Photo credit: Caroline Coon
The most challenging and frustrating thing about attempting to discuss the original British punk movement is that, by nature, punk is impossible to pin down. In the twenty-five years that have passed since punk first shook its fist at the world, fact and fiction, truth and legend, have become intertwined. Punk was and still is about irreconcilable contradictions. It was based on the idea that art should be an available means of expression for anyone and attempted to erase the boundary between artist and audience, yet created its own set of heroes and hero-worshippers in the process. For all its disdain for rock ‘n’ roll excess, punk produced some of the most notorious examples of self-aggrandizing rock stars, most notably Sid Vicious. Punk aimed to remove itself from the stench of rock history, yet its back-to-basics musical approach was firmly rooted in the early rock traditions of the ‘50s and early ‘60s. Punk railed against the homogeneity of mainstream society, but replaced the rules of the status quo with an even stricter code for “proper” punk behavior; for a movement that claimed not to give a fuck, punk was painfully image-conscious.
It is with the inescapably contradictory nature of punk in mind that I make this claim: For all its many flaws, British punk was a unifying force and the positive repercussions of the tolerance it promoted are felt to this day. Because it was an outsider’s movement, punk found allies in minority communities—with homosexuals when the lesbian bar Louise’s became a favorite hangout, and with black immigrants like Don Letts, the Roxy club D.J. responsible for turning many white punks onto reggae. Letts himself recognized the phenomenon, specifically in how his community responded to the lead singer of the Sex Pistols: “It was amazing that Johnny Rotten was so acceptable to the Rastas in London. They might not have liked his music, but it was like outlaws banding together” (Lydon, 280).
Pretenders founder Chrissie Hynde, an American who lived in London during the city’s punk heyday, concurred: “The beauty of the punk thing was that from January to June 1977, nondiscrimination was what it was all about. There was little or no racism or sexism” (Lydon, 155).
It is not surprising, then, that punk produced a larger number of influential female artists than most any other pop movement. To impose a feminist critique upon the music they made would be foolish, however, because most female punk artists either denied their feminism or avoided the issue altogether. The result was one of punk’s greatest contradictions: While playing music without a blatant feminist agenda, female artists made real inroads in the male-dominated music world. These women made what would be branded a post-feminist statement today: They demonstrated their belief that women and men were equals by doing what they pleased and not making a fuss about it.
What I am about to do, then, is a slap in the face to the amazing women discussed below. The four bands whose histories and music are celebrated below don’t sound alike, and have no more business being lumped together than, say, the male punk bands the Clash, the Buzzcocks, the Sex Pistols, and Subway Sect. I have done so simply because they share a time period (ca. 1976-1977), a locale (Great Britain), and a style (punk); however, their sounds are as heterogeneous and interesting as those of their male counterparts. Thus, an advance apology is offered, and as an excuse for indulging in such an exercise, I can only point to the fact that, with the exception of Siouxsie and the Banshees, these groups remain sorely underrepresented in punk’s history. My only hope is to arouse a bit of interest in their wonderful, inspiring music.
Like many other groups on the 1970s English punk scene, the Slits started out as a motley and not-too-musical lot, but, in the course of their five-year career, they didn’t just get better—they underwent a complete transformation from DIY punk to dub/reggae. The best-known Slits lineup consisted of Ari Up (nee Arianne Forster, vocals), Viv Albertine (guitar), Tessa Pollitt (bass), and Palmolive (nee Paloma Romero, drums), and debuted on March 11, 1977 in Harlesden. Their sound was raw from the start, due in part to the fact that Tessa had only been with the group for two weeks at the time of their first public performance. While the Slits got some pointers on musicianship from members of the Clash, for whom they opened on the White Riot Tour, they mostly learned through trial and error. Viv Albertine later wondered, “Were we just a curiosity at first? We always had big audiences from the beginning. That was because we were girls, I think. But, obviously, we were not just any old girls . . . ” (“Interview”, 18).
