A woman called Toothpaste: an interview with Lucy Whitman
Cazz Blase interviews Lucy Toothpaste, who wrote the fanzine JOLT and played a central role in the punk feminist movement
During the course of researching and writing my recent series of essays on women and punk, one person I was eager to track down was Lucy Whitman who, as Lucy Toothpaste, wrote the punk feminist fanzine JOLT. She had already been immortalised, for me, by her brief - but key - appearance in Jon Savage's England's Dreaming book and I wanted to know more. There were female zine writers writing about punk during the late 1970s and I wanted to track them down: starting with Lucy.
I began by asking her when she first discovered punk and what the circumstances were.
"I was influenced by my sister's boyfriend," she explains, "who used to go to gigs and read the NME. We went with him to a gig at Walthamstow Town Hall in Easter 1976, and on the bill were the Sex Pistols, Ian Dury and the Blockheads and The Stranglers, so seeing the Sex Pistols was my first introduction to punk. And I immediately found it very intriguing and exciting, so I started to go to other gigs."
She adds: "At the time I was at university and, by the time I did my fanzine JOLT in 1977, I was in my third year and my interest in punk did threaten to derail my finals! Actually, because I was middle class and I was 22, and I was doing my English degree, I wasn't sure whether I would count as a bona fide punk. When I decided to do my own fanzine, it was very much 'Well I wonder will I be accepted as part of what's going on, or will I be rejected?' And I was really thrilled when it sold out really quickly and it was definitely seen to be the genuine article, not just as some middle class person muscling in on it."
Prior to JOLT, in the autumn of 1976, Lucy had formed a performance band, The Neons, with some friends. The band was influenced as much by Dada and Surrealism as by what was going on in the world of punk. "It was six women," she explains, "and we did four performances, and then our beautiful neon sign flew off the top of the car and smashed, and the band broke up!"
Boys could get up on the stage who couldn't play their guitar and girls could get up onstage who couldn't play guitar either, so it was very democratic, do-it-yourself stuff
They did two cabaret performances in pubs, one at The Place, which is the theatre of the London School of Contemporary Dance and "one at the University of East London, an art college in Plaistow, where we were actually booed because I think the students were expecting a proper band and they got something they weren't expecting."
The artistic influence carried over into JOLT. "I was very into visuals, so one of the things that I liked about fanzines which were around was just the whole thing about collage and juxtaposing surprising things together," says Whitman.
"I was already a feminist before I was a punk, so I brought my feminism with me into punk. I was also very concerned about the flirting with Nazi regalia and Nazi imagery and so on - I just thought that was stupid, but I thought it was dangerous too."
She explains: "A lot of the people involved were very, very young, and didn't really know any better."
She continues, "My fanzine came from absolute excitement about the music and about the way things seemed to have cracked open. There was space for anybody to do whatever they wanted, including girls. You know, boys could get up on the stage who couldn't play their guitar and that meant that girls could get up onstage who couldn't play guitar either, so it was very, very democratic do it yourself stuff. I loved all of that."
She also wanted to engage with anti-racist and feminist issues, whilst writing "in punk mode", a combination of concerns that was quite unusual at the time. "Jon Savage's fanzine, London's Outrage, was one of the very few other fanzines which was taking a political stance and I was quite heartened by that I suppose. Because things like Sniffin' Glue, they were good fun, and about the music and the scene, but they didn't have any politics in them."
JOLT, by contrast, is an explicitly feminist, anti-fascist read, strongly influenced by anarchist and socialist ideas. The first issue was largely handwritten and the first three pages were taken up by a suitably impassioned piece bemoaning the lack of female musicians on the punk scene. Lucy acknowledged The Slits but wrote that she hadn't seen them do anything more than gob at Eater at this point. (Eater was a very young male punk band, who did odd things to a pigs head onstage and had a 12-year-old drummer called Dee Generate.) She was also disappointed that Siouxsie, Patti Smith and Ellie (singer in the French band Stinky Toys) had all-male backing bands. She had seen The Runaways and was scathing of them. After a brief introduction, the issue concludes with a piece titled 'Great Punks in History No 1: Valerie Solanas', complete with extracts from the SCUM manifesto.
