Ladies Rock! London

pinkguitar by Laura KiddWhen Jess McCabe forwarded me an email from Girls Rock! UK asking for volunteers to help out at a women-only weekend of music, I jumped at the chance of getting involved. I’ve been singing, playing guitar and bass since I was a kid, playing in bands since sweet 16, mostly with boys (not always through choice), devouring books like Never Mind The Bollocks by Amy Raphael and Frock Rock by Mavis Bayton and imagining that cool happenings for female musicians only ever occurred in America in the mid-90’s. I was excited to see that times are finally changing!

Ladies Rock! London was held at the Lambeth Young Women’s Project in Brixton from 17-19 August and saw 30 women between the ages of 19 and 61 form bands, learn instruments, write a song and perform in a proper London venue in front of fellow campers, volunteers and the general public.

I arrived at the pre-camp training meeting on the 16th feeling nervous. I haven’t had the best experiences at the hands of groups of women in the past, and everyone seemed to know each other from other events – Ladyfests, benefit gigs, etc – but luckily they turned out to be pretty welcoming, and the excitement in the air at the prospect of the camp starting was palpable.

Over the weekend, the relationships between the organisers, their backgrounds and reasons for getting this project up and running slotted in to place. Nazmia Jamal helped organise Ladyfest London in 2002 and met sts from Portland based band The Haggard there. When Naz planned a trip to Olympia in 2006, sts suggested she help out at the rock ‘n’ roll camp for girls aged 8-18 that she was running in Portland. She did, taking cohort Sherry along for the ride, and getting all fired up about putting on a UK version – as she says: “I knew straight away that we needed to and could do something similar at home, so we did.”

The rest of the core volunteer group also came together through the Portland camp – Liz worked there a while before Naz and Sherry went, and Rebecca worked there earlier this year. They decided that the rock camp would be a Ladies Rock! event for women aged 18 and over (no upper age limit, trans-inclusive) with plans for a Girls Rock! camp for the eight to 18 year olds in 2008.

Day one saw the ladies meet each other, form bands and start playing their instruments. Most of the women were starting from scratch, with volunteers on hand to skill-share and give encouragement

The venue for the weekend would have to be pretty special, able to hold 30 campers and plenty of volunteers and have separate rooms for noisy band rehearsals, quieter writing practices and workshops. Enter Ego Ahaiwe from Lambeth Young Women’s Project, a rabbit warren of a building on Stockwell Road. Ego has been developing music and craft programmes for the last couple of years, and was delighted to host Ladies Rock! London. She says: “For me it was important to host such a project. There are not many women-only spaces left, let alone ones run on a voluntary basis”. Yes, Lambeth Women’s Project is a women-only space, a registered charity run by volunteers that is sadly in danger of being closed down by Lambeth Council. Ego is worried about the future of the organisation and admits that she doesn’t know what would happen if it wasn’t for her chair, Sadie Campbell, Alexis Badger and Lyndsay Shaw, who work tirelessly to keep the building in use. “Women in Lambeth [and] everywhere are not getting the services that they need. Not resourcing the only women’s project in the borough is a clear illustration that we do not value our women,” she says.

With all the organising done and kind sponsors found (Daisy Rock Guitars, Rough Trade, Natracare and Rock School), Ladies Rock! London 2007 started with a bang. Day one saw the ladies meet each other, form bands and start playing their instruments. Some had a little experience, but most of the women were starting from scratch, with volunteers on hand to skill-share and give encouragement. A busy but manageable timetable was mapped out, with time for quiet and loud practice sessions, workshops and breaks, making the experience intense but enjoyable for all concerned. As an extra special treat, punk legends Ana Da Silva and Gina Birch (aka The Raincoats) came down in the evening to perform and talk to the campers about the realities of being in a band.

The ethos of the camp was very positive, with an emphasis on mutual encouragement and self expression. There was no right or wrong way to play and as an example one camper took full advantage of this mindset by playing electric guitar with paint brushes and drum sticks, creating soundscapes rather than churning out conventional chords. It was inspiring to see just how quickly bands bonded, how they were willing to help each other and pitch in towards their common aim – writing one original song to perform on Sunday night.

Who knows what preconceptions people may or may not have shown up with, but the looks on the faces in the crowd proved that they respected the transformations that had happened over the space of three short days

Day two focused on rehearsing and developing the songs, getting more comfortable with the instruments and acting like a proper band – the photoshoots held in the afternoon proved that these ladies were happy to pose and pout along with the best of them, and some really strong images were created. Over the weekend, a number of workshops were put on by the volunteers, including Body Image, Merch, Zines, Third Wave Feminism, Recording and Self-Defence. Chella and Sarah of smart, hilarious comedy act Adventures In Menstruating/Chart Your Cycle entertained at lunchtime and the History of Women In Music talk by Victoria on Saturday evening was a particular favourite.

As day three dawned bright and early, the campers wandered around frowning with disbelief that the end was almost nigh. There was an air of excitement and mild panic, but nothing stopped them all focusing on what they had to achieve that day. In the afternoon all the bands gathered in the main room for a run through. This was the first time they had played their songs to anyone outside of the practice room, and I was struck by the sheer amount of support coming from every single person in that room. It was refreshingly far removed from the London gig scene, where audiences can tend to be critical to the point of feigned nonchalance.

Having survived what was, for most of the women, their first live musical performance ever, it was time to head off to The Windmill for soundcheck. How I wished that my first soundcheck could have been in such friendly surroundings! Sherry and Mary the tech experts did a wonderful job of demystifying amps, microphones and monitors and soon everyone was ready for their big moment.

oscar by Laura KiddFirst up were Oscar (right), with bags of pouting attitude and a bolshy, rocky sound. Then came The Caterwauling, with a thrashy punk sound and duelling shouty vocals. Hair Shirt were next with atmospheric, experimental guitar noises and crazed German lyrics. The Leftovers took to the stage brandishing a big pirate flag and a fierce mod-punk noise, followed by Puzzled And The Randoms, a grungey outfit with intense, catchy melodies. Finishing off the showcase in style were Hermia And The Harpies with a big calypso influence and enthusiastic audience participation in the choruses. Volunteer populated bands She Makes War (me), Drunk Granny (Samantha and Debi), Congregation (Victoria) and Monday Club (Astrud) finished off the night while the campers – or, now, musicians – had a well earned drink or five to celebrate.

The camp bands were a resounding success, not only with their fellow campers, the volunteers and organisers but the general public who had come along to watch the spectacle. Who knows what preconceptions people may or may not have shown up with, but the looks on the faces in the crowd proved that they respected the transformations that had happened over the space of three short days and I overheard more than one person shout to a friend that they could never do something like that.

Since the camp ended, excited emails have been flying backwards and forwards between the volunteers discussing plans for the future. In addition to the Girls Rock! Camp planned for 2008 there are Ladyfests to raise funds for, new connections to maintain and, of course, music to make. Lambeth Young Women’s Project needs support, there’s a short film of the weekend to edit (me again), countless ideas for collaboration between the amazing individuals that helped out at the camp and, well, lots to do!

What at first sounded to me like a fun way to help get some women started off in music making soon became something a lot more serious. Working with the campers was a thoroughly rewarding and inspiring experience but, alongside that, to discover that there are whole groups of female musicians and music lovers around in this country (and even this city) who are interested in feminism, activism and making art and music is a relief. Long may our collaborations continue.

Laura Kidd is a musician, film-maker, writer and photographer living and working in London. She loves to knit, watch movies and wear pyjamas to work (at home), and gets freaked out when the scary cat from down the road jumps through her window