I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Unsung Heroines

by Dr. Helen Reddington
July 20, 2011

Music is by definition essential to our culture -- we now listen knowingly to grown-up pop, Sir Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger have reached pension age, and music from cultures all around the world has mixed up and melted together. Women rock bands, although not the norm, are not unusual. Live music thrives, whether locally or in stadium venues that hold thousands of people.

It is difficult to imagine oneself back in the 1970s, a drab brown version of 'Great' Britain which was suffering in the aftermath of 1960s euphoria. In the swinging sixties the nation had, so to speak, borrowed too heavily on the credit card of the future, and had started to pay the price of its earlier profligacy.

Society was in turmoil: the Sex Discrimination Act, which had been passed in 1975, led to a wake-up call within the sphere of employment about the inequalities experienced by women in the workplace. There were strikes that involved everyone from gravediggers to ambulance crews, and an underlying male grumbling that if women hadn't been given the idea of equality with men, then these troubles would never have happened.

Meanwhile in the shiny world of pop and rock, the charts were filled with anodyne and unchallenging pop, churned out by writers far removed from reality. The occasional Motown hit shot up the charts with a burst of energy, but British music by and large had stagnated. The revolutionaries of the 1960s fleshed out and started exploring their inner spirituality from their mansions in the Home Counties, and a conveyor-belt of glam rock and soft pop emerged from writing teams to satisfy the teenyboppers.

Punk hit this solid and seemingly immovable industry, whose sluggishness seemed permanent, with a shockwave of activity and energy that it was not prepared for. Did nobody wonder what could possibly come next, after Rick Wakeman's Rock Opera on ice in 1975 that featured live horses?  Rock had become about displays of wealth: all those lighting rigs, massive public address systems, expensive gatefold sleeves, the public-school pomposity of Emerson Lake and Palmer's electronic LP Pictures at an Exhibition. In opposition to this, punk was a display of poverty, of low-life, of junkyard creativity, of recycling, of co-operation, of economy of presentation, and of speed of operation (probably enhanced by its drug of choice, speed).

Punk in the UK was an instant and accessible subculture. Despite some of its protagonists' later attempts to reinforce its fashion side and its metro-centricity, it sped to the suburbs and to urban and rural areas of Britain, where it was customised to local needs and acted as a catalyst for local youth culture to engage with a creativity that belonged to them and to no-one else.

Mass unemployment amongst young people led to an equality of experience. Lack of jobs for anyone meant gender differentiation in the workplace became irrelevant, and above all else (and again facilitated by speed), punk was a talking subculture. If the traditional rules did not apply in one area (i.e. no job route to adulthood) why should they apply in others? Sometimes encouraged and sometimes opposed by young male punk musicians, girls started picking up musical instruments normally associated with male rock musicians and either formed their own punk bands or joined young men on stage as equals, following the lead of The Slits and Gaye Black, the bass player from The Adverts.

Previous to this, all we had seen was folky females: ones with flowing hair and acoustic guitars singing earnestly and boxing themselves into a cul-de-sac of femininity. The best of these, Joni Mitchell, possessed seemingly unattainable music skillsal. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we had Suzi Quattro, who made the right noises and looked the right look, but who (we all knew) sang songs penned by a male song-writing team, Chinn and Chapman.

This was to be the first time that young, self-taught (or untrained) women could take to the stage and sing about what they felt, in their own way and do it noisily, in the way that so many teenage men had done for so many years before them.

Punk spawned and facilitated all sorts of unlikely female instrumental bedfellows, from the Heavy Metal all-female band Girlschool, who with Motorhead appeared on Top of the Pops, to the Pretender's Chrissie Hynde, who as an American had struggled for credibility within the overtly British gestation of punk, and who developed from teaching guitar to Johnny Rotten into a credible hit-maker with a distinctive musical and vocal style in her own right. It is important to remember that in local music-making too, miles away from fame but still appreciated by their local audiences, there were bands that featured women players: Southampton (Catholic Girls), Birmingham (Au Pairs), Leeds (Delta 5 and Mekons), Cambridge (Dolly Mixtures) and so on.

The artist and journalist (and former manager of both Slits and the Clash) Caroline Coon once said that it would be possible to tell the whole story of British punk solely through its female bands and artists. This is absolutely true, and it is shocking how willing and able (male) British music historians have been to completely 'forget' this fact. It was highly unusual for women to take the step up on to the rock stage with amplified instruments, or to step up on to the drum podium with a set of sticks and make an almighty racket.

Myth tells us that these women were incompetent as players (as were many of their male contemporaries, incidentally). However, if you listen to the music of, say, The Raincoats, you will hear a band that went on to influence many other bands, not least the post-punk reggae-influenced bands. After all, The Slits and The Raincoats together were greatly responsible for the incorporation of reggae rhythms into white British pop music at the beginning of the 1980s; Culture Club's Boy George as a youthful fan adored Ari (The Slits' singer).

Listen to Bjork, and you can hear the direct influence of their music on an artist who appeared a full generation later. The Slits fashion style was a great influence on Madonna in her early days (she regularly attended their New York concerts, taking her place in the front row). The Raincoats' importance was acknowledged by Kurt Cobain, who invited them to tour with him before his unfortunate demise. And Gaye Black of The Adverts provided a blueprint for the female bass-players of many post-punk bands throughout the 1990s.

Alas, this 'moment' was not to last long. The British music industry learned from its mistakes and soon patched up the holes in its fortress that had allowed punk and punk-influenced music to infiltrate the charts. And with the loss of the punk spirit (and so many bands 'selling out' in order to make a living), gender conservatism recuperated rock and reasserted its maleness, replacing feisty women with gender-bending men, and later identified 'indie' as a style rather than a pattern of behaviour. This relegated the flood of female performers once more to the margins, or if they were lucky, 'special woman' status. Kate Bush's undoubted talent (but lack of any disruptive personal or political message in her actions or her music) over-rode the anarchic storm of punk; a vulnerable-looking, conventionally beautiful and successful woman musician, nurtured by males, metaphorically sticking two genteel fingers up at the self-taught female subversives of British punk rock.

Dr Helen Reddington (also known as helen McCookerybook) was the bassist and lead singer with Brighton-based punk band The Chefs during the late 1970s and early 1980s. She later formed Helen And The Horns before continuing her career as a solo artist, writer and lecturer. Her book, The Lost Women of Rock will be out in September in paperback published by Equinox, with new photographs and interviews from Jane and Lesley from The Au Pairs, Poly Styrene, Bethan Peters from Delta 5 and others. She also has a blog at www.mccookerybook.blogspot.com and a reverbnation site at www.reverbnation.com/helenmccookerybook with a double CD of archive recordings by The Chefs which will come out soon on Damaged Goods.