Women played major roles as musicians, writers, photographers, artists, clothing designers…and still do
By Sharon M. Hannon
A picture of a woman got me into punk. As I stood there, holding a copy of Patti Smith’s just-released Horses album—the one with the Mapplethorpe photo on it—in my 15-year-old hands, I felt like I was looking at my future while seeing the present for the first time. I didn’t know anything about Smith at the time except that she was a poet and obsessed with Keith Richards, two qualities that rarely intersected in the mid-1970s pop culture. For months, I played Horses every day. From there it was a surprisingly short step to The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, and The Clash and my discovery, courtesy of Creem magazine, of Lou Reed, The Stooges, and the New York Dolls. Not a woman among them, except Patti.
It took a while before I realized the breadth of the roles women were playing in the punk scenes developing in New York, London, California, and all across the U.S. Punk was providing space and opportunity for all types of artists, musicians, writers, iconoclasts, eccentrics, and women. Briefly, from the late 70s to the early 80s, women played a major role in those scenes as musicians and as writers, photographers, artists, and clothing designers. Some led their own bands and, for the first time, female guitarists, bassists, and drummers found a place on the stage.
As the 1980s brought us hardcore with its hard-hitting slam dancing and thrash, the diverse and artier punk scenes that had welcomed women quickly became arenas of aggressive hyper–masculinity. Women weren’t exactly excluded but, as Jennifer Miro, singer for San Francisco’s The Nuns, has said, “Women just got squeezed out.” With few exceptions, women found themselves on the outside looking in. Things would evolve dramatically in the 1990s, but the pioneering work of women in the early days of punk should be remembered and saluted. Here are just a few of them:
1) Joan Jett (musician, songwriter, producer)
In 1975, 16-year-old Joan Jett met drummer Sandy West and formed the protopunk band The Runaways. Mixing the pop-rock sensibilities and showmanship of their British glam rock heroes with a passionate musical amateurism, the band released five albums from 1975 to 1979. They toured incessantly, becoming extremely popular in Japan, while individual band members became fixtures in the early Los Angeles punk scene. Post-Runaways, Jett produced GI, the only studio album by Los Angeles punk band The Germs. Following a short stint in London where she cut several tracks with former Sex Pistols Steve Jones and Paul Cook, Jett met producer/songwriter Kenny Laguna and together they worked on her first solo album. Though rejected by numerous labels, the duo released the record on their own label, Blackheart Records, and Jett formed her band the Blackhearts. The hit “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” from the 1982 album of the same name made Jett famous and led to a long productive career. One of those rare musicians who are respected across musical genres and generations, Jett has produced records for the all-female punk bands Bikini Kill and L7, rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson (2017), and others. In 2015, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She rocks and she rolls, but there’s no one more punk than Joan Jett.
2) Mary Harron (writer, filmmaker)
Mary Harron (b. 1953) was the first writer to get onboard when John Holmstrom and Legs McNeil started Punk magazine in 1975. Harron had met McNeil when they both worked for Total Impact, a hippie film commune on 14th Street in New York City, and she soon attended her first show at CBGBs with them. For the magazine’s first issue, she interviewed the Ramones. Harron later wrote stories for Punk on the Talking Heads, John Cale, the Sex Pistols, and others. Her interview with the Sex Pistols was their first for an American publication. After leaving Punk, Harron moved to London in the 1980s and worked as a drama and music critic. She eventually moved back to New York where she began working in film and television. I Shot Andy Warhol, the first film she wrote and directed, was released in 1996. Her later films include American Psycho, The Notorious Bettie Page, and The Moth Diaries, and she has directed episodes of many popular television shows. On November 3, Harron’s latest directorial project, Alias Grace, a mini-series based on a Margaret Atwood novel, premiered on Netflix.
“What was so thrilling about it was that we were moving forward into the future and I had no idea what that future was.” – Mary Harron, from Please Kill Me
3) Roberta Bayley (photographer)
Roberta Bayley was the chief photographer for Punk magazine and shot iconic album covers for The Ramones, The Heartbreakers (the cover of Please Kill Me), and Richard Hell and the Voidoids. Over the years, her photographs have been featured in several books about punk and in the late 1990s, she co-wrote the book Patti Smith: An Unauthorized Biographywith Victor Bockris. Bayley grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. After dropping out of college she spent the early 1970s in London before moving to New York City. In a classic case of being in the right place at the right time, she worked the door at CBGBs just as the punk scene was taking off and was soon photographing the bands and their friends including Iggy Pop, Richard Hell, The Sex Pistols, The Damned, The Clash, The Dead Boys, The New York Dolls, and Elvis Costello. Her photographs have been exhibited in major cities around the world. Bayley still lives and works in New York City.
4) Poison Ivy (guitarist, songwriter, producer)
Poison Ivy (Kristy Marlana Wallace) was the guitarist and songwriter for the long-lived punk rockabilly group The Cramps, one of the essential early New York punk bands. Born in California in 1953 and raised in Sacramento, Ivy met Lux Interior (Erick Lee Purkhiser), the future singer for the Cramps and her future husband, in 1972 while attending Sacramento State College. A few years later they moved to New York City, assembled The Cramps, and started performing. From the beginning the band delivered wild, visually stunning performances, often featuring Interior in various costumes and states of undress. Ivy, one of the few female lead guitarists at that time (or any time), and Interior co-wrote all of their original material, and she produced or co-produced several of their albums. The group continued to perform with assorted drummers, bassists, and second guitarists until 2006. Their constancy and touring eventually led to some commercial success in Europe and a cult following around the world. When Interior died in February 2009, the couple had been together for 37 years. Poison Ivy now lives in California.