In time, the Slits developed a unique, if not technically adept, style. The teenaged Ari Up strutted around like a modern-day cowboy, and emitted wails that sounded as much like cries of pain as they did singing. Viv’s guitar nearly matched Ari’s vocals in scratchiness, and Palmolive (who unfortunately departed before the band’s dub period) didn’t quite keep time. However, their songs were ambitious and almost catchy at times. Songs like “Love und Romance”, “Shoplifting”, and “FM” tackled typical punk topics like oppression, non-conformity, and poverty, but with an unusually large dose of good humor. In “Love und Romance”, for example, they gleefully mocked traditional male-female relationships with lyrics like, “Call you every day on the telephone / Break your neck if you ain’t home”. By the time their debut album, Cut, appeared on Island Records in 1979, they were turning out revised reggae versions of their older songs, plus new material that demonstrated their tremendous growth as songwriters. Bratty in-jokes were replaced by more reflective and fully-realized songs like “Adventures Close to Home” and “Typical Girls”.
After the addition of drummer Bruce Smith (ex-Pop Group) and multi-instrumentalist Steve Beresford, the core trio of Ari, Viv, and Tessa continued to perform live and put out singles, but released just one more full-length effort, Return of the Giant Slits (CBS, 1981). Full of deep, seductive grooves, the unfairly overlooked album came with a 1980 radio interview disc on which a caller is heard quoting a heady passage from Caroline Coon:
Arri [sic] Up and the Slits are highly defined examples of an ideal type that is becoming more attractive to women all the time. What they represent is a revolutionary and basic shift of female ego from one which is biologically defined to one which is made strong by an assertive, mainstream role in society (Coon, 105).
When asked for her thoughts, Viv Albertine quipped, “We’re biological. That’s the only word I understood”. It was the perfect response on the “feminist question” from the band’s unofficial spokeswoman, who had nicely summed up the group’s philosophy three years earlier: “You either think chauvinism is shit or you don’t. We think it’s shit” (Coon, 106).
Today, the members of the Slits are scattered across the globe. Ari Up (who later became Johnny Rotten’s stepdaughter) briefly recorded with the experimental dub outfit New Age Steppers, lived in Jamaica for a time, and plays occasional shows in New York. Tessa Pollitt lives in London with her daughter and has studied martial arts and music. Viv Albertine, who also resides in London, is an aspiring filmmaker. Palmolive played briefly with the Raincoats, but today is a wife, mother, and born-again Christian living in Massachusetts. Incidentally, that doesn’t mean she’s abandoned her punk roots; she and her husband have a band called Hi-Fi, and their repertoire includes a (somewhat revised) cover of the Slits’ “FM”.
Mention the name X-Ray Spex to most punk fans, and you’re sure to get an enthusiastic response. The group’s career, like so many others in the punk movement, moved in fast-motion. Founded in 1977, X-Ray Spex saw their second gig documented for posterity on the album The Roxy London WC2, and landed a deal with Virgin Records later that same year. They released just one album, 1978’s Germfree Adolescents, but it became one of the cornerstone albums of British punk.
X-Ray Spex was the brainchild of Poly Styrene (nee Marion Elliott), who formed the group with Lora Logic. Logic left early on, but stayed long enough to establish a trademark of the group’s sound: a wailing, out-of-tune saxophone that frequently punctuated their melodies. It was singer/songwriter Styrene, however, who gave the group its great songs and its philosophy. As her stage name suggests, Poly Styrene was obsessed with the artificiality of modern culture. Her lyrics condemned mass-produced, disposable products as indicative of the thoughtless conformity that crass commercialism breeds. In “The Day the World Turned Dayglo” she sings: “The x-rays were penetrating / Through the latex breeze / Synthetic fiber see-thru leaves / Fell from the rayon trees”.
Styrene’s concerns about individuality also frequently centered on her gender, making X-Ray Spex one of the few female-led punk groups to address feminist concerns head on. With her commanding voice and strong sense of self, Styrene was an ideal spokeswoman. Her best-known swipe at sexism is the non-LP single (added to the CD release of Germfree Adolescents) “Oh Bondage, Up Yours”, largely recognized as one of punk’s proudest moments. The song begins with a brief spoken introduction: “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard / But I think, oh bondage, up yours!” Styrene then dares the listener to exploit her: “Bind me, tie me / Chain me to the wall / I wanna be a slave / To you all”.
