Exploited for the last two decades as dumb but pretty decorations in rock, some girls now demand and deserve musical respect — but some girls don’t.
FOR THE last 25 years men have dominated and controlled rock music. Smug and self-satisfied with the exclusivity of their own professional company, they have been protected from female interlopers by the traditional outer guard of male record company executives and the, ahem, gentlemen of the press.
Until recently rock ‘n’ roll has been a male domain; ludicrously an unthreatened, pampered lions’ den. But now women are forcefully asserting themselves, aggressively challenging the hitherto undisputed ‘male supremacy’ and demanding their share — to discover, not surprisingly, that they are just as capable and just as tough as men.
Not that there has ever been a shortage of women in music. The image of the coy, pretty but brainless sweet-girl vocalist is well known; a decorative visual in front of the real grafters. Yet there were few artists able, or inclined, to combine an instrumental talent with their singing until musicians like Joni Mitchell (not the first but undoubtedly one of the classic examples) emerged in the ’60s. This new breed were also exceptional songwriters.
Invariably these women were part of the singer-songwriter movement; solo performers using acoustic instruments, with hairy and anonymous backup players, concerned with expanding the mind rather than the frontiers of rock ‘n’ roll. And it wasn’t until the early to mid-’70s that a very different female musician burst into prominence: the electric girls.
Suzi Quatro and Patti Smith made it clear that they were part of a rock ‘n’ roll band: aggressively hammering their instruments; acting and dressing like the boys in their groups; implicitly denying all associations with femininity.
Joan Armatrading put more of a perspective on things by writing and singing about love and emotion, which had long been associated with female musicians anyway. But she made her stand as a woman and retained her individuality and integrity by refusing to be manipulated by a record company that wanted to soften her image and emphasise her sexuality.
She would not wear what she was told, nor say what was expected (from a woman) in interviews or onstage. Instead she wore casual clothes, often not very flattering on her hefty figure, and just went onstage and did her stuff with little in between-song patter. Her subsequent success proves that her appearance was of little consequence.
WITH THE emergence of punk three years ago, there was a sudden influx of women into rock; although many — Siouxsie Sioux, Poly Styrene, Pauline Penetration, Debbie Harry and Tanya Hyde — were vocalists and songwriters, not strictly musicians. But there were female musicians too: The Slits, Runaways, Gaye Advert and Lora Logic (then of X-Ray Spex), all with the unconventional appearance and style of playing already seen in Patti Smith.
Yet none of these women was denying their sex; quite the opposite in fact. They were brazenly exploiting it, to the extent of parody, so proving its irrelevance in rock.
The subtleties of plunging necklines with provocative expanses of cleavage and taunting split-to-the-thigh skirts were discarded by the likes of Siouxsie Sioux and Cherry Runaway. They chose not to wear skirts at all, revealing suspenders, corsets and tits for all the voyeurs, and so reduced sexuality to an almost perverted, pornographic level. Gaye Advert and Joan Jett chose the more masculine look of jeans, leathers and studded belts. The Slits seemed determined to dress as unfemininely as possible in jumble sale rubbish. And Poly Styrene, although she obviously loved bright colours and dressing-up, wore a brace on her teeth, obviously not caring about being considered unattractive.
Debbie Harry is one of the few to exploit the sexual potential of women’s dress in her appearance and actions.
She was the most conventional woman of the punk period, and through her original blonde-slut image and her willingness to recount her groupie past, metaphorically whored publicity for her band. Ironically, out of all those mentioned, Blondie have had the greatest commercial success — thanks to Debbie. Of course they have also written some good, strong pop songs; but not that good.
SINCE THE decadence of punk has died down, even more women have been joining or forming bands. As John Peel recently enthused when he played The Bodysnatchers’ debut single, nearly every other record you now hear is by an all-girl or part-girl band; bands such as Dolly Mixtures, B52’s, Pretenders, Passions, Raincoats, Delta 5 and Girlschool. So it appears to be a contradiction for bands such as The Passions, The Raincoats and The Au Pairs to sing about sexism and hear it said in some quarters that these are ‘feminist’ bands.