By the second issue, she was warming to her theme and JOLT 2 opened intriguingly: "A few weeks ago my mum called me downstairs and told me there were some 'peculiar girls' to see me. It was The Slits, come to ask if I knew any girl bassists."
There then follows a very energetic interview with the band, which contrasts well with the Jubilee-themed cover; a cartoon of the Queen, depicted as a gobbing, guitar-wielding punk. By issue three, the fanzine had grown in thickness and Lucy was a more practised interviewer. This issue features a very good interview with the late Poly Styrene.
Also included is a ferocious piece about punks and swastikas, in which Lucy imagines a possible fascist future. She juxtaposes the piece with images of gassed victims of the Holocaust, including a baby, subverting the crude use of Nazi imagery by some of the punk fraternity and shocking her readers for all the right reasons.
Aware that photocopying was a fairly new development in the 1970s, I asked how hard it was for her to get JOLT printed and distributed:
"Basically, I stuck them together at home, in the privacy of my bedroom ... there were no print shops in those days or photocopying places ... I took them to Bourne and Hollingsworth Department Store on Oxford Street," she says. "The quality of reproduction is terrible."
"My sister did those drawings, and other people joined in a bit, but it was basically a one person operation, I did them on my own. I lugged them in carrier bags to Compendium Bookshop in Camden Town, which was where I used to buy all my fanzines, and Rough Trade, and I don't know how many I sold. It was only a few hundred of each issue."
I ask if she was aware of many other female fanzine writers at the time. "Not many," she admits, "There was Vinyl Virgin and Crystal Clear, who did More On, and then there was my friend Sharon, who called herself Sharon Spike, and she did Apathy In Ilford, and that's about it, that I was aware of anyway - not saying there weren't any others, but they were the ones I knew about."
JOLT was well received by the punk scene but Lucy had a harder time convincing the feminist magazine Spare Rib to see the value of punk.
"I got in touch with Spare Rib when I'd done my fanzine, and began to write for them quite soon afterwards, and I was in the position of having to try to explain and justify punk to older feminists, and... eventually they came round actually!"
She explains: "Because, basically, when punk came along most feminists were utterly horrified. [They] thought it was yet one more manifestation of macho cock rock. They just thought it was horribly unpleasant and had nothing to do with feminism." She adds, "One of the reasons I found it difficult was because of The Stranglers. Now, in my opinion, The Stranglers were never, ever a punk band but they were marketed as a punk band. Why I think they weren't a punk band was, for one thing, they were much older - they were about 28 - secondly, they made quite tuneful music! They could play their instruments! They were just a rock band but they jumped on the bandwagon. It was useful for them, from a marketing point of view, but they were never punk."
But, because older feminists, along with many others, took The Stranglers (who were originally called The Guildford Stranglers, a so-called joke referring to a serial killer known as the Boston Strangler) to be a punk band and because they they sang a number of very sexist songs and featured strippers in at least one of their shows, it was hard for Lucy to make a case for punk and feminism as not so distant companions. "I kept on saying 'But The Stranglers aren't punks!' [laugh]. Trying to put this across, and just trying to publicise the fact that there were a lot of young women, who might not call themselves feminists, but - in all their lyrics, in their clothing, in their attitudes - they were challenging conventional attitudes to love, romance, what role women and girls should have in society, how we should look."
One of the early pieces Lucy wrote for Spare Rib concerned the fledgling Rock Against Sexism, a sister group to Rock Against Racism.
"Rock Against Racism got started in late 1976 and it got started because Eric Clapton had made some inflammatory remarks at a gig, and he had said that he supported Enoch Powell. And some right-minded rock fans had been outraged by this and had sent a letter into Melody Maker and the NME, and it got started from there."
