Danger, Anger, and Noise: The Women Punks of the Late 1970s and Their Music
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter will give an overview of the dangerous environment for young women in the British punk subculture in the late 1970s, followed by a discussion of the feelings of anger this sense of danger prompted in them, contributed to by a feeling of lack of control over those who appeared to have invincible power over their lives. Finally, the ways in which this anger translated into the punk songs they played will be discussed. Using contemporary music press and radical press reviews and features, extracts from published diaries of the time, and the author’s own interviews with women active in punk bands, the chapter highlights and explores the unexpectedness and originality of the noise that these women made, and its reception by male journalists at the time.
We were revolutionaries as far as I was concerned and we were on a mission and what was going on outside was really just irrelevant.
—Gina Birch, The Raincoats, 2000 (author’s interview)
After the libertarian sexual and social politics of 1960s Britain, a period in time when the British economy was thriving, there was a stark change in the 1970s. Despite the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 theoretically promoting equality in the workplace for women and men, increasing unemployment meant that the idea of women potentially competing for “men’s jobs” was not well received. The 1970s generation of young people experienced entirely different employment prospects than those of their parents, who had been able to find work relatively easily. Those adults who had survived the experience of growing up in wartime were anxious that their children should reap the financial, social, and moral rewards of victory, and, crucially, that they should show gratitude for their good fortune. Trade unions were powerful in the 1970s and reflected masculine aspects of an economy based on heavy industries such as coal mining, shipbuilding, and steel manufacture, all of which began to decline further throughout the decade. Certainties like the consistency of the royal family, fixed gender roles, and abiding by the law were increasingly focused on as the economy became more fragile (see Thornett 1998; Beckett 2009; and Sandbrook 2019 for contrasting historical accounts of the late 1970s and early 1980s in Britain).
Many young people in Britain in the mid-1970s had simply ceased to believe in the metanarrative of postwar industrial capitalism; they clustered into tribes and subcultures, often with music at their heart. The Teds were a throwback to the Teddy Boys of the 1950s, focused around American music of the rock ’n’ roll decade, and bands playing covers or pastiches of their musical style (Darts, Shakin’ Stevens); they often had reactionary viewpoints commensurate with their retro clothing style. The skinheads listened to Ska music, and ironically, given that this music originated in Jamaica and that early British skinhead culture involved both black and white youths, in the late 1970s developed right-wing views and involved themselves in racist violence. The “straights” did not appear to focus on any type of music, but they could also be violent, sometimes appearing to see themselves as moral arbiters. Football hooligans mainly concentrated on internecine fighting; most English football teams had “firms” of football hooligans who clashed violently at matches, and who also served as foot soldiers for the newly developing extreme-right National Front. They were also a threat to members of other subcultures. The hippie lifestyle still appealed to some young people, and they were sometimes politically active, often as anarchists involved in the squatting movement.
Postwar tribal divisions were identified and analyzed in research by the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in 1975, and published in book form just before the advent of the punk subculture. The resulting book, Resistance through Rituals, remains the most thorough account of the variety of youth groupings in the postwar landscape that preceded it (Hall and Jefferson 1975; see also Willis 1978; Hebdige 1979; McRobbie 2000). Visually, the roots of punk style combined everything potentially offensive, from fetish literature to references to the IRA (Irish Republican Army) (York 1980, 137); sonically, challenging lyrics and loud volumes combined to create distinctive “shock effects” (Laing 1985, 69–102).
Perhaps in part because of their novelty, punks were disliked by all of these contemporary youth subgroupings; it was in this subculture that women protagonists became significant, and this factor added to the reasons why the others should want to conflict with them. The punk subculture encouraged (or allowed) women to take on active roles as photographers, such as Caroline Coon (also a journalist for Melody Maker); artists, such as Gee Vaucher (a member of the Crass community, whose work formed the group’s distinctive record sleeves and posters); stylists and fashion designers, such as Linder Sterling (the Manchester-based designer of the Buzzcocks’ collage-based artwork, designer of the original meat dress, and a musician herself) and Vivienne Westwood (designer of punk clothing for the SEX shop in King’s Road); journalists and fanzine makers, such as Julie Burchill (journalist for the NME [New Musical Express]), Vivien Goldman (journalist for Sounds), Lucy Toothpaste (founder of the fanzine Jolt), Liz Naylor and Cath Carroll (of Manchester’s City Fun fanzine); and, at the epicenter of the punk scene, rock musicians. This last category was particularly significant, because rock and pop music had been extremely stratified along gender lines—the rebellion that rock preached had always been predominantly male rebellion up to this point—but now there were bands such as the Slits, who subverted dress codes by wearing torn “little-girl” dresses and who subverted rock music by using both musical instruments and voices in challenging ways; the Raincoats, who sported jumble-sale chic and whose lyrics and music reflected the heart of the new feminist approach to gender relations (among other subjects); and the Au Pairs, who sang about everything from the “troubles” in Ireland to sexual problems, while rejecting glamorous clothing.
