From her pre-punk perch as a record company publicist and journalist in London, Vivien Goldman immersed herself in the sounds that most moved her–reggae and then punk–and began making music of her own. She was the author of the first books on Bob Marley and has gone on to a stellar career in academia. Goldman has recently published an indispensable punk herstory, Revenge of the She-Punks: A Feminist Music History from Poly Styrene to Pussy Riot. PKM spoke with Goldman about her musical and personal journey.
Vivien Goldman started out in the early 1970s as a music journalist in London who tried her hand at making some music herself and worked in television production, and today is an adjunct professor at NYU. She sounds more than accomplished, except as you talk to her, it becomes apparent that her massively influential activity and positivism have infused nearly every strain of feminist post-punk culture to this day. And her desire to coalesce all her knowledge, passion, and hope has come together in her new punk herstory, Revenge of the She-Punks: A Feminist Music History from Poly Styrene to Pussy Riot (University of Texas Press).
Her life story mirrors her inclination to view music history – specifically, punk and reggae – as a non-linear, non-binary, non-hierarchical miasma of purposeful intent and accidental discovery, ultimately spreading internationally in a manner not as chronological and structured as the mostly Western, white, male rock cognoscenti have traditionally presented it.
Goldman’s career journey is unusual for such an influential person. Seemingly backwards, she started as a PR person at Island Records; then wrote for Sounds, NME, and others; and when she finally got to make her own music, it was in stuttering chunks, as a co-player, writer, or producer for Flying Lizards, Prince Far I, Robert Wyatt, Chantage, Massive Attack, and others. Her attitude and actions are not the fame-groping kind – not for any false modesty, but for her own unassuming sense of self-import. She’d rather tell you about some new band from the Czech Republic than go off about the fact she essentially brought Bob Marley’s music to the original UK punk scene and eventually the Western world, via her persistent championing, and the first book about the reggae legend, Soul Rebel – Natural Mystic (1981).
Considering she’s a seminal post-punk figure, Goldman is not one to automatically name-drop or wistfully go off on “the old days.” Her energy and hope prefer to keep moving forward and coming up with new angles.
Ostensibly a treatise on the oft-unmentioned influence of women in punk – from the early days through post-punk, Riot Grrrl, to Pussy Riot, and back and forth – Revenge of the She-Punks is a sprawling (for only 200 pages) extrapolation of the way punk’s original 1970s spark of rules-killing outrage has slowly but surely spread all over the globe and through music that doesn’t immediately sound “punk.” Her focus on the international aspect is welcome in this moment of so many punk history books. As much as I will never tire of another fun story about the Ramones or the Clash, Goldman offers a more immediate connection, especially for young women who may have no idea where or why punk is still out there, influencing resistance still.
Vivien Goldman: I started out in green and leafy northwest London, Hampstead, then I went to University at Warwick where one of my teachers was Germaine Greer, who was quite disapproving of my lifestyle. It was an interesting time to go to university, about five years after the big student riots, and the memory was still there. Then I moved back to London, the Ladbroke Grove area, and that was a whole scene of artists, comparable to the Lower East Side at the time, pre-gentrification, a lot of artists exchanging ideas and having fun. It was a really creative ferment, and I was lucky to get caught up in it. I worked for about seven months at Island Records, and that’s where I really developed this deep connection with reggae.
PKM: As far as Germaine Greer, who was so important to you, but disapproving. I’m always confused when you have an early educator that inspires in you these thoughts of rebellion and insubordination, but then seem to disapprove when you actually do it. Maybe because they’re a little older, and suspicious of a younger lifestyle that might seem irresponsible?
Vivien Goldman: Ha, well maybe she was just impatient, and I didn’t live up to something. Like how you’re stricter with your own crew, and maybe she was expecting higher standards. I don’t know. She’s a very important figure and thinker, but she wasn’t particularly warm and supportive. There was an irony, but I was very lucky to have that leading feminist thinker in my orbit, and just being around her, even if she was disapproving. I saw how a leading feminist thinker carries herself.
PKM: What was your position at Island Records?
Vivien Goldman: It was PR, I’d been PR at Transatlantic Records before that, doing a lot of folk and jazz. But this period was less than two years, because I was always writing. But the PR was great because I got the responsibility of working reggae. I worked with Bob Marley, Burning Spear, Aswad, Steel Pulse, and that was a whole thrilling generation. And it resonated with my background, because I was also first generation. Their parents came from the West Indies, they were economic migrants, adventurous people who’d come to find more opportunity, post-war. England was actually asking people from the former colonies to come and work these jobs that the soldiers didn’t want to do, down in the tube, etc. So I identified with that crew of bands, although my parents were a bit different because they had fled the Holocaust in Germany. But we were both making our way, discovering what it means to be English in our own different ways. And it goes beyond color, do you see what I mean? Because I felt really part of that first-generation crew.
I’m such a believer, never get bitter. If you get bitter, they won. Whatever source of your oppression, if you get bitter, they won.
PKM: I’ve always wondered about the influence of reggae in the UK in the ‘70s, as somewhat analogous to the influence of the blues in America. I feel like many white Americans and American labels got into the blues as a kind of exotic sound from a, basically, subjugated subculture. I mean that was part of the reason. So there’s a mixture from this is just great music, to an attraction to exoticism – but also an identity in some ways, if you’d picked up on the blues as a musically revolutionary way to escape your bad situation.