The main thing was to explain about the danger of racism and fascism, because this was the time of when the National Front was gaining quite a lot of influence
At first, she was a little wary. "When it first started, I thought 'Oh, I'm not sure about this, 'cos they don't seem to have any punk bands involved.' The first gig featured Carol Grimes, who is a brilliant blues singer but not - by any stretch of the imagination - a punk.
"But, by the end of 1977, I realised Rock Against Racism was actually the place to be so I got in touch with them, showed them my fanzine and offered to be involved, and that was that really." She was on the editorial collective for the organisation's fanzine, Temporary Hoarding. "And that was put together a bit more professionally, because they had the use of the Socialist Worker print shop. But of course it was long before computer design, so it was all done with cow gum and scalpels and stuff. So putting it together was quite laborious."
She says of Temporary Hoarding, "I think it was a good paper because it gave the fans who came to the concerts something to take home and read and think about when they got home, and obviously its main thing was to explain about the danger of racism and fascism, because this was at the time of the National Front gaining quite a lot of influence. But, within that, there was also space to write about sexism as well."
Rock Against Racism, unlike Rock Against Sexism, "was all over the country and it was very, very much a grassroots thing so, within Rock Against Racism, each group would put on its own gig and then there was quite a bit of conflict, when certain groups might perhaps have booked a band which was then found to be sexist and then the local feminists would be up in arms about it." An agreement was then made that all the RAR groups would have to adopt an anti-sexist protocol.
"The first substantial piece which I wrote for Temporary Hoarding was my piece 'No more normals', which was basically about heterosexism in popular culture. I didn't have a word for heterosexism at the time, but that's what it was about. I think that had quite an impact on a lot of people, you know. People remarked upon it. And then, after that, I did quite a lot of interviews with different bands, sometimes with other people, not on my own necessarily. And, then there was the Corrie anti-abortion bill which was going through Parliament at the time, so we wrote about things like that."
The name Temporary Hoarding was inspired by the mood of the day. "A lot of places were boarded up, everywhere you went there were lots of bill posters stuck all over these boarded up buildings. There was the idea that everything was very immediate and wouldn't last long."
We'd booked a pub for our meeting and the barman said, 'Well what is Rock Against Sexism? Are you against sex?'
Because Rock Against Racism as an organisation was already engaging and grappling with issues around gender and equality, it was only a matter of time before Rock Against Racism led to Rock Against Sexism.
"I think that what we did in Temporary Hoarding did make people think about the position of women in music a lot. For several years, women had been much more of a presence at the cutting edge of popular music but it was still clearly very, very difficult for women to actually make it in the music business. Unfortunately, that hasn't changed at all. At the time, we were optimistic and thought we might be able to improve things!
"As for how Rock Against Sexism came into being: I didn't start Rock Against Sexism but I got involved very early on. I believe that Rock Against Sexism was initially set up by the IMG - the International Marxist Group - although they never came clean about this. I think they had decided they wanted to have something equivalent to Rock Against Racism, which was associated with, although not controlled by, the Socialist Workers' Party (who were still called the International Socialists at the time). So I think the IMG were just jumping on the bandwagon, but they kind of faded away virtually immediately and a group of other people stayed involved with it."
She continues, "but I think it was just the logical development really because, within Rock Against Racism, as I say, a lot of the groundwork had been done, in a sense, but it was felt there was a need to focus on the position of women and make it the focus of a new campaign. It was like a sister organisation really and for a while I was involved in both, but then I didn't have time to do both, so I decided to stick with Rock Against Sexism just because there were a lot more people involved in Rock Against Racism so I thought they wouldn't miss me so much."
Rock Against Sexism was a much smaller organisation. Lucy remembers "a collective of about 10 people, which varied a bit. It was pretty much all in London - It was completely different from Rock Against Racism. There weren't lots and lots of different Rock Against Sexism groups around the country. I'm sure there were some isolated gigs in a few other places, but most of what happened happened in London."
