Michelle Lee, Off Our Backs Nov./Dec. 2002
In the late 1970s, a musical insurrection exploded. In both New York and London, teenagers reacted to economic oppression and the musical and cultural excesses of the ’70s and did what teenagers for generations had done: rebelled.
They picked up instruments they barely knew how to play and taught themselves quickly. They tossed together a few chords, harsh vocals and a quick tempo to form bands that rapidly garnered fans. They, with the advent of stores like “Sex” in London donned clothing specifically designed to piss off the overadorned mainstream. They were sarcastic and mocked conventions of mainstream society that people rarely before questioned. They spoke of anarchy, riots, sexism and war as well as romance and friends. They had the audacity to curse on TV. They brought the safety-pin piercing, the dog-chain jewelry and the spray-painted circle-A (for anarchy) into the vernacular. In effect, they created a revolution that still has a lasting impact on music and culture today.
But to whom are these feats attributed in collective memory? Look up late ’70s/early ’80s punk on a search engine, or excavate the reaches of your memory, and chances are, it’s a spiky-haired boy sneering back at you. In popular culture, “punk” photos are the requisite pictures of Sex Pistols Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious; and Clash frontman Joe Strummer get his fair share of photos; and so on with images of men sporting tousled hair and ripped t-shirts.
And you ask-where were the women? Weren’t they involved in punk, too?
Answer: They were as much a part of the punk movement as the men, but as so often happens with history, they are remembered much less than their male counterparts.
Even in this supposedly-liberated movement, it wasn’t easy to be a woman in the early punk scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s. Although many punks had progressive politics, internalized gender bias was harder to eradicate. In a scene that is best remembered for tough-guy attitude and a heroin addict (Vicious) who purportedly killed his girlfriend, women had the tough task of both proving themselves and representing the musicianhood of womankind.
When men wore the ripped, tight, dominatrix-inspired outfits characteristic of early punk, they were simply subverting the system-but when women donned similar attire, along with heavy black eyeliner, it became an excuse for sexual harassment.
Female punks were often talked of as sex symbols, “journalistic” criticism speaking of their physique as well as their music. At shows, women musicians were ridiculed, targeted for thrown projectiles, and encouraged to strut their sex appeal by the men in the crowd.
Despite the adversity, though, women triumphed, carving out spaces for feminist politics and creating some of the best music of the late ’70s/early ’80s punk movement.
Their anger, in itself, was an expression of feminism, as this aggression ran counter to how girls were taught to act. Female musicians showing their rage or biting sarcasm publicly helped to subvert gender roles in both the punk scene and the mainstream. It was certainly feminist when women punk musicians got up in front of hostile crowds to both prove they could play well and, for bands like Crass, X-Ray Spex, and the Raincoats, to offer salient feminist politics in lyric form. After all, lyrics like “Some people think that little girls should be seen and not heard… But I say oh bondage, up yours!” got their point across loud and clear.
Playing music was not the only means of expression for women in punk; they opened doors into other crucial parts of the scene as well. Many women, such as Caroline Coon and Julie Burchill, wrote articles and books about punk, documenting the movement in both photos and words. Coon also managed one of the bestknown punk bands of all time, the Clash. Another woman, Vivienne Westwood, was one of the masterminds of punk fashion.
In many ways, this expression of feminism strikes me as the first stirrings of third wave feminism, a feminism of the ’80s and beyond more steeped in music and pop culture than that of previous generations. It was certainly a foreshadowing of one of the best examples of 3rd wave feminism: the riot grrrl movement a decade later, when women once again took a stand against a male-dominated music movement to carve out their own spaces.
This notion of punk lifestyle as feminist is further explained in Coon’s commentary on the all-female band the Slits in her book 1988. Even though the Slits explicitly refused to comment about feminism, they still posed a definite threat to defined gender roles.
“What they represent is a revolutionary and basic shift of female ego from one which is biologically defined to one which is made strong by an assertive, mainstream role in society. Thus they are far more threatening than the male musicians they are touring with,” Coon wrote.
