Fed up of not seeing their own experiences and those of their peers represented in accounts of 1970s UK punk, Gina Birch and Helen McCookerybook have made a film that nails the female punk experience. Cazz Blase meets up with them for a chat
“Helen thinks it’s the best film ever made” says musician and film-maker Gina Birch happily.
“I do!” exclaims her fellow musician, writer and film-maker Helen McCookerybook (also known in academic circles as Helen Reddington). Her face is excited and animated as she talks about their documentary film, Stories from the She-Punks: Music with a different agenda, which is due to be premiered at London’s Doc’N’Roll Festival on 10 November.
“It’s colourful” she enthuses, explaining that the 45-minute documentary is “An everyperson’s film” that can be enjoyed and related to beyond the world of punk. The film is the latest piece of work in a long-running campaign to gain cultural recognition for the UK’s 1970s punk women.
However, while the work is feminist by its very existence, Helen explains that the narrative is: “not about feminism”. She also tells me that “It’s not necessarily about punk [and] not necessarily about musicians. It’s people telling truthful stories about being in bands.” She also adds that, while the film includes some funny moments, parts of it are quite harrowing. It is bittersweet: good and bad.
We have chosen to meet in the downstairs cafe at London’s British Library in St Pancras. Helen very generously buys us all hot drinks and crisps and we huddle around a small table in what is proving to be a very crowded cafe, full of researchers, hipsters and tourists. Tables, once secured, are to be carefully guarded and protected. We end up near the counter alongside a coffee machine that keeps quiet throughout most of our conversation but threatens to upstage the more quietly spoken Helen at one point. Gina is sceptical of my Dictaphone’s abilities to cope with the noisy environment. “Is this thing going to pick up?” she asks hesitantly, before instructing Helen, seated opposite me and Gina, to “move in a bit”, which Helen does.
Helen and Gina started talking about making what would become Stories of the She-Punks in 2010, having both previously worked on projects about women and ‘70s UK punk. Helen first published her academic book The Lost Women of Rock Music, which sought to document women’s musical involvement within the ’70s UK punk scene, in 2007. In 2009, Gina was working on a documentary film about her own band, The Raincoats. That film remains unfinished. However, along with the interviews conducted for Helen’s book, it has provided a starting point in terms of source material for the She-Punks project.
In 2015, fired up by the experience of teaching entrepreneurship to university music students, Helen approached the British Library to see if they would be interested in showing the film, which she and Gina had yet to begin assembling. Andy Linehan, the curator of the popular music collection at the library, was very enthusiastic and pointed out that 2016 marked the 40-year anniversary of punk and that the British Library were planning a programme of events to mark the occasion. He immediately booked a screening of the She-Punks film as the British Library’s first 40 years of punk booking.
This official booking “put a rocket up our arses”, says Helen in terms of film production. They spent the summer of 2015 very quickly interviewing punk women, but also had “no funding, just goodwill”. She feels that this lack of financial investment helped them to persuade interviewees to participate, with very few people saying no. “It’s the people’s film!” says Gina, only half joking.
The work in progress version of the film was shown on 10 June 2016 at the British Library’s conference centre. I attended this event and can confirm that the audience was a large one, with many punk generation women present. Some were easy to spot thanks to their brightly coloured hair and highly evolved style, which made them stand out in the formal setting of the conference centre. Some had brought their partners and children with them.
A slightly breathless Andy Linehan had talked about the British Library’s role in London’s 40 years of punk celebrations before handing over to writer Zoë Howe, who was chairing the post-film Q&A discussion. She was followed by a seemingly nervous Helen and Gina, who gave an irreverent and almost apologetic introduction to Stories of the She-Punks, in which they emphasised the film’s incomplete nature.
The lights went down and the film was shown to a full house of attendees, who gave it a very warm reception.
“It was like sitting in the middle of a radiator,” recalls Helen, grinning. Because the two of them had been working on the film very intensely, they’d lost the ability to view the content as an audience would: “We didn’t realise it was funny” explains Helen.
Gina adds that, in working on the film and watching the footage repeatedly, they had developed little catchphrases and in-jokes amongst themselves: things they had found quirky or amusing, but which they hadn’t realised would “get big guffaws in the auditorium”.