It seemed timely to talk to these and other present-day women in rock to discover how they felt about their position. Did they feel the market and the opportunities for women in rock had opened out? Was it easier for women? Or, as they are still outnumbered by men, is it an uphill struggle?
Reactions vary considerably — from Barbara Gogan vocalist/songwriter of The Passions — declaring that she really gets a buzz slagging off men from the stage; to the Mo-dettes view that being women has done nothing but help them in their career. And then there’s Viv Albertine of The Slits, who admitted that she hasn’t really thought about it and is only taking part in the discussion for free publicity.
The Passions, Raincoats and Au Pairs are interviewed together because they all have songs deriding sexism and they have all played gigs together, in particular Rock Against Sexism benefits.
WE MEET at Barbara Gogan’s house. It is an unfamiliar situation, eleven girls all involved in the rock business, together in one room. Except Shirley — who works at Rough Trade and is a friend, adviser and organiser for The Raincoats — The Au Pairs’ roadie Julie Knowles and myself, the rest are all musicians: Barbara and Claire Black of The Passions; Vicky Aspinall, Gina Birch, Ana Da Silva and Ingrid Weiss of The Raincoats; and The Au Pairs’ Les Woods and Jane Munro.
The atmosphere is light and friendly, but also cautious, as if all the bands feel that they have to defend their position as women in rock against me, presumably seen as the attacker. They seem sure that I must either consider they are going too far in their open condemnation of sexist values or, on the other hand, not doing enough.
But I am here only because I am curious. I want to know what inspires, influences and drives them. How they feel they have fared so far as a minority group. And how they see their future. It’s also about time someone dragged out that dirty, old-fashioned and still misunderstood and misused word ‘feminist’ and decided what it really means, or if it still exists.
All three bands admit they are feminists, and it’s why they are initially so cautious in this discussion. They don’t want that label stuck on their bands because some of the public have pre-conceived ideas about a feminist band. They believe it’s a gang of hefty, dowdy, self-righteous women preaching ‘manfully’ about how oppressed they are and cracking the offenders (men) over the head with bass guitars (as happened at one of feminist band Jam Today’s gig).
Although Vicky was once in Jam Today, she doesn’t class herself as a hard-core feminist. They, she says, “can be put down for being particularly aggressive towards men. I mean, I’m very fond of men and I haven’t got any anti-men feelings.” And it’s very important, she stresses, to realise that feminism does not always mean the extreme. “It isn’t necessary to be that overt or explicit.”
Ana, the Portuguese bassist gives the impression that she analyses everything that is said to her before answering because of her very precise pronunciation and studied expression. She says carefully that one of the main differences between them and hard-core feminists is that The Raincoats are being positive by playing mixed gigs — as opposed to the negativity of bands who play to women-only.
But Barbara has a different perspective. She explains in her calm, clear way that many of these women aren’t asking to be treated as equals; they are asking to be left alone.
“They live separatist lives, blocking men out totally from everything they do. So why should that change just because they’re onstage?”
This is where the confusion as to what constitutes feminism arises. Barbara admits she is a feminist, but says she feels as much alienated from the hard-liners as the average person in the street. And Gina Birch — The Raincoats’ guitarist whose flat Nottinghamshire accent makes her sound scathing — feels it’s important to stress that these women are not “a load of dykes”; a popular misconception associated with feminism.
“Maybe some of them are gay, but I think the reason that most of them cut themselves off is because they see it as a stage in life, in their development, their own consciousness; that it’s something they want at the moment. They feel very strongly that they need that space, after previously being denied it — socially.”
Of course things have got a lot easier and a lot fairer for women in recent years, but sexism still exists.
As Barbara says, many men will go along to see an all-girl band to either have a laugh, at what they expect to be poor musicianship, or else to leer. To much of the media, advertising agencies and record companies girls are a viable proposition if they’re sex symbols like Debbie Harry, or alternatively cutesy little girls, innocent, naive and lovably helpless, like The Dolly Mixtures. Women are rarely treated as seriously as men and bands like The Passions, The Raincoats and The Au Pairs are demanding to be treated as equals.
But none can emphasise enough that this is implicit in what they do — the fact they are onstage playing innovatory and distinctive music without complying to any of the media images of women.