Vivien Goldman: Yes, and no. There’s so much more going on, of course. I see what you mean, identifying from a privileged position to an oppressed underclass. But to me it was more about the power of the music.
PKM: Of course!
Vivien Goldman: I think what you’re saying is seeing a connection between reggae and punk, and the earlier blues influence on the Rolling Stones, Beatles, R&B…
PKM: And early rockabilly, rock & roll, yeah. And that there was this large African-American population that slowly influenced the whole culture. Even punk bands in America, by the mid-70s, were kind of going back and reclaiming blues or rockabilly, tired of the bloated stadium rock thing.
Vivien Goldman: Do you know that Lester Bangs article about racism at CBGBs?
PKM: Oh yeah.
Vivien Goldman: The Afro-punk movement started to form because, while there was definitely some black presence in American punk, but not much, they had to struggle. The woman I do music with now, Felice Rosser of one of the original Afro-punk bands, Faith, is – oh, I’m actually performing now! Everything’s shifted again, and I have a new record coming out, produced by Youth of Killing Joke, my first ever album! So anyway, you only have to read Lester’s article to see, that in American punk, people like the Ramones, they’re big drive was to make music that was specifically not rooted in the blues.
PKM: Well, I guess I’d say they were probably pushing back against what “the blues” had become, via a lot of white musicians in the late ‘60s and ‘70s who’d kind of killed the form with jamming and all that. And there was a general minimalist approach in early-70s NYC punk.
Vivien Goldman: Yeah, but I would say it’s still different in the relationship between what is “black” and “white” music, because I hate those divisions anyway. I wrote a book about this, called The Black Chord (1999). It’s not just a weird projection onto this exotic music we find, because A, obviously we all come from Africa, but B, everybody had their drum: the Irish had their bodhran, Indians had their dudrah. The Chinese had a drum too, everybody has some sort of percussion. But Africa is preeminent.
PKM: The Beat! The Beat!
Vivien Goldman: Yeah. But you have to say Africa is predominant. And the English had this connection because of the colonies, so there was this profound connection to Africa that was ongoing – different than the connection in America, where you’re talking about people who were stolen, and managed miraculously with this resilience to find a way in New Orleans to merge the different sorts of drumming, etc, that became American music – jazz, R&B, rock & roll, etc. But punk is on a different branch in America. So the relationship between formerly pretty much all-white England and the black music that came to influence punk – reggae – is so different. And often people here in the U.S. don’t understand it.
When I worked with Bob Marley, I spoke with him about this a lot, and he did record that song “Punky Reggae Party,” and the connection was two youth rebel underclasses uniting.
Now that didn’t happen in America. The separation did happen a bit later in England, when they started to make it a bit more difficult for the large Caribbean population that was coming to get into the country. But despite the recent rise of and stresses caused by Brexit and so on, in general, certainly in the artistic milieu, England has been very invested in being multicultural. There’s a girl in my book, Chardine Taylor-Stone of Big Joanie, she’s one of the youngest artists in the book, quite political. She has an important quote in the book: “Don’t conflate my narrative with the African-American narrative.” Because she feels that sense of how in America, due to the conflict and separation that is still imposed on African-Americans, with police and so on, you get more of a separatism.
PKM: Well, England isn’t that innocent.
Vivien Goldman: True, it’s not like heaven in England. But Black Lives Matter arose because black people were getting more harassment and abuse. But Big Joanie, she has a white grannie and a white auntie, and that is pretty normal, and that’s the family they love. When I see what goes on here with race relations and separations, I say no, actually the world is much more fluid than that, and genetics are much more fluid than that.
PKM: And musical genetics too. What amazed me as time went on, I love the stories of early ‘60s soul records making their way to the islands, and the mixing of that into the root island rhythms.
Vivien Goldman: Yes, god yes! This talk about “cultural appropriation” – when it comes to music, it’s definitely a moot point.
PKM: Yeah, when I hear people talk about that, and pointing fingers and judging others for that, it seems childish almost, like it’s way too late in human artistic endeavor to even try to point that out.
Vivien Goldman: Oh god, yes Eric! I so agree with you. Although there are reasons people are so hooked up about that, because of the aggravation and grief they are feeling in these times. But it’s not realistic, because music mutates. And reggae is only reggae because of the diaspora, the African influence, through what they call African retention, and the African ritual ceremonies that people managed to sustain in Jamaica. But like you’re saying – Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, all of that. That was also a language to people like the Wailers, just as the Rolling Stones were given a language by the blues, through the diaspora. And I remember British reggae groups of the time – like Steel Pulse, Aswad, and so on – they used to get a lot of grief from Jamaican people, like, “Oh, we’re the roots, you’re not authentic.” But guess what, they gave a slightly different twist to it, and that can be great.
PKM: I also think when you start saying that certain cultural traditions have to stay in their box, it gets a little creepy. Like someone like, say, Cole Porter, a gay Jew in the 1920s could take music he heard in the Bronx and try to write Broadway musicals – I love that stuff, it’s so beautiful that a whole new thing can be created with love of all these musics. It is a direct expression of rejecting established tradition and forging your own path – something the left has always encouraged.
