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The women who made punk

By Hassan Mahamdallie | 20 April 2017

X Ray Spex and Lora Logic (L) (Photo by Gus Stewart/Redferns)

If I recall right, the first woman punk musician I saw on stage was Gaye Advert (Gaye Black), the Adverts’ bass player. It was sometime in 1977 and they were touring with my favourite band, The Damned.

Both were signed to Stiff Records at the time and the tour poster (with typical Stiff humour) announced: “The Damned Can Now Play Three Chords, And The Adverts Can Play One. Hear All Four Of Them At…”

The poster was referring to The Adverts’ first single One Chord Wonders (Stiff Records BUY 13). It is one of the best ever punk singles, cleanly produced by Larry Wallis and coming in at a perfect 2 minutes 50 seconds. And like all the band’s tracks it had evocative lyrics by frontman TV (Tim) Smith.

I wonder what we’ll play for you tonight.
Something heavy or something light.
Something to set your soul alight.
I wonder how we’ll answer when you say.
“We don’t like you – go away”
“Come back when you’ve learned to play”

The follow up record – the gothic fantasy Gary Gilmore’s Eyes, about an executed US murderer who apparently donated his eyes to science – was just as good. Gaye Advert did come in for a lot of sexist comment.

The music press couldn’t get past her appearance – leathers, dog-collar, black clothes and eye makeup. That she didn’t seem to acknowledge the crowd gave her some kind of silent allure in the eyes of the journalists. Then the story went around that she chalked the chords on her bass – in other words she couldn’t play. But then who could? Wasn’t that the point? Anyway, how could you even see chalk marks playing a gig in some dingy hole like the Marquee or Roxy?

I don’t recall Sid Vicious being undermined in quite the same way – despite him really not being able to play bass. No wonder Gaye Advert later said: “I’d rather have been a man in a band.”

Gaye Advert and TV Smith were the driving force behind The Adverts – and the best thing ever to come out of Bideford, North Devon (unless you want to count John Nott, the toff Tory minister of defence during the Falklands War).

Looking back, punk, like the rest of the music business (and the 1970s), was male dominated, and openly sexist stereotypes abounded, such as the ones Gaye Advert had to fight against. However, it would be wrong to assume that there were few women in British punk or that they played a peripheral role.

Of course, some of our US icons were women artists of legend – Nico from the Velvet Underground and Patti Smith, and later Debbie Harry from Blondie and Tina Weymouth from Talking Heads. But what of the British scene?

Caroline Coon’s sleeve design for the first Clash single

On the journalistic and cultural side during punk we had the seminal figure of artist-activist Caroline Coon, who amongst other things wrote about punk for Melody Maker, founded the drug users’ advocacy organisation Release, briefly managed The Clash and designed the sleeve for their first single White Riot. There was Vivian Goldman who describes herself today as “a writer, educator, broadcaster, and post-punk musician” and “a pioneering female emerging from the ferment of Britain’s 1970s punky reggae party”.

There was also Julie Burchill writing for the NME. However, Burchill was not on the same wavelength as Coon and Goldman given that she was quoted as saying: “Women aren’t as good as making music as men – like they’re not as good as men at football. A girl in a dress with a guitar looks weird. Like a dog riding a bicycle.”

On the fashion side, there was the iconoclast Vivienne Westwood, who has surely proved to be much more talented than her spivvy collaborator Malcolm McLaren.

On the bands’ side there were well-known figures including Gaye Advert, Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex, Siouxsie Sioux of the Banshees, and the Slits. But there were others, perhaps less heard about today, who also made their mark on punk.

I have pulled some singles from my record collection to highlight some of these women – Pauline Murray from Penetration, Vi Subversa from the Poison Girls, Honey Bane from the Fatal Microbes, Marion “Baby Doll” Valentine from The Doll, Fay Fife from the Rezillos, and later all female band The Raincoats. It is not meant to be a comprehensive list. If you want to find out more then get a copy of the excellent The Lost Women of Rock Music: Female Musicians of the Punk Era by Helen Reddington (you can order the book here).

It is good to today to see that the late Poly Styrene is right up there in people’s consciousness of what punk sounded like and stood for. There is a new film in the pipeline titled I Am A Cliché about this remarkable figure, born in Bromley, Kent in 1957 of a Scottish-Irish mother and Somali father. He is described as a dispossessed aristocrat, which I assume means he is descended from one of that country’s pre-colonial sultans. Her name is recorded as Marianne Joan Elliott-Said (Maryam is a common female Somali name).