Previously in pop and rock music, women’s power had been expressed in a number of different ways: through powerful rock and soul vocalists such as Janis Joplin and Tina Turner; more “introverted” protest singers such as Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez (whose strength was channeled through their lyrics); and highly trained and emotionally expressive pop singers such as Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, or the British entertainers Dusty Springfield and Petula Clark. Actual protest music by women had generally been gentle, a slipping-by of subversive political messages carried by an acoustic guitar, often with a male Svengali figure, or at best enabler, attached (e.g., Joan Baez/Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell/Graham Nash). Strong and assertive lyrically, but ultimately measured in approach, the music apparently did not readily challenge the male hegemony of rock music. It was Vivien Goldman who, in 1976, first identified the sudden influx of women rock bands onto the London live music scene, in an article in the national musical weekly Sounds titled “The Other New Wave” (Goldman 1976). She included heavy metal (Painted Lady), punk (the Slits), and jazz-flavored artists (Mother Superior) in her article, and she was at the forefront of writing about the new rock-instrument-playing sorority on the live circuit who derived empowerment from actually playing the instruments themselves (18–20). Previously, such activity was rare, and even rarer when accompanied by an attitudinality or pose.
Many male punk bands had names that were “menacing … still steeped in Hell’s Angels male pathology,” according to Lesley Woods, singer and guitarist with the Birmingham band the Au Pairs (author’s interview, July 2010). All-male bands such as the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Stranglers, and the Damned all referenced the darker side of life in their names. But even bands featuring female musicians and singers were not immune: the Slits, the Castrators, Shanne Bradley’s band the Nipple Erectors, and Chrissie Hynde’s early, short-lived (understandably) band the Moors Murderers, named after a pair of notorious 1960s child killers, also contributed to an overall impression of deviation, and often threat. It is worth considering the frequent and aggressive use of the swastika and other Nazi imagery that was also part of early punk, not least as this impinged on female artists. Siouxsie and the Banshees in particular claimed to use the swastika as a symbol of resistance; in some interviews, the band explained that the swastika was worn specifically to upset what they felt was their parent generation’s glorification of the Second World War (see Whiteley 2000, 109). Yet the perceived ambivalence toward Nazism was disturbing to many in the punk community, and with retrospect has been regarded as overt anti-Semitism (see Sabin 1999, 208). But just as a literal reception of fetish-wear was deliberately de-recuperated by the media, the even more inflammatory resurrection of the swastika as an emblem of youth revolt played in to the hands of the far-right National Front, who in turn reappropriated it as a tool for recruiting some of the young punks and many skinheads into their ranks. Ironically, the overtly pacifist and feminist Vi Subversa of Poison Girls was among those women punk musicians whose gigs were disrupted by violent National Front skinheads. In 1979, NME interviewed her about clashes between National Front skinheads and young aggressive men from the Socialist Workers’ Party at a Poison Girls gig. Subversa responded, saying, “There are a lot of young people about, and a lot of other people who are trying to colonise their energies—vultures who see us as a kind of prey.” Four days after the interview, neo-fascist thugs broke up one of their gigs at the Theatre Royal Stratford, attacked the band, and destroyed their equipment. The NME subsequently reported, illustrating punk’s capacity to frame socio-musical debates within questions of gendered violence, that “[l]ater the band issued a statement that violence stems from male power games and asked for help in formulating ways of combating this that did not involve violence” (Lock 1979, 30).
The assertiveness and aggression shown by some women punks did not protect them from being attacked; equality with their male peers meant that they too got beaten up for looking and sounding extraordinary, and this threat was amplified if you were in a band. From interviews conducted by the author, it is apparent that the more female members a band had, the more likely they were to be assaulted; the all-female Slits in particular elicited as much physical aggression as they did fear or ridicule, simply by the way they dressed and behaved in public. Confrontation came not only from rival subcultures like the skinheads, but also from “normal” men, as guitarist Viv Albertine explains:
It felt violent all the time wherever you were… . The skinheads didn’t differentiate between men and women; they’d happily beat up a girl. Then you got the normal thing: kerb crawlers, dirty old men. I was flashed at all the time.
(author’s interview, 2010)
The Slits were attacked constantly, and have summed up most clearly the real danger experienced by women punks who lived the life offstage as well as on it:
Ari: If boys were rebellious, it was OK, they’re boys, they can be rebellious. But if it was women, that was like a totally different situation. It was a different planet. It was so taboo—we absolutely threatened the world. It’s easy to be a woman who’s all dressed up on stage and looking punky and rebellious on stage, and then when they come off the stage they look all dainty and camouflaged again. Let them walk around in all the real shit the way we did at the time… .
I was stabbed for looking the way we looked. Some disco guy stabbed me, some John Travolta guy.
