Women in punk: the return

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

Part one

Part two

Part three

Part four

Introduction: Is that all there is?

At the heart of this series is a desire to explore three things: what inspired women to get involved with the punk scene, frequently amidst tremendous hostility from both outside and within the subculture itself? Where did they go after punk died? And what inspired them to re-engage with punk, typically 10-15 years later, as adult women whose lives and careers had taken them away from punk?

I was interested, not just in the process of rejection and return, but the influencing and enabling factors in each individual case.

The 1990s, already a much misrepresented decade, were both scarred by and reacting against the decade that had proceeded it. It began with recession and the death of Thatcherism, continued in a woeful grey kind of way with John Major’s government and a wafer-thin Tory majority, and ended with a house price boom and the cringeworthy Blairite concept of ‘Cool Britannia’.

Both grunge and riot grrrl served, by pure coincidence, as inspiration and enabling scenes

Much of what happened on a cultural level has already been written out of popular accounts by the two headed monster that was Britpop and The Spice Girls, but from a punk perspective it was the reissue of a number of Clash and Sex Pistols singles in 1991 and 1992, alongside the rise of Nirvana, and the birth of Riot Grrrl, that should be seen as having some bearing on both the rediscovery of punk by a younger generation, and the return of punk in a wider sense, including many of the punk women.

To claim that either grunge or riot grrrl singlehandedly saved every woman ever connected to the 1970s punk scene would be highly sentimental and a clear exaggeration. Every individual story is different. But it would be fair comment to say that both grunge and riot grrrl served, by pure coincidence, as inspiration and enabling scenes for some of my interviewees.

“Ah, here we are, we’re in this studio again, and we’re going to record, and that’s nice!”

It was in 1992 that Kurt Cobain, seeking to replace his worn out copy of The Raincoats’ first album, arrived at record shop Rough Trade. One member of staff in the shop, sensing his interest in the band, directed him round the corner, where Ana Da Silva was working in her sister’s antique shop. Cobain’s interest in the band, which culminated in the offer of a support slot on Nirvana’s 1994 tour, helped spur on the reformation of The Raincoats.

On 24 March 1994, The band recorded their first Peel session for 14 years. The line-up at this point consisted of Gina Birch and Ana Da Silva, with Anne Wood on violin and Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley on drums. It was first broadcast on 16 April, eight days after Cobain’s death.

I asked Gina Birch how it had felt recording a new session for Peel so many years after their last one. “It didn’t feel as strange as the first time around,” she said. “When you do something the first time around you think ‘why do they want us? Do they really want us? This is so weird!’ – you know – ‘We shouldn’t be doing this; we don’t know what we’re doing!’ and then, all those years later you think, ‘Ah, here we are, we’re in this studio again, and we’re going to record, and that’s nice!'”

The band were signed to Geffon and recorded an album of new material, ‘Looking In The Shadows’. They were signed up for two albums but “although they’d given us a fair amount of money,” Gina explained, “they made us spend loads on a producer and a studio, and then… they’d deduct what we’d spend on the producer and the studio from the next advance, so, in the end of it, Ana and I were given a few grand each not to make the next record.”

“Heather and I, the drummer on the last Raincoats record, we used to drink a lot together, and we had a fictitious group, called The Hangovers. One night I was performing – somebody had asked me to play some songs -, and they said ‘What do you want to be called? Gina Birch?’ and I said ‘No! The Hangovers!’ so The Hangovers stuck. I just carried on working with it, I enjoyed the autonomy of having my own band, and I thought ‘I’ve never been DIY.’ Although the whole Rough Trade thing was supposed to be DIY, I’d never actually done it myself, so I thought ‘I’m going to put this out on my own label, I’m gonna explore that! Start a record label!’ which was Smoke Records!” The first few Hangovers singles came to the attention of Kill Rock Stars’ Slim Moon, and led to an album for the label: Slow Dirty Tears.