Vivien Goldman: Absolutely. Now the issue that does arise is access and getting paid. And sometimes that’s why people get upset. The Jews who wrote “In Your Easter Bonnet” and “White Christmas” and all that. It’s the Elvis scenario, who in the end did not always give props, and betrayed the people who were his friends when he was young. It’s very fraught, especially in America. But let’s go back to punk and my wonderful book, ha…
PKM: Of course. So in your book, you mention your conservative Jewish upbringing. Is there a story where you snuck out to a show or something like that and were excoriated for it the next morning?
Vivien Goldman: Not really, for the fact that I never got to sneak out. But I was very restless, and that gave me this drive to go out and explore. I was very close with my family, but my parents were pretty strict. And that was why, while I was just a little older than most of the people in the London punk scene, it was for me the first real youth movement that I participated in. And I’m glad – and that’s why I wanted to write this book – because punk liberated me. I feel very strongly that if it weren’t for punk, only the goddesses know what would’ve become of me. It was such a liberating, validating factor, and gave me such a foundation and a platform and a community. To me, the punks’ role in giving women a voice and a little opening, it wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was the start of cock rock having to crumble and make way for female artists. There was nothing before punk. There’s nothing comparable to the cultural shift that happened. And groups like the Clash and the Sex Pistols, yes, we love them, however, what they were doing was nothing as radical as the Slits or Raincoats were doing, because they were unprecedented. Whereas the Clash or the Pistols, all my friends, they were in a lineage, they had role models, but we didn’t.
That’s why I wanted to write this book – because punk liberated me. I feel very strongly that if it weren’t for punk, only the goddesses know what would’ve become of me. It was such a liberating, validating factor, and gave me such a foundation and a platform and a community.
PKM: So right before that, you were already writing for Sounds, and I assume maybe you were having to go to the occasional Rod Stewart or Jethro Tull show, and maybe were getting bored with big rock…
Vivien Goldman: Not really, because I’ve got my little niche, and others were fighting over covering Rod Stewart. I wasn’t that interested.
PKM: So, no story of where you were standing at some huge show you had to cover, and just being really bored – and then the next week seeing some small show that really blew you away?
Vivien Goldman: Yeah, well that would be a really cute narrative, but wasn’t the case because I was the only female writer, and as I write in the book, I did have quite a lot of incidents with the staff who were very territorial and invested in keeping it a boy’s own boy zone. People would pitch about what they were keen to write about. So loads of people wanted to write about the Who or whatever. No disrespect to the Who, I mean Pete Townsend published my first book, and I just wrote liner notes for Zack Starkey’s new label. I have maximum respect and affection for the Who. But there were plenty of people who wanted to cover them or big bands, and I was always covering soul or jazz already, and later punk and reggae.
When I started, there wasn’t really reggae or punk that was accessible and ready to cover. The punk movement kind of started between when I left Island and started at Sounds. I did quite well, I was part of the team that really put Bob Marley on the map, by vigorous effort. Frankly – when I was his PR for seven months, and then I went on to work for him much longer – the editors didn’t want to know. I was young and persistent and feisty. I would go over the editors head right to the publisher to insist people take Bob Marley seriously. It did increase. In a way, “Punky Reggae Party” was the jewel in the crown of what I like, which is that sweet spot where music touched activism and social awareness.
I was the only female writer, and as I write in the book, I did have quite a lot of incidents with the staff who were very territorial and invested in keeping it a boy’s own boy zone.
PKM: Perhaps an obvious question, why didn’t the industry take him seriously at first?
Vivien Goldman: Because they were invested in their own groups. In America, it was far worse. I wrote about it in my book, The Book of Exodus (2007), I interviewed people about it. This was the ‘70s, not that long after the civil rights movement. Just like the cock rock contingent at Sounds, a lot of the top African-American media people – and again, this is not a sweeping statement about everyone – but a lot of the key DJs, it took a while, and Bob had to work very hard to be acknowledge and respected. The struggle to get their own African-American sounds and bands out there was so pressing that they weren’t keen on worrying about “some little ghetto music from some small island.” But while Bob’s audiences were primarily white, African-American sort of hipsters were into him. He loved his white audiences, but his drive was always to connect the African diaspora, as well as to make the white or Asian or whatever audience understand that arc, to bind the diaspora. Of course, a lot of that finally happened after he left us, in the early ‘80s when hip hop was coming up. Eventually you’ve got Damian Marley doing stuff with Nas. That was the bridge that Bob worked so hard to build, until he dropped from trying to build it. And then hip hop and dance hall – with arguably very different values – walked across that bridge. He didn’t fully get to walk across that bridge. But let’s get back to punk.
PKM: You mention in the beginning of the book that you walked into a show once, and as you approached the stage you noticed the guy playing on stage with the long hair and flair pants was actually a woman, and it blew you away because you had never seen a woman on stage. So who was that, or what band was it?
Vivien Goldman: I don’t know. It was an anonymous female, some blues rock group.