Poly recorded her first demo album when she was 18, and then formed X-Ray Spex after seeing the Pistols in Hastings in July 1976. The classic single Oh Bondage Up Yours! was released in September 1977 on Virgin records. First we hear Poly Styrene’s faux-girly voice: “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard, but I think…” before she yells: “Oh bondage, up yours!…1,2 3, 4” and then we are into the anti-consumerist song proper.

I remember seeing X-Ray Spex open the first Rock Against Racism concert at Victoria Park on 30 April 1978, and being taken back when Poly Styrene unwound the turban she was wearing to reveal that she had shaved off her hair. Before the gig something awful had happened to her. As she later explained:

I had said in the press right at the beginning that if I became a sex symbol I would shave my head. I wasn’t a sex symbol, but that traumatic experience was of a sexual nature. I had a breakdown and I went down to John Lydon’s house and shaved my head. Everyone there thought that I was mad, but it was just some kind of symbolic thing. I just felt that I wanted to shave my head.

She found herself sucked into the mental health system and in August 1978 the band split. She proved to be a survivor and returned to recording, with the release of the well received Generation Indigo album in late 2010.

Tragically she was already in the grip of cancer and died in April 2011 aged 53. There is much more to explore about Poly Styrene’s life, musical output and cultural contribution. I look forward to the film and hopefully a decent biography is not far behind.

I shan’t say much about the Slits, not because they weren’t very good – they were – but they have been well covered in various books of the period, including guitarist Viv Albertine’s 2014 biography CLOTHES MUSIC BOYS. I saw them once, supporting The Clash and they lived up to their anarchic reputation. Their 1979 debut single I Heard It Through the Grapevine/Typical Girl is truly magnificent – and well served by Dennis Bovell’s growling reggae production.

I was rather put off Siouxsie and the Banshees, mainly because “the Bromley Contingent” that Siouxsie Sioux was part of had a nasty habit of fetichising Nazi imagery. Siouxsie Sioux (real name Susan Ballion) was bought up in middle-class Chislehurst, near Bromley in Kent.

The Bromley Contingent, a label coined by Caroline Coon, scandalised the press after their sweary appearance with the Pistols on the Bill Grundy ITV show in December 1976. The Banshees’ first gig where Siouxsie Sioux performed a 20-minute Velvet Underground style version of the Lord’s Prayer also created waves.

By the time I first caught up with them live in early 1978, they were already an impressive band due mostly to Siouxsie Sioux’s stage presence and John McKay’s distinctive choppy guitar sound and their general aura of existential angst. At the time I was an avid reader of Sartre, Camus, Malraux and Genet, so that was a connection. Siouxsie Sioux seemed to me to be channelling Nico’s manner and David Bowie’s aesthetic. Bowie was also raised in Bromley, of course.

The cover of Hong Kong Garden

The first single Hong Kong Garden represented something quite new altogether when it was released by Polydor (also The Jam’s label) in late 1978. It’s a memorable debut. There is a very interesting 2005 interview with Siouxsie Sioux from Uncut magazine in which she both defends wearing Nazi gear (“I have to be honest but I do like the Nazi uniform. I shouldn’t say it but I think it’s a very good-looking uniform”) and explains her reaction against racism that inspired Hong Kong Garden.

Taking its title from a Chislehurst Chinese takeaway, its lyrics stemmed from Siouxsie’s teenage anger at the racial abuse the “oriental” [sic] staff suffered from local bootboys.

“I remember wishing that I could be like Emma Peel from The Avengers and kick all the skinheads’ heads in,” she seethes, “because they used to mercilessly torment these people for being foreigners. It made me feel so helpless, hopeless and ill.”
–– full interview here

Penetration are a very underrated band nowadays, even though they were in the vanguard of the first wave of punk. They were from Ferryhill, County Durham, and were formed by lead singer Pauline Murray and her mates after seeing the Pistols in Middlesbrough in late 1976.