The reaction to Rock Against Sexism by the media was frequently far from sympathetic. "The music press were very, very scathing and I remember being interviewed for Capital Radio, a really short interview. And I explained that, in particular, one of the things we were upset about was the association of sex and violence, and how violent images were used on record covers and adverts for albums. We got to the end of the interview and the interviewer finished up by saying, 'Well I still think sex is an integral part of music but if you disagree, you can get in touch with Rock Against Sexism.' Completely and utterly missed the point of what I was saying."
There were also issues around the word sexism itself, "People didn't understand the word sexism in 1979. I remember we'd booked a pub to have our meeting in and the barman said, 'Well what is Rock Against Sexism? Are you against sex?' The word sexism was not in common currency, it is hard to believe!"
As with Rock Against Racism, Rock Against Sexism had its own fanzine which was sent out to members. "The members were all over the country, but people who actually joined in and came to the meetings were much more the group in London." It was called Drastic Measures.
In issue two, the organisation laid out its aims:
- To challenge the stereotyped image of men and women and to promote a more positive image of women in music
- To promote women bands
- Against the exploitation of women in advertising or on stage
- To define the right of everyone to determine their own sexuality, whether they be straight, gay, both or neither
- To fight sexism in music and to use music to fight sexism at large
Women in music are under constant pressure from the record companies to flaunt their bodies, both in performance and in adverts, in order to sell more records
There then followed a list of bands who had declared their support for Rock Against Sexism, including the Flying Lizards, Gang of Four, Mekons, Crass, Tom Robinson, Wayne County and The Electric Chairs, Poison Girls, Jam Today, Passage and The Raincoats.
Inside, the fanzine was a fiery piece by Lucy, 'Love sex, hate sexism', which further elaborated on what the organisation was fighting against:
Women in music are under constant pressure from the record companies to flaunt their bodies, both in performance and in adverts, in order to sell more records. If they succumb - and after all they have got a living to earn - hypocritical rags like the NME, who think it's hip to pay lip service to feminism, while making sure there's a neat snap of Debbie Harry in every edition, accuse them of exploiting their sexuality. And if women musicians don't play up to typical expectations of beauty/sexiness, insults are hurled at them from all sides - Patti Smith is 'as ugly as hell', Poly Styrene 'has a somewhat prolonged puppy-fat problem' (NME) etc, etc. You can't win. Everyone in rock has to put up with public guesswork and gossip about their sex lives, and indignant male rock journalists have been known to write spiteful reviews of concerts to pay performers back for refusing to go to bed with them. Women journalists who sleep with some of the musicians they meet are of course denounced as slags and groupies. Amazing how the double standard of sexual morality still lives on in the so-called 'permissive' world of rock - men who sleep around are studs to be admired, women who do the same are just cheap sluts.
Issue three, by contrast, featured a comic strip adapted from the teen comic Boyfriend as its cover, its speech bubbles blank. On the back cover, the same strip was used, but this time its speech bubbles were filled with lyrics, courtesy of X Ray Spex, The Slits, Delta 5, Gang of Four, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Palmolive, and The Raincoats, creating an alternative narrative for young women.
Perhaps the most obviously punky moment occurred in 1981, with the Royal Wedding Special. Whereas Lucy in 1977 had commented on the Jubilee by putting a picture of the Queen as a guitar wielding, spitting punk on the cover of JOLT, the union of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer was acknowledged with portraits of the two, sporting hog-style nose rings.
"The Royal Wedding was a very shocking event for any feminists," Lucy recalls, "or anarchists I suppose, and I was utterly astonished that the whole nation was watching this spectacle. It was summertime, everybody's windows were open. I was the only person in my street who wasn't watching it on television, but I could hear it from everybody else's houses."