PKM: I was thinking about that anecdote this morning, how when I was a little kid, I have memories of my brother’s friends talking, or stories in magazines, etc. about, “Is David Bowie gay? Is Marc Bolan gay?” The photo of Bowie on his knees licking Mark Ronson’s guitar, the fame of the Village People – here we are, in religiously conservative America, and there was some press hubbub about “gender-bending” before you’d even read much about female musicians. That’s how much women were not a part of the story yet.
Vivien Goldman: Yeah, true, but that’s funny you say that because Jon Savage said the reverse about the musical production of that time. You’re talking about glam. But in my book, I talk to Jon Savage – who is gay and the writer of what some would say is the definitive book of punk, England’s Dreaming (1992), certainly on the English side, because also certainly Please Kill Me is a very crucial book. But anyway, I went to him in case I, as a non-gay person, might’ve missed it. But… oh, you know, while I’m talking to you, I suddenly think I know who that woman in that band was! That’s so weird! This is why it’s always good to talk to interviewers because things pop into your head. I wonder if it wasn’t a member of a group I had forgotten to mention – Girlschool! They were glam, so talking about this it popped into my mind. That’s amazing. Ha. Anyway, so Jon Savage did not make a big fuss about being gay, but he was gay, and he was very involved in the movement. And his line about punk was that it was very coded.
PKM: Yeah, true, like people would just say Bowie or Bolan were being “funny” or “glamorous” or “in the tradition of British comedians who like to dress up,” instead of really trying to delve into that topic.
Vivien Goldman: There were gay people – Tom Robinson’s “Sing If You’re Glad to Be Gay” was the only really gay anthem to come out of that era. But Jon said otherwise it was very coded, and he reckons that there was more talk about women. Like punk started to rise a few years after when Ms. magazine started in America, and then Spare Rib in the UK. So this new idea of feminism was sort of concurrent with punk, so there was some talk about women in the scene.
PKM: Yes, of course the ERA struggle was in the news a lot; and in mainstream society, talk of women’s rights was more visible than gay rights. But general music biz chatter was delving into gay themes, if in a salacious or condescending manner. But I was just thinking that there were still not many female musicians standing on stages who would get press chatter going. My older brother had that Runaways debut (1976), and the gatefold sleeve with them all in cropped T-shirts. I have memories of thinking, this is unusual to see women in a band…
Vivien Goldman: But that’s because the Runaways were presented by a pedophile, and we talk about that in the book too, the way L.A. punk was marketed. I mean with “Cherry Bomb,” I’m not saying they had no agency at all, but they weren’t as free when they started out.
PKM: Yeah, but they were an outlier. I mean if a woman was in a band, the talk was always, “Oh wow, look, there’s a woman in the band!” There’s that great exhibit at the Museum of Sex, “Punk Lust”…
Vivien Goldman: I co-curated that and came up with that title, I’m proud to say.
PKM: That exhibit is amazing! And that exhibit really gets to the fact that gay subculture had a huge influence on punk. Okay, so what was your first punk show? Or at least a story of an early show that kind of sent you home a different person.
Vivien Goldman: It was different for me because I was already working in the business. Today, everything is so stratified, and people have PRs working for them, but then it was very much everyone mucking in together. Like when I was with NME, everyone would come into the office with badges on, what have you – Malcolm McLaren, Elvis Costello, all the people from Stiff Records – they would come and schmooze and hang around with the journalists and give them their stuff. Once I crossed that fourth wall and started covering music, everything had been more mixed anyway. I’ve always regarded myself as a cultural worker – as Marx used to put it. It was how punk aligned with how I was. I just saw me and the musicians as working in different areas, but all of us as artists together, trying to make a point.
This is where my cultural formation is different from Please Kill Me – and this is with complete respect for that book, a seminal tome, that and England’s Dreaming, and hopefully my book will bring another voice to that. But there’s such a difference between English punk and American punk. And I was a regular when I finally came to America, going to all the clubs, CBGB, talking to Talking Heads and Blondie; I hung out with the Ramones at their loft, they were very generous. But it was such a different scene, and I think it was because of the Vietnam War. It ended about a year before punk really broke out, maybe 18 months. So when you look at the Ramones, or Dick Manitoba, or any of those guys, if it was a couple years earlier, they would’ve been sent off to be soldiers and maybe died. And I think that fed into the differences between American and English punk. I’ve discussed it with Legs, in particular, I have a feeling he didn’t agree, but I’ve discussed it with other Americans, and they did agree.
PKM: You mean people were looking for an escape, sort of tired from the war?
Vivien Goldman: Yes. We were more revolutionary in London, they were more hedonistic.
PKM: That’s funny, because Lester Bangs usually framed the big, bloated stadium rock and laid-back California session musician scene of the early ‘70s as creating a retreat from all the ‘60s tumult; and that punk was a kind of reconfiguration of the anti-establishment spirit.
Vivien Goldman: Yeah, well see heroin, which played such a big part in the New York scene, was not known in England until the Heartbreakers came over to play. Before that, heroin’s role in English culture was you could go get it at the doctor. Then it was made illegal. Poor Sid started to take it, influenced by the Heartbreakers. It was a more decadent scene in NYC, there was not that sense of fighting together with other races, all of us together, the sense of social responsibility, the use of music as a weapon to try to make it a better world. That was our guiding star. I know it was a fact, because I was there and hung out with everybody – and enjoyed everybody, because hedonism can be fun too, right?
