It’s 2022 and the Sex Pistols are selling NFTs and streaming on Disney+. Esme Lloyd explores the female perspective and the pioneers of British punk.
It’s 2022 and the Sex Pistols are selling NFTs and streaming on Disney+. It’s a strange turn of events, and we’re seemingly further from the spirit of punk than we’ve ever been. It’s times like this that we must look elsewhere for idols, and so I present to you a brief introduction to the women of the scene. With a whole lot of ripped hosiery and resolve, groups like the Slits and X-Ray Spex paved the way for alternative women in music, imagining new ways to make music and be a girl with a guitar beyond Joni Mitchell.
‘Don’t create / don’t rebel,’ Ari Up drawls the opening of ‘Typical Girls’, the Slits’ most popular original song, with more than a touch of derision. It is the spirit of punk through a female voice: bubbling undercurrents of rage made visible, threatening to blow gender norms to shrapnel, and all with the playfulness and sarcasm of British punk.
Between Sid Vicious’ malnourished chest and Johnny Rotten’s wide-eyed monologues on the telly, there’s no doubt the Sex Pistols are the paragons of punk. There’s some room for context, specifically with Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s SEX shop of the time, but the myth of the Pistols and their fireball story of self destruction proves irresistible to cultural imagination, with punk ending in the tragic fairytale of Nancy Spungen’s murder. Danny Boyle’s series Pistol cements their ongoing cultural influence – it’s clear the Pistols’ importance cannot be understated.
Simultaneously, the British punk scene was hugely diverse, and fertile ground for some of the most innovative bands of the postwar era. Many of the bands were all female or female fronted, bringing a uniquely female perspective to punk, and encapsulating the punk spirit of anti-conformism with subversive attitudes towards gender.
X-Ray Spex’s Poly Styrene is precisely one such woman. A teen hippy, Poly Styrene (born Marianne Elliott-Said) saw an early Sex Pistols gig on her nineteenth birthday, and formed punk band X-Ray Spex soon after. Together with X-Ray Spex, she made music playfully critiquing the consumerist culture of the 70s, with prescient comment on gender politics and the environment. Perhaps most notable is their 1978 deliciously British feminist punk classic, ‘Oh Bondage! Up Yours!’ in which she sweetly simpers that ‘some people think little girls should be seen and not heard’.
Styrene’s image was significant to her punk subversion, ensuring she would indeed be both seen and heard. For one, her identity as a mixed race woman in postwar Britain makes her position as a punk frontwoman a subversive act in itself. Her public image was also consciously anti sexualised, unlike the female stars dominating mainstream charts in the late 70s. Her wardrobe was delightfully Day-Glo, comprised of technicolour plastic and neoprene outfits, unconventional even in the punk scene largely outfitted by Vivienne Westwood’s leather and chain designs. She wore dental braces, which glint silver in gleeful live recordings. Styrene even promised to NME shave her head if she ever felt she was being positioned as a sex symbol, and ever true, debuted a buzzcut at the 1978 Rock Against Racism concert.
Friends of Styrene’s, the Slits are probably the most celebrated female British punk band. Their reggae and dub influenced punk cover of ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ is almost primal, and deeply danceable. Former bass player Viv Albertine discussed her experiences of being a woman in punk and the rise of the Slits in an acclaimed 2014 memoir, Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys.
With few female musical role models, Albertine describes them constructing their highly unique sound (their debut album Cut later had great influence on Kurt Cobain) from the environment instead, with lead singer Ari Up dancing ‘like an insect or wild animal’. The Slits reimagined the way womanhood could be presented on stage, making up a new femininity as they went. This often included embracing the taboo, with Ari Up wearing visible cotton balls under skirts instead of tampons.
The result challenges societal expectations in a way that Albertine describes as uniquely threatening to the wider world, writing that in public ‘men didn’t know whether they wanted to f*ck us or kill us’. Within the scene itself, Ari Up spoke of a culture of ‘respect and protection’ between men and women, with radical attitudes leading to a natural solidarity.
Smaller players on the scene deserve their flowers too. Saxophonist Lora Logic of X-Ray Spex founded her own group Essential Logic which pioneered saxophone in punk, and the Poison Girls’ Vi Subversa was a middle aged mother of two, writing music of ‘social and sexual protest’ from an older perspective. Other individuals like the Au Pairs’ Lesley Woods, Honey Bane, Pauline Black and Vivien Goldman all examined gender politics within their music, contributing to a wider discussion about the place of women within subculture. Much has also been said, of course, about the inimitable Siouxsie Sioux and her influence on punk and post punk, and Chrissie Hynde and her Pretenders.
With the Jubilee, public discussion has naturally gravitated back to the impact of punk. For any haters of saccharine street parties and Union Jack bunting, punk offers a particular kind of relief, a welcome snarl of pessimistic republicanism. Between Nigel Askew’s lacklustre documentary Wake Up Punk and Danny Boyle’s Pistol, punk in 2022 remains hot property. But there’s more to the story of British punk than young men in leather furious at microphones, or The Clash smashing guitars.
Women punks like Poly Styrene and the Slits weren’t just making pioneering music, but pioneering the movement from the inside, reinventing how being a woman with a microphone or a guitar could look like. As we re-examine the legacy of punk and its influence in 2022, perhaps it’s worth looking beyond the heroin and hedonism of the Pistols et al, because these trailblazing women seared their places into musical history with battlecry songs.