×
Home Music Music Features

Vivien Goldman’s Revelatory ‘Revenge of the She-Punks: A Feminist Music History from Poly Styrene to Pussy Riot’

An NYU academic who got her start as a journalist covering London’s original punk explosion chronicles how women have shaped the music’s revolutionary spirit.

A group portrait of female punk and new wave musicians in London, 1980, L-R Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders, Debbie Harry of Blondie, Viv Albertine of The Slits, Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex, Siouxsie Sioux of Siouxsie And The Banshees and Pauline Black of The Selecter. (Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images)

A group portrait of female punk and new wave musicians in London, 1980, L-R Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders, Debbie Harry of Blondie, Viv Albertine of The Slits, Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex, Siouxsie Sioux of Siouxsie And The Banshees and Pauline Black of The Selecter.

Michael Putland/Getty Images

Vivien Goldman was a pioneering London punk journalist in the 1970s, covering bands like the Slits and the Raincoats, dabbling in music with her indie dub records. Now a professor at NYU, Goldman tells a fascinating tale in Revenge of the She-Punks — as she calls it, “A Feminist Punk History from Poly Styrene to Pussy Riot.” It’s the freewheeling tale of how radical women who could barely play their instruments ended up changing the world. “Punk was exciting and it was doable,” the Raincoats’ Gina Birch tells Goldman. “I thought, this is the beginning of who I am.”

[Find It Here]

Author Vivien Goldman

Author Vivien Goldman

Revenge of the She-Punks is not a dry academic history—instead, it feels like an exhilarating conversation with the coolest aunt you never had, as she leaps from one passion to the next. It makes a companion piece with Dayglo, an oral history of the late great X-Ray Spex singer Poly Styrene, from her daughter Celeste Bell and journalist Zoe Howe. (Dayglo just dropped in the U.K., but it’s coming out Stateside this fall.) These books come at a time when Nineties riot-grrrl bands like Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney are returning to play their biggest shows ever, where most of the fans weren’t born when their records came out. Feminist punk turned out to be a musical language that crosses generational and cultural borders. On Sleater-Kinney’s 2015 reunion tour, their opening act was a little-known rapper from Minneapolis who took inspiration from them. Her name was Lizzo.

Goldman gives every chapter a Spotify playlist so you can listen along as you read — which is practically impossible not to do, since her excitement is so contagious. She goes thrift-shopping with Patti Smith and sits on the Jamaican beach with Grace Jones. She ventures all over the globe, chronicling bands from Colombia to Czechoslakia to Kashimir.  She chases the spirit of feminist punk everywhere — even the pop charts. Everybody knows Neneh Cherry for her Eighties Brit-rap bass-bombing hit “Buffalo Stance” — but did you know she started out singing for the Slits? (In one weird scene here, Goldman, Cherry and the Slits’ Ari Up sing back-up for reggae star Prince Far I.)

Goldman moves far outside the usual American and British punk narratives. She meets artists like Jakarta’s Tika and the Dissidents, from the Indonesian scene that sprang up when Green Day played there in the Nineties. (And you thought they were just American idiots.) She includes stars like Blondie and Madonna, but also obscurities like the Spanish band Las Vulpes, who caused a national outrage when they played their song “Me Gusta Ser Una Zorra” (“I Like Being a Bitch” — an answer to Iggy’s “I Wanna Be Your Dog”) on TV.

One of the surprises is this story is how feminist punks created such long-lasting music out of such raw material. As daughters of the Bowie/Roxy glam tradition, they’d seize their ideas from anywhere. Like the Delta 5’s Bethan Peters says, “I don’t think we analyzed it too much; it was grab it and use it.” These bands prided themselves on keeping the music loose and impulsive; many had just barely begun to play. The Mo-Dettes’ Kate Korris tells a touching story about the Clash’s Joe Strummer, who handed her a guitar and showed her a couple of chords. He told her, “You can do anything with these two pieces of info; go for it.” As the artists in this book prove, Joe was right.

Compared to most of the (many) writers who have chronicled the London ’77 punk explosion, Goldman is refreshingly free of scenester score-settling. In her intro, she notes that when Chrissie Hynde heard the book title, she scoffed, “I don’t do revenge.” But as Goldman says, “In the case of punky females, revenge means getting the same access as your male peers, to make your own music, look and sound how you want, and be able to draw enough people to ensure the continuation of the process. Sounds simple enough, talent permitting, but as this book shows, it’s different for girls.”

The she-punks found their revenge in making their own music — and reaching kindred spirits around the world. The Raincoats’ story was told brilliantly by Jenn Pelly in her essential 2017  33 1/3 book about the band’s debut. The Raincoats’ Gina Birch and Helen Reddington made the documentary Stories from the She-Punks: Music with a Different Agenda, which shares the spirit (and almost the title, accidentally) of this book; the Slits’ story is in the documentary Here to Be Heard. For years, the music of the Slits and the Raincoats got passed around on mix tapes, from friend to friend, in that spirit of “you gotta hear this!” Their records were impossible to find, but fans kept the legend alive. Those tapes inspired bands like Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney to make their own noise (not to mention Nirvana and Sonic Youth). Revenge of the She Punks shows why this rebellious music survived. But even more importantly, it shows why it keeps turning on new fans today.  

Newswire

Powered by