On “Art-i-ficial” she combines a feminist statement with the anti-consumerist stance that runs throughout most of the album’s tracks: “When I put on my make-up / That pretty little mask not me / That’s the way a girl should be / In a consumer society”.
Wiser than her years (and the braces on her teeth) suggested, Styrene also recognized that the punk scene was creating conformists of its own, and that it would continue to do so as it grew in popularity. She explores the problem on “Let’s Submerge”: “The subterrene is a bottomless pit / The vinyl vultures are after it / Molten lava sulfur vapors / Smolder on to obliterate us”. Her mocking refrain “Come on kids, don’t hesitate / We’re going down to the underground” repeats throughout the song.
Perhaps sensing that punk was unable to live up to its promise, Styrene gracefully bowed out when her group was in peak form. She released the mellow, jazz-influenced Translucence in 1981 and the EP Gods and Goddesses in 1986, but otherwise concentrated on her spiritual life as a Hare Krishna. Unexpectedly, original X-Ray Spex members Poly Styrene, Lora Logic, and Paul Dean reunited to record Conscious Consumer in 1995. As the title implies, their focus hasn’t changed much—and it’s refreshing to know that a few folks have held onto their punk ideals.
Although they didn’t hail from London, Penetration made an impact there; in fact, their debut performance took place at the short-lived but much-celebrated Roxy, which gave punk a home for just one hundred nights, from January to April, 1977. As with X-Ray Spex, Penetration’s career moved on the fast track. Within a few weeks of their live debut, they found themselves in a studio recording the demos that turned up on the 1979 release Race Against Time (and a self-titled 1995 CD). Both their name, taken from an Iggy and the Stooges song, and the cover of Patti Smith’s “Free Money” they recorded during those first sessions suggested that they were influenced by America’s punk scene. Although Penetration were also influenced by Brits like the Sex Pistols, their allegiance to American punk is notable because, like the New York punks, their sound is based more on melodic ‘60s rock than the R&B or reggae sounds many of their English peers adopted.
Growing up in the mining town of Ferryhill, the members of Penetration were freer to soak in varied musical influences without the self-consciousness that often plagued London acts. Singer Pauline Murray, who co-wrote the band’s material with bassist Robert Blamire, occasionally sounded like Siouxsie Sioux, but her vocals were far more melodic and girlish than those of her competitors. Her words, however, were every bit as biting as those of any other punk artist. Penetration’s signature tune, “Don’t Dictate”, exemplifies their rebellious stance: “Right or wrong, there is no answer / Don’t tell me what to do / It’s my choice / I’m taking chances / Don’t dictate to me”.
Like so many others, Penetration ultimately suffered from their affiliation with punk, especially Murray, who felt that fronting a punk band was limiting her growth as an artist. After two studio albums, Moving Targets and Coming Up for Air, Penetration called it quits in 1979. Pauline Murray went on to garner critical acclaim with the more ethereal Invisible Girls, which also featured record producer Martin Hannett, before going solo. Penetration bassist Robert Blamire has remained her romantic and artistic partner through the years.
Siouxsie and the Banshees
Siouxsie and the Banshees’ lengthy career began with one of the most famous incidents in British punk’s history. Making their debut at London’s 100 Club Punk Rock Festival on September 20, 1976, Siouxsie Sioux, Steve Severin, future Adam Ant collaborator Marco Pirroni, and Sid Vicious (later of the Sex Pistols) performed a set comprised solely of a rambling twenty-minute version of the Lord’s Prayer. It was Pirroni’s and Vicious’ only performance with the band; Kenny Morris and John MacKay would join soon thereafter, establishing the pattern of revolving membership (with the exception of mainstays Sioux and Severin and, later, drummer Budgie) that was a trademark of the group’s twenty-year career.
