Writing women back into punk


A merry band of mythmakers

When punk exploded onto the British musical and cultural scene in 1976, it was thanks to the hard work of a merry band of mythmakers. The story of the Sex Pistols has been told, re-told, mythologised, de-mythologised and re-mythologised more times than I can count, and that’s just one band.

This myth originated with Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood in 1975, it was re-spun by the tabloids between 1976 and 1979 as part of a textbook moral panic about punk, and was later reclaimed and re-told by a number of other interested parties, all of whom sought to put their own spin on it for their own purposes. They aren’t the only ones, but accounts of punk, both in the popular sense and the academic sense, do tend to concentrate on a very specific canon, comprised largely of the Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned, sometimes The Jam, sometimes The Buzzcocks, sometimes The Stranglers, suggesting that not only was punk a purely British phenomenon, but (Buzzcocks aside) it was also exclusive to London, and to white young men.

The earliest punk books were a mixture of insider accounts (Caroline Coon’s 1988: The New Wave Punk Rock Explosion, which was published in 1977, and Fred and Judy Vermorel’s The Sex Pistols: Inside Story, which was published in 1978), personal polemic (Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill’s The Boy Looked At Johnny: The Obituary Of Rock’n’roll, also published in 1978) and dense academic subcultural theory (Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning Of Style, which was published in 1979). With the exception of Coon’s book, and – to a lesser extent – Parsons and Burchill’s, they were not really interested in exploring the female experience of punk.

Writers have moved on cover the post-punk period, metaphorically turning their backs on a heaving mountain of abandoned tomes, from underneath which can be heard the muffled and increasingly angry howls: “WHAT ABOUT THE WOMEN?”

There are probably a number of reasons for this, including a general suspicion of feminism within punk circles (which I’ll discuss later), also the gender and interests of the writer concerned. But where this absence of the punk women becomes more and more marked is in later accounts, including Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming: The Sex Pistols And Punk Rock, the ‘official punk bible’, first published in 1991. Savage had a very specific brief for this book, namely the Sex Pistols and the related London scene, with excursions to Bromley and Manchester.

His is a very good book, which I like a lot, but it only represents a small part of the punk story. Despite this, it has been taken up by readers and writers alike as the whole story of British punk, which it clearly isn’t. I don’t blame Savage for that, but I do feel he missed a number of opportunities with his book in depicting the London scene, particularly The Slits and The Raincoats.

A number of post-1991 punk books have taken issue with Savage’s account, particularly John Lydon’s Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs and Stewart Home’s Cranked Up Really High and, inevitably, what each new punk book brings to the oeuvre is a cry of authenticity and a protestation towards a greater truth.

In the past five years, a number of writers have moved on to writing about the post-punk period, metaphorically turning their backs on a heaving mountain of abandoned tomes, from underneath which can be heard the muffled and increasingly angry howls: “WHAT ABOUT THE WOMEN?”

A quick book search on Amazon under “punk” gave me 1,187 results, whereas “punk women” yielded 25 results. I won’t list them all, but the following examples reveal a cross section.

Firstly, there were what I would consider to be the relevant books: Helen Reddington’s The Lost Women Of Rock Music: Female Musicians Of The Punk Era and Lauraine Leblanc’s Pretty In Punk: Girls’ Gender Resistance in a Boys’ Subculture. I also found encouraging punk-related fiction, such as Hernandez Brothers’ Love And Rockets graphic novels and Stephanie Kuehnert’s I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone.

Then, there was the rock wife’s tale: Vera Ramone King’s Poisoned Heart: I Married Dee Dee Ramone: A Punk Love Story and, inevitably it seemed, there were more than a fair share of ‘putting the tits back into titillation’ books, which played heavily on the stereotype of the punkette: the fishnet tights and stiletto clad groupie, the eye-candy. Examples of this would include Burning Angel: The Naughtiest Punk Rock Chicks Everby Angel and Joanna Staudenneier, which appears to be porn a la Suicide Girls. There was also The New American Pin Up: Tattooed and Pierced by Brian Johnson and Valerie D. Stanton, which appeared to be striking a slightly more coquettish pose.

