The Feminine and the Fury: Women in Punk
“I felt cheated and knew to the core of my being that life was unfair and boys had it easier than girls. A burning ball of anger and rebelliousness started to grow within me.” – Viv Albertine
It’s 1975. You are late teens to early twenties growing up in a typical British town. There are only two television channels. Unemployment has reached an estimated 1.25 million. Inflation is the highest it has been since 1800, and just when you thought things couldn’t get any more depressing, The Bay City Rollers are on the radio. There are no opportunities. No excitement. “No future”, as the Sex Pistols summarised.
There are trends identified within popular culture that suggest when times of austerity hit communities, creativity acts as a catalyst, and art is forged in order to break through the bleakness. The war-torn, conflict laden landscape to 20th Century Britain is littered with the rise and decline of subcultures: Teds, Mods, Rockers, Skinheads, Suedeheads, Soul Boys, Casuals…and that’s just scratching the surface. Groups of like-minded young people rallying together and forging alliances through music tastes and the cut of each other’s jib.
Via primitive musical forms such as skiffle, the 1950’s youth could convey issues they opposed whilst giving them a sense of ownership and belonging. However, this was a gender exclusive pastime. Women were not musicians. That was a job for the boys, like most other professions that did not involve rearing children, typing, answering a phone, or sewing holes in your bloke’s socks.
It took one subculture to blow these gender stereotypes out the water. Punk saw the advent of androgyny, anarchism and a healthy increase in girls picking up guitars. There had been a female contingent to previous British subcultures, however there’s evidence to suggest that women who became Teds or Mods were there for ornamental value, a bit of fluff to keep that spare seat on your Vespa GS warm. Author of Mod! From Bebop to Britain’s Biggest Youth Movement, Richard Weight comments about gender inequality running through subculture: “Perhaps the greatest inadequacy of a movement that celebrated modernity was that women usually played a subordinate role in it. Clinging on to men’s waists and widely referred to as ‘pillion fodder’… (just like rockers before them)” It doesn’t seem to be a coincidence in Franc Roddam’s Quadrophenia, released in 1979 at the height of the Mod revival, that Jimmy’s life (and scooter) were running smoothly before Steph came along and royally fucked it up. It seems the mods were forward thinking in their fashion yet archaic when it came to sexual equality. Women, it appeared, couldn’t take part in post-war peacocking.
So what made Punk break with tradition? Any why did Punk see a rise in female involvement?
Some of the most influential females in the music industry cut their teeth on Punk. Siouxsie Sioux, Debbie Harry and Patti Smith are all still celebrated today for their unique talent, stage presence and song writing. It seemed on the surface that Punk didn’t discriminate against gender. The look of the subculture promoted by Machiavellian power couple Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, from their boutique at 430 King’s Road, London, was the first piece in the equality jigsaw. The fashion, or anti-fashion, that allowed young people to vent their frustrations on their safety-pinned sleeves, was devoid of gender. Viv Albertine’s vintage Lewis Leather’s Dominator jacket became Sid Vicious’ trademark, alongside the padlock necklace and razorblade induced bloodshed.
Androgyny and angst could be shared by all young people that had missed out on the ‘swinging’ version of the previous decade. Feelings of boredom and frustration felt in back bedrooms of suburban environments did not discriminate, nor did the urge to create something of lasting significance. If the look and attitude didn’t discriminate then it only made sense for the soundtrack to follow suit. The DIY ethos transcended design to the music, Poly Styrene formed X-Ray Spex from advertising in her local paper for “young punx who want to stick it together” after seeing the Sex Pistols on Hastings Pier. Viv Albertine, lead guitarist of The Slits, was also inspired by Johnny Rotten’s captivating stage presence.
Albertine’s band The Slits were an all-female band, however wanted both boys and girls in the audience to long to “be in their gang”. They could be seen as the first group to actually use their sex as another instrument. They wanted to create rhythms that were in tune with their own bodies, feminine, strong, almost tribal. This sound is showcased perfectly on their cover of Marvin Gaye’s Heard It Through The Grapevine from 1979. Other girl bands like The Runaways played like the macho musicians who had previously headlined the venues they were now playing. Lita Ford wrangling a Gibson Firebird whilst in a skin tight leather cat suit, showed more balls than Johnny Thunders backcombing.
This strong femininity shown by artists such as The Slits and frontwomen like Siouxsie Sioux was called upon again with the birth of Grunge. Sonic Youth, Hole and The Breeders, have all been inspired by the women of Punk. These two musical spikes of female involvement in bands falling during Punk and Grunge could suggest that with androgyny comes equality, Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore being the 90s ‘poster couple’ for this theory. If girls in bands are still regarded as a novelty, as Jenny Beth from Savages would plead, it seems out of sync in an era apparently accepting of diversity. It’s a worrying thought that like fashion, equality goes in and out of style. Let’s hope attitude is the one ingredient that doesn’t follow trends. I’m keeping my eyes peeled for the next groups of youths fuelled by the “burning ball of anger” at inequality. I hope we won’t be waiting long.