Gavin Butt: No Machos or Pop Stars (2022) | featured image

‘No Machos or Pop Stars: When the Leeds Art Experiment Went Punk’ (excerpt)

In this excerpt of British punk history book, ‘No Machos or Pop Stars’, the Mekons, Gang of Four, and Delta 5 put their anti-hierarchical, anti-capitalist, feminist theory to the test.

No Machos Or Pop Stars: When the Leeds Art Experiment went Punk
Gavin Butt
Duke University Press
October 2022

Equal But Different

As the Mekons, Gang of Four, and Delta 5 began to draw away from the art world—hitherto the main cultural reference point for the largest number of people in these groups—they transposed avant-garde approaches to art-making, and a broadly critical outlook on established conventions, to the world of rock. Music industry standards, rather than visual art world conventions, thereby came to the fore as objects of criticism. Perhaps paramount among these were hierarchical group structures in which the single white male—usually in the shape of the lead singer—formed the apex of a triangle, symbolically and even sometimes managerially, lording it over other band members and, in turn, the fans below them at its base. “Part of [our] disillusion was rooted in a deep distrust of the single white male authorial voice,” says White—which, by 1975, had accrued politically toxic cultural baggage still not totally dispelled by punk. In the wake of David Bowie’s now infamous predictions of fascist leadership for Europe in 1975, and his ramblings about Hitler as “the first rock star,” Ziggy-like front men, Thin White Dukes and their ilk had come to be viewed with trepidation— at least in certain politically committed circles. All of this influenced the Mekons’ decision to sport two vocalists—White and Corrigan—rather than one, on the understanding, presumably, that more than one singer (or leader) secures a greater likelihood, if not guarantee, of remaining open to dissent and difference. Similarly, as Marcus notes of a live performance of the band, Delta 5 also troubled the usual singular focus on a lead singer: “[ Julz] doesn’t work from the center of the stage, and she’s not the lead singer—no one is, and Bethan probably does more of the singing than Julz. . . . Julz counters Bethan’s stare and completes it.”

This attempt to deemphasize singular band members and the hero worship that could follow from it was also habitually tried out in Delta 5 performances of “Triangle,” for example, where Sale and Allen would switch places between vocals and bass playing, or in Gang of Four performances of “It’s Her Factory,” where Burnham would typically deliver vocals, with Gill swapping drums for his customary guitar. Whether this worked in achieving the desired effect, however, is a moot point. Whether the striking impression of, for example, Gill’s Wilko Johnson–esque stage theatrics could be countermanded by such minimal switching around of personnel is doubtful. And whether such changes worked to enhance the audience experience of the live event is also questionable. As one Leeds Other Paper reviewer of Delta 5 put it, “the interchanging of roles between the bass players and the lead singer . . . may have been a positive attempt to destroy traditional rock band formats, [but] it resulted merely in slowing the pace of the set.”

Nevertheless, destroying “traditional rock band formats” was an important feminist priority in the Leeds milieu. Julz Sale recalls: “Bethan and I noted that most women who were involved [in rock bands], if they weren’t the singer, they were the bass player. We wanted to play on that by having two basses: Ros was a bass player, and Bethan was a bass player. . . . We wanted to take the piss out of the fact that nearly every punk band, or band around, that had a female in it, always played the bass.” As Helen Reddington has shown, the singling out of female instrumentalists in the music press of the time was often driven by the agendas of male journalists, usually resulting in patronizing or eroticized approaches to their contribution as female artists. One particular issue of the NME from 1978 shows Gaye Black of the Adverts, Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads, and Ghislaine Weston of the Killjoys—all bass players—and the only photographs carried, ironically enough, on page three. There was an industry pattern not only to female participation in punk and new wave music but also to the ways in which that participation was viewed and valued.

It is hard to escape the notion, however, that perhaps the most striking example of the “only-female-as-bassist-syndrome” was sitting right in their lap in the Leeds milieu: the Mekons. Even though a most unusual rock outfit, unwieldy and expanded in terms of membership, as I have argued, there was only one female Mekon during the band’s early years and she played bass: first Ros Allen, then Mary Jenner. Given the numerousness of the band’s overall membership, and the single female presence among them, it was almost as if the Mekons had taken a highlighter pen to pop music’s strictures on female participation. True, Allen’s and Jenner’s self-presentational and performance styles were very far indeed from a Suzi Quatro–esque “rock chick” and even some distance from that of a Gaye Advert or a Ghislaine Weston. But the very fact that Allen became available to play in Delta 5 almost immediately after leaving the Mekons, at a time when Peters and Sale were thinking about forming a band that departed from the customary gendered structuring of rock band membership, was perhaps a synchronicity, an irony, too sweet to resist.