After the film, Zoë Howe chaired a Q&A with Helen, Gina, Jane Perry Woodgate of the Mo-dettes and Tessa Pollitt of the Slits. Following a series of other questions that ranged from discussions around punk and feminism to more music-based topics, someone had asked what the four women’s children made of their punk legacy. Gina, who has two daughters, had replied that her daughter’s friends were quite interested in The Raincoats, but that her daughters weren’t really bothered.
At this point, there came an indignant cry from the back of the auditorium: “THAT’S NOT TRUE!”
Gina was slightly surprised at this interjection from her eldest child.
“I JUST CAN’T TELL YOU THAT BECAUSE YOU’RE MY MOTHER!”
Following this outburst from Honey Birch, Helen decided against commenting on her own daughter’s feelings about her career on the basis that they were also both in the audience.
At the end of the Q&A, a rousing performance of X-Ray Spex’s ‘Oh Bondage! Up Yours!’ took place onstage, and the audience – provided earlier with ransom note style lyric sheets courtesy of Helen’s daughter, Isobel – joined in with gusto. This was followed by a small group rushing down the aisles and forming an impromptu pogo pit in front of the stage.
Stories of the She-Punks is constructed directly from interviews with women who played in UK punk bands in the late ’70s and early 1980s. It features little in the way of music or archive footage and there is no voiceover, meaning that the interviewees are speaking for themselves with little in the way of mediation. The result is stark but it’s an approach to film-making that can be especially effective with films that have a political and/or hidden history context. I have seen a similar approach used to powerful effect in the miners’ strike film Still the Enemy Within.
Helen and Gina arrived at this stark narrative approach accidentally. They had originally planned to approach writer and activist Maxine Peake to narrate the film, being familiar with her work as the narrator for the housing crisis film, Dispossession, as well as being an actor (Gina speaks of Peake’s recent work in The Bisexual in glowing terms). They also figured that the project would be one she would enjoy.
When it became obvious that they wouldn’t be able to afford to pay for someone to narrate the film, they evolved a different structure and narrative technique, reflecting the extent to which a lack of finance has steered the She-Punks project.
“If you can imagine a setback, we’ve had it,” says Helen ruefully, adding that “a lot of energy has gone into it”. Both she and Gina have had to fit the She-Punks project around other work. Earlier in 2018, Gina embarked on a painting programme with an organisation called Turps Banana, and Helen broke her elbow on a protest march in support of the NHS. While this injury put her out of action for several weeks, she found she had time to apply for a sabbatical from her job as a lecturer once she was able to use the arm again. Along with funding for a student researcher, this helped considerably when it came to working on the She-Punks project.
Stories of the She-Punks is being premiered in the same year as The Slits film, Here To Be Heard. There is also Zoë Howe and Celeste Bell’s Poly Styrene film, I Am A Cliché, which is currently in production. Helen’s book, The Lost Women of Rock Music, was published back in 2007, the same year that Zillah Minx’s punk documentary, She’s A Punk Rocker, was released.
What Stories of the She-Punks, Here to Be Heard and She’s A Punk Rocker all share is the truism that truth is stranger than fiction. The three documentaries also showcase the sheer vitality and excitement of being a punk in 1976.
Helen says that watching Stories of the She-Punks “makes me feel incredibly proud to have been in that generation, which I didn’t necessarily feel at the time [because] parts of it were so vicious and barbaric”.
Gina has a different experience: “I knew at the time, there was something really amazing.” She then clarifies: “I mean there were horrible things that were happening, but I knew that it was a really special time. I used to say to [her friend] Alex: ‘Ah, we’re so lucky to be young and alive and in London at this particular moment in time.’ I could feel it so strongly, actually.”
Meanwhile, Helen thinks back to her own punk days in Brighton: “I remember feeling really excited all the time. Every day you woke up and you were a punk and somebody would say ‘Let’s go and do this.’”
“‘Yes!!’ – whatever it was,” she adds with visible amusement, “you did it”. She continues: “That was nice, waking up every morning and you knew you were going to do something.”
Gina wryly admits that her own experience felt “more like falling off a cliff every day. It was weird, but exciting.”
Gina formed The Raincoats with Ana Da Silva while studying at Hornsey art college in London in 1976, whereas Helen’s first punk band, Joby and the Hooligans, emerged out of the Brighton punk and squat networks around the same time. Both women played bass and neither had any prior musical experience.
