Today’s post is dedicated to Paige Jones, a 14-year-old girl who requested to smash garden gnomes with a bass guitar for a charity while recovering from jaw surgery (thanks to Evan for sharing the news item). Dressed as AC/DC’s Angus Young. Something tells me that the late, great Dusty Springfield, who used to smash glass objects before and after performances, would appreciate this. Jones’s mum may find her strange, but I hope she considers it a source of pride. I’d gladly buy this girl a gnome and then stand back and watch her do damage.
Perhaps a stretch, but Jones reminds me of the English post-punk women and girls I adore. A big watershed moment as a music geek was discovering post-punk. Not so coincidentally, a big feminist moment for me was discovering many of the women involved with it. I’ve mentioned folks like Pat Place and Cynthia Sley of Bush Tetras earlier. I recently highlighted The B-52s, though did not explicitly discuss vocalists Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson, two of my favorite Southern girls — perhaps necessitating their own post wherein I might also fold in Pylon’s Vanessa Briscoe Hay, a fellow Athens resident. Today, amid this deliciously gloomy weather, I thought I’d bring up a few a couple of noteworthy post-punk birds on the other side of the Atlantic.
One thing that may misinform people’s of England’s gynocentric contributions to post-punk was that it was anti-sex. I think that two things may have shaped this misconception: 1) those proper British women and girls, some of whom went to university, couldn’t have possibly wanted to get laid, and 2) some of the female musicians associated with it were/gay (particularly Lesley Woods, The Au Pairs’s way-rad/ical frontwoman). And if we know our chauvinism, we can easily apply the feminism = man-hating = lesbianism = anti-sex equation. Bra-fucking-vo, patriarchy.
Oh, there’s one other thing that I think made British women and girls involved with post-punk considered asexual, if not hostile toward the zesty enterprise (to use the parlance of Maude Lebowski). To put it bluntly, they were not considered sexy, at least not in the normative, telegenic sense. Too plain, too normal, not Debbie Harry enough (perhaps missing the commentary the Blondie frontwoman was making on the homogenization and commodification of normative female beauty).
But that doesn’t mean they weren’t interested in sex or sexy. It just wasn’t the only thing they were interested in and the only way they knew how to project themselves. They were also interested in art, politics, nuclear fall-out, disco, bass lines, menstruation, feminism, body odor, and many other issues at the fore or at the margins of their work. So I thought I’d highlight some acts I think were super-important in shaping British post-punk.
The Au Pairs performing “Come Again,” featured in the music documentary, Urgh! A Music War.
Delta 5 performing “Anticipation” on Top of the Pops. Mind your own business with this Leeds quintet, or, as Simon Reynolds noted in Rip It Up and Start Again, bassist Bethan Peters might slam your face against a wall. Especially if you’re a member of the National Front.
Penetration performing “Lovers of Outrage” at the Reading Festival in 1978. Lead singer Pauline Murray got her start following The Sex Pistols, recorded briefly as a member of The Invisible Girls, and was hugely influenced by Patti Smith.
Young Marble Giants’ “real girl” lead singer Alison Statton avoids eye contact during a BBC performance of “Wurlitzer Jukebox”, inspiring thousands of other indie rock vocalists for generations to come. The band still performs intermittently, though not usually making eye contact.
Fan-made Ludus music video for “Mutilate.” It’s a little hard to find footage of the band’s infamous performances, but not as hard to find singer Linder Sterling’s art.
Hopefully, generations of strange girls will carry on in their messy, funky spirit, whether it be plugging in a guitar, or using it to smash a garden gnome.
Last week, I was bestowed with a treasure. My friend Curran made me a two-volume mix CD, one of my favorite things to give and receive. I especially love Internal/External’s “Stepping Up to the Mic,” Yoko Ono and Cat Power’s “Revelations,” and Takaka Minekawa’s “Fantastic Cat,” which he selected specifically for my cat, Kozy. And he also reminded me that I should have been listening to Crass this whole time.
His mix came with a 20-page set of liner notes with lyrics, observations, and personal meanings for each song. Curran is a very thorough, thoughtful person who values homemade things and resistive, non-normative modes of expression. I had a dream that he wrote a 30-page essay on Shonen Knife for this blog’s “Records That Made Me a Feminist” section and have no doubt that he might. You should read it.
The week before that, I was bestowed with another treasure. My neighbor-friend Rosa-María left a clipping from Entertainment Weekly in my door, with the blurb for Lavinia Greenlaw’s The Importance of Music to Girls circled. So I picked up a copy (actually, Kristen got me a copy from the UT Library, as I hadn’t replaced my UT student ID yet). I had never heard of the author before and know very little about who she is as an author or what she means to her native England (I guess she’s a writer and teaches writing classes at the university level; thanks, Wikipedia). I wasn’t even sure what era this book was going to cover (luckily for me, she comes of age during the 1970s, a very interesting time for England and to me). Just as you do with a mix CD, you take your friend’s recommendations on faith and dive in.
Let me share with you now one of the best quotes I’ve ever read on the power of making mixes for people. Greenlaw’s words:
The greatest act of love was to make a tape for someone. It was the only way we could share music and it was also a way of advertising yourself. Selection, order, the lettering you used for the track list, how much technical detail you went into, whether or not you added artwork and no tracklist at all, these choices were as codified as a Victorian bouquet.
Yes, exactly. This quote has new resonance for me after making mix CDs for 50 GRCA campers. I hope they take the blank, one-color paper sleeves and make something completely their own out of them.
Now, the task of writing a review for the book poses a challenge. Its use-value is a little hard to determine. It’s a memoir. So, if you know about Greenlaw and care about her artfully written recollections of coming of age, then this is a good book. But if you don’t know Greenlaw, or have much invested in the place and time in which she comes of age, you might feel like you’re grasping for straws.
But I appreciated Greenlaw’s willingness to recollect events, political movements, personal activities, rituals, and practices as means of identification. She erects collages clipped and ripped and taped and pasted from magazines that constantly shift and mutate her bedroom’s landscape. She laquers her flipped hair and eyelids and straps on platform shoes to go to discos with girlfriends. She recounts the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and the Sex Pistols antics from the safe distance of her neighborhood and television. She starts listening to “hippie” records (ex: Santana, Genesis) because of a boy, who later accidentally leaves a crate of records for her on the tube when they meet up again as adults (with her partner and child in tow). She goes to concerts with friends. She visits a friend in the hospital after a suicide attempt. She makes and unmakes girl friendships. She renounces punk for new wave because she thinks the subgenre mirrors her affinity for Russian literature and Gauloises. She loves reading and writing, but hates school. She roadtrips to Ohio because she loves Devo. She thinks about Thatcherism and the National Front alongside the Pop Group’s second album, For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder?, though didn’t put them together at the time (which, seriously, a book that reminds me to throw that record on is a good book by my definition). She cuts her girlfriend’s hair at a party. She constantly dyes and cuts and grows out and re-dyes her own hair.
In short, she constantly changes and renegotiates who she is, configuring herself always in a state of becoming, even after she’s transitioned out of her teenage years.
Putting all of this into a broader context, she’s very easily the type of girl British cultural theorists like Angela McRobbie were later devoting books and articles to, helping to build girls studies programs in the process. McRobbie’s girls tended to be bookish, middle-class in an increasingly impoverished country, rebellious but well-behaved, mercurial and fidgety and looking for their place in music culture and their piece of the street. But this girl, Lavinia, wasn’t theoretical. She was real, and, as an adult, created a document as filled with history and reference and memory and meaning as any good homemade mix. Her book is worth a look and a listen.