PKM continues its series of seminal women in punk! This installment takes us into the explosion of the British punk scene with a look at musicians, designers, activists, journalists & photographers – including Siouxsie Sioux, Soo Catwoman, Poly Styrene, Caroline Coon, Vivienne Westwood and more
A patch of yellow between spikes of jet-black hair. Dark red lipstick and kohl-rimmed eyes. Jagged bright orange hair, pasty white skin, and rotten teeth. Tri-colored Union Jacks on tattered T-shirts and ragged leather jackets. These might not have been the first images I saw of the British punks in the 1970s, but they are the first ones I remember. Before then, punk was mainly black and white to me: the photos taken outside CBGBs, a couple of album covers, some bands leaning against brick walls. What I’d seen happening in New York in 1975-1976 seemed appropriately black & white & grainy, like the city itself back then. But the British, they were so wonderfully…colourful.
From this side of the Atlantic, the British punk scene seemed to explode, wholly formed, from the stages and basements of London in 1976. Within six months of the first Sex Pistols’ gig (November 1975), a combination of young glam rock fans (which was past its heyday), pub rock regulars, and kids too young to drink or drive had created a scene around the band. While the scene that formed in New York around CBGBs evolved over several years, in London the Pistols played for a few months and then—wham—a whole new crop of bands emerged with fans of all stripes coming out to support them.
“Soo Catwoman was a true punk fan, the too seldom appreciated heart of any music scene. I mean, what sound does a band make if it plays in a club and no one hears it?”
This was not a T-shirt-and-jeans crowd. Some young punks had learned about style from the glam bands, but this was glam turned sideways and dosed with boredom, anger, and alienation. The dyed hair and elaborately shaved haircuts, black ghoulish eye makeup, bondage gear, and piercings—it was a mighty long way down rock ‘n’ roll from Marc Bolan’s glittery cheeks in 1974 to punks with safety pins through their cheeks two years later.
In those photos and television reports from London, I saw Siouxsie Sioux, Soo Catwoman, and the Bromley Contingent. The Slits, Poly Styrene and her X-Ray Spex, and Gaye and her Adverts. It was brought to us by Caroline Coon, photographers like Karen Knorr, and fashion designer Vivienne Westwood. And it was brilliant.
1) Siouxsie Sioux (singer, songwriter)
Siouxsie Sioux (born Susan Janet Ballion, 1957) is best known as the leader and singer of Siouxsie and the Banshees, the band that moved away from punk and became the new wave/synth pop/goth/what-have-you group that influenced a generation of British musicians and shook a thousand dance floors from London to Adelaide. But before her commercial success in the 1980s and 1990s, Sioux was one of the young fans who were there when punk began. She influenced the look of British punk by creatively mixing glam and fetish/bondage gear. As a member of the “Bromley Contingent,” a group of fans from the Bromley region of London, she and her friends were featured in more photos and stories than many musicians. Her transition from fan to band was swift. After learning a slot was open for the 100 Club Punk Festival, Sioux and her friend Steven Severin formed a group in two days and on September 20, 1976, they played a 20-minute improvisation of the Lord’s Prayer, “Twist and Shout”, and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”. A few months later she appeared with the Pistols in the infamous television interview with Bill Grundy (check YouTube). Within a year Sioux distanced herself from the punk scene and began touring with the Banshees. The most successful female musician to emerge from the British punk scene, Sioux has continued a solo career since breaking up her voice-and-drums duo, The Creatures, in 2005.