Their paths didn’t cross until 2001, when they were introduced to each other via Polish/British chanteuse Katy Carr. Katy was one of Helen’s music students at the time, but she was also a massive fan of the Raincoats and Pooka, a band Gina was shooting a video for. She came along to the video shoot and, a little later, Helen invited Gina to talk to some of her students at Westminster University about songwriting. Helen was already working on her PhD at this point, which would later become her book. Gina was her second interviewee for the book.
During the same year, both Helen and Gina toured the UK with a song and film project that Helen created in collaboration with other film-makers. It was themed around the seven ages of women. The two of them went across the country doing songwriting workshops. Gina’s segment, ‘Why I gave up drinking’, apparently went down particularly well with young men in Cornwall.
In around 2012 the two of them played a number of gigs with Viv Albertine and, on one occasion, Penetration singer and solo artist Pauline Murray. Working with Viv was “interesting” says Gina.
“The one time that I felt I learnt something from Viv was a night she was in a really foul mood” says Gina, clarifying “I don’t think she was terribly well either.” When it came to her slot, “Viv went up on stage [and] her guitar wasn’t in tune – she hadn’t prepared herself very well [and] she didn’t really want to perform, but she got up on the stage in this really stroppy mood, and she didn’t smile or say hello or anything like that. She just stood there, tuning her guitar, loudly, almost sneering at the audience!” laughs Gina.
Viv was “not giving them [the audience] any of the ‘Hey guys, here I am!’ kind of thing – and it was mostly men in the audience – and I just thought…” Gina trails off, adding “I just really liked that she could be so ‘I don’t give a shit, and I don’t care what you think about me, and I’m just gonna take my time and fuck you all, even though I want you to listen to what I’m saying’!” She is laughing as she recalls this incident.
This particular moment resonated with Gina as a performer because she feels that women performers are more likely to want to please an audience: “And I’m very guilty of that, I think.” As such, she found Viv’s attitude that night to be “a great lesson really”.
“I like Viv’s attitude” adds Helen.
Like Viv Albertine and Pauline Murray, Gina and Helen both have the experience of returning to gigging and recording after raising children. Along with this, for Helen, gigging is a solace and a lifeline that balances out the demands of her job as a university lecturer. However, this doesn’t mean she didn’t have doubts when it came to returning to performing:
Before I did my first gig after 25 years break, I did think ‘Should I actually be doing this?’ And sometimes I still think that, but the rest of the time I think ‘fuck it’. And, actually, I have to say that very first gig when I came back to it – although I was really scared cos I’d always been in bands before and never played by myself – [the audience were] really accepting and I was really shocked because punk was so vicious, you know!
Helen laughs: “My head was still there!”
“The punk audiences were 50/50 mean and very, very open and receptive” explains Gina, adding that her own return to performing after having children was in a venue in Brixton’s Coldharbour Lane.
“Some guy had come down from Manchester to see me!” she exclaims incredulously. “He’d read about it”
Gina’s set was about five songs and she “had no soundcheck or anything, and because I hadn’t played for a long, long time – because of kids and stuff – I thought ‘Right, well I’m gonna make sure I get the sound I want’. So I did spend a bit of time doing a public soundcheck, which perhaps I wouldn’t normally have done, I must say.”
Performing again after so long was “like having this piece of me back.” Gina continues:
Sometimes, when you stop doing something that has given you so much, emotionally, culturally, friendship wise, and that’s not part of your life anymore, and then you come back to it. It’s like this piece of you slots right in.
Helen agrees: “Life kind of chips away at you. When you start playing again, it does all come back.”
“Because you’ve forgotten that part of yourself sometimes” adds Gina. “And when you find it again, it’s brilliant.”
Helen has another positive aspect of making a comeback during or after parenthood:
The other thing though [is that] if you’ve been through that [parenthood], you are not a narcissistic person by the time you come back to do it. Because there’s something very, very down to earth about ways your kids speak to you. If your kids tell you that you’ve done something good, that is better than the best review you can possibly imagine because, a lot of the time.
Helen is visibly amused mentioning this.
Mine used to make me wait at the top of the road when I took them to school ‘cause I had ’80s leg warmers on that I bought from a charity shop and things. So they’re quite critical.
At this point, we talk about the 40 years of punk celebrations that ran throughout 2016. Largely a London based affair, it was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and, weirdly, supported by London’s then mayor, Boris Johnson.
