April 27, 2020
By the early 1970s, rock music was somewhat of a paradox – claiming a countercultural ethos but reproducing mainstream attitudes by mostly excluding women. Artists such as Stevie Nicks, Janis Joplin, and Grace Slick had gained masses of followers, as well as kudos from their male peers. However, they seemed to be the exception rather than the rule. All of that was set to change with punk rock.
Punk rock sought to exist outside the mainstream. This led to the rise of female musicians who were tired of being treated as outsiders in a male-dominated industry. The genre was a fitting vehicle for expressing their discontent – as put by Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth, ‘”I think women are natural anarchists, because you’re always operating in a male framework.”
No article on women in punk rock should start without mentioning Patti Smith, described by many as the ‘poet laureate of punk.’ This definition can be applied to Smith rather literally, before venturing into music Smith was known as a poet. Her main influences were Beat poets such as Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. These poets were known for rejecting mainstream values. Their influence sowed the seeds for Smith’s visceral and unapologetic lyrics. Lines such as ‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine’ encapsulate Smith’s defiant values and poetic artistry.
Smith’s lyrics were brought to life by her scratchy voice and arresting stage presence. Her landmark debut album Horses was released in 1975. Looking back over thirty years later, The Observer credits Horses as the “spark that ignited the punk explosion.” Horses is a fitting entry point to discuss how punk would begin to infuse multiple genres over the subsequent years.
Smith’s melding of reggae and jazz into tracks such as Redondo Beach had a significant influence on bands such as The Clash, who formed less than a year after Horses’ release. This experimentation shows how open the boundaries of punk were in terms of music. For many, punk wasn’t a genre in as much as it was a movement. This can be seen particularly in the riot grrrl movement, which emerged from Washington in the late 1980s and 1990s. We will take a look at this movement in more detail in the next part of this series.
As a musician, one of the venues where Patti Smith gained exposure would soon become the hub of New York’s punk scene. The venue was called CBGB, a reference to the owner’s original intention to make the bar a hotspot for country, bluegrass, and blues music. However, throughout the 1970s CBGB would host legendary punk bands such as Misfits, The Ramones, and Television.
Soon one band caught everyone’s attention, as much for their lead singer as for their new wave-inspired take on punk. The band was called Angel and the Snake but changed their name in response to derisive remarks named at their lead singer. From then on, the band was called Blondie. Their lead singer Debbie Harry would help catapult them into not only mainstream success but pop music history.
Debbie Harry occupies a curious place amongst the roster of women in punk. Firstly, her voice seemed worlds apart from the likes of Patti Smith. Rolling Stone would describe Harry’s voice as ‘dreamily seductive and woodenly Mansonite.’
It wasn’t just Harry’s voice that sparked controversy. She would also dress and act more stereotypically ‘feminine’ on stage than her peers. One of the main criticisms levelled at Blondie was that they were riding the coattails of Harry’s looks. As far as critics were concerned, Blondie’s style meant they couldn’t be considered a punk band. Harry has addressed this critique multiple times, most recently in her 2019 memoir Face It:
“To be an artistic, assertive woman in girl drag, not boy drag, was then an act of transgression. I was playing up the idea of being a very feminine woman while fronting a male rock band in a highly macho game.”
Interestingly for an American band, Blondie’s first taste of success was in the UK. Their song Denis (a cover of the 1963 song by Randy & the Rainbows) reached number 2 in the UK chart. Homegrown success would elude them until the release of their breakthrough album Parallel Lines. Upon its release in 1978, Village Voice described the album as ‘as close to God as pop-rock albums get.’ Parallel Lines spawned some of Blondie’s best-known hits such as ‘Heart of Glass’, ‘One Way or Another’ and ‘Hanging on the Telephone’ and would go on to sell over 20 million copies worldwide.
Blondie represented a new age of ‘crossover’ music, one that combined pop-style hooks with a hard-edged punk-inspired performance style. Women rode the wave of this new style of music, with artists such as Pat Benatar and Joan Jett enjoying Blondie’s level of mainstream success.
One particular polarising argument within punk was whether it originated in America or the United Kingdom. Regardless of where it ‘started’, soon the punk scene would thrive on both sides of the pond – most notably in London.
Several parallels can be drawn between the New York and London scenes. For instance, where New York had CBGB, London had the 100 Club. In September 1976, the 100 Club would host the first recognised international punk festival, the 100 Club Punk Special. The line-up featured The Clash and the earth-shattering Sex Pistols. These bands would be joined by a group that had origins in punk, but would also become figureheads of London’s post-punk goth and new wave scene. That group was called Siouxsie and The Banshees.
Siouxsie and The Banshees were formed from a group of die-hard Sex Pistols fans dubbed as ‘The Bromley Contingent’. In fact, Sid Vicious was the band’s drummer when they debuted at 100 Club. In their first gig, Siouxsie Sioux and her banshees made quite the impression, performing a raucous 20-minute rendition of The Lord’s Prayer. The band would attract controversy for their iconoclastic style, most notably Siouxsie Sioux’s penchant for wearing fetishwear with a Swastika armband. This was arguably one of the reasons why Siouxsie and the Banshees remained unsigned until the late 1970s – articles regularly dubbing them ‘Britain’s best unsigned band.’
By the time the band released their debut album The Scream in 1978, they had honed their musical vision from aggressive punk to a melancholic sonic landscape. Siouxie Sioux’s voice would drastically shift from ethereal cries to guttural howls, backed by an eclectic mix of instruments including the saxophone and the xylophone. This music, combined with bleak and uncompromising lyrics, was a catalyst for the burgeoning post-punk movement. The Scream was credited as a major influence for acts such as Joy Division, Morrissey, and Sinead O’Connor.
It was clear to anyone involved that women were a driving force behind the British punk scene. This included artists such as Poly Styrene, lead singer of London band X-Ray Spex and one of the most iconic black women in rock. A vocal critic of sexism, racism, and capitalism, Poly Styrene would be described by Billboard as the “archetype for the modern-day feminist punk”. As part of her rejection of consumerist ideals surrounding femininity, Styrene proudly sported dental braces and a Day-Glo wardrobe. X Ray-Spex influence was significant, considering their limited discography. Their only LP Germfree Adolescents would spark three UK Top 40 hits, with their signature song Oh Bondage Up Yours! commonly regarded as one of punk’s most iconic songs.
X-Ray-Spex would soon disband after making their mark on punk music, and Styrene’s music became increasingly eclectic, infusing jazz and world music. Once again, this makes a case for punk being less of a restrictive genre and more of a lifestyle or political ethos. This attitude can also be seen in the discography of The Slits, one of the defining UK female punk bands.
From the outset, The Slits attracted attention with their raw and aggressive performance style. They were brought to prominence by supporting The Clash on their White Riot tour in 1977 alongside The Buzzcocks. While known primarily as a punk band at the start of their career, soon their output would combine reggae and dub with alternative pop influences. Although their success never reached stratospheric heights, The Slits made a bold statement that a group of teenage girls with virtually no musical training could share the bill with one of the 20th Century’s most recognised punk bands.
Like their punk predecessors, The Slits sought to dismantle stereotypical images of women in rock music. Their debut album Cut, released in 1979 showed The Slits bare-breasted but covered in mud in a National Geographic-style shoot. The album was steeped in punk feminism and anti-capitalism, best seen in the songs Shoplifting and Typical Girls (the latter once named by Kurt Cobain as one of his top 50 recordings of all time. Cobain was not the only one to laud Cut’s raucous, anarchic style. Rolling Stone would go on to place the album 33rd on their list of the 40 Greatest Punk Albums of all Time.)
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