Soo Catwoman (born Soo Lucas, 1954) was not a musician, writer, or photographer—she was a fan and a friend of British and American punk bands. Yet she created one of the most famous punk rock images of all time. Her infamous “catwoman” look, which was eventually used on magazine covers, T-shirts, and posters, came about when she walked into her local barber shop with a new idea. She parted her hair on both sides and asked the barber to part the back for her and then shave off the hair in the middle. He was shocked but that radical move changed her life—she became Catwoman and within the year she was on the cover of Anarchy in the UK magazine, for which she was neither informed nor paid. (For the film The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, Malcolm McLaren cast a young teenager to play Soo Catwoman and then suggested that her haircut and image was orchestrated under his guidance. Not true.) Despite how punk was portrayed in the media, to Soo and her friends the whole scene was lighthearted and fun. It was an egalitarian place where men and women socialized easily with like-minded people regardless of gender. As it says on her website, “Her rebellion was not one of anarchy, violence or profanity, hers was a silent, visual statement of personal freedom and individual expression.” Over the years, Soo’s image was used commercially many times, though she was never asked for permission and never received any payment. Finally, in 2008 her daughter began designing, printing, and selling official Soo Catwoman T-shirts. Soo Catwoman was a true punk fan, the too seldom appreciated heart of any music scene. I mean, what sound does a band make if it plays in a club and no one hears it?
Poly Styrene (born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, 1957– 2011) was the leader and lead singer of X-Ray Spex, the band that produced songs about consumerism and racism and recorded one of punk’s most memorable anthems, “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” Opening with the line, “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard but I think, oh bondage, up yours!”, the tune’s driving beat and Lora Logic’s squawking saxophone propels it along like a feminist punk-infused version of Roxy Music’s “Editions of You”. Born in London to a Scotch-Irish mother and a Somali father, Styrene was a rarity in punk—she was mixed race and had musical experience. At 18 she recorded her first demo album and released her first single, a reggae track, in 1976 under her real name, Mari Elliott. After seeing the Sex Pistols perform, she changed her name to Poly Styrene “because it’s a lightweight, disposable product,” she said, and placed an ad for “young punx” to form X-Ray Spex. Over the next three years, the band released five singles and one album, Germfree Adolescents, widely considered a punk classic. The band broke up in 1979 and soon after Styrene was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia. She was properly diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1991, rejoined the group, and performed a sold-out show at the Brixton Academy. In March 2011 Styrene released a stellar solo album, Generation Indigo. Louder Than War called it, “A fantastic return to form, Poly is about to pull off an unlikely comeback.” The BBC and others predicted a comeback as well, but it was not to be. A month later, Poly Styrene died from breast and spinal cancer.
Artist Gee Vaucher (born 1945) is best known for her work in the late 1970s and early 1980s with the anarcho-pacifist punk band Crass. As the creator of some of the most disturbing and acclaimed punk images of the time, Vaucher expressed her pacifist and feminist views through collages and paintings. Working at first in black and white because the band could not afford to reproduce color artwork for their album covers, Vaucher’s in-your-face art mirrored the band’s political sensibilities and expressed the need for social change. For her 1980 piece “Who do they think they are fooling?—You?” Vaucher took a famous photo of the Sex Pistols and replaced the band with the Queen of England, Pope John Paul II, the Statue of Liberty, and Margaret Thatcher all decked out in punk attire. More recent, on the day after the 2016 U.S. presidential election the Daily Mail featured Vaucher’s “Oh America” (1989) on their front page. The image was widely shared around the world. Born in Dagenham in East London, Vaucher was a political illustrator for The New York Times, New York magazine, and other publications early in her career. Over the past 40 years, she has produced and distributed a number of her books and zines herself, on her own terms. Her most recent work, “A Week of Knots”, was published through her Exitstencil Press. In 2016 Vaucher was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Essex. Is it possible that British society has grown to accept this confrontational, feminist activist/artist? “Introspective”, the first major British show of Vaucher’s work, opened in November 2016, one week after the U.S. election.
