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The new, raw, and female sound: women in post-punk (and a plug)

2012 November 7

Over the past year, a lot of my spare time has been spent researching and writing on women in post-punk for Julia Downes’ new history of the girl band, Women Make Noise.

A surprisingly difficult part of this was establishing what we talk about when we talk about post-punk. Roughly, the term refers to the wave of musical experimentation which took place in the wake of punk from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s. It was informed conceptually by the art-school background and grounding in political and cultural theory of many of its members, and distinguished by musical, vocal and lyrical experimentation and by a frequently self-conscious and self-critical approach to the idea of being in a band and making music. All of which meant that it sounded, to varying degrees, original, arresting, and odd.

Post-punk’s disorderly, subversive and category-resistant nature has seen it marginalised in accounts of its era, although the past few years have produced a handful of useful retrospectives, as well as the early-2000s revival of post-punk musical techniques which, if you still can’t explain what it is, at least make it easier to explain what it sounds like.

For me, a large part of the significance of post-punk was that it seemed to involve an unprecedented amount of women as artists, fans, and critics. Its musical, political and aesthetic influence can be traced in many subsequent female-friendly movements, including twee, riot grrrl, grunge and electro. Some post-punk women – the Slits, the Raincoats, Lydia Lunch – have made a more enduring dent in popular consciousness than others, and some of them are more ‘hmm, interesting’ than ‘fuck yeah, hidden early-80s gem’, but all the artists featured below are worth a spin.

Extending the gains of punk’s emphasis on DIY culture, accessibility and amateurism, post-punk women were able to take their bands in experimental directions, producing lyrics which explored the female experience in startlingly innovative ways, and music which itself took on what Slits bassist Tessa Pollitt described, when I interviewed her for the book, as a ‘new, raw, and female’ form, a self-consciously radical sound dealing with rarely-expressed emotions like embarrassment, awkwardness and anxiety.

In terms of subject matter, post-punk’s ideological concern with the politicisation of the personal, and with identifying and promoting authenticity in the face of popular cultural stereotypes, lent itself to exploration from a feminine and feminist angle. This concern with authenticity was expressed in the songs themselves, which were produced, structured and presented in a way which set them apart from the glossy manufactured products of mainstream artists. It was expressed too in lyrics which demystified and deconstructed conventional femininity, love, sex and romance, and which analysed social and cultural pressures on women or the tensions of personal relationships in implicitly political ways.

There is far more to post-punk, and many more women within it, than I have space for here. The Young Lady’s Post-Punk Handbook provides a good starting-point to other women and bands in the movement, but here are ten from me to kick off:

1. ESG

ESG, from South Bronx, based their pioneering sound on a love of James Brown, Motown and disco. Spotted at a talent contest, they began to play New York’s cutting-edge clubs, where their sound dovetailed neatly, if unexpectedly, with that of the No Wave scene, and went on to share billing with PiL, Gang of Four and A Certain Ratio.

ESG’s blend of hip-hop and girl-group lyrical sensibility was sampled incessantly by acts from Miles Davis to Tricky and Public Enemy to Liars – although the lack of royalties received antagonized the band, who addressed the issue with typical panache in the 1993 single ‘Sample Credits Don’t Pay Our Bills’.

2. Raincoats

The Raincoats attempted an unsweetened exploration of the social and sexual experience for women, mapping a landscape previously foreign to mainstream rock – a female-centred one of self-consciousness and self-doubt. Their debut’s self-effacing musical communalism has seen it described as the first ‘women’s rock’ album.

3. Slits

From the art-student squats of London’s Ladbroke Grove via Germany, Spain and English suburbia, the Slits made slippery and spacious dub-punk hymns to sex and shoplifting. ‘Love und Romance’ burlesques the banality of boy-meets-girl, ‘Spend, Spend, Spend’ analyses retail therapy as addiction, and ‘Typical Girls’ castigates conventional femininity as a profit-driven invention.

For more on the Slits I’d recommend Zoe Street Howe’s Typical Girls? The story of the Slits.

4. Bush Tetras

There’ve been whole essays written on this song as key to life in late-70s crisis-riddled New York, but Pat Place’s stabbing guitar and Cynthia Sley’s vocal darting between grouchy imperious disdain and incipient panic are more than enough to recommend it.

5. Lydia Lunch

The infernal anti-Blondie, or perhaps the sub-par Patti Smith. For Lunch, the extent of her musical ability ‘wasn’t the point. I developed my own style, which suited the primal urgency I needed to evacuate from my system’ (quoted in Simon Reynolds’ Rip it Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984).

Lunch’s performances were, according to contemporary music writer Roy Trakin (quoted here) ‘very influential in freeing people from the idea of technique as being somehow prerequisite to talent’.

6. LiLiPUT

Surrealistic in their Swiss-German and English lyrics, rudimentary in their technique, and the subject of a 40-seconds-long Yummy Fur song (Why don’t you listen to Liliput / Where punk rock starts and ends?), but great for all that.

7. The Bloods

New York’s finest queer anarcha-feminists. ‘Button Up’, their only single, is absurdly ahead of its time kink-funk.

8. Mo-dettes

Sharp-tongued and stylish Anglo-Swiss outfit. Had a complicated relationship with the partisan feminism of some of their contemporaries, but their arch, insouciant music was less ambivalent. ‘White Mice’ giddily champions female sexual agency, ‘Two Can Play’ dramatises relationships as struggles for autonomy and control, and ‘Foolish Girl’ catalogues the misadventures of a girl who renounces feminism for an unhappy marital ending.

9. Au Pairs

At the intersection of left, feminist, queer and antiracist politics, Birmingham boys and girls the Au Pairs made radical, slyly danceable music. A good introduction to them from the Kitchen Tapes’ Rupinder Parhar can be found here.

10. Linder Sterling

Muse to Buzzcocks and Morrissey, a visual and performance artist whose work critiqued cultural expectations of women and the commodification of the female body, an unequivocally militant feminist and occasionally a musician with the band Ludus. Ten post-punk points if your response in 2010 to Lady Gaga’s meat dress was to sniffily point out that Linder did it better at the Hacienda nearly thirty years ago.

For more on the background, careers, music and politics of these and other girl groups, and a look at the history of women in music from Ma Rainey to Pussy Riot – please consider buying the book!


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