Following are four of my favorite recordings from
the late ’70s|early ’80s punk era, essentials for any feminist’s punk collection. This is by no means a comprehensive list, though – just a sampling of the dozens of great bands out there.
X-Ray Spex’s “Germfree Adolescents” is arguably the most essential of the feminist punk bands. Perhaps it’s their song “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” (not on the original incarnation of the album, but included in the reissue) is THE feminist punk anthem. Perhaps it’s because, at 16, Poly Styrene articulates sophisticated, funny views on consumer society, creating such songs as “The Day the World Turned Day-Glo” and “Art-ificial.” Perhaps it’s because the calland-response between Poly Styrene’s vocals and 16-year-old Lora Logic’s saxophone sounds nothing like any other punk band. Perhaps it’s because of the approachability of the energetic music, though slow by today’s punk standards, and Styrene’s relatively clear vocals. Rather than just the there-to-piss-you-off punk that was so rampant in the British late ’70s scene, X-Ray Spex are rebels with a cause, and “Germfree Adolescents” is punk with a point.
One of the few all-female groups in the scene, the Raincoats-a fourpiece band formed in 1978 by older members of the punk scene-used their music to educate listeners about subjects like independence and rape. The message of their music, unlike a lot of other punk, does not hit listeners over the head. Of all the punk albums I own, “Odyshape” is the one that just takes my breath away. The album opens quietly, but breathy vocals cut more sharply than a scream. An experimental album and the third from this British band, Odyshape has definite reggae and folk influences, accentuated by shrill violin and sparse guitar, but is fiercely unique. The lyrics, sung softly and in an almost wailing tone and combined with the poetic lyrics of songs like “Shouting Out Loud” and “Dancing in my accentuated by shrill violin and sparse guitar, but is fiercely unique. The lyrics, sung softly and in an almost wailing tone and combined with the poetic lyrics of songs like “Shouting Out Loud” and “Dancing in my Head,” are enough to induce spine chills. Also recommended: “Raincoats.”
Although the nihilistic Sex Pistols are sadly thought of as anarchy’s poster boys, it is bands like Crass and their compatriots such as Dirt and Conflict that deserve the real credit for the birth of anarchist punk. From collective living to political activities to intelligent lyrics about everything from militarization to feminism, Crass embodied what the face of anarchopunk should be-and influenced what it had become today. The band’s music constantly pushed the envelope, combining experimental, artistic rants with punk chords. Crass’ always– political lyrics were even striking enough to invite government scrutiny into the band. As the title suggests, “Penis Envy,” with Eve Libertine on vocals for most of it, is the most ardently feminist of the albums, dealing with the commercialization of love, sexism and rape, and how to fight back against all of it. The romance issue is dealt with very creatively though a prank bonus track done for a cheesy magazine that at first believed it to be sincere! This is only an example of the kind of originality that Crass brought to its activism and music. Also recommended: “Stations of the Crass,” “Christ the Album.”
“Los Angeles/Wild Gift”– X’s first two albums, packaged together as a reissue
My personal favorite of the bunch, “Los Angeles/Wild Gift” is extremely hard to describe. Despite the energy of the album, there is still something overwhelmingly melancholy about it. Exene Cervenka’s strong, mature voice, current of anger, is with its undercurrent of anger, is replete with emotion; the layering of her voice with husband/other lead singer John Doe’s and the call-and-response they often engage in gives the music depth and a more passionate feeling. The Los Angeles-based band crossed musical boundries, drawing from folk, rockabilly, and early rock-and– roll while maintaining their own unique and political lyrics. “Johnny Hit and Run Pauline,” one of the best songs of early punk rock, powerfully describes a kidnapping and rape, while “Sex and Dying in High Society” rocks with sarcasm. Also recommended: “Under the Big Black Sun.”
- www.comnet.ca/~rina/ “Women in Punk 1975-1980”
- www.mindspring.com/acheslow/AuntMary/bang/wip_intro.html “Women in UK Punk”
Other essential female-punk bands
- The Adverts
- The Au Pairs
- The Avengers
- The Go-Gos
- Jayne County and the Electric Chairs
- Patti Smith
- Siouxsie and the Banshees
- The Slits
- Vice Squad