Tessa: She had loads of layers of clothes on and he came up behind her with a knife and said, “Here’s a Slit for you.” But she had so many layers of clothes on, she was OK, she was only scratched.
Ari: And by the time we turned round he had gone. There’s no way we could go to the police, are you kidding me? Do you think people like us could go to the police at the time? We were harassed by police as well.
(author’s interview, February 2006; see also Street-Howe 2009, 62)
Lucy O’Brien (of the Southampton band the Catholic Girls) reports her all-female band being chased after a gig by a group of skinheads, who objected to them being “girls” playing music. After having bottles thrown at them when they were on stage, the band took refuge in their van, and they were finally rescued by the police who had been alerted by people living nearby. At other Catholic Girls gigs, “there were regular cries of: ‘fuckin’ cows, who do you think you are?” (O’Brien 1999, 193). June Miles-Kingston, drummer with The Mo-Dettes, would confront skinheads directly:
When they used to come up on stage or throw things, I’d come down the front with the sticks and say look, pack it up, shut it up and just deal with it. They gain respect for you then. It’s like anything: if the bully pushes and pushes, you’ve gotta push back, and then they stop. We ended up becoming such good friends with the skinheads that they became our followers, and two of them became our roadies. They had Mo-Dettes tattoos.
(author’s interview, 2006)
The problem of violence against women in punk music audiences was often just as bad as it was for the bands, even (or especially) when the bands playing were all-female. Paul Du Noyer reported the “unimpressive yobbery” of the audience at a Mo-Dettes gig at the Marquee, where fireworks and stink bombs were let off after a stage invasion (1980, 41), while Lucy Toothpaste reported skinheads in the audience pushing women to the back and sides of Dingwalls at a gig by the Bodysnatchers (1980, 13).1
Shanne Bradley of the Nipple Erectors experienced opposition from within the punk subculture itself, reporting several instances of being threatened by male members of other punk bands:
When I first was trying to play the guitar someone came and just cut the strings off to stop me playing. People just used to laugh if you were a girl trying to play guitar; they just didn’t take you seriously. It just made me more determined and angry.
(author’s interview, 2010)
This was in addition to being chased by Teddy Girls and even heckled by hippies at gigs; from stories such as these one can glimpse the remarkable level of female determination that was necessary in order to participate in music-making during this time. New sources of conflict and violence seemed to appear constantly; for instance, at the 1980 Stonehenge People’s Free Festival, it was the Hell’s Angels who assaulted the punks. No matter how much Poison Girls decried “the system of gang warfare” from these largely male youth factions (including the left wing), this did not stop them from attacking the punk bands, sometimes viciously (Cross 2014, 127).
Hostility toward female bands of this era was not confined to Britain; in America the Mo-Dettes experienced a woman exposing herself to them in Miami, threats of violence from Californian Guardians of Morality in Orange County, plus Hell’s Angels approaching a car in which they were sleeping to leer at them through the windows (Grabel 1980, 24). Belonging to a British punk subculture just triggered trouble for female bands. As Lesley Woods of the Au Pairs said in 2010, “[Our generation] got the tail end of the guys at school, the geography teachers who would cane you … the corporal punishment. I think we got the aftermath of the postwar years.” She was attacked with a baseball bat “for opening my mouth” (author’s interview). This generation of women had become used to being assaulted, looked down on, and marginalized. For those who overstepped the male mark too frequently, there was always the weapon of sexual violence to put a stop to it. The author’s study of 2012 documents some of this (Reddington 2012, 67–75), but many of the women punks interviewed at the time quite understandably did not wish to cast themselves as victims of rape. However, it is notable that since the publication of The Lost Women of Rock Music, five additional rapes that happened at the time have been reported to the author by the original interviewees who had been reluctant at the time to talk about what had happened to them. Balancing the positive aspects of punk (such as empowerment and access to male space for women in the subculture) against the negative ones (such as sexual assault) is an understandable response to a female historian’s discourse. An element of trust in the nature of the published narrative probably led to these discussions, which happened separately over a number of years.
Less commonly focused upon are the acts of female aggression in the punk community. Sometimes, these were conducted in self-defense, but sometimes they could be just as much an overreaction and just as provocative as acts of violence by men. Violence and abuse have always been part of women’s lives; punk turned fear of violence inside out and encouraged expressions of female assertiveness both on- and offstage, potentially making women objects of fear rather than objects of desire. This was particularly apparent during the early days of punk in London, when punk belonged to a relatively small coterie of people whose overheated lifestyles occasionally clashed. For instance, Vivienne Westwood is reported as having starting fights at gigs by band manager Nils Stevenson (Colegrave and Sullivan 2001, 115) and also by John Lydon, whose disparaging dismissal of Westwood’s fight at a gig at London’s Nashville Rooms in 1976 demonstrates his feelings about her at the time:
There was supposedly a fight, this big symbol of early punk rock violence. It was just a load of people falling all over the place. Vivienne smacked some girls. It was nonsense—fisticuffs and handbags really. The pictures of that fight make it look a lot worse than it was. It was a bunch of silly bitches squabbling.
