wanted to make a film about The Raincoats for a long time. "Well I was gonna make a DVD of all the Raincoats stuff," she explained, "I wanted to put the record straight on that whole business of us being dowdy dreary feminists, and I wanted to tell our story as we saw it, 'cos no-one else was gonna tell it. And so that's been kind of lingering and lurking for a long time, but actually it's very hard to do something sometimes without a deadline, and it's like 'Oh, now I'll talk about me.'"
She put the project off for a long time because of other work commitments, but "the 30-year anniversary was approaching, and people kept saying 'What about this DVD then?' and I kept saying, 'Oh yes, well I'll have it ready, yes I'll do a project, yep, OK' and not doing it. And then we got asked to show a little bit of it at the Lesbian and Gay Film Festival."
She "started to make it, and I couldn't stop, and I did 50 minutes of it. And I haven't... stopped yet." The film was later shown at the Cambridge Film Festival in September 2009.
"I'm looking for funding," she admitted, "because actually I'm incredibly broke, I've been working on it, and working on it. Normally you'd try and get a bit of funding and then go and make it, but I just started on it, and so now I'm just trying to find some money because, you know, [I] don't want to have a repossessed house, and electricity cut off in my repossessed house!
"I've been filming little interviews, on and off, over the years, but I've now got a better camera, I've got a better perspective, and now I'm ready: now is the right time. Would I have made a film about The Raincoats 10 years ago? I perhaps wouldn't have been that interested to do it then."
Typical Girls? The Story Of The Slits
It was a similar sense of exclusion from the punk canon that inspired Zoe Street Howe to write her book, Typical Girls? The Story Of The Slits. "I was about 24 or 25 when I really got into The Slits," she explained by email, "and started thinking that they absolutely deserved a lot more attention. I'd been a music journalist for a few years but I thought that books like this tended to be written by people who were there at the time, or people who'd 'paid their dues' by working for years for Uncut, or wherever."
She added: "Looking back I think it's a good thing that someone younger wrote a book like this, had I been there at the time, I may have inevitably written it through my own filter of that period. I certainly couldn't do that - I was four days old when the single 'Typical Girls' came out in October 1979!"
She continued: "This is certainly not a knee-jerk reaction, indeed it took me a while to realise this, but I now know that there are one or two older male writers, in the minority admittedly (most guys have been extremely supportive and enthusiastic), who appear to take issue with the fact that some young girl came along and essentially wrote a rock biography, which I suppose is seen as largely male territory. But you know, I waited for them to write it and they didn't, what's a girl to do?"
She explained: "I think a lot of people feel it's appropriate that a girl wrote The Slits' book, although I didn't see myself as a 'girl' writing it, I just saw myself as a person writing it. I didn't write it particularly from a gender angle - I'm sure people would assume it would have been - but I wrote it from the angle as a person who just wanted to honour them as artists. I knew they were interesting from the 'female' point of view too of course, but my feelings about how vital they are as role models to women grew as I started getting going and I quickly realised girls don't have many role models now who are comparable."
The Slits themselves were firmly on board. I was struck upon reading the book by how unlike other punk accounts it is. The cast is familiar and yet it's as though the bit parts have swapped places with the leads, roles have been re-arranged, and the focus has been re-distributed. You don't have to endure yet another dissection of the Bill Grundy episode and the familiar landmarks of the usual narratives around punk are minimalised, or simply not there, that the account feels fresh, interesting, detailed and utterly engaging. It's also very funny in parts.
She is at pains throughout the book to stress The Slits' artistry, their musicianship, beyond the shock and outrage, and the camaraderie and support between The Slits, The Clash, Subway Sect and Buzzcocks on the White Riot tour makes for a nice read. In contrast to the 'Never Mind The Bollocks' furore that blew up around the Sex Pistols when their album was released, she writes of a motorist who tried to sue Island Records a few days into the poster campaign for The Slits' debut album, 'Cut', having been so stunned by the spectacle of four naked, mud-daubed women that he crashed his car.