The strength was evident, as an outsider, I could feel that strength, and it was fantastically inspiring because it became a movement

This was in 1998, and the experience was very different to The Raincoats. “It was quite fun because then I’d say, ‘Right, we’ll go and play at the Dublin Castle’ you know, a place where your feet stick to the sticky carpet on the stage. It was all very lo-fi, and it was fabulous, I loved it.” Unfortunately, it wasn’t maintainable, “keeping a band together was a whole other lot of work, I ended up with just Eda and I, and we’d go out as a duo, and then I go out as a one piece, not even as The Hangover, but just me, Gina Birch. I project films, and I sing and play in front of them.” She added: “I actually have got a whole other, new album nearly finished, but… I mean, I started it just before I adopted my first daughter, and I’ve been writing new songs in the last three or four months, and I’ve got about 15 songs. I might do something with that.”

Punk ladies, riot grrrls and Ladyfest

In the years since 1991, The Raincoats have been firmly embraced by riot grrrl, and post-riot grrrl events, such as the arts and culture festival Ladyfest. Gina performed at the first Ladyfest, which took place in Olympia in 2000.

“The city of Olympia was just alive with women of all different shapes and sizes and creativity, and there were knitting workshops and bands galore and comedians, comediennes… The whole town was just alive, and it was so amazing… And Ladyfests all over the place have equally been incredible, but I don’t know if ever there would be one quite as incredible as Olympia.”

So far as riot grrrl was concerned, “I remember not really going out to many gigs, and then kind of discovering this thing called riot grrrl, and going to these shows, and for the first time wanting to go out again, being inspired to go out again. I interviewed Tobi Vail recently. She’d had bands, but then a few of them decided to get together, to be specifically supportive of each other, which we weren’t, us women bands in those punk days, the idea of being supportive just didn’t occur to us!” She laughed, then continued, “So with riot grrrl, it was based on this idea that… if we support each other, we will have strength… and I’m sure they have had plenty of disagreements, but the strength was evident, as an outsider, I could feel that strength, and it was fantastically inspiring because it became a movement, and there’s definitely strength in numbers for that.”

Lucy O’Brien of The Catholic Girls sounded almost wistful as she said, “I remember, when riot grrrl really took off… and thinking ‘Oh God’, you know, if only we’d had something like this when I was 15, because, despite the rosy view of punk, amongst women it was a very marginal activity, there were so few women really, on the punk scene, that there couldn’t have been the same movement that you saw with riot grrrl, you know, that wonderful sort of fanzine underground. It would have been wonderful to have had that.”

In her case, it was a combination of riot grrrl and a number of pieces she wrote around the 20th anniversary of punk in 1996 that caused her to think about punk again. “I was interviewing people like Poly Styrene and Jordan and Siouxsie, and just thinking about my own feelings at the time and … I really re-evaluated it, and I could see how culturally important it was, and that actually, with The Catholic Girls, although we were very small, and we didn’t do huge tours, and we didn’t actually record an album, in our way, we did something really special.”

I asked her if it was around this time that she became interested in writing about punk, specifically women and punk.

Even punk, the thing that had got so many females involved in it, even punk had turned into a man’s history

“Initially it was writing my book She Bop and I had quite strong feelings about the punk chapter, so that was when a lot of it really crystallised for me, when I was writing that chapter, and thinking about it.”

I asked her if she had asked any of the women she interviewed from the punk period about riot grrrl. “No, I should’ve done really.” One of the women she did discuss it with at the time was Mo Tucker, drummer in the Velvet Underground, who “found it a bit bewildering”, she explained. “I think she didn’t understand that one at all. I have to say that a lot of punk I think the thing she took issue with was the writing on the body really…. women of my generation didn’t really get that one either.” She added: “There’s something a bit masochistic about it, and sort of victim consciousness, and I know it’s meant to turn the tables, but, it didn’t quite translate for us I think.”

I asked her if she found it easier to approach women from punk bands as a journalist and writer, having been in a punk band herself. Was it a help or a hindrance?

“It was definitely a help,” she said. “Oh yes, and it’s been a help generally, as a music journalist, just with talking to bands and musicians, because I just instinctively understand what it’s like being on stage, and being the other side of that divide, you know, that kind of performer/audience divide. And as a result, I think it’s made me more sympathetic towards musicians, but then some journalists would say, you know, that sometimes I’m not critical enough, I dunno.” She laughed, then added, quietly, “I used to worry about that, but I don’t really worry about that anymore.”

