PKM profiles 10 more women who left their mark on punk, including a club owner, a photographer, a zine editor, a bandleader/bodybuilder, songwriters, musicians, and singers.
The first installment of PUNK ROCK WAS NOT A BOYS’ CLUB featured only ten of the hundreds, probably thousands, of women who played key roles in the U.S. punk scenes of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The article was not intended as a ranking or “best of” list, just a selection of women who deserve to be recognized for their contributions to punk. But there were many others.
Punk first started to spread across the country in 1976, the year the first Ramones’ album and singles by The Damned and The Sex Pistols were released. By 1977, we saw the beginning of three glorious years when the cream of the first crop of punk bands released albums and punk clubs dotted the country. Before long, small scenes sprung up around clubs in Los Angeles (the Masque), San Francisco (Mabuhay Gardens), Seattle (The Bird), Austin (Raul’s), Chicago (La Mere Vipere), Boston (the Rat), Washington, DC (Madam’s Organ), and others. If you were lucky enough to live in or have access to a major city in the late 1970s, you could at least occasionally see a live punk band. Living in Maryland at the time, I was able to head into DC or to the dark, dingy Marble Bar in downtown Baltimore where I saw some of the New York bands and local groups like Thee Katatonix, a band I knew from school that initially featured bassist Katie Katatonic. (They were lousy, but they were ours.)
Men dominated the national media coverage of punk, but women, in the bands and in the clubs, were vital to the growth of these local scenes. Below is a list of ten more women who left their mark on punk: a club owner, a photographer, a zine editor, a band leader turned body builder, and a wide range of songwriters, musicians, and singers.
1) Alice Bag (singer, songwriter, author, artist)
Alice Bag (Alicia Armendariz, b. 1958) was the lead singer and co-founder of the Bags, one of the significant bands in the early Los Angeles scene centered around the Masque in 1977-78.
Born in East Los Angeles to Mexican-born and American-naturalized parents, Bag brought her feminist sensibilities on stage with her by, as she later claimed, unconsciously channeling elements of traditional Mexican music and the intensity of its estilo bravío (bold, unapologetic, and aggressive performances by women). Her fierce vocal style, punctuated with shrieks and screams over distorted electric guitar and sped up bass and drums, is credited with influencing the sound of West Coast hardcore. In 1981, members of the Bags appeared as the Alice Bag Band in Penelope Spheeris’ seminal punk documentary, The Decline of Western Civilization. Bag later performed in other bands, including Castration Squad, Cholita, and Las Tres. She has published two books: her memoir Violence Girl (2011) and Pipe Bomb For the Soul (2015), based on diaries she kept while teaching in post-revolutionary Nicaragua in 1986. Her fundamental role in punk was highlighted in 2011 in the Smithsonian exhibit, American Sabor, Latinos in U.S. Popular Music, which toured the U.S. for four years. In 2016, she released her self-titled debut solo album of original music. Today this American artist heads boldly into the future—a musician, author, punk feminist, and self-branded “master troublemaker”—distinctly suited for our times.
2) Helen Wheels (songwriter, singer, bodybuilder)
Helen Wheels (Helen Robbins, 1949-2000) started the Helen Wheels Band in 1976 and by the following October they were playing the Halloween show at CBGBs. Wheels may have been new to fronting her own band, but she was already well known in New York rock circles—for several years she had been working with members of Blue Öyster Cult as a songwriter and costume designer. As a lead singer, Wheels made an indelible impression. “Early on, I was really mad,” she told ROCKRGRL magazine in 1999. “I used to go out in the crowd, stab knives in the tables, kick over people’s drinks. I think I alienated people during that era.” When heroin became more embedded in the New York punk scene in the late 1970s, Wheels channeled her energy into weightlifting and began competing in the sport of women’s bodybuilding. She eventually won three Regional First Place Lightweight titles and The Atlantic States Women’s Masters Championship. From 1977 to 1987, the Helen Wheels Band performed extensively in the northeastern U.S. while Wheels managed and booked the band and made promotional appearances on college radio stations and cable TV. Wheels (credited as H. Wheels or H. Robbins) wrote lyrics on five Blue Öyster Cult albums after 1976 and received two gold and one platinum album for her work. Helen Wheels died in January 2000 from complications resulting from back surgery.