The Slits appealed to me because they didn't place limits on themselves, even when other people did
The book was initially going to focus on the band's debut album, 'Cut', which was released in September 1979, Street Howe widened the focus of the book in order to investigate The Slits' interest in music from other cultures, particularly reggae and African music. "They transcended punk in its purest form quite quickly" she explained, "and went into some seriously interesting musical areas, which saw them defy category and ultimately become quite hard to place, from the point of view of the music industry. They were avant garde, it was difficult to know what to do with them and they feel they were ultimately swept aside.
"So many people have no idea how into jazz they were, for example, or Afrobeat. Of course reggae was a big influence, but they also appreciated classical music, Celtic music, they adored the free jazz trumpeter Don Cherry, and even toured with him - that's how Neneh Cherry got involved with The Slits at the age of 14. They loved Sun Ra, they loved funk, embraced early hip-hop even, free improvisation." Throughout the book, Zoe was determined not to write about the band as an 'all-girl band', and this determination gives her a tendency to disassociate any and every achievement made by The Slits from their gender and from second-wave feminism.
That the book would not strike a strongly feminist tone didn't actually surprise me that much, because I was well aware of The Slits' antipathy towards feminism during the punk period. But as I read the book I began to feel increasingly irritated by the frequency with which the term "wimmin's libbers" came to be used in what I felt was a very aggressive way.
I understand that both Street Howe and the band would want to situate the band firmly as musicians, not as a gimmick, and I do also understand that to market a band as a 'girl band' can be highly detrimental, but the content of the book, and the experiences and discrimination the band had faced seemed at odds with this approach at times, and I was left feeling confused and irritated by it.
This perhaps says more about me than it does about the book, the band, or the book's author, but it did bring to mind a number of questions, chiefly, if The Slits dislike feminism so much then what on earth must they make of the way that they've been embraced by riot grrrl and Ladyfest, two very strongly feminist, punk-derived movements?
I asked Zoe if she had asked The Slits about riot grrrl and, if so, what did they make of it? "We didn't really talk about it very much to be honest," was the response.
When I pointed to the way in which, as Val Phoenix of Wears The Trousers put it, bands like The Slits and The Raincoats had been kept alive by movements like riot grrrl, she said: "I have no doubt that women's movements like riot grrrl kept The Slits' music alive and in the consciousness of people within those scenes, but... well put it this way, riot grrrl passed me by, yet I still managed to find The Slits!"
She continued: "I didn't get into the Slits because I was looking for female music specifically, I just loved their sound and their freedom and creativity. But I definitely think riot grrrl played a part in keeping their music alive in an underground way.
"If riot grrrl helped to give girls the confidence to get up and be an artist, or just be themselves and have someone to identify with then that's obviously incredibly valuable and shouldn't be underestimated. However, and forgive me if this impression is a bit simplistic, I wonder if a genre which is seen to exclude anyone, be it because of gender or whatever, is a bit counterproductive. Surely we are kicking against being excluded in the first place, to do that by creating a genre that thus appears to exclude others seems curious, although I can understand the temptation of doing that when you're feeling angry or oppressed, those feelings can dominate everything and you just want to pull up the drawbridge and join a scene which is supportive and with which you automatically have something pretty major in common.
"Sometimes you can miss out on other aspects of creativity once you start using labels or culture/gender specific themes. The Slits appealed to me because they didn't place limits on themselves, even when other people did.
Punk images are there for all time as inspiration, they can't be destroyed, they can't be eradicated, the artifacts and images are enduring
"With The Slits, I don't think they wanted to create a scene of female artists per se. Indeed, by actively separating female artists, such as in well meaning 'Women In Rock' articles of the time, the feeling was that it actually wasn't helpful to be segregated yet again and lumped together with artists with whom they might only have one thing in common - their gender. How frustrating it must have been to maybe only really be written about when someone feels like writing an article about 'Women In Rock' and then get largely ignored the rest of the time."