What was particularly striking about these ‘punk women’ books was how few of them were rooted in the 1970s, when punk was born, and also how few were interested in the British experience. The British female experience of punk, it would seem, is especially lacking, and it’s for this reason that I have decided to back-track a bit.

Finding the female: uncovering the 1970s

I was born in January 1979; my birth happened to coincide with the series of public-sector strikes in Britain that came to be known as the winter of discontent. Margaret Thatcher, a mere four months later, won the general election for the Conservative Party, defeating the incumbent Labour Prime Minister, James Callaghan. Conversely, Sid Vicious, the Sex Pistols’ second bassist, died a mere three days after I was born. None of this puts me in the best position to describe what it was like to be a woman or teenage girl in the 1970s, pre-punk.

Quick study of mainstream women’s magazine Honey and teenage girls’ magazine Jackie suggests a strange world in which women were seen to exist purely to be married off at the earliest opportunity. One 1972 ad in Honey read: “When the time comes to tell the world you love him, take the third finger of your left hand to H. Samuel and they’ll show you how to say it beautifully”. Cheesecloth was the fabric of the season, everyone was very hairy, regardless of gender, and all the women had disturbingly artificial smiles and dead vacant eyes.

In 1970, Germaine Greer wrote in The Female Eunuch, of an epidemic of tranquiliser, anti-depressant and nerve tonic addiction amongst women. One of the drugs she mentioned was codeine, to which I would add valium and diezepan. If the pictures in Honey are anything to go by, enthusiastic pill-guzzling was not just the preserve of the average ’70s housewife, and nor, probably, was the anti-aging cream Satura moisture cream and lotion (the same issue of Honey from April 1972 ran an ad saying: “Lovely actress Martine Beswick asks: ‘Do I look 30?'”).

Jackie in 1976, meanwhile, reveals that teenage girls in the months before punk exploded were wearing blue jeans and pinning posters of David Essex to their walls, whilst reading about Rod Stewart and collecting Pyrex. (“We’ve made a collection for your house-warming” – Jackie, 16 October, 1976). Possibly the most nauseating page in Jackie is the advertisement for Lil Lettes, which features a skinny, tanned blonde model, looking both very young and very sexualised, sitting at a dressing table in her pink bra and matching knickers. The caption is “What every young girl should know about becoming a young woman.”

The first issue of Spare Rib included a piece on George Best, a piece on female poverty, plus articles on Holloway Prison and Emmeline Pankhurst

The Women’s Library in London’s East End, between October 2009 and 17 April 2010 is hosting an exhibition on the women’s liberation movement in 1970s Britain, titled ‘Ms Understood’, and this reveals a very different, but not unrelated, picture to that portrayed on the pages of Honey and Jackie. The purpose of the exhibition is to unearth, through interviews with those who took part, true accounts of second-wave feminist activism in the UK to cut away the media myths about feminists in the ’70s, and uncover a series of truths about the women’s liberation movement at that time. Some of the events, campaigns and publications featured and discussed are better-known than others – for example, Reclaim The Night, which has been revived in recent years, and Spare Rib, which was published until 1993. But Claire Henry, who was involved in research for the exhibition, wrote in the Women’s Library newsletter of groups with names such as Feminists Against Nuclear Energy and Stewardesses For Women’s Rights.

The first issue of feminist magazine Spare Rib was published in June 1972, and was written by a collective of writers who felt their views were unrepresented by other publications on the shelves. The first issue included a piece on George Best, a piece on female poverty, plus articles on Holloway Prison and Emmeline Pankhurst. The tone of Spare Rib didn’t suit everyone, however, and Amanda Sebestyen, who was interviewed for the Women’s Library’s ‘Ms Understood’ exhibition, described the magazine as “very much more respectable and well-groomed than anything I was involved with by that time”. She said she wasn’t against it, but recalls some of her squatter friends putting out a parody of it, called Spare Tit.