Once in the band, it was important, Sale says, that Peters and Allen “had very, very different sounds. Bethan’s was almost like a treble. Ros said she wanted hers so deep that it made you fart when it came out of the amplifier.” Playing off a “toppy” bass against a “bottom-y” one became trademark Delta 5 sound, which can be heard especially clearly on tracks “Mind Your Own Business” and “Anticipation.” This bass-heavy sound underlined the band’s commitment to create a pulsing dance music, which also involved angular, spiky guitars and tumbling drums: “We’ve always been into the whole happy funky music thing and that’s very bass orientated,” says Peters. Allen remembers Peters in particular being a big Parliament-Funkadelic fan, while Allen listened to a lot of Bob Marley and the Wailers (though “I think I wanted to be more like Jah Wobble,” she says). As with Gang of Four, funk and reggae, alongside the Velvet Underground, provided further ideas for the formal composition of Delta 5’s music. “I’ve got a thing about held guitar notes,” Allen goes on. “There’s a Velvet Underground song that does it, and they [the Wailers] do it on ‘Concrete Jungle.’ Something about that is just amazing.” This can be heard on Delta 5 tracks “Now That You’ve Gone” and “Make Up,” the former also reprising the off-beat explorations so favored by Gang of Four.

In addition to the novel sound of two basses, the band’s membership comprising three women and two men made them an unusual proposition in the late 1970s. It was on the basis of this that many took Delta 5 to be a band with a female or feminist agenda. Peters says, “Everyone called us a women’s band, which is kind of a misinterpretation, because we always had two guys in the group.” This impression was also fostered by the fact that Delta 5’s vocals were routinely—and collectively—female and that their lyrical content appeared to fulfill the feminist “personal is political” mantra by addressing the micropolitics of interpersonal relationships. Songs like “Try” included lines that could be read without much effort as reflections on power struggles within sexual and romantic relationships:

You don’t want to understand
Try try
You want me to agree with you
Try try
I tried and we got nowhere
Try try
You want to hear echoes
You don’t
see what I see [Repeat]
Try try

On first hearing, one might take this to be a heterosexual complaint song, the female vocal taking aim at a presumptively chauvinistic masculinity and its typical refusal to recognize and accommodate difference—especially when that difference is woman. The call-and-response structure of the song can be heard as an injunction to its presumptive male addressee to listen, to try to hear the singer’s point of view, acknowledge her desire and input into the discussion—rather than only hearing “echoes” (of himself).

Though, upon listening again, “Try! Try!” could also be heard as sometimes addressed to the singing subject herself (to which she responds, “I tried and we got nowhere”), as if we are hearing an at least partially internal monologue about just how trying attempts at communication are with her blinkered partner. Or, differently again, the lyrics actually speak an exchange, or a quarrel, between two people of different, same, or indeterminate sex or gender ([Call] “Try! Try!” [Response] “I tried and we got nowhere”). As Lucy O’Brien puts it, Delta 5 thereby “took the call-and-response sound of the ’60s girl group era and deconstructed it with caustic humour. . . . Much of Delta 5’s oeuvre was about the gulf between expectation and reality, the hit and miss nature of relationships, a sense of estrangement from the romantic ideal.” Marcus similarly characterizes the band’s output as “postpunk love songs. . . . The music could almost be derived from the little dissertation on The Love Song as a Staple of Pop Language that Andy Gill read out of the murk of Gang of Four’s ‘Anthrax’ (‘You occasionally wonder why all these groups do sing about it all the time . . .’). Delta 5 continue questioning the love song without abandoning its form—but they fool with it.”