“BUT I FEEL very strongly that I’m a woman and that I’m a feminist,” Barbara asserts. “A lot of the motivation for doing what I do comes from being a woman. There’s nothing I enjoy more than being onstage and slagging off men.”
She wants to give men a taste of their own medicine. It may seem vindictive and narrow-minded, but you have to admire her determination: it’s that which will push The Passions to the top because that strength comes through in their music.
“All the best rock has been about people’s anger,” she expands. “The teenage revolt or whatever. It’s all to do with emotions being reflected in the music and how genuine those emotions are. Obviously you are going to sing and play better about something you believe in, or you’ve experienced.”
This prompts all present to agree and talk at once, obviously happier and more confident to discuss their music and views on women in rock now that it has been put into context. As the girls relax, sprawling casually on the settee, chairs and floor, the atmosphere becomes less intense.
Vicky, the Raincoat who plays the violin so crazily and uniquely, suggests from her corner by the window, “Maybe if we weren’t the people we are, didn’t have these feelings, our music wouldn’t appeal so much and we wouldn’t have come this far. We would have met too many obstructions and wouldn’t have had the impetus to keep going. When you feel strongly about something it does keep you together and keeps you going.”
And The Passions, Raincoats and Au Pairs are certainly three of the most stimulating, genuinely emotive and startlingly different bands I have seen recently.
Their views and experiences are, to some extent, reflected in their lyrics. The Passions’ ‘Why Me’ explains how men are patronising women by constantly telling them how equal they are; The Raincoats’ ‘Off Duty Trip’ is the true story of a soldier who raped a young girl but was acquitted by the court so that he could continue his army career; and The Au Pairs’ ‘Come Again’, recently banned by the BBC because it was “too explicit about sex”, is about faking orgasms — but is even more about the ways female sexuality continually gets redefined in male terms — like on the television.
“But I think The Au Pairs are much more overt about women and feminism than The Raincoats or The Passions,” Barbara comments, directing her statement at Au Pairs’ guitarist and vocalist Les, who is sitting quietly in the corner. She probably feels awkward because coming from Birmingham, The Au Pairs don’t know The Passions and The Raincoats as well as those two know each other. And in any case, Barbara has elected herself spokesperson for all three bands.
She’s not pushy or forceful and nor does she dominate the conversation. It’s just that she instigates most of the areas of discussion and neatly summarises them at the end, having allowed everyone to have their say. Les, however, is quick to answer Barbara. “Basically I think we’re writing about the same things as you or any other band. Everyone’s got basically the same themes — love, sex, arguments, sorrow. It’s just that everyone expresses them from their own personal viewpoint. Like you said, that’s where the feeling in the music comes from.”
There is certainly more anger and bitterness — as opposed to cynicism and subtlety — in The Au Pairs’ music, though they are more brutally direct. Onstage, Les is forceful, almost intimidating; as are the rest of the band — bassist Jane Munro, drummer Pete Hammond and second guitarist and vocalist Paul Foad. Hopefully, the charisma and strength of this line-up will get them over their present problems — their inability to get a suitable recording deal.
Travelling from Birmingham to London regularly, always playing to enthusiastic audience response, they must now be as well-known as both The Passions and The Raincoats. Yet they haven’t got a record contract. They’ve already brought out one self-financed single and they’re considering doing the same for a second. But it’s a ludicrous situation that a band as popular as this can be ignored.
BUT BACK to the lyrics. The Raincoats’ drummer Ingrid Weiss, who joined them last January, thinks the words are probably more important to the singer than the punter. Who can hear the lyrics, particularly at a gig, anyway? And how many try to listen? Most are there to hear and feel the music.
“The lyrics are important, but it’s the way the group interact, dress and play, the general tone of the whole performance that makes the most impression on people.”
And what impression is made because they’re all girls onstage?
“Well, a lot,” Gina replies, admitting that The Slits inspired her. “Simply because of the identification factor — girls identifying with other girls.”
As Barbara succinctly puts it: “Its like an HM audience playing invisible guitars; that’s identification with the band.” And The Passions, Raincoats and Au Pairs have all noticed an increase in the number of girls at their gigs, particularly if it’s for Rock Against Sexism.
“Which is all very nice,” Ingrid declares. “But they shouldn’t have to have a special event like that to bring them together.”
