Don’t be put off by the subtitle of Grlz, a new compilation of female artists from the post-punk era. This is not a dry feminist history lesson, but an exuberant compilation of post-punk artists who were certainly “women ahead of their time”, although it had less to do with their gender than their music. Indeed, the politics behind Grlz are somewhat muddled. The press release’s assertion that “the cliché of the dishwashing female… was about to undergo a radical U-turn” is a bit overstated, since the June Cleaver days were well over before these tracks were recorded (1979-84). Women were hardly absent from the music world, either; try that argument with Wanda Jackson, Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, Mamas Cass and Michelle, Ann and Nancy Wilson, Stevie Nicks, or Christine McVie, and you likely wouldn’t have gotten very far. And if the purpose of the compilation is to showcase strong women performing experimental music, why not include bands like ESG, LiLiPUT, the Raincoats, or the Mo-dettes, who wrote their songs and played their own music, rather than bands like Maximum Joy and Rip Rig + Panic, which were female-fronted but otherwise male? And don’t even get me started on Bow Wow Wow, who, love them as I may, were clearly manufactured and manipulated by their manager, Malcolm McLaren (not to mention three-quarters male). According to a 1989 biography, McLaren even coerced guitarist Matthew Ashman into seducing teenaged singer Annabella Lwin in order to better control her. Now, feminism that ain’t.
But if you can put aside the politics and just listen to the music, Grlz is a great sampler from an era of wild experimentation. Punk had opened the doors to edgy, nonprofessional musicians, new, smaller record labels were everywhere, and larger labels were willing to take chances in order to latch onto the “next big thing”, even if they hadn’t a clue what it was. Although most of the artists included on Grlz are fairly obscure (Bow Wow Wow is one notable exception), at least they stood a chance in the early ‘80s landscape. Today’s Virgin Records, for instance, wouldn’t touch Rip Rig + Panic or Nicolle Meyer with a ten-foot pole even though those artists were once on their roster, and it’s hard to imagine EMI would put out a pro-piracy track like “C-30, C-60, C-90 Go!” by any artist, let alone Bow Wow Wow, reliant as their sound was on Burundi drumming technique.
The 11 artists represented here don’t sound alike by any means, but they share an affinity for dissonant experimentation and several of them incorporate reggae, funk, and African sounds into their music. If male-fronted bands were included on this compilation, Gang of Four, Public Image Limited, and the Pop Group would fit in nicely; in fact, Maximum Joy and Rip Rig + Panic shared members with the Pop Group. Most of the featured artists are British and rather obscure. And an awful lot of them will make you want to dance, so you might want to turn up the bass. Maximum Joy, who only released one full-length album, contributes “Stretch”, a hybrid of funk music and screechy, punky vocals. Dorothy’s “Softness” is electro-tinged dance music in which aggressive beats are juxtaposed with delicate, spoken-word vocals. Arty Manchester duo Ludus, whose long-lost albums were reissued a few years back, range from frightening to funny on “Breaking the Rules”, a satiric and somewhat anthropological look at love and relationships. The legendary Slits contribute their dubbed-up cover of “I Heard It through the Grapevine”, a once rare single that was tagged onto the US compact disc release of their debut album Cut earlier this year. Slits singer Ari Up also handles vocals for New Age Steppers’ trance reggae take on Junior Byles’ “Fade Away”, which the Slits also covered in concert. A pre-“Buffalo Stance” Neneh Cherry leads Rip Rig + Panic through the jazzy “Storm the Insanity Asylum” and the sensual ballad “Sunken Love”, a clear precursor to trip-hop.
The music included on Grlz is so good that it’s too bad the compilation wasn’t fashioned as a two-disc set with liner notes of a more historical nature. Including male artists wouldn’t have been out of line either, since this kind of music is obscure enough that no one performing it could be accused of overexposure, regardless of their gender. And, truth be told, there are a lot of male artists on Grlz; they just aren’t the ones singing. Still, this is a fine collection that will shed light on many of post-punk’s unjustly forgotten artists.