And groups like the Clash and the Sex Pistols, yes, we love them, however, what they were doing was nothing as radical as the Slits or Raincoats were doing, because they were unprecedented. Whereas the Clash or the Pistols, all my friends, they were in a lineage, they had role models, but we didn’t.
PKM: It can be revolutionary too.
Vivien Goldman: Well, I don’t know, because it seems to dissipate your energy.
PKM: I guess I’m thinking sexual hedonism, thinking all the way back to the young girls screaming at Elvis and the Beatles, etc…
Vivien Goldman: Well yeah, that’s slightly off this particular tract.
PKM: I think those tracts are at least parallel roads.
Vivien Goldman: Well, I know no lesser a figure than Tina Weymouth agreed with me in public. I did this two-part show for the BBC radio about the differences between New York and London punk, and this came up, and she laughed and said, “At CBGB, if someone came up and started to talk about politics, you’d have thought they were a square.” So that was not a fulcrum of American creativity.
PKM: I think sonically, the Stooges, MC5, that Detroit scene, and some Cleveland bands too, were revolutionary and worked as a weapon, sonically, emotionally, just a as subcultural affront to the Nixon years and bland mainstream rock.
Vivien Goldman: Yeah, that was more political, but that’s the roots of punk, but that’s not punk.
PKM: Well, the spirit of what was concluded to be “punk” simmered and influenced for a while before the SEX shop opened. I feel original British punks have their own regional pride about it, as do old New Yorkers who would instantly say that punk started with the Ramones, even as their own band, Suicide, used the term “Punk Music” on a show flier in 1972. And the Electric Eels in Cleveland in ‘72, sonically, make the Clash sound like a bar band – which they kind of were, as the pub rock scene they rose from was also an inspiring scene that gets forgotten. And let’s not forget how quickly the lyrical/image focus of British punk became cartoonish (Exploited, GBH, Discharge, Skrewdriver), while New York post-punk forged ahead with new weirder sounds.
Vivien Goldman: I think both UK and U.S. punk had good lyrics. Depends on the individual songwriters. Elvis Costello, Raincoats, Slits, the Clash all had brilliant lyrics, as did the Talking Heads etc. Joe Strummer was in more of a pub rock band before the Clash, the 101’ers.
PKM: Yeah, love ‘em!
Vivien Goldman: Joe wanted the Clash to be different from pub-rock, and they were. But pubs are key to British social life, and back then a lot of them were also music venues. Dr. Feelgood transcended pub rock but started out there. It was an organic springboard at the time.
But yeah, the revolution in America for punk was more sonic, and there was a lot more art involved. But there wasn’t as much street fighting like we had that was par for the course. It was very different. I’m not saying this qualitatively, that one is better than the other, right? I’m not putting a value judgement on it. I’m just describing the real social differences between it.
PKM: You make an interesting quick mention in the book that France is fairly underrated as a breeding ground for punk ideals.
Vivien Goldman: The French are hipsters. They had a big role in publicizing the birth of hip hop. They’ve always been more into jazz; old jazz musicians would move there because there was so much respect. So there’s a tradition of embracing these musics. So they were in at the birth of punk. I remember the great excitement of a lot of British punks, who weren’t from privileged middle-class backgrounds, and had with their first trip outside England to these French punk festivals. And the L.A. punk scene, with Claude Bessy, ex-pat Frenchman who founded Slash with his wife Philomena. So they’re hipsters, but at the same time they helped promote it. They’re so chic though, so punk was never as rough and rugged there as in other countries. They played a pivotal role. And there were people like Mano Negra, who brought in some Spanish influence.
PKM: Yeah. America is so giant that there were bands in, like Akron, Ohio, in 1974 that were doing, sonically, very revolutionary stuff.
Vivien Goldman: Right, right, absolutely. But London, kind of like CBGB, could be a more readily crafted kind of “scene” that could be identified and named. And I think the women were more united as women, in a way.
PKM: I like how in the book, you tried to not be so chronological and linear.
Vivien Goldman: Right, it’s thematic, not chronological. But that’s the way I look at life. I think it’s a more accurate and realistic way to do things.
PKM: That kind of non-linear track does contrast with the assumption that male rock history journalists and bands tend to be chronological – this old blues guy begat that rockabilly band, which begat that British beat band, which begat psychedelia, which begat glam, then punk, etc., etc. You have this lineage, this supposed canon. Whereas I think – especially in smaller, non-western countries, which your book focuses on – that young women in those countries didn’t have the wall of 400 records or loads of rock magazines, because of a lack of access usually, and they got whatever music they could hear in their town, and cassettes from friends overseas, or what have you. They gained that musical knowledge in fits and starts, and they often had no rock antecedents in their own countries.
Vivien Goldman: Yeah, that’s exactly what I say in the book. It’s a concerted effort to disrupt the lineage of female music. This book is an attempt to correct that. But I think that lineage of who influenced what does emerge, and it emerges very organically. And frankly, I just think it’s a more interesting approach, and certainly was more interesting for me to write. And how did I arrive at those themes, I suppose is the question, right?