(Lydon et al. 1994, 102)
The participants in punk subculture were deviant in the traditional sense in their unwillingness to relate to hegemonic rules, and in their grouping together they validated their own rules (see Becker 1963, 81). Within the subculture itself, punk girls amplified behaviors that Angela McRobbie and Jenny Garber identified as resistant in teenage girls in situations where men were dominant: groups of girls giggling together as defensive, and inappropriate sexual titillation as aggressive (1975, 178). As an example of this, the music journalist Ian Penman was greatly disturbed by a performance by the Slits in Liverpool where the band parodied their sexuality to the point where it became “a teasing, inverted approximation of the norm” (Penman 1979, 35). Ari from the Slits had a sense of mischief that sometimes spilled over from self-protection to provocation; at an early gig at The Roxy in Covent Garden, London, she tried to unplug the microphone leads as X-Ray Spex were performing, according to Poly Styrene (Denom 1977, 48), and allegedly jabbed the father of Bazooka Joe’s bass player in the eye with a pen (Colegrave and Sullivan 2001, 206). Her chutzpah was admired by Nils Stevenson, who reported on it: “Last night at The Roxy she attacked Paul Cook with a knife. It left a huge hole in the back of a leather jacket he stole from Malcolm. But I love the sound The Slits make—their gigs are as unpredictable as Ari’s mood swings” (1999, 97; emphasis added). At a Slits gig at the Coventry Theatre reviewed in the fanzine Guttersnipe, a local writer described an effective response to being spat at:
They all started spitting and Ari told them to stop. She told one of the audience to come and get on the stage and when he did she gobbed a greenie right on his face. “Good one Ari” he almost fell off the stage with shock I don’t know what he was expecting [sic].
(Guttersnipe, Issue 7, 1979)
BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel, who was at the forefront of championing punk music nationally, appeared to be grudgingly impressed by his first meeting with Palmolive in a 1977 Sounds article titled “Arthritic pogoer hit by Slit”: “she approached as I was deep in conversation with one of the Celtic gents who runs the Rock On stall in Soho Market, and banged our heads together” (Peel 1977, 11). Peel mentions that the band is about to record a session for his show; he appears to have taken the incident entirely in his stride. Here we can begin to sense the level of admiration for the toughness of women punk musicians that runs through many of their male contemporaries’ descriptions of their aggressive behavior. In his diaries, Nils Stevenson, manager of Siouxsie and the Banshees, reports almost as a matter of course the ways that Siouxsie protected herself on and off the stage:
Siouxsie co-headlines the Music Machine with Richard Hell… . Some little bastard headbuts [sic] me and runs away. He can’t be more than fifteen. It fucking hurts though. Spend much of the evening trying to find him, but to no avail. I don’t know how Siouxsie copes with playing to these arseholes, screaming to see her tits, grabbing her legs and gobbing at her. I get immense pleasure when she raps one of the wankers with the mike stand or kicks someone on [sic] the head who’s too amorous, though they probably like it. (1999, 107)
At a major industry Christmas party in 1979, remembered Stevenson, he and Siouxsie “bump into [ex-drummer] Kenny Morris there. Naturally it all ends in tears. Siouxsie throws the first punch and then I steam in” (1999, 124).
Even the mature performer Vi Subversa was continually troubled by the violent element of punk and the ways it made her feel, and was particularly affected by the aggression of the audiences in what became anarcho-punk—ironically, with its strong emphasis on nonviolence—at the beginning of the 1980s. As she told Lucy Whitman in an interview in feminist magazine Spare Rib in 1981,
My conflict with that is what to do with my anger, I have fantasies where I want to kill people who I think are totally destructive and have too much power and do too much damage. But I’ve always wanted to change the war economy, which breeds war.
(quoted in Whitman 1981a, 32)
Subversa’s approach was probably informed by the fact that she, even as a child, “got into trouble with the authorities” (Bayton 1998, 55). Punk provided a forum for angry women just as much as for men. Liz Naylor, of the band the Gay Animals and later the editor of the fanzine City Fun, was expelled from school at the age of fifteen and committed to a secure unit. As she says,
I remember being interviewed and I was wearing a man’s suit, albeit fucked up, and I had this spiky hair; I cut it myself with bald patches. And the people who interviewed me saw my behavior and dress as deeply sociopathic, and dwelt a lot upon it. And I thought, “Well, I’m a punk.” I was an “Other.” I think it was a big gathering-together of people who regarded themselves as freaks.
