Four Female Punk Bands That Changed Women’s Role in Rock

Today I am pleased to bring you sam­plings of a hand­ful of my favorite bands. It so hap­pens they are all most­ly-female or female-front­ed punk bands. This fact to me seems almost inci­den­tal to my enjoyment—these are all fan­tas­tic musi­cians, song­writ­ers, and/or per­son­al­i­ties. And yet their com­mon­al­i­ties are high­ly remark­able all the same. Punk intro­duced aggres­sive, all-female bands like The Slits and front­women like Sioux­ie Sioux who nev­er had to play vul­ner­a­ble objects, des­per­ate seduc­tress­es, jilt­ed lovers, femme fatales, etc. and yet still man­i­fest­ed their pow­er in their sex­u­al­i­ty as well as in their fierce intel­li­gence and fury. In the late ’70s, women strode out in front as lead­ers in punk scenes in the UK and US, and helped to change the gen­der pol­i­tics of rock and roll.

First up, the Run­aways, a band best known today for the lat­er careers of gui­tarists Joan Jett and Lita Ford. The Run­aways tend to get unfair­ly pegged as lit­tle more than wards and projects of man­ag­er Kim Fow­ley, but the L.A. band formed organ­i­cal­ly around Jett and drum­mer Sandy West in 1975 and suc­ceed­ed in their own right after split­ting with Fow­ley in 1977. While they did not tech­ni­cal­ly begin as a punk band, they briefly became asso­ci­at­ed with sev­er­al New York and Lon­don punks, espe­cial­ly due to Jett’s ori­en­ta­tion toward glam, garage, and punk. Ford, known for her flashy gui­tar solos, want­ed to go met­al (and lat­er did), and the band pulled apart in 1978. The Run­aways were so rock n’ roll that they were biggest in Japan, espe­cial­ly their song “Cher­ry Bomb” from their first, self-titled 1976 album. Watch them play the song above on Japan­ese TV in ’77.

Next (and my order­ing here means noth­ing, by the way), The Slits. When Ger­man-born front­woman Ari Up (step­daugh­ter of John Lydon, as it hap­pens) passed away from can­cer in 2010, many, many peo­ple mourned her death. And many more sent “Slits” trend­ing on all the social net­works. It was long past time then for a more pub­lic pro­file of the band, which reformed in 2005 but most­ly absent much crit­i­cal notice. Aris­ing in 1976 from mem­bers of a band called Flow­ers of Romance (lat­er the name of an album and song by Lydon’s Pub­lic Image Ltd.), the most­ly all-female Slits made a very dif­fer­ent sound from the Run­aways some­what for­mu­la­ic hard rock. Like the Clash, with whom they often played, the Slits evolved from raw street punk to tak­ing reg­gae ideas and mak­ing some­thing new, in their case some­thing weird­er, wob­bli­er, and more angu­lar than most any­one else at the time (though lat­er male post-punk bands like Swell Maps and Lydon’s PIL took much from them). See them do “Typ­i­cal Girls” above in a rare music video, and check out their cov­er of “Heard it Through the Grapevine.”

Siouxsie Sioux, of Siouxsie and the Ban­shees, and lat­er the Crea­tures, began her career in London’s punk scene as a fol­low­er of the Sex Pis­tols. In a scene thronged with inven­tive kids com­pet­ing for atten­tion, she stood out. Once she decid­ed to take the stage her­self (after an impromp­tu jam of “The Lord’s Prayer” with gui­tarist Steve Sev­erin and Sid Vicious on drums) and form her own band, she seemed to Slits gui­tarist Viv Alber­tine to have arrived “ful­ly made, ful­ly in con­trol, utter­ly con­fi­dent.” Siouxsie was “unlike any female singer before or since,” wrote rock jour­nal­ist Jon Sav­age, “com­mand­ing yet aloof, entire­ly mod­ern.” She was also a phe­nom­e­nal song­writer and, along with The Cure, Bauhaus, and The Damned, gets credit—for bet­ter or worse—for the ori­gins of goth rock. See Siouxsie com­mand the stage in 1978 above, doing “Hong Kong Gar­den.”

I feel I would be most remiss if I did not include Wendy O. Williams. As we seem to end­less­ly debate the social val­ue of cer­tain female pop stars clum­sy attempts to shock us, Williams spent most of the ‘70s onstage top­less, saw­ing gui­tars in half with chain­saws, and set­ting cars on fire. Was her band, the Plas­mat­ics, any good? It’s hard to say. They were… uneven. Not much of a singer, Williams and the Plas­mat­ics embraced a more rau­cous ver­sion of the Runaway’s hard rock and even­tu­al­ly moved toward met­al. This is not nec­es­sar­i­ly music you lis­ten to, it’s music you expe­ri­ence, in the sheer amount of bare­ly-con­trolled chaos Williams and the band con­jured onstage. Some of the stunts might look sil­ly in hind­sight, but bear in mind, she pushed the bound­aries of deco­rum over thir­ty years ago with the kind of sex­u­al frank­ness and pow­er that still makes our cul­ture very ner­vous. Williams’ antics made her a prime fig­ure for tele­vi­sion (like gross-out punk provo­ca­teur G.G. Allin, she became some­thing of a nov­el­ty act on the talk-show cir­cuit). See her above with the Plas­mat­ics on Sol­id Gold in 1981, with the added bonus of an inter­view with the “Madame” pup­pet (of Way­land Flow­ers and Madame) after the per­for­mance.

I can­not begin to do jus­tice here to the groundswell of excel­lent female punk bands from the ‘70s and ‘80s (not even to men­tion the ‘90s), and I can’t over­state their impor­tance. Dr. Helen Red­ding­ton, for­mer bassist and singer for ’70s punk band The Chefs, approv­ing­ly quotes jour­nal­ist Car­o­line Coon, one­time man­ag­er of both The Clash and The Slits as say­ing: “it would be pos­si­ble to tell the whole sto­ry of British punk sole­ly through its female bands and artists” (this is much less the case in U.S. punk his­to­ry). You might wish to check out the rather crude­ly made, but inter­est­ing doc­u­men­tary She’s a Punk Rock­er and the data­base on for more. I haven’t men­tioned Pat­ti Smith, but we cov­er her body of work fre­quent­ly enough here. Yes, I’ve left off Blondie, and of course X‑Ray Spex, and two more favorites of mine—the sad­ly under­rat­ed but tru­ly awe­some Bush Tetras and the obscure, Devo-like Mo-Dettes. The list, as always, could go on, but per­haps some of you have your own favorite female or female-front­ed punk bands. If so, add them to the com­ments, prefer­ably with a link to audio or video.

via Net­work Awe­some

Relat­ed Con­tent:

CBGB’s: The Roots of Punk Lets You Watch Vin­tage Footage from the Hey­day of NYC’s Great Music Scene

The Art of Punk Presents a New Doc­u­men­tary on The Dead Kennedys and Their Grit­ty Aes­thet­ics

New Doc­u­men­tary Brings You Inside Africa’s Lit­tle-Known Punk Rock Scene

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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