Caroline Coon (born 1945) was one of the first British journalists to write about punk in a national magazine and managed The Clash from 1978 to 1980. Coon started writing for the weekly British music magazine Melody Maker in 1974; two years later she saw the Sex Pistols perform. As she wrote in her book 1988: The New Wave Punk Rock Explosion, “I hadn’t expected to be so impressed. And yet, in a strange way, the Sex Pistols were what I had been looking for in rock ‘n’ roll for ages.” When she pitched a story on the band to her editors at Melody Maker, the idea was immediately rejected. Five months later, in August 1976, the magazine published her first feature on punk rock. Born into a wealthy family, Coon left home and moved to London at age 16. She attended art school and trained as a figurative painter while becoming involved in London’s 1960s underground movement. In 1967, she co-founded Release, a help center set up to provide legal advice and arrange legal representation for young people charged with drug possession. After becoming involved in the punk scene, she designed the Global Revolution poster for The Clash’s Give ‘em Enough Rope album and record sleeve covers for the band’s “White Riot” single and The Police’s single “Roxanne”. Her book 1988: the New Wave Punk Rock Explosion contains illuminating stories she wrote for Melody Maker, as well as her photographs of various bands as they were starting to tour and find their footing in recording studios. Primarily an artist in recent years, Coon’s work has been exhibited in major London galleries, including the Saatchi Gallery and the Tate. She remains politically active, campaigning mainly for feminist causes.
6 – 9) The Slits (punk band, Riot Grrrl inspiration)
The Slits were formed in 1976 after 14-year-old Ari Up (born Ariane Daniela Forster, 1962 – 2010) met drummer Palmolive (born Paloma Romero, 1955) at a Clash concert. With guitarist Viv Albertine (born Viviane Katrina Louise Albertine, 1954) and bassist Tessa (born Tessa Pollitt, 1959), the reggae-inspired band embodied all of the possibilities that early punk offered. Naturally, they encountered resistance. The Slits were still learning to play their instruments when first performed publicly in March 1977 at the Clash’s spectacular at the Colosseum in Harlesden. It was Joe Strummer, a friend of Ari Up’s mother, who gave young Ari guitar lessons, and the Clash who invited them on the “White Riot” tour. On the road, the Slits caused quite a stir. “They were unmanageable and scared the music business, and Ari frightened everybody,” their manager Don Letts said. During that tour journalist Caroline Coon wrote, “They [the Slits] are far more threatening than the male musicians they are touring with. At their most outrageous, the antics of male rock stars are only traditional expressions of male aggression and delinquency. . . .The Slits, however, without giving up their capacity to be warm, emotional people, are fighting for power, independence, and recognition for their ideas and what they do.” It was only two years until Palmolive left and was replaced by a male drummer. (After leaving the Slits, Palmolive played briefly with the Raincoats before leaving music.) With drummer Budgie, the band recorded their influential punk/dub album Cut (1979). A second album, Return of the Giant Slits, followed in 1981. When they disbanded the following year, Albertine became a film director. She declined an invitation to reunite with Ari Up and Tessa in 2005, but returned to music a few years later as a solo artist. Ari Up and Tessa reconstituted an all-female version of The Slits, went on the road, and released an EP, Revenge of the Killer Slits (2006), and the album Trapped Animal (2009). In October 2010, Ari Up died from cancer. About the profound influence of punk on her life she said: “I found my identity through punk. I found it by going to a Clash rehearsal in ‘76. I was never the same.”
10) Gaye Advert (bass player)
Gaye Advert (born Gaye Black, 1956) was the bassist in the Adverts, one of the first punk bands to have a hit record in the UK. In 1977, their single “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes” reached No. 18 in the charts. With her leather jacket, black hair, and dark eye makeup, Advert came across like a darker, broodier version of Suzi Quatro and Joan Jett, and the ensuing hype in the British press made her the first home-grown punk pinup girl. She despised the attention on her looks and the friction it caused within the band. “I hated being singled out because I was female,” she said, “I just wanted to get on with playing.” The Adverts were formed in 1976 after Black and the band’s future frontman T.V. Smith moved to London from Bideford, a small coastal town in southwestern England. (The pair were later married.) The Adverts’ success was meteoric—after their third gig they signed a contract with Stiff Records and two months later, their first single, “One Chord Wonder” was released. Their debut album, Crossing the Red Sea With the Adverts, was released in 1978, reaching number 38 in the UK charts. “Their debut packs enough snotty-nosed indignation to make anybody long to spit at a policeman,” The Guardian newspaper wrote. Their second album showcased a change of direction but fared less well, and the band broke up in 1979. After the Adverts, Black stopped playing bass and disappeared from the British punk scene, eventually taking up a career as a manager in social services and focusing on her artwork. In 2010 and 2011 she curated two exhibitions of art by punk musicians at London’s Signal Gallery.
