Although Siouxsie might not have been staunchly political or feminist in her lyrics, she certainly knew it was harder for her to make it in the industry as a woman and that she had to be even tougher if she was going to front a male band. “I had a really male band,” she told the Guardian in a 2007 interview, “and male-ego shit in the band to deal with. They were men being men, and touring in the early 80s was really lonely at times. There was a battle for supremacy.” The daughter of a working mother who often had to pull the weight for her alcoholic father, Siouxie grew up with the idea that women had to set strong examples.
Like many other leading ladies of punk, Siouxsie felt that the punk movement offered a form of liberation to young women, and that at its heart, punk was about looking past gender. And yet she was also keenly aware that the playing field was still not exactly equal. When asked if she found punk to be sexually liberating, Siouxsie tells Simon Goddard, “I didn’t differentiate. It was the first thing that was unisex, and that kind of followed on from the androgyny of Bowie, but taking it further. There were tough girls and tough boys. It was trying to break down the stereotypes and it was the kind of thing where, for the first time, women were on par and not seen as just objects. Though girls were objectified still.”1
Much of what made punk so threatening to mainstream society is due to the involvement—in fashion, in style, in the music itself—of queers and women. As Siouxsie tells Steve LaFreniere of Vice Magazine, these aspects of punk are often less talked about because “if you take away those facets, it becomes less harmful … I do get pissed off when people don’t cover the whole spectrum.”
Another key aspect of punk was the creation of music by so-called non-musicians and making music on a low-budget. Siouxsie herself has never taken any kind of vocal training and in the first incarnation of Siouxsie and the Banshees, she was backed by musicians who also had very little training. What may have been Siouxsie’s saving grace is that she didn’t try to sound like someone else or something she was not—she just learned by doing and figuring out what sounded good to her. She stayed in a mid range that didn’t require her to learn the skills of an opera or pop singer. Although Siouxsie and the Banshees was not exactly a jam band, they were punk in that they didn’t always know what they were about to do. They’d often hit the stage with a song that hadn’t been worked out; and they’d just dive right in and try it out.
The Slits, also an English-based band, are often lauded as overtly political and fiercely feminist—although in interviews, lead singer Ari Up often dances around the f-word: “It was more a personal thing,” she told Adam Wood in a 2005 interview2, “we wanted to be female without being what female was supposed to be. We just wanted to be us.”
Nevertheless, a strong sense of power and subversion was obvious in The Slits’ historic album, Cut, often cited as one of the most underrated punk albums ever. Much of the lyrics talk about what it means to perform femininity and the importance of breaking down stereotypes of what a sexy girl has to look like. The album’s cover, influenced by Ari Up’s experience of living in the jungle with Diak Borneo Indians, shows The Slits in grass skirts covered with mud. At the time, the cover turned on its head what the rock world expected of showing an all-girl band nearly naked and “sexy.”
“Typical Girls,” Ari Up sings, “Don't create/Don't rebel/Have intuition/Can't decide ... Who invented the typical girl?/Who's bringing out the new improved model?/And there's another marketing ploy/Typical girl gets the typical boy.” Always challenging perceived images of women, The Slits have been inspirational to many future generations of women, not least the political riot grrrl punk scene of the early 90’s.
Born in Germany, Ari Up formed The Slits with the band’s first drummer, Palmolive, in 1976, when they were only 14 years old. By the late seventies they were already on high-profile tours, famously opening for the Clash. As a mother and musician, Ari Up lived what she said: “Women need to stop thinking that children hold you back” (from a 2005 interview with Adam Wood). She was always challenging not only what society expected of her as a woman—but also what was expected of her by the record companies. Her music pushed the limits of punk into reggae and she even dropped out of the industry game completely to find her spiritual self and go more deeply into her musical roots—whether living in the jungle or studying pure reggae in Jamaica. The Slits did not always remain an all-girl band—at one point they were playing with Budgie from Siouxsie and the Banshees—but after a 25 year break, they reformed in 2006 as Ari Up (vocals), Tessa Pollitt (bass guitar), Hollie Cook (vocals), and Anna Sculte (drums) to tour the world. Sadly, Ari Up passed away in October of 2009 at the young age of 48.
Two lesser known bands are also featured in this section of Women in Punk: Penetration, from County Durham, England, and Sexsick, from Los Angeles, California. At punk’s heart is the sometimes hypocritical notion that no real punk is a celebrity and no real punk should ever reach commercial success. Pauline Murray, who claims to have been strongly inspired by Patti Smith, lived and breathed this notion with her all-male band Penetration, formed in 1976 with Robert Blamire, Gary Smallman, and Gary Chapman. Ironically, Penetration was sometimes accused of not being punk enough because the members had a fair amount of musical training and Murray brought a melodic poetry to her songs—she could really sing. Yet they were clearly punk in their intention; that is, never out for just success. Together they made only two albums because, as Pauline puts it in a 2008 interview with Von Pip Musical Express online, after three years of touring, she’d grown tired and too stressed out thinking about the next album and maintaining the schedule. For her, the most enjoyable part of the band was playing the music and writing together. Once the process stopped being just about the music, she lost interest. “It was being brought down to the level of a job.” Although Murray didn’t gain the success of women like Siouxsie Sioux, she expresses happiness with her work running the recording studio and practice space, Polestar Studios. She still plays music today.