Barbara agrees. “Maybe it’s because it’s not so culturally acceptable for women to go out to gigs on their own, but they’ll go to RAS because it’s a benefit, not because it’s a gig — and if so that’s the next problem to overcome.”
Do the bands feel disheartened by the other, better known women in rock, who exploited their sexuality; or, in the case of Debbie Harry, knowingly allowed themselves to be exploited?
Surprisingly, Barbara and Vicky consider people such as Joan Armatrading and Patti Smith to be more of a threat.
“They’ve actually denied they’re feminists, denied the women’s movement,” Barbara spits angrily. “They’ve said Oh yes, it’s over there somewhere,” — she gestures wildly — “but it’s nothing to do with us. We’re here because of our merits. Which is fair enough, but at the same time you know that’s not true.
“I know when Patti Smith came over here there were loads of women who went to see her because of the way she is, her way of performing, and to deny her association, to me, is cowardly. I think they’re lying to themselves when they say the women’s movement has nothing to do with them.
“I just feel letdown; they could do so much, but it’s as if they’re afraid of being labelled. That’s one of the reasons I’ve come on so strong in this interview, because I was worried that no-one else would say it — because they’re afraid of being labelled ‘a feminist’.”
“But that’s just it isn’t it?” Vicky shouts jubilantly. “If more people said it then the label would disappear. If all the Patti Smiths had said it in the past then we probably wouldn’t have as many problems as we have now — which is why I think it’s very important that we should come out and talk more strongly about it.”
But, Barbara reflects, it’s never really been brought out in interviews before. Perhaps, I suggest, that’s because the interviewer thought it may be patronising. As they’ve said, their feelings should be implicit — and perhaps that’s the way Smith and Armatrading see it too.
Barbara argues back. “Yes, but women in rock is one of the most interesting things that’s going on now. The bands here are three of the most interesting in England at the moment.
“To see women in bands excites and, interests people because they’re aware that something is going on and they want to be in on it. People do not walk out when we play.“
And that’s the clinching factor: people accept and respect these bands because they play good rock music. Their ideas — as they have said — are implicit. But are they really getting through?
Later on at the mass photo session with all the girls, Barbara suggests a picture with us all doing the clenched fist salute — “for a laugh”. But would everyone see the joke? So we decide not to. As Barbara said maybe in 30 years time people will see something like that in a more humorous and understanding way; as they probably will Debbie Harry who, Barbara considers, laughs in the public’s silly faces for being so gullible. Marilyn Monroe did the same, and like her, Debbie is just as misunderstood.
Really? Well, there is obviously something very cool and calculating about a woman who claims to be a group member but then sells her image for their benefit. So is she a publicity hooker and hypocrite?
THE MO-DETTES do not agree with either mine, The Passions’, Raincoats’ or Au Pairs’ views on Ms Harry. They say she is beautiful, so why shouldn’t she make the most of it? In other words, why not exploit what she’s got. Nor are they as willing to talk to me as the other bands did; judging by their initial attitude, I’m surprised they agreed to do the interview.
As soon as I meet them in a noisy, bustling cafe, they verbally attack me. I am late which may have something to do with this peevish reception. Why are you doing an article on feminism? they query. People are always asking us about that. I patiently explain that I’m doing a piece on women in rock more than feminists in rock — their attitudes and views on sexism; what the word feminist means to them; if in fact that word exists.
But they don’t seem to believe me. They probably think I want to slag them for dressing femininely and attractively on stage.
Guitarist Kate Korris, gloomily propping up her head with her hand, barks aggressively in her funny Yank/Cockney twang. “It just makes me feel like a freak after a while, you know? And I don’t think we are freaks. Why should you have to explain why you’re a woman. Sorry about this, but I’m more interested in music.”
The other bands seem to think it important to talk about sexism because it’s something they’ve all come up against.
“Well,” bassist Jane Crockford chirps immediately, “we’ve only been going eleven months and we’ve done alright. I’d say being girls has helped us more than anything.”
She giggles sillily and the cafe waiter turns on the coffee machine, again interrupting the flow of conversation. Jane notices my look of exasperation and concedes that they may yet experience problems with record companies as many of them regard all-girl bands as novelty acts. “And that’s what we’re not,” she insists. Like the others. The Mo-dettes emphasise that they are musicians and demand to be treated as such.
