There have been some completely original and inspiring female musicians in the punk movement who have achieved some pretty impressive feats in terms of their musical output their championing of women in the arts. Whilst we’re all pretty familiar with the likes of Debbie Harry and Siouxsie Sioux, there are some other punk and new wave goddesses that don’t always get the credit they deserve. Here are just a few of my faves- add yours in the comments!
Poly Styrene (X-Ray Spex):
The alternative style icon of the UK punk scene, Bromley-born-but-Brixton-raised Marianne Elliot-Said exemplified women’s liberation from the strict beauty standards that made women’s role in the public sphere rife with unrealistic aesthetic expectations. Her first musical efforts were more of a reggae/ska affair before she saw The Sex Pistols perform in Hastings and decided to start a punk band. And we’re all glad she did as the result was X-Ray Spex- a favourite of punk fans everywhere. Her unusual, disjointed, almost goofy look made her a role model for the young and the awkward. Her teeth were adorned with braces; her hair was generally unstyled and her wardrobe was a riot of neon colour- a welcome respite from the dark aesthetic that was popular amongst the rest of the punk scene.
The band’s music was about anti-consumerism with a specific focus on how our capitalist system entrenches the oppression of women; people of colour and the working class. Styrene provided a new type of role model for young girls- someone who accepted themselves as they are and celebrates what makes them unique rather than trying to conform.
Styrene was to continue to live up to those early ideals throughout her life- she was a practicing Hare Krishna and outspoken critic of the capitalist system. Unfortunately, she died from breast cancer in 2011 at the age of 53.
The Raincoats were a London based Avant Garde post-punk band whose music is almost impossible to describe and define. Formed in 1977 this all-female band may not have had a prolific output in terms of studio albums but their influence on a whole raft of bands in the 80s art scene can’t be underestimated. As well as all female members (which at one early stage included Slits drummer Palmolive) they were also managed by Shirley O’Loughlin and frequently toured with other all-female bands. They earned a whole host of notable fans including Johnny Rotten; Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth and Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain. Cobain was such a big fan of The Raincoats that he wrote about his admiration for them in the liner notes to Nirvana’s Incesticide album.
The line up changed frequently throughout the tail end of the 70s and into the 80s, as did the array of musical instruments used in their recordings. They incorporated elements of world music; jazz; folk and operatic vocal styles to produce a sound that had no peers.
Their songs are both poetic and melancholy in lyric whilst being rather jubilant and childlike in sound. Their first album (self-titled) boasts tracks such as” The Void and No Side to Fall In” whilst their follow-up 1981 album Odyshape has stand-out tracks ‘And Then It’s Ok’ and ‘Baby Song’.
For anyone who is familiar, even in passing, with the Riot Grrl movement will be aware of the woman widely regarded as being at its helm- Kathleen Hanna. Hanna’s feminist credentials seem pretty much spotless- as a teen, she volunteered at domestic violence services; she has penned classic empowering punk anthems such as ‘Rebel Girl’ and ‘Double Dare Ya’ and she was insulted in song form by frat boy punks NOFX. The Riot Grrl movement galvanised an entire generation (and beyond) of women and girls in America to take direct action to achieve gender liberation- from protesting in the streets for women’s reproductive rights to encouraging every youngster with access to some felt tips and a guitar to start a band and/or ‘zine and take over the world. Her most iconic band- Bikini Kill and subsequent outfit Julie Ruin are a treasure trove of kick-ass choons which are perfect when you need some motivation to take on the world.
Hailing from New York City, the Lunachicks are a badass punk group inspired by the likes of MC5 and The Ramones. They had a snarling attitude and a knack for pretty snippy song and album titles.
Their songs are a no-nonsense exploration of every malady and stress facing modern girls throughout the 1990s. ‘Fallopian Rhapsody’ is a pro-choice banger not beating around any bushes when declaring that society will not go back to the days of coat hangers being used by desperate women in lieu of actual empathic medical care. ‘Bitterness Barbie’ imagines whether there would be a market for a Barbie that looked like actual women and concluding that a doll with saggy boobs and cellulite probably wouldn’t sell. ‘Binge and Purge’ is a visceral ode to the pressures that lead a young girl to an eating disorder.
Lunachicks joined the Warped Tour in 1999 and along with The Donnas and Bif Naked were one of only three female acts on the entire tour. They have toured with the likes of Buzzcocks, No Doubt, The Go-Gos, and Rancid- a pretty strong modern punk pedigree.
Nowadays, the band seems to be on hiatus although never officially disbanding, however, all members have gone on to other projects. Bassist Sydney Silver owns a café in Brooklyn and founded a health food company which sells organic food. Singer Theo Kogan created her own vegan and cruelty-free makeup brand ARMOUR Beauty as well as working as a freelance makeup artist.
Russian activists Pussy Riot are possibly better known for their political activism and subsequent imprisonment in Putin’s Russia than they are for being a band, but being a punk band is the vehicle through which they drive forward their message. And quite a multi-faceted message it is too. If punk is about fighting for your beliefs and spreading freedom and liberation despite the kickback from the state, then Pussy Riot are punk. As. Fuck.
They are an all-female collective with approximately 11-13 members of the band. They are committed to unorthodox and alternative means of performance and music distribution and do a lot of their performances in public on a seemingly spontaneous and guerrilla basis.
Their lyrics are mainly focused on their opposition to the Russian state with songs such as ‘Mother of God drive Putin away’ and ‘Death to Prison, Freedom to Protests’. They consider Putin to be a dictator and as well as challenging Putin himself they have also taken aim at the Russian Orthodox Church who is linked to the President. They are also outspoken on LGBT rights; anti-imperialism and anti-consumerism and pro-Feminism.
Pussy Riot is akin to an Eastern European Manic Street Preachers- left wing and well-read members who are influenced by political writers and philosophers as well as musicians. The band has cited Simone de Beauvoir, Emmeline Pankhurst, Kate Millett and Angela Dworkin as influences.
In January 2018 they announced they would be going on a North American tour meaning their attempts at spreading their message of liberation show no signs of abating.
Molly Tie is working on a book/project about female punk fans of every era/genre of punk. If you would like to contribute by answering some questions about your experiences as a female fan and what punk means to you then please contact Molly on firstname.lastname@example.org