Lasses of the mohicans

Vivien Goldman charts the history of Britain’s rebellious female punks.

Call it the ascent of "sassitude": a feisty, self-determined and communal-minded female attitude that first entered pop with the British punkettes in the 1970s. Three decades on, women dominate the US music charts: Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Pink, Ke$ha, Katy Perry, Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj. In the UK, there's Jessie J. The vigour of their dance anthems is matched by their proclamations of independence and their common theme of empowering women and outsiders. Listen to Beyoncé's "Run the World (Girls)", Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" or Katy Perry's "Firework", dedicated not only to women and gay people but to all perceived outsiders. In their gleeful shake-up of settled social attitudes, they echo two enduring UK punkette statements, one from Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex - "Oh Bondage, Up Yours!" - and the other from Ari Up and the Slits - "Typical Girls" (they "buy magazines").

The influence of the UK punkettes reverberates down the decades. Nothing like them had existed in pop before. While Joe (Strummer) and John (Lydon) could build on the legacy of Mick (Jagger) and John (Lennon), there was no prototype for Ari Up, soul of the "Punky Reggae Party" that Bob Marley sang about, glaring, giggling, stomping and wailing against Babylon.

The have-a-go spirit of punk broke down barriers for women, creating pop's first self-determined generation of female artists. Girls who would have sublimated their musical aspirations into bedding artists in the 1960s formed bands in the 1970s. Pop rewards beauty but the standards were far more reductive for girls. You sang what you were told: no girls played. The white pop stereotypes were girl-next-door - Lulu, Sandie Shaw - or long-haired and ethereal, such as Kate Bush. Aspiring girl rockers had Suzi Quatro but she clearly wanted to be one of the boys. When punk sprang up, there was a girly community that hadn't been pre-approved by the rock ladocracy.

Our most commercially successful punkette was Chrissie Hynde. Though her classical vocals, songwriting and beauty would have made her win in any era, her sassitude was real. Like many punkettes, she was drawn to Jamaican ska, dub and reggae - revolutionary music.

The assault was visual as well as musical. UK punkette looks still define rebel-girl style: laddered fishnet tights, neon, animal prints, camouflage, Lurex, biker jackets, tartan mini-kilts and the now-familiar cognitive dissonance of ultra-girly items such as ballet tutus or ball gowns worn with Doc Martens. The sartorial code filtered through to Gucci and Versace and is now available at malls across the US. Today's American divas all wear startling styles, from Gaga's meat dress to Minaj's kinky secretary look, but, at some point, each diva has to rock the UK style to establish her wild-girl cred. Ke$ha recently wore a home-made rubbish-bag dress to an MTV awards show.

Yet our punkettes remain largely unsung, their story overshadowed by the all-boy pantheon of the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Damned, the Jam et al. Most male punks except for the Police (and they didn't count - they were punk poseurs) were making it up as they went along but the girls were scoffed at. Something about their very being seemed to freak men out.

Working on the punk rock weekly Sounds could feel like living on the gender front line. In those pre-PC days, topless girls adorned our gigs guide. When I suggested that we alternate them with shirtless boys, I almost incited a riot. It was explained to me, a woman, that girls didn't buy records or rock weeklies or play music and were thus irrelevant. So what was I? Chopped vinyl? Or an untapped market?

On the 1976 Anarchy tour of the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Slits, the bands were perceived as so threatening that many shows were cancelled. On the road, the Slits were seen as the frightening ones. The tour bus driver kept trying to leave them behind - though, oddly enough, he never forgot Johnny Rotten or the notoriously tardy Clash guitarist Mick Jones.

Still, our punkettes touched the pop charts with X-Ray Spex's "Germ-Free Adolescents" and the Slits' "Typical Girls" (with their reinvention of the Marvin Gaye hit "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" on the B-side). Hynde became a chart regular with her band the Pretenders and sang reggae with UB40.

Pop is fickle by nature but when male bands fizzle out, they can always cheer themselves up by thinking of Rod Stewart. But with not one girl-band role model to be a mentor in ageing disgracefully, the punkettes, when the punk wave rolled out, seemed almost forgotten.

Happily, after some wilderness years, there has been something of a UK punkette renaissance. Viv Albertine is releasing songs such as "Confessions of a Milf", which is as scalding and of the moment as the Slits' "Shoplifting" was 30 years ago. The Slits were nominated for a Grammy in late 2010 for their album Trapped Animal - shortly after Ari Up died of breast cancer. Six months later, Poly Styrene died of the same disease, just as her Generation Indigo album was released in the US.

The loss of two punkette icons so swiftly was a reminder of how rare these birds are. Now, girl ska-punk bands proliferate from Seattle to Sweden. Beyoncé is singing about girls running the world to a reggae-dancehall beat and everybody is listening to her, something that never happened to the Raincoats or the Slits. In the mystical way in which influences jump around and mutate, however, the hyper-professional artist of today wouldn't have happened without our shambolic but loveable "typical girls".

Vivien Goldman is the author of "The Book of Exodus: the Making and Meaning of Bob Marley and the Wailers' Album of the Century" (Aurum Press, £9.99)

This article first appeared in the 31 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Young, angry...and right?

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.