(author’s interview, 2000)
For many women musicians, there was an overall rejection of what it meant to be a woman, in particular a girly-girl. Gaye Black from the Adverts discussed her ambivalence about her gender, and the conflicts that occurred at the band’s first two gigs, with journalist Sue Denom in Spare Rib:
I wanted to be a male pop star when I was little, I didn’t want to be a soppy girl singer… . [A]t The Roundhouse some guy at the front yelled out “Why don’t you learn to play.” I got really angry and screamed at him to fuck off, I felt like chucking the bass at him and telling him to do better… . The violence was horrible at the first gig we did, I had to go off stage. But at the next one even when things were going OK, a woman came up and threw beer all over me. That’s what upset me; I wouldn’t have minded if it had been a guy.
(quoted in Denom 1977, 48)
Arlene Stein gives a very clear description of how it felt to be a female fan of male rock music, and not wanting to grow up to suffer the same passive fate that she perceived her mother to have done:
I didn’t necessarily want to be a guy, or even want to date one, but I did fantasize, perhaps unconsciously, about possessing their power. If my embrace of rock was at least partly a revolt against my mother, it was also a revolt against the gender system that trapped her.
(Stein 1999, 221)
It is not surprising that girls then did not want to grow up to be women; the journey of a 1970s girl into adulthood for most was focused on being attractive enough to snare a husband, and then settling down and raising a family, putting the husband and family’s needs to the forefront and effectively ceasing to exist as a human being in one’s own right. Being involved in a punk band was therefore far more significant for the young women musicians than it was for the men.
Caroline O’Meara’s comment on the Raincoats could be applied to many of the women punk bands: “[T]hey used the public forum of rock discourse to open the closed worlds of the home and women’s emotional life to expression in rock” (2003, 303). Not only this; these bands highlighted the distance between the different roles women were expected to play. In both exposing authentic private thoughts and, for some women, bringing clothing associated with deviant male sexuality into their visual display, the subversion in the music was all the more powerful. Part of this process involved a redefinition of the word “camp,” which had been so carefully and perceptively discussed by Susan Sontag in 1964 (see Sontag 1982). The gender play of the male pop groups of the 1970s had engaged with traditional camp in its co-optation of the feminine dress of the time; the chaotic and liberated redefinition of what it meant to be a punk girl or a punk woman, with its constantly shifting style and content, made the recuperation and commercialization of their music almost impossible. There was much to resist; the female journalist Robbi Millar, writing in Sounds about sexism in rock lyrics in 1970s heavy metal, reports a woman reader cutting out all the “girly” photos and sending them back, and,
[a]lthough I make a living from this magazine, I can’t help but find some of its contents—especially those ghastly captions in Jaws which label women as “dogs,” “boilers” and other inferior beasts—distressingly cruel. The attempt is at a certain breed of deprecation-cum-humour, but the results, though possibly funny in an office atmosphere, translate into cold print as contemptuous anti-woman propaganda.
(Millar 1980, 32)
By that time even the patience of some women performers had apparently worn out, with Barbara Gogan of the Passions
declaring that she really gets a buzz slagging off men from the stage… . “All the best rock has been about people’s anger… . It’s all to do with people’s emotions being reflected in the music and how genuine those emotions are. Obviously you’re going to sing and play better about something you believe in, or you’ve experienced.”
(Pearson 1980, 27, 28)
Dick Hebdige’s definition of subcultures as “represent[ing] ‘noise’ (as opposed to sound)” (1979, 90) uses our sense of hearing as a metaphor for the abrasive effect that these groups had on culture and society. In Hebdige’s view, punks were
dramatizing what had come to be called “Britain’s decline”… . The punks appropriated the rhetoric of crisis which had filled the airwaves and the editorials throughout the period and translated it into tangible (and visible) terms. (1979, 87; emphasis in original)
The ways that the female punk bands were written about by most rock critics at the time did much to propagate the reaction from punk audiences in general to their activities. As Kembrew McLeod notes, the approval or disapproval of rock critics was implicit in the type of descriptive language they used to “influence who feels comfortable enough to come out and play—and how certain cliques form” (2002, 93).
Just as with their male equivalents, there was nothing pretty about the way women sang in punk bands. In punk songs the energy of danger was processed into music that was sonically uncomfortable and disturbing; it echoed the desire of the Futurist art movement to cause disruption in society through violent sound. Although Futurism had itself been a misogynist movement, the first statement of their 1909 manifesto, “We intend to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and fearlessness,” perfectly describes the music made by women punks (Italian Futurism website). Rather than being overwhelmed by the maleness of the subculture and both the hegemonic and subcultural aggression aimed at them, punk women in bands fought for their territory using sound for their gender’s own “war with the status quo” (Reynolds and Press 1995, 23), and contributed to the reinforcement of punk as an oppositional community by providing a female version of the rock music that women audience had often previously felt an affinity to, despite the sexist lyrics of most male rock songs (see Reddington 2012, 187–190). In this respect, they took the process that Valerie Walkerdine (1997) writes of, where young girls subvert and create their own empowered meanings from pop music that seems almost designed to repress them, to its logical conclusion.