5) Melanie Nissen (photographer, co-founder of Slash magazine)
In the late 1970s Los Angeles native Melanie Nissen’s interest in British punk encouraged her and her boyfriend Steve Samiof to start Slash, the first magazine to document L.A. punk. While preparing their first issue, The Damned arrived in town, and Slash got an interview and photo shoot with the group. In May 1977, Nissen’s photo of singer Dave Vanian appeared on the cover of their premier issue. At 50 cents a copy, the large format fanzine/tabloid quickly became the essential source for information about L.A. punk; from 1977 to 1980, they published 28 issues. During nights spent at the Starwood, the Masque, and other clubs, Nissen captured classic images of X, The Germs, Alice Bag Band, the Screamers, and the Weirdos. As the magazine was winding down in 1980, Slash spun off a punk record label under new management. Nissen later worked in the art department of several record labels, including Virgin, Atlantic, and Warner Brothers. If you can’t find a good copy of Slash on eBay, the magazine’s entire run has been anthologized in Slash: A History of the Legendary L.A. Punk Magazine 1977–1980, published by Hat & Beard Press.
6 & 7) Tish and Snooky Bellomo (singers, co-founded the first punk rock clothing store)
On July 7, 1977, New York City natives Tish and Snooky Bellomo took $500 and some of their clothing designs and vintage clothing and opened the country’s first punk rock boutique at 33 St. Mark’s Place in New York City. They called the store Manic Panic. The Bellomo sisters had previously sung backing vocals at early Blondie gigs and then joined a band called the Sic F*cks. While continuing to sing, they built their business over time by selling clothing, shoes, and accessories from the 50’s and 60’s that they found in vintage stores. If it was cool, they bought it. If it wasn’t, they’d deconstruct it until they liked it. They also sold cosmetics and hair color that they were bringing over from England. Eventually the Bellomos introduced Manic Panic hair dyes in every color of the rainbow, with matching colors for lips, nails, and eyes. By the 90’s, models and celebrities were clamoring for the hair dye, which was being distributed worldwide. Forty years and almost a lifetime away from CBGBs, the Bellomo sisters run Manic Panic out of their current 14,000-foot warehouse-like headquarters in Long Island City, New York.
8) Penelope Houston (singer, songwriter)
Singer Penelope Houston (b. 1958) and her band The Avengers were at the forefront of the San Francisco punk scene that coalesced around the Mabuhay Gardens, a former Filipino nightclub, in 1977. That year, shortly after she moved from Seattle to attend the San Francisco Art Institute, drummer Danny Furious asked her to join the Avengers. Within months, the band was regularly playing the “Fab Mab,” as locals called the club. The band quickly became an important contributor to California’s punk scene, playing shows at the Masque, Hollywood Palladium, and the Whisky in Los Angeles with X, Devo, the Weirdos, and Negative Trend, and touring up and down the West Coast from Los Angeles to Vancouver. In January 1978, they opened the Sex Pistols’ show at the Winterland Ballroom and witnessed the British band’s swan song. During their two-year existence the Avengers put out one EP, We Are the One, on Dangerhouse Records. The Avengers, an EP of tracks produced by the Pistols’ Steve Jones, was belatedly released in 1983. Since then the band has re-formed occasionally with various lineups always fronted by Houston. Following the short life of the original Avengers, Houston continued to write songs, record, and tour.
9) Sharon Cheslow (musician, writer)
“We developed our own sound and thought of ourselves as a girl gang ready to kick down walls that said we couldn’t do things because we were girls or kids or punks.”
Sharon Cheslow (b. 1961) formed Chalk Circle, the first all-female punk band in Washington, DC, in 1981, just as punk was turning from its early artsy phase toward hardcore. As the only all-female punk band in DC, the band had to deal with sexism and some name-calling. But as part of the tight-knit DC scene, the members of Chalk Circle were already friends with the guys who would later form Minor Threat and Youth Brigade, so for a time the band co-existed with the male bands. The situation changed when, as Cheslow later said, “the hardcore sound became more codified and the shows became more violent.” Cheslow went on to make other contributions to the punk community: she worked on her first fanzine If This Goes On from 1982 – 1983, had a radio show on WMUC-FM, and helped assemble the book Banned In D.C. about D.C.’s early 80’s punk scene. Though short-lived, Chalk Circle later inspired the women who would form Bikini Kill and Bratmobile in the early ‘90s. As David Maliz wrote about Chalk Circle in the Washington Post, “the songs achieve a similar catharsis to hardcore, just without that genre’s standard outlets of aggression. There’s a feeling of excitement and discovery throughout — a group of friends fulfilling a creative vision on their own terms, without it ever feeling like an amateur pursuit.” A retrospective of Chalk Circle, Reflection, came out in 2011 on Mississippi Records and Post Present Medium.
10) Kira Roessler (bassist, composer, sound editor)
Few women ventured too deep into the testosterone-soaked hardcore punk scene of the 1980s. One who did was Kira Roessler (b. 1962), bass player for the hardcore behemoth Black Flag from 1984 – 1985. Over two incredibly prolific years with the band, Roessler appeared on four studio albums, two live albums, and two EPs while also touring extensively. Somehow Roessler managed to continue her studies at UCLA at the same time. Fired from Black Flag in 1985, she formed the two-bass duo Dos with her husband and former Minutemen and Firehouse bassist Mike Watt. They divorced in the ‘90s, but Dos remained intermittently active. Outside of music, Roessler worked as a computer programmer before moving into sound editing for film and television. She has won two Emmys for Outstanding Sound Editing on the miniseries John Adams and on Game of Thrones and, in 2016, Roessler won an Academy Award with her team for Best Sound Editing on Mad Max: Fury Road. As of 2017, Roessler had more than 60 credits as a sound/dialog editor.