Close reading of the magazine throughout the 1970s reveals a publication that started tentatively before becoming increasingly focused on politics, growing increasingly serious along the way. From fairly early on in the magazine’s history, there was a women in music column, featuring such diverse talents as Annie Nightingale (then the first and only female DJ on Radio One), Ginni Whitaker and Dorothy Moskowitz (the drummer and keyboardist with Country Joe and the Fish) and Linda Lewis. Issue 19 from 1974 featured a curiously passive report on a conference for women in rock music, held by Melody Maker, in which the main issues debated appear to have been the power of the music press and how women are written about: no fierce manifesto emerged, but maybe it was just early days.

That sense of stasis that comes across in copies of Spare Rib from the mid-1970s is strangely telling, not so much because the women’s liberation movement was waiting for punk specifically – it clearly wasn’t – but because Spare Rib clearly needed something new, and, surprisingly, would find it in the next few years, via punk.

Punk and the press: an alternative point of view

Caroline Coon, author of 1988: The New Wave Punk Rock Explosion and pictured below right, came to punk via convoluted means. She was an art school student in 1967, and it was here that she founded Release, she told me, “the first 24-hour legal advice service – the alternative welfare service for young people – specifically about drugs”. She was also a hippy, and spoke of the hippy movement as being “very progressive, it was multiracial, against war, against authoritarianism… the second wave feminist movement was born then. But by the beginning of the 1970s the red top media was saying that horrible hippies had failed.” A view she heartily disagreed with, “But I wanted to know what the next generation would do, having been told that their older brothers and sisters had ‘failed’ in their peace and love aspirations.”

She was already a journalist, as well as an artist, and was headhunted by Melody Maker editor Ray Coleman in the mid-1970s. “I think he wanted me to interview, I guess, ‘the stars’ – you know, the Mick Jaggers, the Elton Johns, the David Bowies, but I decided that my mission in Melody Maker was, on the whole, to get women into the body of the paper. I wanted to get women musicians taken seriously.”

It was, for Coon, a tragedy that “rock music had turned so misogynistic and macho” by the mid-1970s. Prior to her punk reportage for the paper, she “was interviewing camp pop groups like Showaddywaddy, Alvin Stardust and Bay City Rollers, as well as all the women I could get my permission to interview, from Twiggy to Maggie Bell, from Joan Armatrading to Lynsey de Paul. From ’74 to ’76, that was my role in Melody Maker“.

carolinecoon.jpgShe discovered punk entirely by chance. “I was friends with the barman at the Portobello Hotel. In January 1976 he says to me, knowing that I’m this ‘star’ Melody Maker writer, who should know about these things: ‘Have you heard of the Sex Pistols?’ and I say, ‘No, but I want to!’ Because, Sex Pistols! It was like hearing a word which is going to redefine culture! If peace and love hadn’t worked for young people, the next generation was going to become angry and express itself in opposition to what had gone before, which is how cultures work, that’s the dialectic. That was my theory! And here was my theory of what counterculture was going to do next writ large.

“Sex Pistols was anti-love – it was sex – and it was anti-peace – it was pistols. Alan Jones [also one of many shop assistants to work at McLaren and Westwood’s shop Sex on London’s King’s Road], behind the bar at the Portobello Hotel, was telling me that there was actually a band called the Sex Pistols! He took me to the Sex Pistols’ second gig. And I began writing about what was happening. I knew I was documenting not only a musical movement but a counter-cultural movement, you know, a true youth movement, in the same way that the hippy movement had been a youth movement, a counter-cultural youth movement.”

When she reported back to the Melody Maker about the exciting bands and sounds that she’d discovered, they were less than enthusiastic.

Aside from getting the paper interested in punk, she also had other battles to fight. “Being the only woman, working in that macho environment, was absolutely extraordinary. I would walk into Melody Maker and the male journalists would wolf whistle and boo, I mean it was… Dr Helen Reddington [in The Lost Women Of Rock Music] calls this male sexist bullying in the workplace an industrial hazard!” she continued. “So us women writers in the 1970s – women like me and Vivien Goldman, Mary Harron and Roz Raines – we were trying to earn our living amid this upfront sexism. I mean, it wasn’t covert; it was absolutely in your face! But I was bloody well going to brave it out. I would gird myself to enter editorial meetings and I would suggest what bands I wanted to write about. When I said ‘Good, hooray! There’s a new subcultural movement starting!’ the response was ‘Yawn, not interested,’ you know, ‘silly chick’.”

She continued: “OK, well you’d expect a little bit of that – we were all competing for space – the male journalists were also competing for space, and they might have their ideas put down, but the established male journalists at Melody Maker and at NME and Sounds even, didn’t think the punk thing was a story. Despite Melody Maker not being interested at the start, I went off on my own to listen to the bands and write the story for my own curiosity and satisfaction, and because I knew I was right about what was happening. I bought my first camera, I began taking photographs. Despite suggesting an article many times it was six months before Melody Maker agreed to print my story – ‘Rock Revolution’ [28 July, 1976].

“I was ready when the story broke into the mainstream! Plus, of course, aside from the sexism, I had to deal with the class war. To a certain extent where I was concerned, the male journalists could conceal their disreputable sexism under the cloak of reputable class war. I was sneered at for being ‘posh’. Neil Spencer, the editor of NME, when he wrote a bad review of my book said ‘Caroline Coon can’t write about punks because she was born with a silver spoon in her mouth.’ So, it was a struggle.”

The number of music journalists interested in punk at this stage essentially consisted of Coon and Jonh Ingham, who wrote for rival music paper Sounds. Initially competing for the first punk scoop, it wasn’t very long before the two had teamed up, and were working to propagandise punk, to analyse it and report on it. Coon had an approach to punk that might be regarded as rather academic now, but which at the time, was part of the evolving style of music journalism: “I was the first journalist to write in what would now be called cultural studies mode, and much derided was I at the time, which was actually sexism.

“I was not only writing about the music itself and what was happening on stage, but what was going on around the music, the context. I was interviewing the fans in the audience – many of whom would eventually go on to form bands themselves. I wasn’t so interested in the music per se. I was more interested in the music as an expression of how youth was going to forward the revolution that I had been a part of in the hippy counter-culture.”

In this context, it was she who invented the phrase “The Bromley Contingent” to describe the group of Sex Pistols fans who were becoming noticeably present at the bands gigs. “After about the third gig I noticed this little group of very striking kids. The first time I saw them I asked ‘Where’ve you come from?’ ‘Bromley’ they said. So I called them ‘The Bromley Contingent’ and if they were at a gig we knew that it was an important gig and it was just wonderful – we went to Paris and and on all sorts of gallivanting around to gigs with The Bromley Contingent.”

They wanted me to sit there doing gossip, calling myself The Bitch? No way!

When I asked her what it was about the fans that made her want to write about them specifically, she replied, “It was what they had to say about their lives and what it was like to be a teenager in the 1970s that interested me. And, well, youth is always heroic and wonderful.”

The book 1988: The New Wave Punk Rock Explosion was first published in 1977, at the height of punk’s first flame. It has a clear, personal voice, and is very straightforward in its telling. Whilst a certain amount of mythologising creeps in, it is nowhere near to the extent as later accounts, such as Savage’s England’s Dreaming or certain (I suspect) highly romanticized aspects of Nils and Ray Stevenson’s Vacant: A Diary Of The Punk Years. Other aspects of the book that stand out are, perhaps unsurprisingly given Coons subcultural perspective, a clearly drawn parallel between the initial shock of punk and the initial shock of psychedelic rock in the late 1960s. Another unusual aspect now is, as her interest in The Bromley Contingent demonstrates, a pro-fan approach to punk, which is matched only by Jon Savage. She is also unique, I would argue, in her inability to place the punk musicians featured on a pedestal to be revered.

As a book, it is raw and immediate without being dated, yet the readability doesn’t come at the expense of intelligence. Whilst an eyewitness account based around the reports Coon wrote for Melody Maker, there are also chapters on those she regarded as the key punk bands of the day, namely: the Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned, The Stranglers, and The Slits.

Alongside the vividly clear text are a series of extremely good photos, often rarely seen or reproduced elsewhere, which again gives the book a freshness despite its 32-year-old history. The publication of the book could also be seen as marking the beginning of the end of Coon’s working relationship with Melody Maker. By then other writers, male and female, had begun to write for the music papers about punk, and it was perhaps with this in mind that Coon was “asked to write a new gossip column called ‘Bitch!'”, something she is still angry about today, “I said ‘Absolutely not!’ They wanted me to sit there doing gossip, calling myself ‘The Bitch’? No way!” she instead left Melody Maker, but did not abandon punk.

The punk period assisted, or introduced, a number of women to the male-dominated music press. Some, such as Viv Goldman, (Sounds) were already writing, whereas Jane Suck (Sounds) and Julie Burchill (NME) were drafted to specifically write about punk. Of the three music papers at the time, Sounds (thanks to Jonh Ingham) is reckoned to have been the quickest off the mark, and the quickest to embrace punk. Melody Maker (thanks to Caroline Coon) was second to follow, and NME was last, recruiting their two “hip young gunslingers” (Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill) via an ad in the paper, due to a lack of staff writers who were more than perhaps mildly interested in the new scene.

Whilst the relationships the three music papers had with punk in the 1970s is well documented, I thought it would be interesting to see if the women’s and girls’ magazines I looked at earlier, Honey and Jackie had been in any way influenced by punk, either in the punk period, or immediately following it. ‘No’ would be the short answer.

One women’s magazine that did take an interest in punk, and where punk seems to have left a long-standing legacy, is Spare Rib. In July 1977, they ran a suitably energetic piece on ‘Women’N’Punk’, written by one Su Denim, which made use of the imagery of punk (torn photos, crumpled paper) and short interviews. Those featured included Siouxsie, Gaye Advert, Poly Styrene, Franki Green (of Jam Today) and many others, now known and unknown.

There’s also a little handwritten bit at the top of the piece, in which the author apologises for not featuring The Slits (she couldn’t pin them down for an interview) but does mention that there’s an interview with them in Jolt fanzine, along with more stuff on women’n’punk, written by one Lucy Toothpaste. So far as Spare Rib was concerned, this women’n’punk piece was a little premature, for they wouldn’t really get to grips with punk until 1978.

Spare Rib’s approach to punk was still rather stiff, formal and bemused, if not hostile. This would change in 1979 when the magazine first began to feature work by Jolt editor Lucy Toothpaste

A review of NACPUNK, a National Abortion Campaign benefit in London, by Jill Nicholls, gives some indication of how the Spare Rib collective felt about punk at this time. One of the bands performing was X-Ray Spex, and Nicholls appears to have had some affection for singer Poly Styrene as a personality… but also appears to have hated it musically, and to have resented the maleness of the crowd and the event. What is most telling is a section near the beginning of the review, where Nicholls writes of a “smattering of feminists” commiserating with each other: “I feel about 70 – they all look so young,” reflecting the generation gap, and sense of confusion, that many of the writers at Spare Rib and other feminist collective were clearly feeling.

Throughout the second half of 1978, a transition seems to be taking place, with the collective gradually reaching out to, and seeking to cater for, younger women. In July 1978, for example, they get three schoolgirls to critique how the media sees them and by October 1978 this desire to reach the younger generation is palpable.

But their approach to punk was still rather stiff, formal and bemused, if not hostile. This would change in 1979 when the magazine first began to feature work by Jolt editor Lucy Toothpaste.

Aside from that brief mention in Su Denim’s ‘Women’N’Punk’ piece from 1977, Toothpaste made her magazine debut in January 1979, reviewing both the debut Siouxsie and the Banshees and X-Ray Spex albums. She comes across as an intelligent, albeit excitable, young woman and it is clear that she ‘gets’ punk, and is punk, with a knowledge of punk outside of what she is reviewing. Her style contrasts sharply with the slightly disapproving distance evinced by Nicholls’ reports.

In April 1979, she wrote a piece entitled ‘Love music, hate sexism’ for the magazine, about the then emerging Rock Against Sexism. Written very clearly, with a very punky layout, the piece exudes clarity, enthusiasm and intelligence, and reveals that she has been active in Rock Against Racism for two years, and is on the editorial collective for that movement’s magazine, Temporary Hoarding.

Much as this piece could only ever be written for The F-Word, Toothpaste’s piece could only ever be written for Spare Rib. Unlike this piece, this is mainly because Toothpaste was light years ahead of her time in terms of her polemic:

Mixed bands and male bands who are sympathetic to the aims of RAS will be welcome to take part, but everyone involved so far agrees that one of the most valuable services RAS can perform will be to provide women musicians with a sympathetic environment in which to play. There will be women-only events as well as mixed ones, and also workshops where women can share their musical skills and experiment in a supportive atmosphere. Sexism in everyday life, of course, which saps our confidence so relentlessly, accounts for why less women than men take up music professionally – but sexism in the music world ensures that those women who do play are often ignored. So it’s vital that women musicians are encouraged to come out of the shadows, because until they are visible to the general public people will go on saying ‘there aren’t any women musicians’.

Upon reading this, I felt at once joyously happy that such a piece had been written at that time, but also sad that what Toothpaste had predicted would happen, has happened: the systematic writing out of women from punk history. Another of the many revealing aspects of the piece is the comment from Deirdre of the band Tour de Force, concerning how bands are viewed by straight men attending their gigs along with their girlfriends.

Here it is argued that, if it’s a male band, the men identify and the women respond submissively, but if it’s a female band the female audience don’t seem to identify with the band but instead feel threatened, as though the women onstage are competition. It’s also argued within the piece that being advertised as an ‘all-girl band’ at the time was detrimental because it tended to attract a 90% male audience, who’d come along to watch a novelty act rather than a band. The music press are also criticised, not just by Toothpaste, but by everyone she spoke to, as being complicit in this marketing of women in music as somehow ‘other’.

Toothpaste interviewed Siouxsie and the Banshees with Jill Nichols in June 1979, and would later join the Spare Rib collective. By late 1982, she was writing for the magazine under her real name, Lucy Whitman, and reviewing Laurie Anderson’s ‘Big Science’ – the change in name, perhaps, reflecting the dawn of the post-punk era.

shockingpink1.jpgBy 1982, it is clear that a new crop of writers, including Whitman, were coming through and that punk had clearly had a lot to do with this. Whitman was just one of a number of female fanzine writers during punk, including Sarah and Crystal of More On, who provided The Slits with rehearsal space, according to Coon, and Liz Naylor and Cath Carroll of ‘City Fun’ – discussed as part of the documentary ‘Zine Scene’, which was broadcast by Radio 4 in 2008. Another example of the influence of punk on women’s magazines or, in this case, teenage girls’ magazines, would be the magazine Shocking Pink which emerged in 1982, and came across like a younger, punkier Spare Rib, and heartily enjoyed taking the piss out of Jackie. Inside the first issue was an interview with The Raincoats and a satirical photo story, headlined ‘Menarche In The UK!’. The cover showed two girls jumping up and down, one was white, one was black, and both looked very young and happy, and not at all glamorous or stylised.

The magazine, which was written by women aged 16-25, would appear sporadically over the next eight years, before disappearing altogether. It was clearly influenced by punk, and has since been credited in Riot Grrrl: Revolution Girl Style Now! with inspiring a number of later magazines, including Bad Attitude, Girlfrenzy and Riot Grrrl. One of its writers, Louise Carolin, is now assistant editor at Diva.

Given the number of female writers who contributed to the evolving creation of punk at the time of its birth, and during its initial period of influence, very few of them are discussed, or even mentioned, in mainstream or academic historical accounts of punk. This is a particularly bitter irony given that the female punk musicians many of them were championing and supporting at the time have also suffered similar neglect. It is the punk musicians I intend to look at next.