Well, here it comes again: another dawn rushing through my apartment window, another candle burned, because I'm pecking away at yet another entry on this website...which means that I may end up revising the odd bits and pieces of this lead-in, once I'm in bed and the cold light of day creeps back across my brain...but I digress.
Today's entry, however, focuses on a book that exerted a major tug on my frontal lobes a couple years back: THE LOST WOMEN OF ROCK MUSIC, an unflinching look at female musicians' roles in the punk and post-punk scenes. In many ways, Helen McCookerybook's original work (under the name Helen Reddington) inspired me to track down some of the figures that you see on these very pages -- people like Viv Albertine and Gaye Black, who have carried on that "up against it" spirit that fired the best music.
At any rate, I read the book in less than a week, because it honestly puts much of what's been written about the genre in the shade -- not least because it corrects the general impression that the original '76-'77 scene amounted to little more than an amphetamine-fueled sausage-fest in 4/4 blurry time. Well, nothing could be wider of the mark, and I think that LOST WOMEN does a fine job of setting the record straight on that score, especially since (as Helen points out below) women are often left out of the officially sanctioned histories of the punk era, even now.
At any rate, when I learned that Helen is preparing to update her book -- due out next spring under a new publisher's banner (Equinox), I got excited, and naturally, I felt compelled to get the full scoop. If you had a hard time finding the original -- and chances are, you did, since I had to get my copy via inter-library loan -- here's another chance to grab ahold of what you missed the first time around.
We start off by delving into the "back story," as they tend to label it on VH1 Classic, and rapidly work our way outward from there.
CHAIRMAN RALPH (CR): Tell me how you made the initial transition from playing music, to writing, and what made you devote a whole chapter to the Brighton scene, of which you were such a committed participant?
HELEN McCOOKERYBOOK (HM): I became a musician while I was studying Fine Art at Brighton Polytechnic (now University).
I hated it there, and punk started happening around that time. I was living in a squat and my boyfriend and our friend started a band to play a gig that the guys in the basement of the squat chickened out of. Nobody wanted to play bass guitar so that job was given to me.
I ended up eventually becoming a professional rock artist (although very alternative) and after burning out in the 1980s started working on housing estates as a community musician. All of those projects lost their funding (last recession, last Conservative Government) and I applied for a job lecturing at the University of Westminster. I didn't get it, but I applied again a year later and while I was there, asked for them to fund my PHD, as I could find no books at all that dealt specifically with women like me -- and I knew there were a lot of us, famous and not -- who had started playing rock instruments in punk bands and then stopped.
The Brighton Scene was a typical punk scene- no gender boundaries to speak of -- and since I was part of it I felt that I could use it as a case study.
CR: Obviously, there's a reason why you chose the title that you did: THE LOST WOMEN OF ROCK MUSIC. What were your main goals when you set to write it?
HM: That wasn't my title -- the publisher chose it. I think I found them! The goals were to remind people of what actually happened, not just in punk (because female punks weren't all sexy misses in fishnets and black eyeliner) but also in music (lots of us had important roles as instrumentalists in our bands)
CR: How did you go about choosing the people that you wound up interviewing, and what did you most want your readers to understand about them? How did your own impressions of the subject change as you got deeper into your interviewing and research?
HM: For my original PHD I spoke to lots of women who never became famous (like me). But as I was doing so I realised that history would forget even the better-known ones, and so I wrote more about them for the book version. Some of them contacted me themselves (Poly Styrene, Liz Naylor). Others I already knew (Gina Birch), and others I had to really search for (Lesley Woods, Bethan Peters).
I found it depressing as much as invigorating. For instance, I was shocked about how many of the women I spoke to had been raped: "if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen" seemed to be the attitude of their attackers. On the other hand, there were fantastic stories and the whole pioneering attitude seems to have stayed with them all even to the present day -- for instance, Gina Birch and Viv Albertine have re-emerged as solo artists, Gaye Black runs art exhibitions, and so on.
CR: What is the greatest misconception about the role of women in punk, and postpunk (other than the obvious error, from my viewpoint, of lumping them all together in those 'women in rock" pieces)? Are there any other writers that you'd recommend, if any, who've actually gotten it right?
HM: Caroline Coon writes well about women in punk and so does Lucy O'Brien. You are right that everyone is individual -- Lucy O'Brien played synthesiser in her band, for instance.
