A Mosh Pit of One’s Own

Fea. Photo courtesy of Blackheart.

“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” Virginia Woolf writes in 1929. The same applies to being a musician, in that Woolf really means autonomy, making your own space in which to create, however you succeed in contriving it. The familiar riot grrrl cry “Girls to the front!” was designed to stop a leaping, frenzied, all-male mosh pit from preventing women from enjoying the show without getting smashed by a random pumping fist: a common complaint from girl punk fans.

Over and over, She-Punks shout for their own space, which translates as agency. No wonder, then, that groups like the Delta 5 in seventies Leeds and the Bush Tetras in early-eighties downtown New York both sang about getting people out of their face.

“Everyone called us a woman’s band, which is kind of a misinterpretation, because we always had two guys in the group,” sighs Bethan Peters, the Australia-born, New Zealand–raised bass player of the Delta 5 who really grew up as a law student/punk musician in Leeds. Delta 5’s “Mind Your Own Business” was released in 1979, a pivotal moment in England. The knock-on effect of repeated strikes led to what was called the Winter of Discontent, with its collapse of basic social services and approximation of anarchy, leading to the election of the Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher. It was the abandonment of an idea of egalitarian socialism that had failed to align itself with the future of industry and business, particularly new technology. Its replacement was a hysterically optimistic conservatism. In a domino effect, Thatcherite promises of a more dynamic capitalism with home ownership for all led to the economic devastation of the old working-class industrial North of England. As its music reflects, Leeds was in the forefront of antiestablishment thinking, with a vigorous breed of no-nonsense student Lefties. Women’s rights were a default belief for them, in contrast to the chauvinism usually ascribed to old-school Northern blokes. Alongside singer Julz Sale, the band included drummer Kelvin Knight and guitarist Alan Riggs. The women of the Delta 5 blossomed alongside their supportive male bandmates, unlike so many women artists in the punk scene. Their spiky, metallic, grating guitar sound expresses that group of artists: rigorous, uncompromising, their arrogant conceptualism tempered with welcome sarcasm.

“We all met in Leeds; the Mekons, the Gang of Four, and us were all still students at college in Leeds. I finished my degree in 1978 and stayed on after; our other bass player, Ros Allen, was doing a fine arts degree,” Peters reminisces from her village home in la France profonde, where she works from home as a high-level technology legal consultant. “It was all very interconnected. We were all going out with each other, mixed up like a big huge group of friends. The Gang of Four signed to EMI quite early. They had money, which was unheard of. We used their facilities and did our own thing, then we went out on our own and did gigs by ourselves, rushing up and down the motorway in a van.”

The genesis of “Mind Your Own Business” was communal, as befit the times. The music and arrangement was by the Delta 5, but those tough-girl lyrics were written by a boy whom they never actually met:

Someone showed us these lyrics written by Simon Best, a guy from the Leeds scene. I don’t think we analyzed it too much; it was grab it and use it. If it had been obnoxious, we wouldn’t have touched it, but it was really quite good. It did apply to the boy/girl thing, but it could also be about anyone, which was quite nice. Immediately we put together the bass line and split it into two between Roz’s fretless bass and my treble. In fact, the very first time we played it was with Dave Allen, the bass player from the Gang of Four, so it probably has some of their energy.

The peremptory oddness of the space-asserting, angry lyrics, more barked than sung by the two girls; the rounded yet still industrial edge to the neofunk bass; the crisp detachment and repeated silvery shiver of the hi-hat, followed by a drastic, dubby instrumental dropout that leaves the drummer working feet instead of hands in a martial command; and of course, those jangling, minor-key guitars vying with each other in an itchy rhythm … with all its snotty attitude, the success of “Mind Your Own Business” comes also from how the instruments match the words’ imperious demands. These were truly Rude Girls.

Can I have a taste of your ice cream?
Can I lick the crumbs from your table?
Can I interfere in your crisis?

No, mind your own business

“How it came out was lack of technique more than anything,” Peters admits. “We had a rudimentary approach to everything, and we blurted it out quite baldly. Us whooping was quite fun; we improvised at the time and it stuck. That was how we did things.”

Let’s hear it for female-friendly fellas and the relative prevalence of, or at least attempts at, gender equality among the more socialist-leaning enclaves. Given the avalanche of mostly man-made sorrow that Kathleen Hanna had to try to fix with riot grrrl, a herculean task, it’s something of a relief to be reminded of how easily the genders can get along.