PKM: Yes, and how you decided to focus on more international acts.
Vivien Goldman: I wanted to drop the bomb on the given wisdom, I wanted to drop the bomb on this very territorial idea which I think is used as an argument to diminish women’s role as well. That everything only happened in just a few square miles around the Lower East Side and Ladbroke Grove. And I say this as a person who was absolutely embedded in both those places. But to me it’s bigger than that. It’s important to show this, because otherwise then people can put it in a box and say it’s dead and gone, irrelevant and neutered. And I’ve seen that that’s not the case. Part of it is the mechanics of being an artist. There are still many more role models for men, and it’s still more usual for men to be in groups, so women often arrive at it later in life. That’s shifting because now they have all these rock camps and all that. But that was the result of this fact that women didn’t have these role models, and it wasn’t automatic that women might be in a band. So you could say, in a way, that punk is a starter music, because you don’t have to be so technically proficient. That’s something umbilically linked to women, why so many women in my book start with punk.
I wanted to drop the bomb on the given wisdom, I wanted to drop the bomb on this very territorial idea which I think is used as an argument to diminish women’s role as well. That everything only happened in just a few square miles around the Lower East Side and Ladbroke Grove.
PKM: And there’s been a general assumption that men have tended to be very technical – what amps are you using, what studio did you record in, who played which guitar first, etc. And that is perceived as very “male” – things have to be structured, hierarchal, mechanical; and that somehow women are more “fluid.” The structure of your book somewhat mirrors that.
Vivien Goldman: Yeah, people’s attitude when they’re not talking about things on stage. I have women in my book who are very annoyed that men have that attitude.
But what’s important is the sound. In some of my early writing, I was one of the first to focus on women musicians, and the question I raised and was pretty poignant was – what would music sound like if women were making it in an unfiltered way, not having to please cultural gatekeepers who are very reductive and not progressive? And I think that first wave of British punk showed that there was somewhat of a different sensibility. So although somebody like Suzi Quattro or even Chrissie Hynde very much related to the rock tradition and just wanted to do excellent rock, someone like the Raincoats brought in a more jazzy sensibility in the sense of the structure, not as rigid. And of course, there were some males who also shared that sensibility. And here I would cite the great Robert Wyatt, the unmatchable, everybody’s inspiration. How can I give Robert Wyatt enough respect?! Even when I was recording my new album, Robert Wyatt was at the forefront of my mind as an inspiration. He is such an inspiring musician. I would say he, Jayne Cortez, and Ornette Coleman are as much in my mind as any artist, even when I’m doing my thing now, as a grown-up person.
I see this renaissance of women coming back and recording, who’ve been silenced for years. And I’ve benefitted from that. I have that comp of my stuff that came out, Resolutionary (Staubgold, 2016); and I have my first album out soon! I don’t know many veterans like me who have their first album out at my age. I also recently did a song with a German post-punk band called Von Spar. So I think it’s important to mention there is a synergy, I’m part of the movement I’m writing about, and it’s sort of manifesting – or womanifesting – and unfolding as I write and promote.
PKM: That’s inspiring. I find a lot with female musicians as they get older, compared to a lot of male musicians – again, generalizing — get a little bitter. Women seem to get a little more excited and inspired, and that may be because they are seeing more women get involved, and maybe can feel an influence a little more.
Vivien Goldman: That’s such an interesting point! I’m such a believer, never get bitter. If you get bitter, they won. Whatever source of your oppression, if you get bitter, they won. And also, having worked with the Rock Against Racism movement way back, and the fight against fascism, what I am seeing now has been a big lesson to me. When I was coming up, some people used to wear swastikas. It wasn’t because they were Nazis, it’s because they thought, “Oh, this is so ridiculous, this is something from the past that’s gone.” I suppose for some it was a racist allegiance. But like with Sid Vicious, I mean he wasn’t a Nazi, he was just out of his depth really, leading to an early demise. He was just always trying to shock, not really knowing what was behind it. It was more performance. But now, as I say in my book, you see rights we thought were good and won, done and dusted, now under attack!
What would music sound like if women were making it in an unfiltered way, not having to please cultural gatekeepers who are very reductive and not progressive? And I think that first wave of British punk showed that there was somewhat of a different sensibility.
PKM: Plus, if you get caught down too many online comment rabbit holes, you really have to constantly watch yourself and not get caught up in all this hate and fighting. It’s like suddenly you’re thinking, “Man, I wish I could stab Trump in the forehead with a knife.” Like, why am I thinking such violent things?! I am not a violent person! But that’s what they want, they want you to become so angry and violent, just give up on rational thought and logic, and become exhausted.
Vivien Goldman: Yes, and you’ve got to stick to that! You’re demonstrating a more evolved thinking.
PKM: Well thanks. I think it’s all the coffee.
Vivien Goldman: Ha, well I think that’s where we should all be, at a more evolved thinking.
PKM: Some of the acts in your book who are trying to be evolved. We’ll start with Pussy Riot. I assume you are aware there is a certain amount of discussion about their motives and practices, as far as how dedicated they are to change, as opposed to just gaining media attention. Not to mention the artistic debates that surround collectives rather than standard bands.
