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10 June 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 11:41am

No One’s Little Girl: what it was like to be a woman in the man’s world of punk

Women who were in bands during the punk era question the nostalgia surrounding the genre.

By Frankie Mullin

“I’m so glad I’m not there anymore!” says Gina Birch who, with Anna da Silva, founded punk band The Raincoats in 1977. “But at the time I remember thinking, I’m lucky to be alive and doing something at this moment in history.” 

This is often how it feels, looking back on your early years of adulthood. The concept of nostalgia – and whatever your age, some day, someone will package up your youth and sell it back to you as nostalgia – casts these years as a golden time. Ah, didn’t we have better music, better parties, better drugs, bluer skies? The message of the nostalgia industry is this: spend the rest of your life looking back over your shoulder at youth. Weep as it recedes. The thing is though, you have no obligation to buy.

This year, a celebration of the punk’s 40-year anniversary is taking place with a series of events and gigs at Punk London. Many of those involved spent their youth at the heart of the punk scene, they were the scene. But women I speak to – the she-punks – say it’s not about nostalgia. It may have been an important time in their lives, but it was also a difficult one. It was a high point, but one of many.

“Punk was a mixed thing for women,” says Helen Reddington, who, as Helen McCookerybook, was part of Brighton punk band The Chefs during the late Seventies and early Eighties. “The 1970s was a really sexist time and the entire subculture was very violent. That’s something that gets glossed over.

“That violence extended to the women who played in bands. Lucy O’Brien of the Catholic Girls and her whole band were beaten up by skinheads. Ari from The Slits got stabbed. There was a punk in Brighton who didn’t like me being in a band and she spray-painted near where she thought I lived that she was going to kill me.”

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She reveals: “After I wrote my book [The Lost Women of Rock Music: Female Musicians of the Punk Era], five women contacted me and said that they’d been raped during that time.”

Life can be awful and wonderful at the same time. “Now, I just feel really glad I did it,” Reddington says. “Before I joined a band I was a shy, meek person. I didn’t feel I had agency in anything that happened to me. Getting up on the stage and playing the bass guitar – which is really powerful instrument, it shakes the ground! – changed me forever.”

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Like Reddington, Birch remembers her punk days with nuance. Time has brought more, not less, clarity to her memories. “Back then it was just normal that women were laughed at. We weren’t taken as seriously and you kind of felt that about yourself because that’s the way society worked,” she recalls. “The boys would be doing their thing: ‘I wouldn’t fuck her’ or ‘she’s fuckable’. You were objectified but that was what you were used to.

“The great anxiety for many women was ‘Am I entitled to this?’ There was a real ambivalence between being ‘Nothing’s going to bloody stop me’ and ‘I’m not good enough’.”

She adds: “Still, I couldn’t not [form a band] because there I was in the heart of it. I saw The Slits and they spoke to me. For the first time I felt like this was for me and about me. It was an incredibly energising time. Like electricity.”

Youth may not be when you’re happiest, but it’s hard not to feel that something vivid about those years sets them apart. Music, perhaps more than anything, can trigger flashes of memory that leave you breathless with vertigo at the disappearance of time.

“There’s something about music that’s so powerful at a certain moment in your development,” says Birch. “Certain songs represent your feelings, your hopes and dreams. And as you get older those little nuggets settle in you. They’re there in your memory bank and when you hear those songs it ignites a spark.”

Helen with Joby and the Hooligans, the Vault, Copyright Ray Renolds

Janette Beckman began photographing the punk scene in the Seventies after landing a job at the music paper Melody Maker, joining forces with Vivien Goldman. “It was a boys’ club,” she says. “None of them wanted to photograph the punk stuff to begin with, which was great because I got to do it. It was only later that they realised how important punk was. At the time they were just throwing me a bone.”

Like Birch and Reddington, who are currently making a documentary, Stories from the She-Punks, Beckman has never stopped being creative. She has an upcoming exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery in London and is active as an artist in New York. Life has continued to be rich and she too refuses to buy into the idea that youth is the mountain peak from which all other experience is a descent.

“I do sometimes feel nostalgic,” she says. “That was your youth. But it’s very intense and when you’re in it, living it, you don’t really worry if you’re happy or sad. I don’t think the punk thing was making me happy but I was excited by it. Excited about documenting it and excited about being a photographer. It was the feeling that you were really part of something.”

She continues: “The thing I loved about punk movement is that you didn’t have to be a six-foot tall blonde. It wasn’t judgemental. I have a picture of these two girls on a Sid Vicious memorial march in Hype Park and they‘re chunky girls, they’ve got a lot of makeup on, badly applied, and hair all crazy and wearing what looks like your mum’s sweater but they’ve cut the sleeves off, and they look fucking great and everybody knew they looked great!

“Forty years later I have this archive and it’s vibrant. But in my life the one thing that’s always stayed the same and makes me happy is taking pictures – and I still have that now.”

How you feel about a phase of life will anyway change over time. Birch says she has continually reassessed her past. “I knew punk was something special, but when it finished I felt really disillusioned,” she says. “I felt like I’d been conned. That it had just been a fantasy. It took a while for it to knit itself back together.”

In the Nineties, Birch saw the ethos of female punk bands picked up proudly by the riot grrrls – “they made sense for us of what we’d done”. On the instigation of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, the first two Raincoats albums were re-released in 1992, with liner notes by Cobain and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon. Birch says that she in turn was inspired. “The riot grrrls made me feel much more validated about what I did,” she says. “Now, in hindsight, I’m sure we made a lot of mistakes but I feel proud.”

Reddington has moved into academia and still plays in a band. She too took a while to unite her punk days with the next era of her life. “I didn’t talk about it for a really, really long time,” she says. “When I started working in higher education, my course leader at the time told me not to mention it. But when I did start talking, the stories just flowed out.”

Reddington is firmly anti-nostalgia. “We’re a capitalist society and people like counting things and ring-fencing them and calling them something so they can sell them or write about them. I think nostalgia is generally about marketing dissatisfaction.

“Most of the punks I’ve met say it opened a lot of doors to them. Not always to making money, but to a sense of liberty and purpose. I think that’s something a subculture does; it stays with you. And that’s nothing to do with nostalgia. It’s to do with creating sea-change inside yourself, changing how you see the world. Turning it into something that’s only nostalgic takes away from that I think.”

Gina Birch, Helen Reddington and Janette Beckman are all taking part in Punk London’s 40 Years of Subversive Culture