Penetrations first single – front

The back

I remember seeing them on the same bill as The Buzzcocks, and what a great northern working class double-bill that was. Their first single Don’t Dictate/Money Talks, was released in November 1977 and is another gem of a debut single, and what I would call proper punk. It was written by Pauline Murray and guitarist Gary Chaplin, is under 3 minutes long and reeks of rebelliousness:

Penetrating voices going thru’ my head
I haven’t listened to a thing they’ve said
Always there waiting with the answers
Won’t suffer the consequences
Torn between the two
Right or wrong
There is no answer
Don’t tell me what to do
Its my choice
I’ll take it
I’ll chance it
Don’t dictate
Don’t dictate
To me

There’s a great video of Penetration performing the song live at the Electric Circus in Manchester, with Murray introducing the song: “This one is called ‘Don’t Dictate’ …and that’s my posh voice.”

After the band split, Murray went on the carve a solo career, with her first album Pauline Murray and the Invisible Girls well received. As befits a conscious member of the working-class, she didn’t piss off to LA, instead she went back to her roots to encourage other local bands develop. In 1990 she opened Polestar Recording Studios, first in Ouseburn Valley in Newcastle Upon Tyne before relocating it to the city’s Byker district. She is also back performing.

The anarcho-punk singer/guitarist Vi Subversa leads us to the Poison Girls and the Fatal Microbes.

Subversa was born Frances Sokolov in 1935. Her parents, who lived in Brighton, were of East European Jewish ancestry, and in her twenties she went to work for the celebrated ceramicist and sculptor Nehemia Azaz, who had founded an art factory and college in Beersheva, Israel.

She returned to Brighton, performed alternative cabaret as “That Famous Subversa” before forming The Poison Girls in 1976. The opening song on Hex, the band’s 1979 EP (Extended Play) Old Tart’s Song, does have a cabaret feel about it. It starts with a phone ringing. It’s picked up and we hear a woman say “Hello?…Hello?” but the other end goes dead – it’s a nuisance call.

A raggedy tune starts up (not unlike a Kilburn and the High Road’s number) and then we hear Vi Subversa’s unmistakable Bensons -roughened, south-coast gutturals: “If I had my time again, I’d like to come back as a man…If I had another life, I’d get myself a wife”.

Penny Rimbaud of anarchist ranters Crass, whom the Poison Girls teamed up with, said of Subversa:

Vi was always particularly vocal. She’d had a lot of experience in Brighton’s feminist movement, which she hadn’t really got on with. She was profoundly working-class in her attitude, and that already precluded her from the mainstream of feminism, coupled with her strong socialism and anarchism. She was a hard task to take on

Subversa had two children, Daniel and Gemma Sansom, who in 1978, along with singer Honey Bane and bass player Scott Barker, formed the Fatal Microbes. The Microbes and the Poison Girls released a joint EP in 1979, before Small Wonder Records realised that the Fatal Microbes track Violence Grows was a winner, and released it on its own as a 7” single (catalogue: small twenty) which I have in my collection.

It’s one of those unexpected unique tunes that come out of nowhere and plants itself in your mind. The stealthy opening and crashing chords creep up on you, but it’s Honey Bane’s singing and the menacing lyrics that make the track a classic punk single.

Fatal Microbes

While you’re getting kicked to death in a London pedestrian subway
Don’t think that passer-by will help, they’ll just look the other way
They’ve seen too much, they don’t wanna know, they don’t wanna know
Violence grows, violence grows, violence grows, violence grows

Honey Bane’s real name was Donna Tracy, and she was a teenage runaway who drifted into the punk scene, whilst at the same time attempting to avoid being caught by the authorities and put in juvenile detention. She was 14 when she recorded Violence Grows and recieved both sexist and classist coverage from the press. The Sounds review of the single went “Fatal Microbes are gawky, angular but intense. A bit like the Slits and (this comment exploits women) seem to possess a rather tantalising nymphet as singer.” This was supposed to be a sympathetic review I think.

Sounds followed up with a pub interview with Bane by that charmer Gary Bushell, who wrote:

Despite the unflattering jumble sale chic you can see she’s a looker. A little on the dumpy side perhaps but that’s just puppy fat. She’s still only sweet 16 after all.

Bane was looked after, both professionally and personally by members of the band Crass, who put her up in their Essex squat/commune and built a backing band around her, relaunching her as Donna and the Kebabs. She then signed to EMI in 1981 – they attempted to pre-package her as a Top of the Pops ‘punkette’ sex symbol and that signalled the end of her career.

North London band The Doll, fronted by Marion Valentine (aka Baby Doll) were signed to one of my favourite punk record labels – Beggar’s Banquet. Their first record was Trash, first released on one of the record label’s brilliantly eclectic collections. It was then put together with the equally fine Don’t Tango on the Heart and released as their first single (catalogue BEG-4).

