Some weeks ago I interviewed the multi-talented Helen McCookerybook, and as a result, I was so impressed that I ended up going on to Ebay and buying a copy of her remarkable book The Lost Women of Rock Music, Female Musicians of the Punk Era. I have been promising to do a review of it for some weeks, but life and other stuff gets in the way, and I wanted to give this remarkable book a proper review rather than a lightweight cursory gloss over, which – I am afraid – is all it would have got if I had tried to write about it during the last month or so.
Because it covers a subject which is dear to my heart; the much misunderstood subject of punk rock, which – even now – tends to be an emotive term which conjures up a whole range of media-fuelled images which actually have very little relevance to what the subject was really about.
Like many writers of my age, punk was the social and musical movement which first inspired me, and which set me on the life path that I have followed ever since. Mine wasn’t the punk rock of Malcolm and Viv in the King’s Road, but rather the firmly independent DIY attitude of the Desperate Bicycles who trumpted that it was ‘It was easy, it was cheap, go and do it’, and Crass who by selling two million records from a cottage in the middle of nowhere, with minimal involvement with the mainstream media provided a social and political roadmap for my life, which I have followed ever since.
The main crux of Helen’s book is the role of women in punk music. Now this is where I show my age. I was 17 in 1976 when Anarchy in the UK was released, and punk rock was the first social and musical sub-culture with which I was properly involved. It was also the first social and musical sub-culture through which I made friends of both sexes, and so the fact that there were girls palying in bands was not as momentous a thing for me, as it would have been if I had been a few years older and had been a veteran of one of the previous social and musical movements. It is only now, working regularly with Gonzo Multimedia that I have found myself re-examining hippie and other movements from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s with a critical eye. And it has to be said, that I don’t always like what I see. Last year, for example, while working on Tony Palmer’s Trials of Oz, I got hold of scans of quite a few issues, as well as a hard copy of the notorious schoolkids’ issue, and I am afraid that I was disturbed by the level of sexist bullshit that I found. As somebody who discovered alternative society firstly through Crass and then through the neo-hippie movement of the ‘80s and early ‘90s, to find that one of the seminal organs of British hippie publishing was not just full of adolescent smut, Helen’s but that other editions contained material which these days would be considered not only pornographic, but an offence under the Protection of Children Act 1978 and the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.
So, although I didn’t realise it at the time, the fact that many punk bands featured female members, and furthermore female members who did not conform to traditional rock and roll gender stereotypes, was a seriously big deal.
The most interesting parts (to me at least) of Helen’s book are the bits that involve one particularly remarkable lady – Vi Subversa of The Poison Girls who not only defied rock and roll convention by not possessing a Y chromosome, but was also well into her ‘40s at the time the band were most active. At the time I was far more aware of the controversy surrounding her age than that surrounding her gender. I vaguley knew some of the members of Crass, particularly Andy Palmer, and had met Joy and Eve on a number of occasions. In fact, Joy taught me to cook brown rice, which is probably quite good for my anarcha-feminist credibility. I never actually met The Poison Girls, however, and it wasn’t until I read the relevent chapters of Helen’s book that I realised quite how important Vi had been in the whole social milieu surround the punk movment, especially in Brighton.
Indeed, it is the Brighton chapter that is most interesting, because it tells the story of the slice of the punk and post-punk movement with which Helen was pivotally involved with her own bands Joby and the Hooligans, and The Chefs. The whole book is written in an uncompromising academic style, which – as it is an academic tome – complete with full references, end notes and bibliography is not surprising. However, having read some of Helen’s other writings, I know that she is an amusing and stylish raconteur and I would rather like to see a book of the story of her life as a spiky haired young Herbertess written for a more mainstream audience (if you can call people who buy books about obscure punk bands from 35 years ago mainstream in any shape or form).
This is a major work of sociocultural importance and tells a story that has been ignored for too long. Bands like The Raincoats and The Slits are too often relegated to footnotes in the better known stories of the Sex Pistols and The Clash, and as both bands, and many of their other female contemporaries stayed far more true to their idealism and cultural mores than did many of their male counterparts, this is just not fair. Well done Helen for such an important work.
...BECAUSE SOME OF US THINK THAT THIS STUFF IS IMPORTANT
What happens when you mix what is - arguably - the world's most interesting record company, with an anarchist manic-depressive rock music historian polymath, and a method of dissemination which means that a daily rock-music magazine can be almost instantaneous?
Most of this blog is related in some way to the music, books and films produced by Gonzo Multimedia, but the editor has a grasshopper mind and so also writes about all sorts of cultural issues which interest him, and which he hopes will interest you as well.