“I know people didn’t take us seriously at first,” Ramona Carlier explains. “But then we weren’t very good musicians. Now that we’ve improved and tightened up, they are taking us seriously.”
Ramona’s rich warm voice and attractive French accent indicates immediately that she is the vocalist. She is also the most willing to talk — and to listen — while the others either don’t speak or all talk at once. After discussing the definition of feminism at length, she decides she is a feminist because she’s for equal rights for women, abortion on demand and so on. But the others are more cynical.
Jane: “Well, I don’t think of myself as being a feminist because I’ve never thought of it as a problem, being a woman. It’s never hindered me in what I want to do and have done.”
Kate: “Feminism, to me, is almost something that’s out of date now. Women have come out, so to speak. There are lots of girls doing things now that they wouldn’t or couldn’t do 20 years ago. There are more women in bands now, and more forming all the time.”
Drummer June Miles, who has hitherto limited herself to monosyllabic responses to everything that has been said, realises it’s her turn to speak up.
“We’re being positive, thinking how good it is that men as well as girls come to our gigs. We’re not looking back on the time when there would have been no girls in the audience, and we wouldn’t even have been up there. We’re looking forward, because that’s the way we’re going.
“Anyway to businessmen and record companies being girls is a plus.”
Because they can exploit your sexuality?
“Exactly,” Jane responds without hesitation. “And that’s only helped us so far.”
June leaps back in. “I don’t give a shit what they do so long as people treat our music seriously.”
FINE. SO feminism to The Mo-dettes is a redundant subject. But don’t they feel any sympathy or responsibility for other girls who are still trapped by conditioning?
Kate is blunt and almost uncaring. “This may sound very elitist, but it’s true that most of the world — particularly women — are not interested in doing anything but having their flats, a steady job, being secure and having just a bit of fun on the side. There will always be people like that, as well as people who aren’t happy with it and,” she glances at me insinuatingly, “there will always be people who try to force them out of it too.”
Obviously Kate still thinks I am out to condemn the band for not defending women more. She may also be implying that the media’s manipulation of people (myself included) is just as bad as the manipulation of women. It is, but that’s not what I’m trying to do; unfortunately The Mo-dettes and I do not seem to communicate that well.
And of course there are certain natural occurrences which stop women forming a band, Kate adds. They may want to have babies. “In fact, I think the majority do, and you can’t go gigging and touring when you’re pregnant or with a small child. It may seem very unfair, but unfortunately men do not have babies.”
“If I got pregnant now,” Jane says simply “that would be the end of the band for me because I wouldn’t abort it.”
None of The Mo-dettes’ songs is about sexism — but they are about girls and girls’ emotions, they stress, because they are girls. And that’s also why they dress femininely; not, they are adamant, because of anyone’s manipulation or conditioning.
“We like to look good onstage, and I don’t think that’s wrong,” says Ramona. “We’re doing a show after all and even men want to look good, particularly onstage.”
“Men,” Kate adds drily, “are often sex symbols in rock ‘n’ roll too, y’know. It’s just that women kick up more of a fuss about it.”
The Mo-dettes all feel that the individual is the most important thing; which is why they know they’re not being exploited. They are how they want to be — mini-skirts sometimes yes, but as Jane says she’s not kidding herself she’s a Debbie Harry.
“We’re very identifiable with the majority of girls. The can relate to us, because we try and make ourselves look pretty and feminine. But how many girls want to look like The Slits, The Passions or The Raincoats? They’re so straight and boring.”
Although complimentary about their musical style and ability, Jane feels that their appearance is likely to alienate girls. “But take a band like The Dolly Mixtures,” she adds. “They’re well and truly exploited image-wise and they can’t play well either. Now there’s a band with problems.”
WHEN ALL-GIRL heavy metal band Girlschool are asked about the problems they have come up against as women in rock and how they cope with them, bass guitarist Enid Williams inadvertently hits the nail right on the head with her opening sentence.