3) Annie Golden (singer, actor)
Annie Golden (b. 1951) and her band The Shirts were part of the second wave of bands to emerge from CBGBs in the late 1970s. The Brooklyn-based group had been playing cover songs in clubs for several years before witnessing a Patti Smith show in 1975 that inspired them to write their own material. An audition for CBGB’s owner Hilly Kristal led to regular performances at the club. As one of the few unsigned bands left at the club, The Shirts were featured on the 1976 album Live at CBGBs, along with Mink DeVille, Tuff Darts, and The Miamis. The following year Golden graduated from the Dramatic Workshop in New York City and was cast in a Broadway revival of the musical “Hair” just as The Shirts were signed to EMI’s Harvest label. While recording their first album, Golden was also shooting Hair, the Milos Forman-directed film of the Broadway musical. The band’s first two albums, The Shirts (1978) and Streetlight Shine (1979) found some success in Europe, but without proper support from their record label, their third album, Inner Sleeve (1980), failed leading the band to eventually break up. Since leaving The Shirts, Golden has appeared in plays on and off Broadway, performed in musicals, and had parts in films including 12 Monkeys and I Love You Philip Morris. Beginning in 2013, Golden played the mute Norma Romano in the Netflix show Orange is the New Black.
4) Jenny Lens (photographer)
Los Angeles native Jenny Lens (Jenny Stern, b. ~1950) was one of the first photographers to capture the Los Angeles punk scene in its embryonic stage. Lens had already earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Art from California State University, Northridge, before she moved to Hollywood in 1976. Over the next four years, she shot some of the most iconic punk images ever produced. Perhaps the most accomplished photographer to come out of the L.A. scene, her photos of X, the Germs, the Ramones, Iggy Pop, Blondie, Patti Smith, The Clash, and many others have been featured in major music zines and magazines: Slash, Flipside, Creem, Rolling Stone, Spin, and England’s NME, Melody Maker, and MOJO, to name a few. Chances are, if you like those bands or read those magazines, you’ve seen her photos. Punk Pioneers, her first and only solo book of photos, was published in 2008. Her photos have been included in classic punk books such as “We Got the Neutron Bomb,” “Punk 365,” “The Encyclopedia of Punk,” as well as books about the Ramones, the Runaways, and AC/DC. Among the institutions that have featured her photos are Metropolitan Museum of Art (Punk: Chaos to Couture), the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (American Sabor), the Grammy Museum, and the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
Read our interview with Jenny Lens here!
5) Dody Disanto (club owner/manager, artist, dancer)
In 1980, Dody Disanto (then Bowers) turned the old Atlantis nightclub in downtown Washington, DC, into the 9:30 Club, one of the premier punk venues on the East Coast. An artist and dancer by training, Disanto was living in New York when her husband John Bowers bought the Atlantis and asked Disanto to manage and book the club. One of the first things she did was give local band Tiny Desk Unit rehearsal space in the club’s basement and book them to open for the Lounge Lizards on the club’s opening night, May 31, 1980. Legally the club accommodated 199 patrons, but it quickly became a key stopping place for punk bands on tour, as well as the venue for local groups and their audiences. (Due to the young ages of many DC punks, the club allowed people as young as 16 to enter.) Very early on, Disanto instituted hardcore matinees on Sunday afternoons, featured DJs playing brand new releases, and installed TVs to show videos well before MTV existed. On May 21, 1981, the U.S. premiere of reggae band Steel Pulse was broadcast live worldwide from the club on the night of Bob Marley’s funeral. After her divorce, Disanto sold the club in 1986. Prior to managing the club, Disanto had studied at the Corcoran and the Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris. Today she teaches at the Center for Movement Theatre in Washington, DC, and is on the faculties of the Academy for Classical Acting for the Shakespeare Theatre at the George Washington University and at The Catholic University of America.
6) Exene Cervenka (singer, songwriter, poet)
Exene Cervenka (b. 1956), singer for the seminal Los Angeles band X, is one of the most well-known figures in U.S. punk history, in part because X eventually had some mainstream success and they were distinctive and wrote really good songs. Shortly after moving to L.A. in 1976, Cervenka met John Doe at a local poetry workshop, and a year later they formed X with drummer D. J. Bonebrake and rockabilly guitarist Billy Zoom. The band, captured in their early glory in the 1981 documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, quickly moved to the forefront of the local punk bands. After releasing five albums from 1980 to 1985 (the first two on local independent label Slash Records), Zoom left the band right before their feature length documentary, X: The Unheard Music, was released. During the same period, Cervenka’s five-year-marriage to Doe ended. The band soldiered on for a few years before taking the first of several breaks. Over time, Cervenka has consistently channeled her creativity into a wide range of projects, beginning with the country band the Knitters in the mid-1980s, to poetry collaborations, a solo music career, and numerous articles and essays. In 2005, the Santa Monica Museum of Art displayed her journals and mixed media collages in a one-person exhibition titled America the Beautiful. For several years, beginning in 2009, Cervenka struggled with health problems. She has since recovered and reunited with the rest of the band. In 2017 X embarked on a 40th anniversary tour.