11) Karen Knorr(photographer)
In 1976-1977, photographers Karen Knorr (born 1954) and Olivier Richon captured intimate, striking, and iconic images of the punk scene as it was developing in the Roxy, Vortex, and other London clubs. The pair met at the Polytechnic of Central London (now the University of Westminster) where they studied film and photography and shared a mutual interest in punk subculture. As they began venturing out to punk clubs with their cameras, they did not set out to anonymously document what they saw. They asked their subjects to pose and captured them in black and white, lit mainly by the camera’s flash against the darkness of the clubs. There it was—the hair, the makeup, jewelry, safety pins and other personal embellishments, and the swastikas. “We chose a direct confrontation with our subject,” they wrote. “This is why our pictures are posed, affirming our presence instead of eluding it. We attempted to achieve such a formal approach in order to emphasize punk symbolism and to make it more readable.” Their series, Punks, was first exhibited at the Photographers’ Gallery in 1978 and later released as a limited edition monograph. Knorr was born in Germany and raised in Puerto Rico before moving to England in the 1970s where she has lived since. She shot her most well known work, Gentlemen (1981-1983), in London’s Saint James’s clubs to investigate Britain’s patriarchal conservative values. Over the years, Knorr has taught, exhibited, and lectured internationally at Tate Britain, Tate Modern, The University of Westminster, Harvard, The Art Institute of Chicago, and elsewhere. She is currently the Professor of Photography at the University for the Creative Arts, which specializes in art and design in southern England.
Vivienne Westwood (born Vivienne Swire, 1941) and her partner Malcolm McLaren designed the clothing that established the look of British punk. Though plenty of creative punk fans created their own styles, Westwood/McLaren were the first in Britain to design and sell punk clothing to the masses, and they introduced the fetish gear they had been selling at their store, SEX (later Seditionaries), into the punk movement. No matter how many people despised punk’s commercialization, the British punk look was codified by the styles seen, sold, or stolen from Westwood’s store: spiky hair, studs, bondage pants, brothel creepers, and torn clothes covered with antisocial messages. All her life, Westwood had been good at making things. While working as a primary school teacher in 1965, and making and selling her own jewelry, she met future Sex Pistols manager McLaren. He began helping her make jewelry and impressed her with his mod designs. Their son Joe was born in 1967. (She had been married for a short time to Derek Westwood and had a son Ben in 1963.) In the early 1970s, McLaren got access to a shop at 430 King’s Road in Chelsea. First called Let it Rock (with 1950’s inspired rock ‘n’ roll clothes) then SEX (which sold fetish wear, including rubber dresses and stilettos covered with spikes), they changed the name to Seditionaires in 1976 and began selling their contributions to punk fashion along with their risqué fetish attire. The Sex Pistols, who famously formed in SEX, wore many of Westwood’s designs. Disillusioned by punk’s unfulfilled promise of change and the rise of Margaret Thatcher, Westwood lost interest in punk by 1980. She and McLaren went on to design their first show for the catwalk, Pirate, and market it to international buyers, but the couple split in the late 1980s. Over the past three decades, Westwood has built a major brand with fashions and accessories now sold around the world. For years she has taken stances on political/social issues and continues to speak out for nuclear disarmament, clean energy, and protecting the environment.