“The trouble is half the world are men…” she says, before breaking off in laughter and correcting it to “the fact is…”
But Girlschool didn’t really see the problem until they formed a band, and particularly being in heavy metal (or heavy rock as they prefer to call it), they were slammed right up against what must be some of the most sexist people in rock. And the current chart single by Rainbow, ‘All Night Long’ is an example of those attitudes: “I don’t know about your brain but you look alright… Your mouth is open but I don’t want to hear you…“
“It’s certainly much harder for people to accept girls in heavy rock bands, than say punk or mod,” guitarist Kelly Johnson — the tallest, blondest Girl — cautiously agrees.
“Because,” continues the loquacious, nonchalant rhythm guitarist, Kim McAuliffe, “it’s such a contradiction to the lyrics and whole macho pose bit: men rule and are the masters of heavy rock an’ all that crap, and girls are just dumb chicks and sex objects.
“But if we had gone onstage dressed in feminine or sexy clothes we definitely wouldn’t have got where we are now because the audience wouldn’t have treated us seriously. But because we go on looking like this…” she indicates her worn black jeans, plimsolls and leather jacket and tugs at her untidy hair “…they’ve got no option but to listen to the music — and then they know we’re serious.”
But don’t heavy metal audiences expect a sort of unattainable demigod up there onstage? Guys with cocks bigger than they could ever hope for (with the aid of many a rolled-up handkerchief) and a macho ego ten times as big as their own? People they can worship. So isn’t it inevitable that they should demand the same of the female counterparts who dare to clamber onstage? Shouldn’t they be super sex symbols too?
Kim admits that they thought that would be a problem in the beginning.
“Like when we used to go to Led Zeppelin gigs people just used to stand there and gawp at Robert Plant. But now people go out more just to have a good time and headbang because the so-called new wave HM bands aren’t into the posey cock rock so much any more. The music is more important.”
But the new wave HM lyrics are just as sexist aren’t they? How do Girlschool counter this?
The irrepressible Kim jumps in again. “We do have some lyrics that are about sexism, such as ‘Not For Sale’ which is about the way women are exploited in advertising, like in selling cars. And another, ‘Baby Doll’ is about American beauty queens and the whole cattle market game. But those two are the only ones.”
LIKE THE Passions, Raincoats and Au Pairs they consider it more positive to write about things in life that affect everybody, male and female. They see hard-core feminism as being very negative, the opposite end of the sex discrimination spectrum.
In their early days they had a guitarist called Deidre Cartwright who helped them a lot when they were learning. Although not hard-core, she had strong feminist views, and so Girlschool played a few women-only gigs. “And I felt uneasy with it being all girls,” Kelly confesses. “There was such a weird atmosphere with no men there; it really noticed.” All four admit that they felt intimidated, frightened even, by this ‘unnatural’ set-up.
“There are a lot of men who do sympathise,” Enid reasons. “But when they come across extreme feminism they feel threatened. They can accept that girls are equal if they show them that they’re capable musicians. But if men are excluded from women’s gigs, how are they to judge?”
For Girlschool it is very important that the men judge how good they are because in their audiences (as opposed to other types of music), the men still have a strong hold over the women. And at first the band experienced pre-gig bickering and cat-calls (in the traditional gossip-house, the women’s toilets, of course) in the vein of “Huh, tough girls, think they can be as good as our men”. But recently more female fans are coming backstage and congratulating them, and asking for help and encouragement with bands themselves. Which is probably as much to do with their boyfriends’ attitudes to Girlschool changing as seeing the girls for themselves.
And finally Kelly explains that they all feel much the same as The Passions do about sexism: they are aware of it, particularly in rock, and rather obviously, they are feminists. But again that is implicit in what they do — the fact they’re up there onstage in a successful rock band. They don’t feel they have to resort to vitriol.
“But people have to talk about it sometimes too,” she stresses, “because it is there, you can’t just ignore it. It should be brought to the surface and pointed out now and again to counter all that conditioning that most people aren’t aware of — on television, women doing the washing-up and cooking while the men are out digging a hole in the road to earn the daily bread or being mechanically minded ‘naturally’, mending the car.
“If it’s not pointed out then things will carry on as they are for a lot longer.”