Since 1979, Lucy had been contributing to Spare Rib. "We brought out these badges; 'Don't Do It Di!' and of course - how right we were! We had an analysis about this virgin sacrifice, but it was ahead of its time." She explains: "It was not received wisdom at the time, but now, people looking back would say 'Oh, it was terrible how Diana got treated' and blah blah blah.' People would realise that it was a travesty, with hindsight. But actually, we knew at the time."
Lucy, as an avid reader of Spare Rib, saw the magazine as a natural place to start her writing career. She contributed a couple of pieces to the magazine and then applied for a job there. "I didn't get a full-time job, but I got a one day a week job as fiction editor." This got her on the collective, "but I always felt very much a junior partner, partly because I was younger and partly because I wasn't there the whole time, so I was somewhat out of the loop of what was going on really."
I didn't reject punk, but punk faded away and the music changed
After a couple of years, she stopped writing under the name Lucy Toothpaste and reverted to her given name - Lucy Whitman. "Well, Toothpaste seemed a bit outdated, you know. While punk was still in full swing, I stuck to Toothpaste but after a while it just seemed a bit like last year's news. I suppose I also thought people might not take me seriously with a name like that!" she laughs.
Lucy left the Spare Rib collective in 1982, the same year that Rock Against Sexism petered out. "My final year there, I was doing a teacher training course, then I got a full time teaching job and I couldn't stay on [Spare Rib] as well." She describes the 1979-82 period at Spare Rib as "a really turbulent time" adding that it was "quite an education, but it was not easy, and there were all these absolutely terrible rows in the collective, which haven't really healed."
She explains: "I didn't reject punk, but punk faded away and the music changed. The music of the early '80s, all the electronic stuff, I think was great. It was different, but the New Romantics and all the synthesiser bands, they wouldn't have happened without punk. I still think they're some of the best songs, they're really good pop songs. And then, after that, I just lost interest altogether. I know nothing whatsoever about pop music from the '90s or later."
In the 1980s, Lucy taught in a further education college in Hackney. "And so racism and anti-racism was still a big preoccupation for me." She was also very into the anti-nuclear movement and in a group called Women Oppose the Nuclear Threat: WONT. She went to Greenham Common, "but I didn't stay there. In fact, my group was actually quite critical of the Greenham Women, to start with. There was so much sectarianism. I was involved in various different things to do with anti-racist teaching and to do with lesbians in education." She also later worked for Amnesty International and recently published an anthology of people's personal accounts of looking after someone with dementia, Telling Tales About Dementia: Experiences of Caring.
Despite never rejecting punk, she says, "my interest faded for a long time, and I would say it's just within the last few years that I have realised there is this thirst for knowledge of those days. And it's partly the internet and so on. Within the last few years I've found certain articles of mine on the net, and references to me, and I suppose what I would like to do is give my own account.
"At the time, I didn't realise that it was going to be of such interest, but I now realise that I was part of quite an important cultural movement, and that other people are interested in what I have to say about it, so I should probably put some of my articles on the net. I haven't done it yet because I haven't got time, because I've got other things to do. I have to earn my living and I have to look after my son. Even scanning in all my articles and making them available on the net would take many days of work and I just don't have the time. I'll get round to it one day!"
For her 50th birthday, Lucy put together a giant album of her life so far, including bits of JOLT and pictures of The Neons. "When I put together that birthday album for my 50th birthday, it was almost like coming out again as having been a punk in my youth, because I was still working at Amnesty at the time and people didn't know about that aspect of my history. But in some ways in my life I know I appear quite prim and proper, so," she says with a glint in her eye, "I quite like letting people know that I am also Lucy Toothpaste!"
All Jolt covers reproduced by kind permission of Lucy Toothpaste, along with Ros Past-it for issues 2 and 3 (who drew the pictures for those issues)
Drastic Measures covers reproduced from Lucy Toothpaste's personal archive, with thanks to all previous members of the Rock Against Sexism collective who painstakingly put these magazines together.