The Lost Women of Rock Music

In Helen McCookerybook’s case, the route back to punk was somewhat less straightforward. “When I was about 31, I went and did an MA in performing arts at Middlesex University, and I’d never read academic books before, because I went to art college, and we just read any old crap.”

The experience was rather a shock for her: “I was reading all these academic books about pop music and rock music, sort of analysing them, and about punk, and none of the books I read about punk said anything about the female musicians, and I started really trying to find the books that wrote about the female musicians, and… there weren’t any. So I got really angry, because I felt as though what I’d done, and what Gina, and, what everybody had done had been written out of history, and even punk, the thing that had got so many females involved in it, even punk had turned into a man’s history.” She stayed angry “for about five years, and then I just thought, well, why don’t I actually try and do a PhD? So I applied to Goldsmiths, and I got accepted, and then I realised that I didn’t have the money to pay for it.”

It was some time before she was able to do a PhD. “Eventually when I got my job at the University of Westminster – which I got because they wanted somebody who’d actually been in bands to teach the students – I said ‘Please can I do a PhD here? And this is what I want to write about,’ and they said yes, so they paid the fees as part of my job.”

Her supervisor was Dave Laing, author of One Chord Wonders, a punk book which explores the socio-cultural factors that fed and influenced punk, as well as the music, and which has had the misfortune to be eclipsed by later punk books.

The process of writing the PhD was extremely cathartic: “The first 20,000 words I wrote were rubbish,” she explained, “and he made me throw them away because I was so angry I had to sort of get all that out first.” It took her about five or six years to do the PhD, and “very soon afterwards, I got offered the book deal from Ashgate, and I think I had about six months to re-write it.” She added: “I was worried about whether it was readable or not, and so gave it to this friend of mine who’s a taxi driver, who used to go and see a lot of punk bands, and he read it for me, and he made a couple of really quick, good suggestions; ‘Well, people won’t realise this, and people won’t realise that, so you ought to say,’ and once he’d read it, I thought ‘well, you know, if he’s read it, and he’s enjoyed it, then it must be OK!'”

The book, The Lost Women Of Rock Music, was published by Ashgate in 2007, under Helen’s then married name of Reddington. She told The Guardian’s Leonie Cooper, when the book was first published, that she had been waiting for someone else to write the book, and had only written it when it became apparent that that wasn’t going to happen. “Because I’m not really a writer, I’m a singer and a songwriter; I didn’t think I would be able to.”

She told me: “I really did want somebody else to write it, I mean I’m proud of having done it, but it doesn’t feel as though it was me, you know?” I asked her if she had enjoyed writing the book.

“Sometimes,” she said, very cautiously, “I think… [for] two days I did, I can remember there being a couple of days where I took my daughter to school, and I sat down and I wrote… That would be about half eight, and the next time I looked at my clock, half three in the afternoon, and I was just really on a roll, and I really got into it in depth.”

She added, rather more enthusiastically, “I enjoyed doing the interviews, a lot… I enjoyed certain aspects of the research, I liked going back through the old NMEs and remembering what it was like, but I loved doing the interviews, I really loved it. I’ve got those tapes, and they’ve got so much more interesting stuff on them, in addition to what I actually used in the book.” She explained, “It was just really lovely meeting such inspiring people, all of them, really… But writing, it’s a craft, and I got into the craft, I learned how to do it…” She breaks off, and after a long silence, says, “It felt heavy, put it that way, it felt like quite a heavy burden to carry while I was doing it.”

Approaching women for interviews was easier because Helen was a musician herself. She said: “For a start, I wasn’t a journalist, so I was gonna actually be interested in what they had to say about music, and I wasn’t going to have any preconceptions about them.”

I am something that I thought I’d never be – a singer/songwriter, standing singing in a nice voice. I was always really against that

She added: “I think a lot of people spoke to me in a particular way because I am a musician, and because I was a punk, and because they knew that I didn’t have an agenda. My agenda was them and the agenda wasn’t created until I’d spoken to everyone.”

The book was written as an academic text, rather than a populist text, because “I want it to be there with those history books that I used to read, the books that I read when I did my MAI wanted it to be there in the academic discourse, not marginalised. In the book I’ve taken on people like Simon Frith and some of the people who’ve written about the way girls make music, women make music, because they need to understand the value of what happened at that time, and they just wouldn’t if it was a book that was more accessible in terms of readability and things.”