Vivien Goldman: There’s a backlash, sure. But I’d like to see how someone who would argue that would fare in a Russian gulag. And a collective is very punk, that’s the heart of punk. Even in my article from the ‘70s about the Raincoats that I quote in the new book, I say part of being punk is to be non-hierarchical and be a collective.
So what I said in the ‘70s still applies. Everybody’s entitled to their opinion, but I couldn’t disagree more, I think it’s a cheap backlash. In the book, Nastya Mineralova says Pussy Riot is a prank on feminism. One of the interesting things I found in doing the book was that, especially in America now, many people are arguing about gender, “men against women,” you know. I personally don’t subscribe to that wholly, because we’ve got our allies and our colleagues and our loved ones among men. Like I was saying earlier about comparative racial separatism ideas in America – it’s just because of the pressure and the hostility that one tends to go off in a little group and separate. I once discussed this with Chuck D from Public Enemy, and I asked, is separatism an end in itself, or is it a necessary stage in a revolutionary struggle? And he said, definitely a step in a struggle, where you have to separate off and discuss your shared experiences in order to eventually be able to more fully engage in the wider world. That’s the trick – how are we all going to get along and keep the planet rolling? I’m against separatism anyway though.
PKM: So ESG, I assume you met them early on when you first moved here in?
Vivien Goldman: Well, I was on their same label for a time, early ‘80s. I started filtering over to New York in the early 1990s, but the process took a while. I used to come over a lot to interview musicians, starting in the first punk era. Some personal, human reasons led me to eventually move to New York. Actually, love led me to New York. I first lived at 1st Ave. and 9th Street.
PKM: Do you have your “Oh, it was so crazy back then” story?
Vivien Goldman: Until I moved out to exotic Jackson Hts. in Queens, the most diverse area in the world, I was always on the Lower East Side. I wound up on Ave. C at 2nd Street. It was unbelievably different back then, and wild in a good way. I don’t think I put this in the book, so here’s one. When I was on 2nd and C, there was one of those little, grubby, filthy candy stores where people could buy weed. And I went in there one day, and they said, “Well we haven’t any weed, but would you like some crack.” I was like, WHAT?! No thank you. Last time I passed by there, it’s now a very chic Viennese patisserie with gold chairs, and I thought, that’s the narrative of the neighborhood.
PKM: Speaking of a messier New York, Johnny Thunders comes to mind. You knew Patti Paladin, who Johnny recorded that great Copy Cats album with.
Vivien Goldman: I managed her.
PKM: When she had that band Snatch, right?
Vivien Goldman: Yeah. For a brief time, I managed Snatch and Generation X and Billy Idol. This was a very brief period, because I quickly saw that management wasn’t for me. It’s hard enough to manage myself. But I gave it a go, I was young and experimenting.
PKM: So Patti did that album with Johnny Thunders, you must’ve had some run-ins with him.
Vivien Goldman: No, I really didn’t, I don’t think I even met him.
PKM: Did you see the Heartbreakers when they first came over to London?
Vivien Goldman: No, I was already more of a reggae person by then. I have respect and all that, but I was in a slightly different groove.
PKM: And Chrissie Hynde?
Vivien Goldman: She used to live at my place, and we’re still good mates today.
PKM: I don’t know much about the Chinese rocker, Gia Wang, but the way you describe her and her situation of trying to make rebel music in China in the ‘90s means I’ve got some digging to do!
Vivien Goldman: Okay, well to get to that, I was actually invited to do this book because of my music. Although I’m a music and media person, I spent the whole ‘80s producing and directing in television. I had an independent television production company. So I’ve experimented a fair bit, and that’s kind of useful now when everybody has to do everything. There are reasons I stopped doing music publicly, though during that same period I co-wrote for Massive Attack a bit, and with some other people. But the state of the music industry for women, I started doing music comparatively late, almost 30, and I could see it wasn’t that joyous for prospects, and I was into different sorts of media. So suddenly there was a little revival of my music that led to this book, not my writing.
Anyway, Pitchfork did this article on women’s punk. You know, they love lists, which is kind of a hierarchical boy type thing, let’s be honest. But they published this pretty good article, and my music was getting some attention again because of that Resolutionary record, and Pitchfork asked me to write a little something for the list. And I was thinking, what can I say in this short space that will have meaning and resonate, in such few words? I was sitting at my friend’s flat, and I remember telling a friend, I’ve got to write something that will rally the troops, younger and even older women than myself, everybody, to keep going, to keep producing culture, having self-expression as something that has weight and encouragement for others. I wanted to write something encouraging. Well I must’ve done something right, because the very hip University of Texas Press reached out to me, “Would you like to write a book?” Well, like you or me, we’ve got all these projects going, but I thought, yes, this is an opportunity. I hadn’t intended to write about it, but gosh, I have a lot to say.
PKM: I was actually thinking while researching this, ‘this woman has got to write a biography’. But then reading Revenge of the She-Punks, I thought this kind of feels like a biography in way.
Vivien Goldman: Really? Interesting.
PKM: Well, the way the chapters start with song lists, and that always feels very personal to me, it says a lot about the person. Then all this music and the root theories of music and feminism, which seem like those are the root things in your life.
