In Romanticizing Riot Grrrl, We’ve Forgotten the Women of UK Punk That Paved the Way
Bands like Bikini Kill have been credited for inspiring a new generation of creative women, but X-Ray Spex and The Slits provided an outlet for frustration.
I grew up in a broken-down former mining town in the 90s, and there were a lot of things about life I thought were crap. Throughout my teenage years, I watched many of my neighbors make the cyclical journey from their living room to the pub via the bookies. Very little occurred outside of that; unemployment rates were high and ambitions low. The only event that broke the cycle was pregnancy, which is a cycle all of its own. There was a lot to be bored by, a lot to be frustrated with, and seemingly little to do about it. So, when I heard “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” by X-Ray Spex for the first time, it was the exact explosion of energy and resentment I’d been waiting for.
Now considered a definitive release, “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” is basically as close as you can get to encapsulating the essence of British punk. Marrying criticism of capitalist servitude with a feminist battle cry, it’s a call for liberation that Styrene wrote after seeing two women handcuffed together at a Sex Pistols show. In an interview where she’s asked about the meaning of the song, she describes bondage gear as a way of saying, “We’re all bound up anyway, so I don’t mind showing off to the world that I am.” It was the first punk song that ever resonated with me.
I knew about The Ramones and the Sex Pistols, of course, they were culturally unavoidable, but I couldn’t relate to them. A group of boys swearing and spitting? I could stand at the bus stop if I wanted to see that. X-Ray Spex were a different story. Who was this weird woman singing about cigarettes and apathy with a voice that sounds like a toy trumpet in the best way possible? Poly Styrene was one of the first musicians I considered to be “real” in the sense that she was both intrusive and shy, uncompromising in her ambition but also a total slacker, and, as her nom de punk suggests, obsessed with artificiality but equally critical of it.
I’d never seen anyone who sang like her, behaved like her or looked like her. I’d never really seen a woman in punk before to be honest, but Poly Styrene and X-Ray Spex quickly became my gateway into a world full of inspiring, gobby women (The Slits, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Raincoats, The Adverts, The Pretenders), who provided me with an outlet for all the frustrations I felt as a girl growing up in a Britain I considered to be inadequate.
I have no qualms with admitting that I first discovered X-Ray Spex because someone I friended on Myspace was wearing one of their shirts in a profile picture. The internet is neat, sometimes. The downside to it is that it afforded me infinite access to all music ever, which is essentially like giving a glutton the keys to a bakery and saying “don’t touch anything, okay?” Inevitably, I tore through punk’s entire back catalogue, going in harder than Ed Sheeran at a Brit Awards after party, tossing aside the junk and cramming everything I loved on to a 500-track mp3 player. Quickly I arrived at the 90s and so to Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Babes In Toyland, L7, and all the bands that would later be communally referred to as riot grrrl.
Stylistically, riot grrrl resonated with me even more. They dressed like I wanted to dress, their zines tackled issues of sexism in plain language when it had previously been the territory of academics, and the ska/reggae-inspired beats that influenced 70s punk were replaced by elements of grunge, which fitted with my then-teenage ideas of what constituted awesome music. More importantly, they gave punk the fresh, direct jolt of feminism it desperately needed. They were basically Generation X’s answer to the suffragette movement. As such, riot grrrl bands ended up becoming my go-to’s for both support and inspiration, and clearly so did many others—because when new generations of women start punk bands or do something creative that intersects music and fashion, it’s often the 90s riot grrrl movement that is credited as the influential factor.
Perhaps it’s because the 90s was the last “cool” decade for millennials to relate to and for pop culture to romanticize. In the last few years, we’ve seen the release of The Punk Singer: A Film About Kathleen Hanna, Sarah Marcus’ excellent Girls To The Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution, a plethora of arts festivals and events all over the world celebrating riot grrrl’s relationship with and influence on feminism. The city of Boston even declared April 9 “Riot Grrrl Day” in honor of Kathleen Hannah.