She has also performed live with Viv Albertine. "Yes I was musical," she said, "I played piano and drums and stringed instruments since my early teens, but sort of lost confidence in my early 20s, or a bit before. It was always inside me niggling away, saying, 'You should be playing!' and it was getting to me, but I really didn't know how to access it again until I wrote the book, and met all these amazing people, and tapped into what The Slits did, and how brave and creative they were.
"In particular, Viv got me playing on a practical level because she just needed someone to play percussion and I just had to rise to it, but Keith Levene also inspired me as a person, something unlocked after talking to him and I was able to really consider getting back into playing. It helped me find a missing jigsaw piece. There was more to it than just playing again; it had been something I was denying before that. So I can't thank him enough. The Raincoats were incredibly inspiring to talk to in that respect too. I guess I was inspired in the same way a lot of people will have been inspired to start playing or writing or whatever when they actually saw these bands the first time round."
Zoe is unique amongst the writers and film-makers I have interviewed for this series , in that she is not of the punk generation. As with my other interviewees (and myself), she inevitably brings a large degree of personal experience to her writing, which has given her book its own unique tone. I did enjoy The Slits book, in short, but I wish I'd been able to enjoy it more.
In the course of writing and researching this series (August - December 2009) there has been the usual glut of punk (and punk-related) books: David Nolan's Tony Wilson biography You're Entitled To An Opinion, Peter Hook's Hacienda book, Nicholas Rombes' A Cultural History Of Punk 1974-1982, Marcus Gray's Route 19 Revisited: The Clash and London Calling, the re-issue of John Robb's The North Will Rise Again: Manchester Music 1976-1996, Tony Beesley's Our Generation: The Punk And Mod Children Of Sheffield, Rotheram, and Doncaster 1976-1985, Jaki Florek and Paul Whelan's Liverpool Eric's - All The Best Clubs Are Downstairs, Everybody Knows That... Need I go on? All of these are books that I saw reviewed in the past five months in the review pages of The Big Issue In The North, Mojo and Record Collector - and I wasn't even trying to find them...
The pile of punk books keep on growing, but there is still a lot of work to be done in terms of a shift in perspective. I'm encouraged by the variety of the books above, particularly the localised accounts, but I still wonder to what extent these, and other books, add or detract from the gender distortion in existing accounts of punk.
"Well it's really important," said Helen McCookerybook, when I asked her if she would like to see more books on women and punk, she added, "I mean, I know that there's some biogs, autobiographies, on the way, I think Palmolive's writing one. One of the reasons why she didn't really want to talk to me was 'cos she was writing her own book, so's Poly Styrene, Shirley from The Raincoats is writing a book about The Raincoats, so there are lots of books on the way, and if I've stimulated that by my book, I'm really pleased, because I think it's a massive field for people to write about, there's loads to write about."
I asked my interviewees where they saw the influence of punk today and if there were any women from the punk period whose careers they still followed.
"The influence of punk is all around us, of course it is!" said Caroline Coon (left), "Dramatic periods in history always remain. Looking back is a way of informing ourselves about what we can do in the future. So punk images are there for all time as inspiration, they can't be destroyed, they can't be eradicated, the artifacts and images are enduring: like other great countercultural movements, punk is an ever-continuing influence." Musically, she is still interested in what Chrissie Hynde, The Raincoats, Gina Birch, Zillah Minx, Poly Styrene, Pauline Black, Girlschool and Siouxsie are up to. "The fact that they are still able to be musicians just inspires me, just keeps my hopes up. It's very, very important to me."
"I don't know!" protested Gina Birch when I asked her the first of these questions, "you could say it's everywhere, its [sings] 'everywhere and nowhere, baby', I don't know! It's like the whole hippy thing, it kind of infiltrates a bit, and the hippy thing infiltrated the punk thing, and the punk thing infiltrated people's thinking now, and what is people's thinking now? A bit environmental, a bit global..." She likes Patti Smith and Scritti Politti and "would go and see an ATV gig any time." She's also interested in what Viv Albertine and her bandmate Ana Da Silva are doing.