VIV ALBERTINE, the Slits’ guitarist, admits that she thinks the whole idea of the interview — and I’m not sure she means just the subject matter — is rather passé. “I’m only doing it for the publicity and some good conversation,” she states. “There are more girls participating in all walks of life now, and it seems to me that the more you talk about something and put it into a box and start labelling it, the more you are actually slowing it down and isolating it. The more coverage and press it gets, the more it becomes a reality instead of just laughed off.
“If anyone says or implies that women are inferior, it doesn’t hurt or bother me at all. I know I’m just dealing with a complete arsehole.” And she says that she has come up against a lot of “arseholes” in the rock business — but no more than in any other walk of life.
But of course a woman can be just as much of an arsehole; and so Viv feels, “People, everybody, need to be better educated, starting in school.
“The one thing people need above all else is confidence in themselves as individuals. Everyone has something to give someone else and their feelings can be expressed in so many ways — drawing, singing, playing an instrument. Therefore I feel it’s very important to encourage children at school to do anything that comes naturally to them — even daydreaming, because great things often come from daydreaming.”
And we launch into a long discussion about education, relevant but in an obscure way, before I manage to twist the conversation back to the subject Viv is trying hard to avoid.
Do the Slits feel that they are encouraging more women to go to gigs, play instruments and form bands?
“Not really, and I don’t think that’s necessary, because everybody chooses a different way in which to express themselves — and I think that has a lot to do with why fewer women are into rock music. It’s a very aggressive and insecure — as The Mo-dettes said — means of expression.
“Like you and I, we probably feel the same way about lots of things, but you choose to express yourself through writing and I through music.”
This may also be why fewer women go to see HM bands than any other. Viv believes that women are naturally attracted to a more rhythmic, lighter music because they’re naturally more balanced and rhythmic than men. Their whole body, in fact, is geared to a monthly cycle — and so we launch into another relevant, but obscure discussion about body rhythms, until yet again I manage to twist the conversation back to the subject.
Isn’t the aggression The Slits display onstage and in their music a way of asserting their position, getting themselves noticed and gaining a foothold in what was even more of a man’s (rock) world when they started out three years ago?
“Not at all,” Viv infuriatingly disagrees. “I don’t think we or our music is particularly aggressive. We are who we are; we do what we do; we’re individuals.”
How important is it for The Slits that they are probably the first of the new generation of women to challenge the structure of rock and roll? After all, they have influenced other women to do the same — Gina of The Raincoats is an immediate example.
“But I just don’t want to be considered more important than anyone else. It’s like-being bunged on a pedestal — and then you’ve lost your whole reason for doing it; it just gets buried.
“That’s the whole thing about the media: all too often they take something and turn it into the opposite of what it was.” She waves the air vaguely, implying that she means the media in general. But like Kate getting in her little dig the only difference is that I understand exactly what Viv means — and agree with her.
“But we are fighting that idea of being put up on a pedestal. Like, we don’t give autographs and things like that, because people are all too willing to be sheep and play follow my leader. And if you’re not careful you can be trapped into becoming what you’re trying to fight.”
And this is exactly the same as the other bands saying they were worried about being labelled feminist bands because then what they were trying to do — bring people together by treating everyone as equal — would be negated. Right?
At last she agrees. “You can’t want to be equal, you just are equal. Which is why,” she suddenly decides, straightening up abruptly, “I refuse to use the word feminist any more. It’s redundant. What we, women in rock, are, is part of the peoplist movement.”
THE WHOLE discussion is brought to a natural conclusion by a mass photo session a few days later, when all six bands are brought together — except Viv who is away in Belgium.
It’s a warm, sunny afternoon in Soho’s Wardour Street and everyone is lively, laughing and talking — even Girlschool who had only got back from a gig in the West Country in the early hours of the morning. But what stands out most is that everyone has dressed-up a little, put on make-up, and looks bright and colourful — as anyone would when having their photograph taken.
Only Barbara appears as she did for the interview: plainly, casually dressed, with no cosmetics. But she is not trying to be a martyr by going against the grain (of the rest of the group). She is what she is — as the others are what they are.
People come out of the pubs and onto the street to watch. There is a general air of excitement, an awareness that something is very definitely going on. And of course they’re right.
© Deanne Pearson, New Musical Express, 29 March 1980