“We always had loads of fanboys who would follow us ’round to all our gigs, and nobody tried anything; we had serious attitude and they were all too much in awe,” Peters says. “It was hilarious. Guys would come back and say hello in America, and give us things. We had completely no issues with us getting hassled at all. Except for the one gig that we did in Palo Alto, where some mini-fascists were making trouble at the front and I stopped playing and told them to eff off. Guys give us grief? God no, they wouldn’t dare!”

*

Independent and feisty to the bone: that was the default position of UK She-Punks, in parallel to the scrappy attitude of the boys. However, apart from the threat of random IRA bombings, street riots around the country, the regular fights between various youth tribes and the police, and confrontations at demonstrations, life was comparatively peaceful—or at least it wasn’t like a rerun of a vampire movie, as scenes in the Lower East Side sometimes appeared to be.

The Lower East Side, where so much of New York’s punk rock found a home, was low rent. To sleep in summertime, families would crowd mattresses onto the fire escapes that zigzagged up the nineteenth-century redbrick tenements. Little electric fans from the ninety-nine-cent store couldn’t defeat the stifling heat, even after dark. Lower East Side nights back then, pregentrification, were less innocent than those of UK punks. While Brits might run the gauntlet of racists or other hostile youth gangs, or the police, getting home after a gig for most young punks meant staggering onto the top deck of the last late-night bus, maybe scoring a snog on the back seat. But after, say, one in the morning, many of the dimly lit blocks in the Lower East Side, some of which were squats, actually were scary—unless you were looking to score heroin, and even then. Burned-out buildings often suspected to be landlord insurance scams had left the area almost as scarred as London after the Blitz bombings. And the downtown pleasure dome often sheltered too many real downers, figurative and literal. A good number of punk artists flirted with, and were made crazy or killed, by heroin. Arguably, its use was falsely glamorized by its association with local artistic heroes such as the writer William Burroughs and the jazz musician John Coltrane. However, together with the scare factor of jonesing junkies and vicious dealers was the way that New York was also more art conscious than other punk centers, including London. The presence of Andy Warhol’s Factory and its works canteen, Max’s Kansas City club near Union Square, was still perceived as setting a creative gold standard, even after the artist’s death.

Like so many of their peers, the Bush Tetras were drawn to New York’s art scene from elsewhere. Friends Cynthia Sley and Laura Kennedy both dropped out of art school in Cleveland. “I came to New York to have a career in art,” Sley says. “I landed in the East Village and SoHo when there was a lot of really cool music.” Explains guitarist Pat Place, “I came to New York from Chicago in 1975 because I was interested in performance and conceptual art. Basically, I crossed over from art when I met James Chance and joined the Contortions.” After the end of that twisted neojazz ensemble, the friends and jamming partners were soon reconfigured as the Bush Tetras.

“Those were the days!” Place laughs. “It couldn’t happen now. When we started in 1979, things were very different. Living on the Lower East Side, you could have a little job and play music the rest of the time.”

The first verse of the song that came to define them, 1981’s “Too Many Creeps,” was written by Place in the ticket booth at the Bleecker Street Theatre, where she and Kennedy worked. “We were freaks, and we would get hassled if we left the East Village—and even there,” she laments. To some, the girls cut an intimidating figure. “We were pretty sassy and people were scared of us. We were attacked and had a hard time,” Sley says. “With our short haircuts, people could not figure out if we were boys or girls.”

I just don’t wanna go
Out in the streets no more
Because these people they give me
They give me the creep … s
I don’t wanna
Too many creeps

Snotty, bratty, and undeniably cool, the vocals dripping disdain over a ripped-and-torn rhythm, the track had an irresistible bad girls’ attitude. They scored a deal with the indie label 99 Records, run by Ed Bahlman and his partner Gina Franklyn out of a basement record-cum-clothing store at 99 Bleecker Street. Thus the Bush Tetras became part of a community that included bands like the Bronx future funk queens ESG, the mass guitar symphonist Glenn Branca—and this writer.

Their rise was precipitate. In February 1980, Kennedy, Place, Sley, and Dee Pop opened up for 8 Eyed Spy at the cozy Tier 3—then just days later, they were opening for far better-known groups the Feelies and DNA at a significantly larger venue, Irving Plaza. