Women in punk: the disappearing years

This is part four in a series of features writing women back into the history of British punk. Click here to read:

Part one

Part two

Part three

Into the 1980s: an introduction

We are in the middle of the rehabilitation of the 1980s. A haze of nostalgia has wafted in like cigarette smoke these past five years or so, reducing a complex and contradictory period to the ‘decade of excess’, defined by yuppies, power dressing, new romantic synth pop and Gordon Gecko’s cry of “greed is good”. Unsurprisingly, women of punk do not subscribe to this vision of the 1980s, and it certainly didn’t reflect their own experiences.

Where did the punk women I spoke to earlier in this series go after punk? How did they experience the post punk era? How did they react when punk died?

Moving forwards

After leaving Melody Maker, punk journalist Caroline Coon continued writing for Cosmopolitan, and started writing for Sounds, the ‘third’, that is, the smallest and newest, of the three ‘inkies’.

This was in September 1977, around the time her punk book 1988: The New Wave Punk Rock Explosion was published. “I did not push myself at Sounds,” she explained. “Apart from the fact that I had plenty of work, three good friends and colleagues of mine worked for Sounds – Jonh Ingham, Viv Goldman and Roz Raines – and whereas we had fierce and friendly competition between us to get ‘scoops’ for our respective papers when I was writing for Melody Maker, it was not going to be fun competing with them for the same space in the same paper. Among the stories I did for Sounds were [pieces covering] Janie Jones, after whom The Clash wrote a song, Martin Webster, leader of the BNP, and Jimmy Pursey [Sham 69].”

She added: “I cannot tell you in any depth what the work culture was like at Sounds or how their culture compared to Melody Maker. Except, perhaps, because Sounds was the third-ranking music paper, Sounds people seemed to be more relaxed, younger and certainly more socially progressive. Despite this, and despite Sounds having a woman deputy editor – the wonderful Barbara Charone – of course there was workplace sexism, homophobia and racism as represented by the reactionary types who worked there like Garry Bushell who was promoting Oi! skinhead bands.”

Out of the ashes of these disintegrating male punk bands, Nancy and I managed to put together something that became an inspiration for the Riot Grrrl movement

Alongside her writing and photography, Caroline was painting and, in 1978, managed The Clash through their UK Sort It Out tour and, in 1979, their USA Pearl Harbour Tour. “When The Clash told me that they were going to break up, I said ‘Over my dead body!'” She told me: “I’d put myself on the line, my ego on the line, by saying the punk movement would be the defining musical genre for the 1977-1988 decade, and here were the forerunners of the punk movement disintegrating after just three years!” She added: “One of the reasons why The Clash were such a great band was because of their brilliant attention to the image/art side of their work. I designed the Global Revolution poster for The Clash’s second album.”

From 1978 until 1980, when she stopped managing The Clash, Caroline was involved with the making of the film Ladies And Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains! She was contacted by its scriptwriter, Nancy Dowd, who had read her punk book. “[She] decided to write a punk movie set in the states about four young women seeing an English punk band and forming a band themselves. So I became creative consultant and designer on the film All Washed Up which eventually became Ladies And Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains!

In Hollywood, “I introduced Nancy to all the punk bands, and I formed the punk band, The Looters, for that film, with Ray Winstone as the lead singer and Paul Simonen of The Clash on bass with the two ex-Sex Pistols, Paul Cook and Steve Jones. I love it that, out of the ashes of these disintegrating male punk bands, Nancy and I managed to put together something that became an inspiration for the Riot Grrrl movement!”

She concluded, “By 1981, having fulfilled my curiosity about what would happen after 1969, having helped create the punk rock movement and having prevented The Clash from breaking up, I was happily back in my studio focused on my art.”

‘A bit of an unpleasant decade’

Gina Birch of The Raincoats grew very disillusioned with punk in the early 1980s. “I don’t know what was going on,” she said, “Margaret Thatcher was there, new romantics… I just took all of my records down to the Record and Tape Exchange and thought punk had been a delusion.”

Why did she feel like that? “Because… during punk it’d felt like things were changing, that somehow there was gonna be an interesting new way forward, and what seemed to emerge out of it was something I found really, really unpleasant and despicable… Royal blue and shoulder pads, Dynasty and Duran Duran, and Margaret Thatcher, and Spandau Ballet, I just thought: ‘This is a horrible world! This is a horrible place to be! And I don’t like it one little bit!'”

“That under-the-radar culture seemed to have disappeared,” Birch added. “For me, the ’80s were a bit of an unpleasant decade.”

MTV launched in 1981 and over the next 10 years it would shift the focus of music increasingly to image. The time was right for a marriage to be made between the new pop medium and the highly image-conscious, theatrical, hedonism of the new romantic movement, with new pop acts like Duran Duran, Culture Club, ABC and Spandau Ballet.

“They’d kind of reached their peak by 1981, Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet,” said Gina. “You could say they existed in a parallel universe, but somehow, they seemed to swamp everything, and they did come from a kind of underground, and that underground kind of pushed things out of the way. Once the Roxy closed, the Vortex opened for a while, but the Vortex didn’t have the same heart as the Roxy club had had, and everyone was signing to majors, and things were just falling apart, fragmenting. Including ourselves.”

The Raincoats split up in 1984, following the release of their third album Movement, by which point they had begun to pull in a number of different musical directions. “We all felt really constrained,” she said, very dramatically, before adding more seriously, “but actually the thing about being in a group is that you are constrained, there’s a group identity, and you have to, to some degree, submerge the messy bits of your identity into the group.”

I think, at its best, the group is bigger than the sum of its parts, and when the parts all start getting too big for the group… it all falls apart. It’s that thing of kind of maintaining absolute respect for each other, and each others ideas, and actually knowing what the group is: because The Raincoats were constantly shifting and changing, we weren’t sure what the group was, by the end of it.”

Post-Raincoats, Gina and Vicky worked together as Dorothy, a pop outfit that sought to experiment with image and sampling. “I was very besotted with those Cindy Sherman images,” Birch explained. “I like the idea that a woman could be whatever she chose to be when she woke up in the morning, you know, the chameleon. I could be a woman with my suitcase in the road, off on a travel, or I could be an academic, reading a book, or I could be a film star… I mean, Madonna and Annie Lennox kind of took that on much more successfully.”

She added: “[There’s] the idea that somehow one could play with pop, play with the media, but actually, it’s a bit like the tail wagging the dog, actually you can’t, the media controls… particularly in the ’80s, [it] was a thing that could make or break you.”

In addition to the Dorothy experiment, Gina “worked with Red Crayola in Germany for a while, and that was completely out of the loop of London – we were in Dusseldorf and New York.” Post Dorothy, she studied shorthand and typing, and “I went off to the Royal College Of Art to do film, and I kind of lost interest in doing music.”

Gina had been interested in film for a long time. While studying fine art at Hornsey in the 1970s, she got hold of a Super 8 camera and started to make her own films. Derek Jarman, who made his own punk film Jubilee in 1977, showed his films at Hornsey. Throughout the 1980s, Gina continued to work with film, making back-projections for Dorothy, co-directing the band’s second video, and later she earned money making karaoke videos for “nasty ’80s songs. I did ‘Especially For You’, Kylie and Jason, Sinitta’s ‘Toy Boy’, and Rick Astley’s ‘Whenever You Need Somebody’!” She took the three karaoke videos, along with her old Super 8s, and the Dorothy video, to the Royal College of Art, and was accepted to study film directing.

‘It was, in a sense, growing out of it’

Like Gina, Helen McCookerybook continued making music into the 1980s, initially as bassist in The Chefs, later as guitarist and vocalist in Helen and The Horns.

She also began to feel a creeping sense of disappointment as the decade unfolded: “You’d go into Top Shop and there would be fluorescent leopardskin tops and safety pin badges… and you’d think ‘well, that’s just not what it’s about’.” She added: “The moment passed, it’s that standard thing where you get a music that grows up in the street but, the top musicianship and stuff gets creamed off, so it doesn’t belong anymore to the main body of what’s happening, and so in the main body it’s lost all its best claims, they’ve taken the money and run.”

She added: “Personally speaking, I actually became a musician, after all that thudding away, you know, plonk, plonk, plonk, I actually realised I could actually play bass, and I could actually write songs, I could actually sing, and that people were interested in the music as well as the anger, so in some respects it was quite a positive thing, and I think with quite a lot of women that happened; I know it happened with Gina, that you did actually have musicianship inside you.”

She added: “It was, in a sense, growing out of it… Life changes, like becoming pregnant, with other people it was exhaustion, ‘cos it was totally, totally exhausting, being in a band is knackering. I think when I stopped, I mean I had seven years of it, and I was completely burned out for two years – I just couldn’t do anything, it does burn you out, and that happens to guys as well – it’s all the drinking and the drugs, and the late nights and the having to come up with ideas. You’re borrowing on future time in terms of your health, and your wellbeing.”

Another source of disappointment was the mainstream music scene “the charts weren’t suddenly full of people like us, playing instruments, something else happened, things moved in, and it was Boy George and Marilyn… The industry would rather have that than have us, with our messages, our directness and our authenticity, they’d rather have a gentle male, and that’s quite shocking.”

She explained: “I really felt at the time that there should’ve been more space for us. There was this glorious time, the post-punk thing, under the surface of the time, the sort of early 1980s, but, there were very strong women like Carmel, like Amazulu, that were there but they didn’t actually stay there, and that was really disappointing. There was such a variety of music, after punk, all the Rip, Rig and Panic, and that kind of thing, it was brilliant going out because you could see so much different music, and a lot of it had women in it, but, you know, the music industry won. The bastards!”

On a personal level, “I had my kids,” she told me, “and I stopped.” She didn’t reject punk, “[But] I was so burnt out by music, and I was so disappointed by the music business, and… to me punk was a lot of very bad memories, it was dangerous and frightening, and there wasn’t any alternative, it was a big dark time, miserable time, all those strikes, you know, as Liz Naylor said, she remembered it as being black and white, it was a frightening time… It was hopeless, ” She added. “I mean, The Chefs were slightly better, ‘cos we wrote happy music, but it was still quite a difficult band to be in, Helen and the Horns was about creating fun, creating entertainment, because… they were dark times… And for a long, long time I absolutely put everything behind, away, in a cupboard.”

‘I felt that I was a better writer than I was a musician’

For Lucy O’Brien, younger, and part of a smaller punk scene in Southampton, the experience was different. As someone who lacked the close proximity to the London scene of Gina Birch, and who was on the verge of leaving home at the start of the post-punk period, the sense of disappointment with punk didn’t hit her until a lot later.

Throughout 1980, she gigged with The Catholic Girls whilst studying for her A levels. The ease with which the band formed had given her a lot of confidence. “We just assumed that that was the way that anyone could do it, and that’s true – anyone could do it – but not everybody did. And, at that point I thought… because it came relatively easy to us, the whole thing of improvising, jamming and then creating songs out of that, trying to do something different every time, and really pushing ourselves.

“You know, we did more and more gigs, and we were getting quite good, and then the band sort of imploded because I went off to university and that was it really.”

The Catholic Girls continued for a while without Lucy, and under a different name – Almost Cruelty – before splitting up. Whilst studying for an English degree at Leeds University she continued playing. “I wanted to form another all-girl band,” she explained, “and I thought that it would be relatively easy to re-create that, and then I realised it wasn’t, because, you know, a band is so much about the rapport between all the members, it’s a bit like having a relationship, it’s a bit like a little family, and everyone’s got to let go and jam, and improvise.”

She did get one band to rehearsal stage however: “I remember meeting these two girls. They looked fantastic, they had the perfect image, punk image, and I think it was Kevin from The Mekons said, ‘Why don’t you three get together, and we’ll have a session, and you should do covers of Dusty Springfield songs,’ and I thought ‘Yeah, that’s a good idea’ so we all got together for the first rehearsal and then… they just didn’t get it, they just wouldn’t.”

O’Brien said: “They were so resistant to just playing, and just seeing what came out, and I realised after a while that they were very keen on posing, and they were very keen on standing onstage and looking good, but when it came to music they really just didn’t know what to do. So that’s when I realised, actually, making a band work is actually quite difficult, and getting that right combination of personalities is quite difficult too.”

I asked her if the experience she had at Leeds was the reason why she gave up performing and turned to writing instead. “Well actually, yes!” she laughed, before adding more seriously, “I think as well, I felt that I was a better writer than I was a musician. And I think I could see the amount of effort it would take to get a good band together, and I didn’t feel that I was good enough, as a musician, to really put all that effort in. By then I wanted more to write, so that was the direction I went in.”

Whilst at Leeds she contributed to the student paper, Leeds Student, and interviewed her heroine, Siouxsie Sioux, for the first time, in 1980. Upon graduating from Leeds in 1983, she began working as a freelance journalist, writing for NME and Spare Rib, among other publications.

I asked why she wanted to write for NME: “I enjoyed going to gigs… I’d been in a band, I wanted to go into journalism – so NME seemed like the logical place to be. I’d been reading it for years, following writers like Charlie Murray and Paul Morley. It was definitely a writer’s paper then.” She wrote for the paper about post-punk bands, “like The Poison Girls and some of those C86 indie bands. I also wrote a lot about soul music, hip-hop and left-field pop. I always wrote with a feminist slant, because I felt female artists didn’t get the attention they deserved.”

She got her first big commission for the paper in 1986, when she reported from Spain on the filming of Alex Cox’s spaghetti western Straight To Hell, a film which featured a large cast of musicians from the punk and post-punk era, including Joe Strummer, Elvis Costello, Grace Jones, members of The Pogues, along with a very young Courtney Love.

Women will struggle on for four, five, six years, and then often just stop, in shock really. It’s called SILENCING. In reaction to the shock of being rebuffed by the culture of sexism [and] misogyny in the male-dominated work place

But what was the culture like at NME during the period in which she wrote for them? “When I first started writing for them it was quite an intimidating environment,” O’Brien explained. “Male-dominated, of course, and a bit like a sixth form boys’ common room. As a woman you had to be very strong and really know your stuff, in fact, better than the average male writer. The culture began to change during the ’90s, as more women began writing for them.” During the 1980s, “there were a number of key female freelancers, like Jane Solanas [formerly Jane Suck], Cath Carroll [Liz Naylor’s bandmate from Manchester band Gay Animals], Michelle Kirsch, Cynthia Rose and myself. Plus a few photographers like Pennie Smith and Emily Anderson, and a female production editor (Jo Isotta). Other women were in secretarial roles – but the bulk of the writing and photography was by men.”

There was a strong left-wing element at NME throughout the 1980s, which was reflected in the paper’s articles and cover stories. This approach could be seen to have evolved equally in reaction to the government of the day and to the new pop press – Smash Hits and The Face, which were enthusiastically covering the new pop acts like Duran Duran, ABC and Spandau Ballet. Lucy was part of a left-wing soul and socialist faction at the paper, which supported Red Wedge (an agit prop coalition of left-leaning pop musicians, who were canvassing the Labour vote), and was interested in writing about wider cultural, socio-political issues as well as music. She also played down and made light of her punk past during this period.

In 1987, a week prior to the General Election, the NME carried an interview with Labour leader Neil Kinnock; they also put him on the cover. This was, in essence, the final straw as far as the paper’s publishers, IPC, were concerned. “It was political.” O’Brien explained, when I asked her why she had left the paper. “In the aftermath of the 1987 General Election, when the Tories got in again, IPC came down very hard on the political writers, and sacked the editor and two section editors.”

As she told Paul Gorman, for his book, In Their Own Write: Adventures In The Music Press, she wasn’t sacked herself because she was a freelance, and therefore couldn’t be. But new editor, Alan Lewis, was given a specific brief: “IPC wanted to get rid of the political and intellectual writing, and turn it into just a music paper. In the minds of a lot of NME freelances, there was the NME before 1987 and the NME after – and the two were very different.”

The end of days

Life is experienced in excruciating detail, but history is written in broad strokes, meaning a lot gets missed out, and is then put back in later – or not as the case may be. The ’80s were not a time of incredible wealth and excess. The Sloane Rangers, City boys and coke snorting pop stars may populate the mythology of the 1980s but, seen in context, they were a tiny detail in a much bigger picture. That bigger picture included hyper-inflation, mass unemployment, especially amongst the young, and poverty. 1981 was the year of the Royal Wedding, but it was also the year when 30 towns and cities rioted and 3 million were unemployed. Similarly, at the end of the decade, 1990 was the year football became big business thanks to Italia ’90, but it was also the year of the Poll Tax Riots, which led to Thatcher’s inevitable demise.

Instead of seeing the 1980’s as a time of excess, soundtrack courtesy of Spandeau Ballet, shoulder pads courtesy of Joan Collins, we should – if anything – see the 1980s as a decade of widening social inequality, and increasing selfishness. Which, as a thesis, is admittedly unoriginal and is far less sexy than the excess and wealth story. But, for many of us growing up then, life was much more Adrian Mole than Peter Yorke.

The way that so many women seemed to reject punk, or to disappear, throughout the 1980’s could also be seen to be a rejection of the dominant narrative: when you can see music, politics, and culture shifting before your eyes, and shifting to such an extent that you can no longer easily find something you like, it can be very tempting to turn your back, to keep quiet, to concentrate on other, more important things, such as basic economic survival. Many female musicians emerging from the punk scene gave up making music in the 1980s, many writers continued to write but found, as the eighties progressed, that there was less and less space for their ideas.

“I don’t think it is adequately explained to women what a psychological effect sexism and misogyny will have on them when they reach the male-dominated workspace,” said Caroline Coon, when asked about the sabbatical many of the women I interviewed took from punk during the 1980s and, in some cases, beyond.

Feminism, as well as punk, was pronounced dead. But are things ever that simple?

“They will struggle on for four, five, six years, and then often just stop, in shock really. It’s called SILENCING. In reaction to the shock of being rebuffed by the culture of sexism [and] misogyny in the male-dominated work place many women retreat. Many women take sexism personally and think ‘I’m not being valourised, I’m not getting paid properly, I’m not getting publicity, the reviewers are damning me, why? Because I’m second rate, because I am inadequate, I, me, personally, I am no good.'” She added: “Young women are not taught to recognise the systematic sexist denigration that they have to battle against. They are silenced, they retreat, and then, 10-years later, when they’ve kind of gotten over the emotional and psychological shock and reassessed what happened, and if they are healthy enough and nature hasn’t scythed them down, they get going again and get a second chance.”

By 1992, Shocking Pink had folded, and by 1993, so had Spare Rib, suggesting – along with Susan Faludi’s book Backlash, which was published in 1992 – that feminism, as well as punk, was dead. But are things ever that simple?

In Part 5 I shall be looking at the various re-evaluations, re-discoveries, revivals, and second chances that led to the return of the punk women in the 1990s and beyond.