– Interview: Author Helen Reddington Talks about the Lost Women of the Punk Era
In her book, TheLost Women of Rock MusicWomen Musicians of the Punk Era author (and musician) Helen Reddington (who goes by Helen McCookerybook for her musical work) writes from an insider’s perspective about female artists from the late ‘70s/early ‘80s punk scene in the U.K, a community she knew first-hand. In her profiles, Reddington interviews members of the Delta 5, the Au Pairs, the Raincoats, the Slits and many other notable bands that should be considered the godmothers of Riot Grrl. Yet, they did not always get the recognition they deserved, and throughout her book, Reddington tries to discern why they have been left out of music history.
TheLost Women of Rock Music: Women Musicians of the Punk Era was originally released in 2007, but has been updated in a second edition that debuted in 2012. This interview took place after the new book release; Boxx Magazine contributor Bess Korey talks to Reddington about the updates in the new version, her own role as a musician in the British punk scene and what all of these bands mean to her.
Bess Korey: What inspired you to write this book?
Helen Reddington: I received an MA in Performance Art in 1993; this was the first time I ever came across academic writing. I became a ravenous reader about subcultures, in particular punk, because I had been one. So much of what I read was wrong because it had been written by observers and not participants. There was nothing about women like me who had been playing in bands, and I realized we were going to be ignored in the historical discourse. I knew of so many brilliant women in bands, and I was astonished that so little had been written about them. It stayed in my mind, and when I became a lecturer at the University of Westminster I asked if they would fund a PhD. I had been accepted twice at another University but couldn’t afford it. So ten years later, I started interviewing, and 15 years later the research was finished. I then had to write it as a book, and at last in 2012 there is a paperback that people can read! I have had to be very patient.
BK: How is the 2nd edition of your book, which came out in 2012, different from the 1st edition, which was released in 2007?
HR: I decided that the first hardback edition had been too London-centric, so I found [and interviewed] Lesley Woods and Jane Munro from the Au Pairs, Bethan Peters from the Delta 5 and also Pauline Murray from Penetration, who although she wasn’t an instrumentalist in Penetration, was actually a guitarist before forming the band. I also had met Viv Albertine [of the Slits] in the interim and she [gave me] a great interview, which focused very much on her musicianship. I spoke to Lucy Toothpaste, who had set up her own fanzine (Jolt). There are also photos in this version, and crucially, it is very much cheaper than the hardback.
BK: Can you tell me a bit about the bands you chose to cover, and why you decided to write about them?
HR: Some of the bands were all-female acts at least most of the time (the Mo-Dettes, Raincoats, Slits, Dolly Mixture, Mistakes, Catholic Girls). Some were 50-50 gender splits (early X-Ray Spex, Delta 5, Au Pairs), and some of the women I interviewed were sole females in male bands (notably Gaye Black from the Adverts). Some of the bands, like the Au Pairs, were ambitious; some did it just for fun (like a few of the Brighton bands I interviewed in the case study of the Brighton punk scene). I know I didn’t cover everyone and every band, and I still meet women from bands that I didn’t even know existed. It’s one of those situations where you worry about Bad Fairies at the Christening!
In the end I stopped where I felt there was overlapping information, or the band fell into a more gentle and less noisy genre of music. Effectively I left out some of the music I very much enjoyed at the time, such as The Marine Girls, and some of the people who I lost touch with, such as The Passage, whose female members sent me some fascinating information when I first sent out a call for participants.
In general, the bands I wrote about were encroaching onto rock territory, via early British punk rock’s collapsing of gender boundaries. I focused on band activity in Britain during the 1970s and early 1980s; there are writers better placed to write about punk scenes that happened elsewhere. One of the most interesting things about some of the musicians I spoke to was the way they reinvented musical techniques to create new sounds—but that’s a whole other area of study I am approaching. Across the board, interviewing these musicians is one of the best experiences I’ve had in my life!
BK: You were also a part of the punk scene, as a musician. What bands have you been a part of, and how has your own experience as a female musician affected your writing of this book?
HR: Having been in a band was a big help in interviewing people—although I did have to learn to shut up and listen. It was exciting to meet so many people who had been through such similar experiences but in different locations. One chapter of the book is semi-autobiographical (the section dealing with the Brighton scene), and I had to re-write that several times to pull back from being too anecdotal.
I had joined a punk band called Joby and the Hooligans in 1977; I was told by the band that I was the bass player, and I borrowed a bass. We didn’t take it seriously at first but we started to pull crowds. I literally learned to play bass on stage and then started writing songs. Band morphed into band, and my pop punk band the Chefs recorded an EP and a single that the late John Peel, who was a national radio DJ on BBC Radio 1, liked us so much that he offered us some sessions. [These Peel Sessions were released in 2012 as CD/downloads and can be found here
Sometimes I got quite angry about some of the issues raised in the interviews (the frequency of sexual assault, for instance) and had to remember that I was writing about pioneering women, not victims, and that the musical legacy was of prime importance.
BK: Which of the bands that you have written about has had the most impact on your life and why?
HR: X-Ray Spex were a brilliant band. Poly Styrene just looked like fun, like a woman who kept the playfulness of childhood through her perceptive and funny lyric writing. Such song writing! By the time I met her, she was cautious and serious but still intelligent. I think she was a book in herself and I hope she told her daughter all her stories before she passed away [in 2011].
The Raincoats, too. I have become good friends with Gina Birch [vocalist/bassist]. They threw away the rule book and the black leather jackets and made it all fun, but with a serious message. The Slits also for their sheer naughtiness and subversion. Listen to those vocal harmonies and you hear the girl groups reflected back through a simultaneously cracked and intelligent mirror. And The Adverts because, as a bass player, Gaye Advert was an inspiration as well as being a seriously good musician. All of these bands made great punk music, and wrote great songs.
BK: Do you think that it is easier to be a female musician today than it was back in the late ’70s/early ’80s?
HR: I am not sure whether it’s better today. I know men think it’s easier for women, but we won’t find out if it was easier until the current crop of female musicians gets older. You don’t rock the boat while you’re in it so it’s unlikely that anyone’s going to expose prejudice or ill treatment by the music industry while they are trying to become successful or sustain a career. Wherever you look, the gatekeepers are male and if you don’t keep them happy, you don’t get heard.