Throughout the summer of 2016, the British Library housed an interactive, multimedia, punk exhibition on its first floor, which was unveiled to critics and other interested parties as part of the season’s opening celebrations. Gina and Helen both attended the opening and found the absence of women’s voices within the exhibition frustrating. Later in the year, at an event with the writer Jon Savage, Viv Albertine took matters into her own hands and defaced part of the exhibition by – quite literally – writing the Slits and other female punk musicians back into history.
“I was so furious that night” says Gina, recalling the exhibition opening. “I went around shouting at all these men [about] the absence of women.” She laughs as she remembers.
Clips from Stories of the She-Punks were included in the exhibition, but the presence of the monitor showing the clips only served to underline how much the display of punk vinyl, fanzines and other paraphernalia present was dominated by men.
Reflecting on the punk timeline of 1976-78 that was used to curate the exhibition, Gina says: “I think what happened was that a lot of the men were poised and ready to release singles whereas a lot of the women – although they were around all through punk – their music didn’t come out [until later].”
All-women punk bands The Slits and The Raincoats didn’t release their debut albums until 1979. Similarly, Siouxsie and the Banshees, despite forming in the summer of 1976, were only offered a record deal in summer 1978. Some music and newspaper commentary at the time even suggested that this might have been because record label A&R men (and they were all men…) were scared of Banshees frontwoman Siouxsie Sioux.
It’s also worth recalling that the Banshees record deal with Polydor (now part of the Universal family) only happened after the intervention of the BBC (who were planning to release the Peel Session version of ‘Hong Kong Garden’ as a single) and a graffiti campaign that saw London record label offices spray painted with the message “Sign the Banshees, Do it now”. The version of ‘Hong Kong Garden’ that was eventually released on Polydor climbed to number 7 in the UK singles chart.
The Slits, The Raincoats, Banshees, Mo-dettes, Delta 5 and Kleenex (among many, many others) were unfortunately not represented in the British Library’s punk vinyl display. It was a collage of male punk acts, which was salivated over by largely male record collectors.
“I thought it was really bad to exclude the women in the way that they did” says Gina, adding:
It really got my goat. Maybe there’s a celebration to be had in 2018 but no one’s gonna do it, are they? “I just find it really upsetting that they [cultural gatekeepers, historians, journalists] still don’t recognise how important it was that all those women were there, and they’re just quite happy to keep their head buried in the sand with regard to that.
Helen says she finds this cultural state of affairs sad.
“For them?” asks Gina.
“Yeah” agrees Helen, who regularly gets very excitable responses when she plays people selections of punk songs on her “shuffle thing. [They say] ‘What’s that?! What’s that?!’ And it’ll be a really obscure Kleenex track, and it’s absolutely brilliant.”
For Helen, the failure of cultural gatekeepers, historians and journalists with closed ears to engage with women’s punk output is their loss.
However, I can tell that Gina’s experience of the exhibition opening still rankles with her:
It was a night where we were going to celebrate punk, and 40 years of it, and I felt very disappointed that it was the same old story of men, about men, by men [and] for men. And you just think… bollocks.
While the release of Stories of the She-Punks will not solve punk’s women problem overnight, there is something about the vivid quality of celluloid that makes it harder to ignore than a book or, indeed, an article such as this one. Perhaps it’s no accident that Here to Be Heard, I Am A Cliché and Stories of the She-Punks are all being created and released now. After 40 years of seeing their creative output ignored and misrepresented, punk women are no longer prepared to bite their tongues. They will have their say, no matter what.
Stories of the She-Punks: Music with a different agenda will receive its premiere in London at Doc’N’Roll Fest on 10 November. There will be further screenings around the UK after this date.
Image one is of Gina Birch and Helen McCookerybook. They are sitting on a bench by a shed in a garden. Gina is on the left, Helen is on the right
Image two is a screenshot of interviewee Gaye Black of The Adverts. It is taken from the film Stories of the She-Punks
Image three is a screenshot of interviewee Palmolive (Paloma McLardy) of The Slits and (later) The Raincoats. It is taken from the film Stories of the She-Punks
Image four is an after show picture of [L-R] Gina Birch, Viv Albertine and Helen McCookerybook. It was taken at the The Verge in Hyde in 2012
Image five is a screenshot of interviewee Shanne Hasler of the Nipple Erectors (later The Nips). It is taken from the film Stories of the She-Punks
Image’s one, two, three and five were provided by Helen McCookerybook and have been used with permission
Image four is by Cazz Blase