Sexsick, also a short-lived underground band, may never have officially released a full length album together, but their bass played Kira Roessler went on to gain fame after she was asked to replace founding member Chuck Dukowski in the all-male punk band Black Flag. Kira is often cited as one of the most talented female bass players ever—though many might also say she is one of the most talented bass players ever, period. Still in Junior High School, Kira and vocalist Michelle Bell (also known as Gerber) formed Sexsick together and later, Twisted Robots. Kira says that one of the things that distinguished the punk scene is it that many women played in bands, and they brought to the punk scene tough terms of female sexualities and unconventional new styles. Says Gaby Berlin, a contemporary of the LA punk scene, “maybe the right to dress in clothes not seen in Seventeen or Glamour was not as important as the right to vote, or work, but they are still personal freedoms being threatened today” (from Alice Bag’s weblog, Women of LA Punk).
A theme that seems to run throughout the LA punk scene, the English scene and many others, is whether or not women in punk actually ever felt put down by their male counterparts. This relates as well to some female punks’ indecision about using the word feminism as an identity—which may also have to do with the academic, elitist class roots of the word itself. To embrace the word punk means, for many women and men, to throw off all other categories and to simply be true to oneself: to not ask for permission for ANYTHING from ANYONE. As Gerber writes on Alice Bag’s weblog, Women of LA Punk, “Punk set me free to scream my truth … it needed to be screamed.”
Many female punks, from the lesser known to the most famous, report that they felt their male counterparts treated them as equals, and that in fact this was an essential aspect of being punk. Jenny Lens, a photographer who herself was never in the spotlight, felt she was free to capture images of the LA punk scene, male and female, and float independently doing what she did best. Yet she was aware that she was one of the only female photographers in the scene, and that in some sense, women had more to fight for and had something more subversive to bring to the scene itself.
Moreover, wider music audiences and punk fans not directly involved may remember punk differently from how the women inside the punk scene perceived it for themselves. In other words, the (male) bands that achieved the most popular fame—The Sex Pistols, The Ramones, The Misfits, achieved it far and beyond most of their female counterparts—The Slits, X Ray Spex, even Siouxsie and the Banshees.
Alice Bag, for instance, created a great website to remember the women of LA punk3, which features interviews from lesser known punks like the African-American dyke drummer Maddog, Gerber, Rover, Zandra Rhodes, among many others. She wouldn’t have created such a site if she hadn’t felt like there were a reason to remember those powerful girls.
Kathryn Fischer (aka Mad Kate) is a writer and performance artist living in Berlin, Germany with her partner and performance accomplice Juan Chamié. Combining elements of dance theatre, spoken word, vocals and fashion, she has performed her queer-alien-burlesque-theatre extensively around Europe since moving to Berlin seven years ago. As a contemporary improvisational dancer Mad Kate integrates techniques from Ballet to Afro-Cuban to Butoh, pioneering a style uniquely her own. She is front woman for the punk-rock-cabaret band Kamikaze Queens and a proud member of the Bonaparte circus. Mad Kate's performance work has been featured in several documentaries and films, including Emilie Jouvet's Too Much Pussy: Feminist Sluts in the Queer X Show, Cheryl Dunye's Mommy is Coming, Ivan Arrenega's Berlin Manners: Burlesque in Berlin, and Jess Feast's documentary Cowboys and Communists. She also plays the lead role in Julia Ostertag's film, Saila. Mad Kate can often be found inside the caverns of Carni Closet, located in the back of the Berlin boutique, EXIT.
Kathryn holds an MFA in Writing and Consciousness from the New College of California and a BA in Peace and Conflict Studies with an emphasis in Gender and Sustainable Development from the University of California, Berkeley. Her writing has appeared in Z Magazine, Bitch, Other , Off Our Backs, Art XX, ExBerliner, SexHerald, Exodus, Sojourn, Sexflies: R rated stories 4 the uncanny, Tea Party Magazine, Brew City Magazine and Controlled Burn, an anthology of short fiction by New College Press. Her work is currently being featured in the online exhibit, Imagining Ourselves: A Global Generation of Women, a project by the International Museum of Women. She self-publishes The Fabricated Love Affair Art Project, a feminist, mixed media 'zine.