Sway to the right, sway to the left. Uniform in motion and occasionally in style, the gentle dance that occurs in the pit can be a mesmerising experience, that is until a hurricane of hyper aggression cuts through the room; displacing the good time and good people.
Stage front at the Shacklewell Arms all dayer, despite a great atmosphere, signs promoting ‘Girls to the Front’ and a host of brilliant but un-mosh-inducing bands, by the time US hardcore band Perfect Pussy and noise pop favourites Joanna Gruesome came on, the crowd was in full throbbing mode. JG’s lead singer, Alanna McArdle, made several attempts to calm the crowd but to no avail. Left with the only option to monitor the crowd, McArdle kept a close eye on the pit; her voice filled with emotion and determination, her face steely and focused. The signs seemed like a mere joke afterwards but the good intention was certainly there.
Moshing and aggressive behaviour at gigs has forever been a frustration in the alternative scene, but how should it be dealt with? Does it need any confrontation at all or should everyone just ‘get used to it’? Can more be done other than a few peaceful words and well meaning signs.
I personally could happily see the end of all mosh pits. As someone who loves to feel the undulating rhythms in a song I could never understand why you would choose to flail your limbs aimlessly and career yourself into random strangers akin to performing an interpretive dance to a particularly wild piece of free jazz. That, alas I know, is just my view (I’d also ban headbanging) but there are more reasons to dislike moshing other than an obvious disrespect to music.
Moshing, or slam dancing, began in the 80s hardcore scene when crowds started to engage in more aggressive dance moves to release energy. It became an ongoing joke that guys would limber up before a gig and practice moves designed to impact as many people as possible.
The scenes that spawned slam dancing were generally male dominated, where a particular brand of hyper masculinity thrived. Women were pushed further and further to the sides and eventually, if they got tired of the negative atmosphere, out of the scene.
In Don’t Need You- The Herstory of Riot Grrrl, Madigan Shive, musician in riot grrrl band Tattle Tale, describes a both typical and disturbing scene at punk shows in the 80s / 90s: “There would be girls standing all around the corners holding these jackets and then there would be the boys with their shirt off playing hardcore music.
“I remember looking round and asking ‘why are all these girls standing there holding these jackets’ and I remember overhearing another person say ‘those are the coathangers’.”
The dangers of moshing are well known; injuries are common place and fatalities have also been known to occur. In 1996, a teenage girl was crushed to death by a moshing crowd at a Smashing Pumpkins gig in Dublin, Ireland. The band took a public stance against moshing and warned crowds against moshing at gigs.
The intense violence at shows can be cited as one of many reasons why swathes of women left a visible side of the punk scene in the 80s / 90s. The woman-centric riot grrrl movement of the early 90s was born partly out a frustration about the hyper masculinity on display at punk shows and the need to create a ‘safe space’ for women.
The term ‘girls to the front’ was created by riot grrrl bands that asked men to make room for the women in the audience to readdress the balance. It also allowed the bands to play directly to the women the songs were written for. Women would get onstage to call out violence, abuse or harassment they had witnessed or were being subjected to. If shows got too rough sometimes women were invited to sit on the stage away from the chaos.
It was a revolutionary act and a vital step forward but 20 years later we’ve moved no further in terms of creating safe spaces at gigs. Women are still attacked and assaulted at gigs and who knows how many people are put off coming to shows because of a fear of potential violence. Creating safe spaces is difficult; the results of a few changes would not reach fruition immediately. It involves cultivating a community that is focused on the well being of every member and is self reflective enough to know when to readdress the balance.
Of course many people love moshing and many women do too. I’m sure countless punks would hate the idea of being seen as unable to withstand a session in the pit. This may be true but in a community we must accommodate for all our members, including the smaller, less physically able and more rhythmically inclined. It would make no sense to base a community around the physically strong and no one else. So while you may think you can throw your weight around with the best of them, look around to your left and to your right and think of your sisters and brothers who may not share your enthusiasm. Step to the side and let them enjoy their night.
The photo is by Holly Casio. It shows a sign from the Shake the Shacklewell event that reads ‘Girls* to the front! *(and smaller people).’