When I asked Lucy O'Brien the first of the two questions, she agreed with Gina Birch, "It's everywhere, I mean, what was it Pere Ubu said recently? 'The whole world's gone punk.' You see it in fashion and in music. It's nice seeing that kind of DIY mentality coming through again, with the internet and MySpace and social downloading, and lots of new young bands coming through, and artists coming through that don't have to rely on a deal with the major label, so, consequently they're coming out with really interesting stuff."
I prefer it when they look daft, actually, prefer it because it's not as styled and complete an image
"The major companies are all running around like headless chickens, but on grassroots level, I think it's very healthy," she added. As to the second question, "When The Slits play, or The Raincoats play, I like to go along, and I'm in touch with most of them. And what thrills me is I'm in touch with them all on a personal level as well, they've become friends, and I remember, when I was a teenager, these women were real heroines of mine, and now I feel like we're on a similar level, it's really good." She added: "And Siouxsie, I'm always intrigued at what she's doing. Like she did that amazing - it was on the South Bank - she set some of The Banshees' songs to a big orchestrated arrangement, so that was great."
When I asked my voxpoppers David Wilkinson and Sara Shepherd where they saw the influence of punk today, there was a long, deathly silence. "In Topshop!" said Sara, at last, adding, in relation to the voxpops, "We saw it all over Afflecks Palace yesterday," and we discussed the baffling array of punk-influenced fashion we'd seen, up to and including the shop selling Plasmatics handbags, Blondie babygros and child-sized Bowie t-shirts.
"It's the CD 'Punk Rock Baby' isn't it?" said Sara, "You know, lullaby versions of 'White Riot', all very nice isn't it?"
David chipped in at this point, "And even 'Nouvelle Vague', even though I might quite like some of the bossa nova versions, my party line is that I hate it, it violates punk"
"As a woman," said Sara, "that kind of punk influence is - you know, you probably take it for granted, I suppose - but it's really important in terms of dressing for yourself, that's a massive, massive thing." She added: "The more and more you see young girls being styled by Cosmo magazine, or whatever, you hang onto that feeling, it's really important, and that's why it's great to see young kids, whether you like new forms of punk or not, the fact that the girls are not dressing for boys, that's really important that that's still happening I think."
David agreed: "In the same way that, I mean, I know it happens to a lesser extent, but boys dress for girls, as well as, being gay, like, the sort've crossover between gay and punk subculture, like boys dressing for boys, [and girls dressing for girls] or just dressing for themselves, and I think that's important too."
He added, "I do still like to see kids just experimenting and looking completely daft, even if they look daft, I prefer it when they look daft, actually, prefer it because it's not as styled and complete an image, and that's why I was sad when emo came along, because I do feel like it's more of an off the peg, high street look." (You can read the full interview with David and Sara, in which they talk about their introductions to punk, and how punk has been depicted in film and literature, here.)
On a more positive note, I would argue that the way that a song, a band, a scene, a type of music, can be plucked from its musical and historical context and take on a new significance to a new generation beyond its original time is a good thing. I firmly believe that this happens on a daily basis, around the world, with punk, and it is for that reason that I hope that the role of women within the punk scene continues to be re-assessed, re-evaluated, and recorded for posterity.
I would like to thank everyone who generously and graciously gave their time to be interviewed, and/or to assist via email with this piece: without your cooperation it could never have been written. I'd also like to thank the staff at the Women's Library in London particularly Sonia Hope and Inderbir Bhuller, for their kind and generous assistance whilst I was in London. In Manchester, I'd like to thank the John Rylands University Library, particularly the DSU staff for sourcing books so quickly. Thanks are also due to the staff at The Social in The museum formerly known as URBIS, customers and staff at Afflecks Palace, staff and students of Manchester University and Manchester Metropolitan University, and voxpoppers David Wilkinson and Sara Shepherd. Thanks, lastly but not leastly, to Jess McCabe for saying 'Yes.'