Riot grrrl fever is at an all time high, because we’ve moved on enough now to contextualize and appreciate the era objectively. This is a good thing (apart from the bit where it causes music critics to label every band featuring a girl and an instrument a “riot grrrl band”). If you were born after 1989, you grew up during what I like to call “Generation Jackass”—a culture defined by the American Pie franchise, mom jokes, and a punk scene comprised almost entirely of men giving each other wedgies. It was an era largely devoid of women. So is it any surprise that we are now seeing bands like Perfect Pussy are doing so well, and Rookie—an online magazine created by a teenage girl for teenage girls—broke one million page views within its first 6 days? Women, especially young women, need voices to identify with, and right now the presence of important female figures is pretty much unavoidable. I wish I was a teenager in 2015 so I could erase the decade I spent cradling blink-182 CD’s and wondering why I didn’t fit in.
However, there was a book released last year that disrupted something in my ~core~ that I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to settle again: Clothes Clothes Clothes, Music Music Music, Boys Boys Boys, a memoir by Viv Albertine of The Slits. I picked it up because I remember listening to The Slits as part of my self-indoctrination into punk. Admittedly, I hadn’t listened to them for a long time and when I did, I did so fairly superficially—the musical quest I was on as a thirteen year old was about sound, not meaning. So in the same way I sang along to “Butterfly” by Crazy Town without really thinking about the words, I sang along to “Typical Girls” without the consideration it deserved.
It was only after I burned through Clothes Clothes Clothes, Music Music Music, Boys Boys Boys in a matter of days that I realised just how much more I related to Viv Albertine, not just as a musician but as a person. Here was a woman who grew up in, though not the same time, the same sort of environment as me: bleak, broke, and with its own set of very British problems that still exist today. Riot grrrl made sense to me because the women talked about modern feminism directly, but it was by and large an American movement. Their issues were not really my issues, their background not my background. Remarkably, Albertine’s book was the first instance in which I was able to feel truly comfortable reconciling my interests in punk music and feminist dialogue with being an incredibly shy, easily embarrassed and ultimately flawed human being, because it was coming from somebody I felt I had some common ground with. The relief I felt was physically noticable, and it annoys me that I didn’t make the connection sooner. But like many people my age, I discovered 70s punk bands when I was too young to really appreciate them for anything other than the music—which is still so bloody relevant that even The Weeknd sampled Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Happy House” on his first mixtape, House of Balloons.
Riot grrrl was rightly unabashed in its aims, vocal in its politics and determined in its goal. This partially explains why, when we think of revolutionary women in music, we go straight to bands like Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney and Bratmobile. But the riot grrrl movement came about almost two decades after UK punk; women’s rights had moved on (sort of) and, culturally, there were enough people ready for that to happen. Given the amount of abuse some of the more vocal members of the community faced, there obviously huge swathes of people who were totally not ready for that to happen, but it was still something that was able to unite like-minded women of its time—and still is.
In contrast, bands like The Slits are historically categorized within the 70s UK punk scene as a whole, to the point where I wonder if they've become submerged in it almost. They didn’t define their music as feminist, it just was. They didn't have a slogan like “girls to the front”, they just stood at the front. They didn’t explain why they did what they did, they just did it. They aligned themselves with the rest of UK punk because that’s all they could do at the time. As Albertine writes in her memoir, “I didn’t even know any women who could drive”, so the fact that they were even picking up guitars and pissing on the stage in a world dominated (even more so) by men in the first place was fucking revolutionary. In many ways, the industry wasn’t ready for them. Nobody was talking about feminism in 1976, so you can be sure that most journalists certainly wouldn’t be talking about it in relation to their music.
Each movement’s achievements are relevant to the society in which they occurred, but what Viv Albertine was going through in the 70s was, in a way, more difficult. As she describes in her book, punk was just emerging and it was a playground for danger and chaos in the sense that you’d get beaten up on the street just for dressing a certain way if you were a man, so god help you if you were a woman. Every aspect of the industry was run by men trying to undermine them or tell them what to do (even more so than it is now), there were no female role-models who played electric guitar guitar, and the only people you could really trust were the people in your own band. There was no codified scene to rely on; The Slits and X-Ray Spex were standing alone. But unless women like Viv Albertine, Poly Styrene, Ari Up and Siouxsie Sioux hadn’t come along in the first place and said bollocks to all that - using fashion (and nudity) as a political statement, putting their feet down in a political environment that was doing it’s best to keep them in the kitchen and basically, not giving a shit - it would have taken riot grrrl a much longer time to happen.
I worry that our head-over-heels love for the 90s is often overshadows the legacy of some of the bravest, loudest and most visible women of 70s punk. Then again, the fact that they stand side-to-side in history with some of the UK’s biggest male punk bands is a testament to their strength in itself.
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