In 1981, Simon Frith documented his realization, at a gig by the all-female band the Mistakes, that women’s voices were not directed at the male ear:
As a man, I’ve always taken it for granted that rock performances address male desires, reflect male fantasies in their connections of music and dance and sexuality. The first time I saw a women’s band perform for women I was made physically uneasy by the sense of exclusion. (1988, 155)
Punk women’s self-penned songs often veered between music and noise, especially vocally, where tempered screams battered pointed and fearless lyrics into the heads of their audiences. An alternately delighted and horrified Charles Shaar Murray wrote of singer Poly Styrene that she
could only sing in tune if it was an emergency of the highest priority, screamed “1-2-3-4!” at the beginning of her every song whatever its actual pace and tempo happened to be, fronted a band who produced—alternately as well as simultaneously—some of the most exhilarating and horrible noises of a period memorable for both exhilarating and horrible noises. (1980, 30)
In another example, Graham Lock reports hearing Vi Subversa’s voice “crackle with power or shriek in anguish” (1979, 25), while, according to Jon Savage,
No woman had made these noises before. For the Slits, the result was a maelstrom of over-amped guitar and sheet-metal drumming and, amid the chaos, musicians creating their own order. By the autumn, the “armed playground chants” … had become full-blown streetfights, anarchic and threatening. (1991, 418; emphasis added)
Male reviewers struggled with the vocabulary needed to describe this new way of communicating songs. The sounds of women’s voices in rock and pop had historically been subject to the control of men as producers and gatekeepers and aimed at them as listeners, as Frith has noted (1988). Holly Kruse observes, tongue-in-cheek, an almost spiritual dimension to this: “[R]ock is governed by a more or less transcendental aesthetic, which, it therefore follows, only men can comprehend” (2002, 136). Many audiences were having difficulty in understanding what was happening, as the unabashed anger expressed in these voices was an unfamiliar sound. It is notable that Savage describes the Slits as “musicians”; many other rock journalists, who were overwhelmingly male, could not bring themselves to do this. Adrian Thrills attempted to rationalize the sound of their music in his NME review of their first album, Cut, in 1979:
The Slits see their album as an extension of their volatile personalities. Where they are confused and confusing, their record is confused and confusing—and often better for it. Where they are forthright and assertive, their record is likewise. (1979, 28)
In his review of Cut, Paul Morley also pinpointed Up’s apparently limited vocal technique, writing that she “snaps and talks, compressing spiteful, sore words into extreme approximations of melodies” (1979, 27). In the same review, he describes the singing style of Siouxsie on the Banshees’ Join Hands album as “conceited, over-exerted vocals; I like them, other people find them unlistenable.” Later, he describes a version of their “The Lord’s Prayer” as “a superfluous exercise in banal improvisation with defective chanting and ranting” (27). Together, these comments by Morley function as a kind of “negging,” where guarded praise focused on the identity of the person doing the praising is tempered by harsh criticism. Siouxsie has explained that the Banshees highlighted and celebrated the fact that they were not trained musicians: “[T]alking about breaking down walls and actually doing things are quite different things. In our naivety, we started making this noise that was ours” (quoted in Savage 1991, 419). In fact, there were skilled musicians among some of the female-driven groups: Ari Up was a trained classical piano player, Ana Da Silva and Pauline Murray had both been folk singers before punk began, and Lesley Woods had been a guitarist and singer with an older male band before being in punk bands. As we have seen, there was a tendency by male rock critics to assume that the “noise value” (Hegarty 2009, 95) of the female bands was accidental, rather than deliberate, “social disruption” (in Jacques Attali’s term; quoted in Hegarty 2009, 95). Posing the question “Is amateurishness the same as ineptitude, though?,” Hegarty notes that “[s]kill becomes a judgement, not a craft” (2009, 99). There was a simple desire by many female punk groups not to sound like their male predecessors that was often misunderstood, with the resulting music often assumed to be the accidental result of complete lack of skill. The lack of technical ability praised and capitalized upon by male bands was regarded as an asset for them; the same lack in female bands was often regarded as an emblem of inferiority.
A “special understanding” of the sonic identity of female bands manifested itself in work by other journalists writing about other bands. For instance, Caroline O’Meara, while describing the Raincoats’ singing, observes that “punk’s embrace of the ugly” sometimes becomes entangled with the idea of “uniquely feminine” music, taking issue with a comment made by the journalist Graham Lock, where Lock claimed to understand the band’s specifically female sound that other male audience members did not, at a point where the band had been touring and recording regularly and had actually developed considerably beyond their initial amateur status (2003, 301). Ana Da Silva rejects Lock’s simple definition of their sound, explaining the way the music “embodied the very issues discussed in the lyrics,” and, according to O’Meara, the “discomfort” in the way Da Silva and Gina Birch used their voices was integral to the music (2003, 311). Birch also sited the sound of the band firmly in the desire to express how they felt, rather than to impress their audiences:
I think I despised anything that wasn’t what I was doing because what I was doing was a revolution. We were revolutionaries as far as I was concerned and we were on a mission and what was going on outside was really just irrelevant.