Both songs were produced by Steve Lilywhite, who went onto be one of rock’s most-sought after (he also produced Steel Pulse’s magnificent Ku Klux Klan and Siouxsie and the Banshees debut single, Hong Kong Garden) together with Ed Hollis – who came out of the Canvey Island pub-rock scene.

I saw The Doll perform at the Nashville pub in West Kensington, sharing the bill with Beggar’s Banquet stablemates, The Lurkers. The Doll had a well-crafted set performed at breakneck speed. They went on to have a minor chart hit and Top of the Pops appearance with the more new-wave poppy Desire Me, again released on Beggar’s Banquet, in a gatefold double-single with a full-length photo of Valentine in the middle. Having been pushed centre-stage she was then lumbered with being the new punky female sex symbol and the band folded in early 1980.

Marion Valentine (aka Baby Doll)

Faye Fife was the lead singer of Edinburgh new wave band, the Rezillos. Fife, real name Shielagh Hynd was a first-year art student from Dunfermline when she was recruited to the band, initially as one of two female backing singers in the summer of 1976. The other was Gail Jamieson (aka Gayle Warning). The art-school band drew from the energy of punk combined with a cartoony performance style and are today probably most famous for their hi-energy rendition of Somebody’s Gonna Get Their Head Kicked in Tonite – although I don’t think many of their pogoing punk followers knew the song was originally written and performed by arch-hippies Fleetwood Mac.

The Rezillos were always very knowing and tongue-in-cheek – their first album was called Can’t Stand the Rezillos. It was released on the US Sire record label, which also had Richard Hell, the Ramones, the Dead Boys, Talking Heads and Derry band The Undertones on its books. You can see from YouTube videos that Faye was a great rock n’ roll singer and entertainer, with her distinctive 60s psychedelic Wilma Flintstone costumes and go-go dancing.

The first single off the debut album was the chart hit Top of the Pops, a critique of the cynical money-grabbing industry that Top of the Pops represented, which of course, to round off the irony, they performed on the show itself.

The Rezillos – Top of the Pops

There’s one, born every day
Sing song, then fade away
Ding dong, what’s the future in the pop music industry
Alright, so you make the grade
Hold tight, to the buck you made
Just wait, you been rated for constipated peak viewing time

Take the money, leave the box
Everybody’s on top of the pops

In my list of all-time top singles is The Raincoats’ debut recording. The three track EP was an early release on Rough Trade records (RT 013) in May 1979. All three tunes – Fairytale In the Supermarket, In Love and Adventures Close to Home – are equally impressive. The band was formed by two students at the Hornsey College of Art in north London – Gina Birch (bass) and Ana da Silver (guitar) With them on their first single was Vicky Aspinall (guitar and violin) and Paloma Romero, aka Palmolive (drums), who joined them from the Slits.

Paul Morley made their debut one of his singles of the week in the NME: “The two barbed ballads In Love and Adventure Close to Home are not normal, and expose a new kind of gentleness. They will not remind you of anything.”

Which reminds me that punk between 1976 and 1979 innovated itself several times over, in different directions, and The Raincoats EP can be considered as one of those turning points.

It makes no difference
Night or day
No one teaches you how to live
Cups of tea are a clock
A clock, a clock, a clock

You’re rereading a book
To feel reassured
By the life of your favourite hero

But don’t worry, honey don’t worry
This is just a fairytale


1 comment

  1. Mark Porciani said:

    Just a wee point on Julle Birchall she recently wrote in the New Statesman that Half Man, Half Biscuit is only punk band she has liked and went on to say the following:
    “The principal reason I love them is for their supremely clever and funny lyrics, but also because listening to HMHB is like finally having an enjoyable experience of punk, which I pretended to like forty years ago in order to get my first writing job.”

    I can not stand JB but this is one thing I admire about her. It certainly got her foot in the door. Tony Parsons and Gary Bullshit her male peers on the NME did not need to pretend what to like because they was in control of telling us what they thought we should like

    Birchall first writing job was on the NME.

    In 2016 it went freemium and lost way. I wonder today where would the next Julle Birchall get her chance to pretend to like something to establish there writing career? Where would Red and Rodger write there infamous RAR letter today?

    22 April 2017 at 3:06am

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