It was, she admits, a hard decision to go down this route. When the book was published in 2007, it cost £45 in hardback, and this has undoubtedly limited its availability and hindered its success. A more affordable paperback edition is due to be published in 2011.

The launch party for Helen’s book was a distinctly un-academic affair, attended by almost everybody who was interviewed for the book; “So you had Gina Birch, Ana Da Silva, Poly Styrene, Lora Logic, Jane Mo-dette, June Mo-dette – the drummer – two of the Dolly Mixtures, you had loads, and loads of people, many of whom hadn’t met each other before.”

“Everybody was being really great about… just making it a really good time, and everyone was grinning, and everybody had excited faces, and it was just… fantastic, it was actually really moving. Caroline [Coon] made a great speech, Gina was filming it, and everybody was really overcome by it.”

HelenMcCookerybook.jpgPrior to the book being published, Helen had also begun to mix teaching with performance, in fact, it was one of her students who got her into performing again. “I mean, I am something that I thought I’d never be,” she said. “Which is a singer/songwriter, standing singing in a nice voice. I was always really against that.” She has released three solo albums as Helen McCookerybook and continues to perform live. Like Gina Birch, she has performed at a number of Ladyfests, and has recently been rehearsing with the reformed Helen and the Horns.

“My first boss at the University of Westminster told me not to talk about my bands,” she told me, “which I thought was really funny, but it was when the students started making me talk about it, and in particular when I started doing the PhD, I realised it was valuable, I realised inside myself that my experience was unique and interesting, because the students used to make me talk about it. But I would say ‘But you don’t want to hear about…’ ‘Oh yes, yes we do! Tell us! Tell us!’ and they used to make me have a cup of coffee with them, and when I was supposed to be doing their thesis tutorials, they used to come in with a question that would make me talk about it instead of – you know. So, I realised, over – it was quite a long time – over two years, it took me that long to realise that I actually had a unique experience that was quite valuable. So the process of writing the book gave me self esteem.”

I was a very angry young woman, and I needed to shout and make a noise

She added: “I think probably one of the reasons I got divorced was I suddenly turned into somebody who valued themself, rather than thinking of themself as secondary to everybody else in the family.” She concludes, “It’s given me a new lease of life as a person, and I’ve put a lot of people up there with lights around them that deserve it.”

It does stay with you

All three women agreed that punk has had a permanent impact on their lives. “Yes, I still feel rough’n’ready,” laughed Gina Birch, before adding, more seriously, “No, I do feel like a punk, I am fairly… fearless, in many ways. I mean I’m fearful about some things to do with the planet, and the way people think, but from a personal and creative and artistic perspective, definitely feel kind’ve… freer, free, and excited, and full of possibilities.”

lucyobrien.jpg“I think, looking back at it now, and all the women of punk that I’ve spoken to agree, that it does stay with you,” said Lucy O’Brien (right). “I was talking to Andy Gill [from Gang Of Four] the other day cos I was doing a piece about Leeds and post-punk, and he said that’s when it all kicked off and, that time, that’s what we measure everything against, ever since.”

“I’d feel really silly if I was making punk music now,” confessed Helen McCookerybook, “cos that was the music of its time, and I was a very angry young woman, and I needed to shout and make a noise, but… Gina and Viv Albertine, and a lot of us who are – maybe after kids or whatever – have started making [music again.] Again it’s quite a pioneering thing to do, because we’re middle aged, and we’re out there on the circuit with all the singer/songwriters, all the young audiences, playing stuff to them, so that pioneering spirit’s still there.”

Without sentiment

These three stories are far from being the whole story of women and punk. I am conscious that throughout this series I have focused on a very small selection of women, some of whom were right at the eye of the storm in 1976, some of whom were not. But those I have interviewed, or else discussed at length, were either writing about punk in the late 1970’s, or have written about, or made films about, women and punk in the past 10-15 years, most often in the past three years. It was this sudden collective urge by the punk generation of women to document their experiences, 30 years on, that first inspired me to write this series, and it is these works I intend to focus on next.

More riot grrrl and grunge from the 1990s