(author’s interview, June 2000)
This sense of revolutionary agency in the construction of female presence in punk music, effectively singing themselves into a collective existence, was acknowledged by Greil Marcus, who described the Raincoats as
not exactly singing “as themselves,” not in the way rock ’n’ roll has led us to understand the idea. They are not, as would Joni Mitchell or John Lennon, singing to refine an individual sensibility or to project a personality or a persona onto the world. Rather, they are singing as factors in the situations they are trying to construct. (1993, 178)
This successful approach of this new, explicitly female sonic identity was also noted in Lynne Hanna’s review of a gig by the Slits in 1980, under the heading “Dancing up the Warpath”:
The Slits onstage frequently lift their music straight out of the rock sphere into a species of female performance art… . [S]ince their early days they have come to represent a proud, radical rock feminism which means that their music is now almost inseparable from a fully-fledged philosophy. (1980, 55)
Hanna takes inspiration from this performance, delighting in the anarchy of the band’s musical and performative approach, whose “savagely sparse” music she regards as an antidote to “the turgid pomposity and grim determination of so much rock music which relentlessly labours some pseudo-revolutionary point for the allotted hour and obligatory two encores.”
In One Chord Wonders, Dave Laing wrote about the way women punks used their voices. He identified two main styles of rock and pop vocals as “confidential” and “declamatory” modes of singing, and argued that punk singing was almost exclusively declamatory (1985, 73–74). In his hearing, this declamatory mode was practiced by Poly Styrene, Siouxsie, Ari Up, Pauline Murray of Penetration, and many others. The emphasis was not on craft, but on feeling and marking out of territory. Laing describes Styrene using falsetto whoops reminiscent of those used in soul music, describing an X-Ray Spex performance in which the sax echoes the defiance “in Poly Styrene’s vocal stance” (1985, 78). Styrene challenged reviewers as much as the Slits did, although her visual style might have seemed less confrontational. In 1977, Chas de Whalley was torn between trying to categorize her as a sexual being and feeling threatened by her onstage persona, referring patronizingly at first to “pretty Poly’s husky cockney accent and music hall shriek,” and later to the gig as a “sonic attack” (1977, 14). In another (extraordinary) Sounds review from the same year, which forms an interesting counterpoint to Laing’s more measured description of the interplay between Styrene’s vocals and Lora Logic’s saxophone, Tim Lott (1977) attempted to defang the impact of the band by pouring patronizing comments on both singing and playing: “I like it when Poly screams nice and flat and duets with that whining sax from the totally docile looking saxophonist whose name you’d forget, and I have.” Echoing the writing of other male journalists who respond to the fact that these women performers do not appear to be trying to please them, he understands the band while simultaneously appearing to hedge his bets:
I thought they were hugely exciting. I know they were, in fact, because even the man who had blood pouring out of his wrists and the Irishman branding a broken glass looked excited now and then, which proves that it was at least violent music, and that’s important, isn’t it?
(Lott 1977, 40)
Using the volume and timbre of their voices as an aural weapon was a very effective way of disrupting the accepted ways of sounding like a woman (or girl) in rock and pop. Although feisty girl group music of course had been in the air and was undoubtedly an inspiration throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s when the punk generation was growing up, featuring as it did “untrained” timbres, the sound of that music had been a girlhood mediated according to male taste: though undoubtedly spirited, singers like Janis Joplin, Tina Turner, and other pop screamers were sexual in their delivery and had a strong appeal to men. Women punk singers displayed in their delivery and subject matter a sense of agency that had hitherto been missing from women’s pop music. Their vocal styles, where volume and expression were to the forefront, were designed to disrupt and convey aggression. Detached from its subculture, even a recorded punk song that has been through the mediation of a producer can sound harsh and uncompromising to ears untrained in its reception, as the author discovered in the 1990s when playing “Oh Bondage, Up Yours” to a group of music students who were hearing the track for the first time; they appeared to be appalled by the aggression in the track, which they could not engage with aurally despite being familiar with the work of artists such as Tori Amos.
Female punk singers often used an open-larynxed “belt-quality” similar to that of Ethel Merman. In style they had completely detached themselves from the aesthetics normally expected of women’s music, and through sheer volume they broke through a boundary of decorum that had historically constrained women speakers as well as singers—as Anne Karpf has observed, “[t]he literature extolling silence in women is voluminous” (2006, 156). It almost seemed as though, through surprise tactics, a critique and readjustment of the whole function of womanhood had been created through the instrument of punk, which seemed to speak or to sing
the language of contradiction, dialectical in form as well as content: the language of the critique of the totality, of the critique of history. Not some “writing degree zero”—just the opposite. Not a negation of style, but the style of negation.