Regardless of how exactly the band’s lyrics are read, they undoubtedly make legible the gendered power operating within personal relationships and how, played out within intimate exchanges, this renders problematic the valorization of “debate” elsewhere in the Leeds art-punk milieu. The lyrics bring forth a troubling recognition that the ability to hear and value the opinions of others, especially those of women, couldn’t at all be taken for granted within 1970s patriarchal society. If “You don’t see what I see” is a statement of frustration, highlighting an inability to be heard, then it signals a troubling discursive bar to group participation if someone even refuses to see your point of view, let alone agree with you. Elsewhere, on “Mind Your Own Business,” they sing, “Listen to the distance between us,” as if the music of Delta 5, the thing heard if we succumb to the singer’s injunction, might be the sound of that distance. “Delta 5 songs are about distance between people,” writes Marcus. “They don’t so much try to close those distances as make sense of them.” In doing so their songs can be read as calling out the blindness to sexist behavior, oftentimes in unexpectedly funny ways, as in “You” (“Who took me to the Wimpy for a big night out? you! you! you!”).

Other contemporary Leeds University bands, like Sheeny and the Goys, had a similar mixed-gender membership and were informed by a playful feminist outlook—though very unlike Delta 5 musically. Their name telegraphed not only a self-consciousness of the band’s gendered makeup (one woman and four men) but also an assertion of Marian Lux’s Jewishness, in punk reappropriation of the anti-Semitic slur “Sheeny,” distinguishing her ethnically from her gentile brethren (“the goys”). In original Sheeny songs like “You Let Me Down,” there is a similar accusatory address to some of the Delta 5 songs (even though reportedly a song about the ending of a friendship between two women), and clear feminist import of songs such as “(Ever Such) Pretty Girls” (referring to her mother Lux sings, “She didn’t tell me / That they don’t like clever girls / Cos they like / Pretty Girls”). When advertising in Leeds Student for a replacement for John France on guitar in 1979, after he had left the city, Sheeny and the Goys unmistakably asserted what had by then become fundamental values in the university band milieu: “No machos or pop-stars please.”

But the brand of personal/gender politics that manifested therein was largely inclusivist, resistant to some of the more separatist forms of feminism beginning to develop elsewhere in the city at the time. The Leeds Revolutionary Feminists, soon to be a nationally significant separatist group, emerged with the organization of the first Reclaim the Night march in Leeds in November 1977: a response to police suggesting “curfews” for women at night, in a wrongheaded response to the reign of violent terror by Peter Sutcliffe, the so-called Yorkshire Ripper. “There was a feeling,” writes O’Brien in an evocative essay on the period, “that the macho male society which spawned Peter Sutcliffe tacitly condoned his activities, that there were ‘innocent’ women and prostitutes, the deserving and the undeserving” (Sutcliffe’s first victims were almost exclusively prostitutes).

But whereas revolutionary feminism saw the political answer to male violence in the creation of women-only spaces and the rejection of sexual and romantic relationships with men, sometimes in the name of “political” lesbianism, the late-1970s social milieu of Leeds art-music was still largely integrated. The fact that bands with female members also counted men among their number (women-only bands didn’t emerge in the city until the 1980s) tended to preclude such separatist politics. Performance art had also provided some women in bands occasions for renegotiating gender relationships with men—for example, when Lux and Polytechnic student Alan Wilkinson painted each other nude for a live audience in the university’s debating chamber in November 1977. Ros Allen also recalls seeing nonnormative performances of masculinity by men as enabling for female agency: “I think what followed on from the punk thing was this notion that anybody could get up and perform. Certainly, going to the Poly and seeing Frank Tovey and Marc Almond doing performance pieces . . . there was some feeling that you could try anything. It’s difficult to say because the social surroundings weren’t very conducive, but it was incredible: you didn’t have to be able to play or read music to perform music, and you didn’t have to be a bloke. There was a lovely mish-mash of different cultures and disciplines coming together at that time.”

But “there were lots of separatist feminists, and they were scary,” remembers Sale. “We were not affiliated with any feminist group. We did what we did. I don’t think that we were\ intentionally political.” Not that this understanding was necessarily shared by those in the audience at early Delta 5 gigs. It is easy to imagine how songs such as “Shadow,” and particularly the live favorite “Alone”—with insistent lyrical assertion of a female need for the refuge of her own solitariness—would have resonated strongly in the context of misogynist and violent forms of gendered relations in late-1970s public space. Sounds branded the band “Alone Together” on its cover in the summer of 1980. But, Sale goes on, “I think people have seen [Delta 5] in many ways that weren’t so strongly intended,” and, echoing the lyrical content of Birmingham-based group the Au Pairs (“You’re equal but different”), she tells me, “I’ve always thought of myself as an equalist rather than a feminist.”