Sioux and Severin were already well known in the punk scene prior to their band’s debut. Along with Billy Idol and a few other friends, the pair were part of the “Bromley Contingent” (named after the London suburb where they resided), followers of the Sex Pistols who, with their outrageous fashion sense, made almost as much of a splash as the Pistols themselves. Nora, the wife of Johnny Rotten and mother of the Slits’ Ari Up, remembers seeing Sioux attend a Sex Pistols show semi-nude: “I was stunned. How could she have the nerve? I think she contributed a lot to the women’s free movement. Madonna got it all from Siouxsie, who was totally on her own then” (Lydon, 171). Given Sioux’s influence, it was only logical that she start a band.
The Banshees’ early sound, as documented on their Peel Sessions and The Scream discs and in archival film footage, was fairly typical of British punk. The guitar was loud and scratchy, and Sioux’s singing was somewhat atonal, relying more on angry shrieking than melody. The Banshees’ lyrical concerns sometimes resembled those of their peers, as evidenced in the cry against societal homogeneity in “Suburban Relapse”: “Whilst finishing a chore / I asked myself ‘What for?’ / Then something snapped”. “Overground” explores similar territory: “Got to give up life in this netherworld / Got to go up to where the air is stale / And live a life of pleasantries / Mingle in the modern families”.
The Banshees could well have been experts on the topic of mundane suburbia, since, unlike so many of their punk peers, they enjoyed middle-class, suburban upbringings. John Lydon (a.k.a. Johnny Rotten), who came from a poor Irish immigrant family in the rough-and-tumble Finsbury Park neighborhood of London, wrote resentfully of Sioux’s un-punk obsession with appliances in his autobiography:
A few years after [the Sex Pistols era] when I was with PiL, she moved across the street from Jeanette Lee, who worked with us at that time. Siouxsie came over, bragging about her new washing machine and spin dryer. She said we were all welcome to come over and wash our clothes. A washing machine party. You can imagine what I let rip. I couldn’t sit there and take that from her. Housewife superstar. I took the piss at her for about twenty minutes, and she has never spoken to me since—all because of a washing machine (Lydon, 272).
All things considered, though, Lydon’s criticism seems unduly harsh. While Sioux didn’t grab onto punk with the fervor reserved for the truly desperate and disenfranchised, surely her revolt against the sameness of the suburbs’ inhabitants was just as valid a form of social commentary. Of course, this revolt took on a significantly different form as the band progressed. By the time of their 1978 debut, The Scream, the theatrical and poetic flair that set the group apart from their peers was already established, and by the release of Kaleidoscope in 1980, Sioux’s singing had improved considerably. With Sioux’s subtle, agile phrasing and the addition of more experienced musicians over the years (not to mention more varied instrumentation, including synthesizers, strings, and accordion), the Banshees created music that pushed boundaries and rose to the level of art. In doing so, they might have lost punk credibility, but they made up for it in spades by aspiring to beauty and sensuality—as far from suburbia as they could have gotten.
For a band so often questioned about its motives and commitment to the punk ethic, the Banshees made the ultimate punk gesture, calling it quits in 1996 in disgust over the nostalgic and money-grubbing nature of the Sex Pistols’ “Filthy Lucre” reunion tour. The group left behind eleven studio albums and, much to their chagrin, are credited with inspiring the Goth movement. Siouxsie Sioux and drummer Budgie married in 1991 and continue to make music as the Creatures, a project they began in 1981.
So there we have it: four bands who, for all their differences, shared a time, a community, and a passion for self-expression that was strong enough to outweigh any doubts their initial technical deficiencies might have aroused. And, of course, they were all centered around strong, intelligent, women who, although they didn’t scream it in every song, simply thought chauvinism was “shit”.
Coon, Caroline. 1988: The New Wave Punk Rock Explosion. London: Omnibus Press, 1982.
“Interview: The Slits”. Talk Talk. Vol. 2. No. 13 (Dec. 1980): 18-19.
Lydon, John. Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs. London: Hodder and Stoughton Ltd., 1994.
Sutcliffe, Phil. Liner notes to Penetration (compact disc). Griffin Music, 1995.
The Women of 1970’s Punk. www.comnet.ca/~rina.