(Debord 1995, 143–144)
Guy Debord would note that the content of the dialectic was also of great importance; lyrically, many bands directly addressed specific women’s and young people’s issues, from the Slits’ “Typical Girls,” the Raincoats’ “Off Duty Trip” (about a rape by a soldier), Penetration’s “Don’t Dictate,” the Au Pairs’ “Come Again” (which was censored by the BBC), The Vital Disorders’ “Let’s Talk about Prams,” the Chefs’ “Thrush,” and the Ettes’ “Rape Victim.” One of the most powerful examples of the dramatizing of women’s experiences in song was made by the Bodysnatchers, an all-female band that grew out of punk and which, despite hailing from London rather than Coventry, are usually bracketed within the Two Tone movement. Lucy Toothpaste described the impact on the audience of “The Boiler” in the leading feminist magazine Spare Rib:
“Boiler” tells the tale of a girl who goes out to a gig with a boy; when she says she doesn’t want to go to bed with him, he gets angry; she is upset by the quarrel and tried to make it up, and he forces her into an alley and rapes her. It’s very disconcerting at a live performance, because you’ve been dancing around to all their other numbers, and you suddenly find you’re dancing to a horror story.
(Toothpaste 1980, 13)
The song ends in female screaming, and in the Spare Rib interview, band members discuss whether the description of the success of the rape is appropriate; men laugh at the defeat of the protagonist, they say, but the song illustrates men’s attitudes. Ultimately, the music of women punk bands took advantage of the openness of the original punk scene, using the “big energy” and “big noise” (Vi Subversa, quoted in Bayton 1998, 200) of punk to carve out their own distinct sonic identities across the spectrum, from mainstream punk (Penetration and X-Ray Spex), to the avant-garde (Slits and Raincoats). The extraordinary effect of the subculture was its valorization of women who chose to play angry and subversive loud music in the sort of rock line-ups that had previously been the exclusive territory of adolescent males. Writing on the subversive elements of these bands, Whitman states that in traditional rock music, “the resistance usually finds its expression in the rhythm (especially when it’s syncopated), and the capitulation in the harmonies” (1981b, 21), and it is in the disruption of this aesthetic “norm” through the introduction of noise and disorder that women’s punk music found its identity; as Viv Albertine has written of when she heard recordings of the Slits for the first time (their 1977 Peel session): “I’m amazed at the ferocity of the music. We sound like we have enough energy to conquer the world” (2014, 190).
As we have seen, through participation in writing and performing punk songs, and through being punks themselves, women were full participants in the British punk subculture in the late 1970s and beyond. Punk made noise a woman’s weapon, yet this was still resisted especially at the beginning by male journalists. The moral panic caused by women punks within the moral panic of punk itself, a moral panic within a moral panic, was too much for the music industry to recuperate, and by the early 1980s the energy generated by the early punk women bands dissipated: there was nowhere for them to go. It was almost as though young people’s energy and aggression had become co-opted by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (elected in 1979), and channeled into the Falklands War, with popular music returning to an unchallenging gendered and commercialized narrative of young people’s experiences and emotions (Reddington 2012, 131–156). Punk women had created, lived, and commented on a subversive cultural process that is accurately summed up by Jacques Attali in his reflection on music in society, as a practice “capable of making its audience conscious of a commonality—but also of turning its audience against it” (1985, 28). As Savage ruefully noted in 1983:
Punk’s furious belligerence was a direct response to the cultural and social vacuum it appeared to face under the Callaghan government. Now we have the strong, rigidly masculine government of Thatcher, it’s not surprising to find feminine values being reasserted in pop music, not least the quasi-feminine image of the love object, whatever the gender.
(Savage 1983, 23)
It would be more than another decade before assertive and loud women’s music-making again came to the notice of the British music press, when the socially active and feminist Riot Grrrl movement spread to Britain from its roots in the United States. Many Riot Grrrl bands took inspiration from the likes of the Slits and the Raincoats, whose legacies are once more being celebrated at the time of writing, through organizations such as London’s Loud Women, which have found that even in the twenty-first century, noisy women’s bands still need powerful representation in order to carve out performance space in the world of rock music.
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(1.) This issue of women’s space at gigs was eventually addressed head-on by Riot Grrrl bands more than a decade later. For instance, Kathleen Hanna of the band Bikini Kill insisted on men clearing space for women in the mosh pit at their gigs after reports of assaults on women fans. This “girls to the front” policy allowed women to feel respected and welcome at gigs by female bands in the 1990s (see LeBlanc 1999; Leonard 2007).