7) Mish Bondage (singer, songwriter)
Mish Bondage (Michelle Miller, b. 1964), singer for Portland, Oregon’s early 1980’s hardcore group Sado-Nation, is considered one of the founding members of the city’s punk scene. At age 15, Mish attended her first punk shows where she saw the original version of Sado-Nation, which had formed in 1978. Soon Mish and fellow musicians Suzy Quaalude, Amy Nitrate, Leesa Nation, and Angie formed Portland’s first all-female hardcore band, The Braphsmears. During their short existence, Mish played bass for half of their live sets and sang for the other half. When Sado-Nation’s personnel changed, they recruited Mish to become their singer. Although the group’s history officially runs from 1978 to the present, the band’s classic lineup of Mish Bondage (vocals) Steve Casmano (bass) Chuch Arjavac (drums) and David Corboy (guitar) only existed from 1980 – 1984. With Corboy, Mish wrote most of the songs that became the band’s core material. In 1984 Flipside magazine named her female vocalist of the year; later that year she left the band. After reuniting with Corboy to perform at the Northwest Legends of Punk Rock showcase in the late 1990s, the duo started work on an anthology of Sado-Nation’s recordings. The 2005 release Future Past, Present, Tense contains music from the band’s six releases beginning with their pre-Mish 1980 EP to their 2001 release, The Teal Project.
8) Wendy Eager (zine publisher, writer/editor, bassist)
Wendy Eager is the writer and editor of Guillotine, a zine she established in 1981 to cover the New York hardcore scene. Eager grew up on Long Island and moved to NYC in 1979, the year she attended her first punk shows at CBGBs. Two years later she saw her first hardcore show at Irving Plaza and discovered A7, the club at the center of the New York hardcore scene in the early 1980s. This was the place for her. As she told the Village Voice in 2014, “Hardcore is more than music. It’s a way of life and a way of thinking. The music is just one part of the whole, because it was the entire scene that made it something special and something different.” She set out to capture that scene in Guillotine. While working on Guillotine, Eager has also played bass in several hardcore bands, including Anti-Christ Newsboys, Trenchcoat Army, a group in the “loud fast rules” tradition, and her current band, Sexual Suicide, which began in 2006. Although Guillotine is now only available online, Eager hopes to bring it back in print. In the meantime, she continues to interview musicians and review books, films, live shows, and recordings related to New York hardcore. As her website says: “Guillotine, the online home for one of the longest running institutions of New York Hardcore and Punk – the place where bands like Urban Waste, Murphy’s Law and Agnostic Front got some of their first exposure – and that’s the true facts.” Hardcore.
9, 10) Marcy Mays (singer, guitarist, songwriter, club owner) and Sue Harshe (bassist, singer, songwriter)
In 1985, after the first wave of American punk but well before the Riot Grrrls, guitarist Marcy Mays, bassist Sue Harshe, and drummer Carolyn O’Leary formed Scrawl in Columbus, Ohio. For their first show, they performed a 20-minute set opening for the Meat Puppets, their initial step in their relatively quick rise through the indie ranks. Within two years they released their self-produced first album, Plus, Also, Too, on local label No Other Records and were signed to Rough Trade the following year. Scrawl eventually released seven albums between 1986 and 1998 on the Rough Trade, Simple Machines, and Elektra labels, and toured with some of best indie bands of the period. After seven years together, O’Leary left the group in 1992 and was replaced by Dana Marshall who played with the band through the 1990s. In 2000, when Elektra Records dropped the group mid-tour, Mays and Harshe went on hiatus. Though they regroup from time to time, the women have moved on. Mays has fulfilled one of her dreams and owns a Columbus club, Ace of Cups, with a real kick-ass sound system. (From 2005 – 2015 she co-owned Surly Girl Saloon.) She has also recorded with the Afghan Whigs and performs live with them on occasion. Harshe plays in a rock band called Fort Shame and composes music for silent films. In 2016 she scored and performed music for the 1920 movie The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which was commissioned by Shock Around the Clock, Columbus’ annual 24-hour horror film marathon. Recordings of her compositions for six shorter films can be found on Kino International’s DVD collection of avant-garde experimental cinema.
PUNK ROCK WAS NOT A BOYS’ CLUB – PART 1
PUNK ROCK WAS NOT A BOYS’ CLUB, PART 3 (THE UK EDITION)
MORE FROM PKM:
JORDAN: DEFYING GRAVITY AT THE DAWN OF PUNK
UNDER PRESSURE: GAIL ANN DORSEY ON PLAYING BASS FOR DAVID BOWIE
DEBBIE HARRY: THE PKM INTERVIEW – PART 1
I LEARNED EVERYTHING I KNOW ABOUT SEX FROM LYDIA LUNCH!
INTERVIEW WITH CYNTHIA ROSS OF THE ‘B’ GIRLS!
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE PRISSTEENS
THE ROCK & ROLL HALL OF FAME HATES WOMEN!