Vivien Goldman: There are memoir elements, and it’s very personal. They just did the audio book for Audible. It’s super personal, and at one point while I was reading it in the studio, I started crying. I was also laughing out loud too. This has really been where my life has been, consistently dealing with these issues. Trying to get myself and other women to have a parallel space as the men.
But to finish that point about Gia Wang! So having thought about how I wrote that short Pitchfork piece, I thought, if I’m going to write this long book about women in punk, what is necessary to say at this point. And to show how far-reaching it is. And I thought, to reclaim that space for women, and show how that was the most important contribution of punk – to create an opening for women and bring their own sounds to the party. Because otherwise punk might’ve just continued the same legacy of the Beatles or whatever. Even the Ramones, rebelling against the blues tradition, and working hard to make unabashedly what they thought of as white music, which today you’d think they were racist. But then some of them were Jewish…
PKM: Again, I think the kind of rebellion was maybe against what “the blues” has become by the early ‘70s, via the kind of jammy, boring white blues rock…
Vivien Goldman: Yeah, well it’s very fraught. The Ramones are a very complicated case. I remember when Riot Grrrl came around, by then, the sound of our generation had been set aside. I know in pop history that happens, but even more so in the case of girls, people forget or set it aside. And then when we saw Riot Grrrls doing their thing, it was funny because we were so proud and happy, but we also thought, “Wow, we’ve been silenced; and do the Riot Grrls even know our struggles from just a few years before?” And no, they probably don’t because we’ve been stomped on. But we’re not going to get bitter, we’re going to keep moving on. And I remember when Chicks on Speed contacted me, I was still living on Ave. C.
PKM: I remember when I heard their first records around 2001, and thinking these women really know music. Like the samples were all over the place and totally worked together, and their vocal sounds were fresh, but had some deep pop hooks, and whatever. Then in your book you mention that early on they contacted you out of the blue, saying they didn’t know about women’s music, and asked for some history from you.
Vivien Goldman: Yes, women’s music. They’re still leading cultural workers doing bold, progressive things. So that was a bold thing they did at the time, to find me. Most of my music hadn’t been reissued, and the internet wasn’t yet as widespread, no Facebook, whatever. So it was really something that they even found me. It was extraordinary, because I’d been dealing with an erasure, not just me, but a lot of people from my era. So I hope in a way this book is a continuation of their work, in book form; a continuation of a compilation like Sharon Signs to Cherry Red (RPM, 2016), Because you know, it’s exhausting to always try to reinvent the wheel, and thinking you’re the only person doing it.
PKM: I’ve read articles from older feminists who notice that no matter how progressive you think you are, things shift and change. I am sure today, if a new band called themselves Chicks on Speed, they’d probably get shit for putting “chick” in their name.
Vivien Goldman: Oh yeah, I so agree. I talk about that in the book. I quote Neneh Cherry’s daughter Tyson, who put it so well. She had a women’s listening group called, “The Ladies’ Music Pub,” and she got grief for that! Yes, it’s a contentious time, and my comment on that would be that sometimes people have just become very humorless. Where is the whimsy? Where is the satire? Where is there room for humor and affectionate satire? People get too uptight in the struggle sometimes.
PKM: And you forget the real enemy.
Vivien Goldman: Yes, exactly! Those were my words exactly! You took the words right out of my mouth.
PKM: Like why are you arguing with your friend? If you like them, and they like you, and you like these similar sounds, and your friend happened to say “chick” one day, why would you waste time arguing about that while access to abortion is currently being erased in much of the country? Honestly, that seems a little privileged.
Vivien Goldman: I agree with you. I think the key is, know your enemy. All this is set up almost like, you’re being Babylonian by shattering our potential strength when we’re trying to be united. A waste of energy. I would argue that there is a place in the revolution for humor.
PKM: There better be, or we’re gonna blow our brains out.
Vivien Goldman: Yes, it also helps to keep your spirits up and keep you strong. I think some people just don’t understand the humor, or that there’s no place for it in serious things. And I think, well, they’re just humorless, and it’s lacking in nuance, and it’s too reductive. And above all, it’s a diversionary tactic from what’s really important at hand. However, as Tyson says in the book, it’s an interesting time.
PKM: I like that when I’m sitting around with people, instead of just letting something fly out of my mouth, as it often can, just think about it for a second. You know, like mom used to tell you in kindergarten, don’t make fun of the “different” kid. That’s not “politically correct,” it’s just being an adult and being thoughtful of other people’s situations and feelings. But having to watch your jokes while having a beer at a bar can get strained and feel sort of creepy. The irony being this seemingly modern, progressive habit can seem like from an old era, and even feels characteristically American in its Puritanism, where quick judgement is the first reaction.
Vivien Goldman: And repressive. Obviously, there is humor in good faith and that comes from a good, positive place, and other humor that isn’t. But people can take their eye off the ball of what’s really important. Overly critical when they just don’t really understand what the person’s trying to say, and actually other people think its revealing and amusing and positive. It’s just so hard to please everybody. I say in the book, sometimes people get so hung up on identity that they forget who they really are. One of the great liberating aspects of punk is not to be dwelling all the time on your identity inherited from your families. So punk was meant to be, as a music, overturning norms, create yourself, find your authentic self, not totally defined by your heritage.