Alan Riggs further pursues the point: “I think there was a shared understanding [in Delta 5] but I don’t know if we had a word for it at the time. I don’t know if we ever asked ourselves, ‘Are we feminists or are we not feminists?’ It was just, we’re all in it together.” Or, again, as Kelvin Knight writes in retrospect in 2006, “We were once asked to do a ‘women only’ benefit in Leeds, which really was a step too far—what were Al and me supposed to do, play behind a curtain? It was an age when sexism came to the fore and women in bands became the norm not a gimmick and quite rightly we were proud to stand alongside The Au Pairs, The Slits, The Bush Tetras, The Raincoats and so many others who changed things forever, but it wasn’t our reason for being—we just wanted to make people dance. End of.”

A Lesson in Contradictions

The Mekons shared much of this partying, egalitarian ethos. “It was deliberate on our part that if anybody sneezed when they were in the rehearsal room we’d say they were in the band,” recalls Lycett. “We were very open and inclusive. When we were recording if we thought somebody had something interesting to contribute we’d say, ‘Do you want to come along?’ There was a small core of about six people . . . but it was an open table.” Alongside such permissive access to rehearsals, the Mekons extended a similar open invitation for people to join them live onstage. White says:

The big thing about punk that people forget is that it wasn’t just the band . . . it was everybody. There were a lot of people in the Mekons, deliberately. There were an awful lot of people working with us, and we were all the same. We were all of equal weight. Also we saw ourselves as exactly the same as the audience. We were the audience. Often there were more people on stage than there were in the audience. But we were all on the same level, there was no barrier. There wasn’t a sense of an unequal balance of power, which is what we saw in the rest of the world.

Such an avowed commitment to an open-access, commons-type construction of band identity can be seen as a latter-day attempt to realize the full “democratic implications” of the “free-for- all” that Lippard saw as the unfinished business of the 1960s counterculture. The hope was that in vacating the stage as individual performers—symbolically and sometimes in actuality—the Mekons would provide an opportunity for people to liberate themselves from the atomized conditions of pop consumerism and divisive music-industry hierarchies of “stars” and “fans.” Newly presented in this way, the Mekons’ stage would become a platform for the creation of a shared, socialized—if not socialist—art form. Its operating egalitarian presumption: “Anybody watching us can do this too.”

However, as the music press were quick to point out, such an idea was fine to propose in theory but difficult to maintain in rock practice. Once the open-mic scenario was actually presented, members of the crowd sometimes took to the stage and started strutting, pretending to be stars, and otherwise lorded it over their onlookers—thereby theatrically reinstalling the hierarchy of band over audience that permissive participation was designed to eradicate in the first place. Perhaps this showed just how far the Mekons had traveled from The Whole Earth Catalog: that all you needed was “access to tools.” In 1979 they told Mary Harron, “We used to think that anyone could get up and do anything. But when that happens, and the audience comes on stage, you either get a horrible boring mess, or you get people playing ‘Anarchy in the UK’ on the guitar, or pretending to be Blondie on the microphone. . . . To think that by opening up the equipment you thereby open up the ideology is just ridiculous.”

But rather than proof of the inadequacy of their originary assumptions—and evidence of yet another Mekons failure—the lack of fit between the band’s aspirations and the reality of their audiences’ behavior can be seen more positively as acknowledgment of the contradictions arising from being mired in capitalist conditions while, at the same time, striving to surpass them. Harron herself astutely summed this up in the pages of Melody Maker: “In the end the Mekons are a lesson in contradictions. About trying to work without hierarchies in a situation that imposes them, about trying to work from an ideological basis when rock music, at its heart, has a mindless passion and energy that blows theory apart.” That in all their unruly, chaotic multiplicity, and the contradictions that dog their would be progressive path forward, they teach us how to confront, if not finally surmount, the stratification and social division that holds us back—and to which we become inured.

* * *

Excerpted from Part II: Forming a Band, from No Machos or Pop Stars: When the Leeds Art Experiment Went Punk, by Gavin Butt, with permission from Duke University Press. [Images and footnotes omitted.] Copyright © Duke University Press 2022. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Gavin Butt is Professor of Fine Art at Northumbria University, author of Between You and Me: Queer Disclosures in the New York Art World, 1948–1963, also published by Duke University Press, and coeditor of Post-Punk Then and Now.