The other important thing to remember is that some people just did it for fun, whereas others were much more ambitious and ended up with good careers -- for instance, June Miles-Kingston from the Mo-Dettes who went on to drum for the Funboy Three.
CR: The original edition ended up with an academic publisher (Ashgate): Who's putting out the new one, and how will it build on, or update, from where you left off?
HM: The paperback is coming out on 1st March and is published by Equinox. There are photos in this one -- [including] one of Ari that has never been seen before. New interview material includes Lesley and Jane from the Au Pairs, Bethan from the Delta 5, Viv Albertine from The Slits, Pauline from Penetration, and Poly Styrene. I have tidied it up a bit, corrected some errors and I hope made it a bit more reader-friendly.
CR: On one hand, the explosion of DIY labels and 'zines promised to augur at least a short-lived change of the prevailing equation -- and yet, the impact proved relatively short-lived, once the slicker electropop and commercial pop trends took hold.
How do you feel the position of female musicians change during that transition? (Viv alludes to this, in part two of my own interview with her.) What made things tougher for independent-minded bands as the decade wore on?
HM: Well, John Savage pointed out that the DIY explosion showed the mega-industry just where the weaknesses were and they rushed to plug them. Music became conservative again, emollient: after all, we were at war with Argentina, and we had a powerful woman in charge of the country that many men hated. "Powerful" female musicians didn't stand a chance!
All musicians, whether male or female, are at the mercy of industry gatekeeping. They can make anything into a temporary fashion if they want to. The gatekeepers are almost always male, so even if you get an idea of liberation through music, it's a man's idea of it: hence the Spice Girls!
CR: One aspect that vividly comes across in your book is the adversarial nature of the business to anything truly oppositional -- whether it's "At Home He's A Tourist," or "Come Again," you're only getting so much slack, before hitting that brick wall, and censorship kicks into overdrive.
I'm thinking, in particular, of the Slits manager's comment of "an absolute brick wall going up, because they were girls"...Why is there such a double standard between the perception of male/female musicians as "bad boys", and/or "loose cannons?"
HM: We have to know our place.
CR: Looking back, which bands or performers made the greatest contribution, and who has yet to have their day in the sun? Or is that too simplistic a model to view the whole situation?
HM: The Raincoats and the Slits made dub reggae rules acceptable to new audiences. If you listen to their music compared to that of, say The Clash, you will hear their innovations and Bjork, in particular, owes a lot to them. And X-Ray Spex had the most brilliant subversive pop songs I have ever heard. Fantastic.
CR: What is the legacy of punk, and postpunk, for female musicians, in your view? How did it affect your own outlook as a writer/performer?
HM: It's the refusal to shut up and die, I think, which makes Poly and Ari's deaths so awful. They were both feisty and didn't compromise at all. Both of them had a huge influence on my personal outlook, both before and after I met them. I am not sure that there is a legacy for female punk musicians. they are repeatedly missed out of histories.
Even since writing my book I have refereed an academic article and marked two MAs that have not mentioned them at all (two by women). This is why I believe as many people as possible should write about them from as many perspectives as possible because I stand by my belief that it was a really important cultural moment in history.
CR: In some respects, it could be argued that things have never been worse -- all the nonsense that punk and postpunk aimed to eliminate (repressive governments, staggeringly high unemployment rates, the total lack of passion in most mainstream chart fare) seem stronger and more entrenched than ever.
You've got shows like "Pop Idol" and "X Factor" that promise to create stars, as long as the uber-Svengali behind the curtain calls all the shots. (Well, I suppose Malcolm McLaren would probably have been the most avid viewer, eh? :-)
What chance does an independent-minded nusician, particularly a woman, stand in such a climate...do you believe that some massive '76-style change is around the corner, or are we simply having to settle for purely incremental change in an increasingly narrowcasted climate?
HM: Those programmes have always been around -- "Opportunity Knocks," "New Faces" and so on. They are about something entirely different and I don't think they have much crossover with music making by young people as they are not about songwriting.
Change is happening but not where cultural commentators want it to be -- witness Grime and Dubstep, both from impoverished British black communities and both assimilating , or "selling out" really quickly.
Musical change has a habit of popping up unexpectedly under people's noses and them not seeing it.
The biggest cultural shift as a result of punk was Rock Against Racism, which made racism deeply uncool. Opposition to the behaviour of international corporations might throw up something new in music... or maybe our increasing community of elders will charge out of their bungalows and shock us all with their vehemence!
HELEN'S BLOG LIVES HERE:
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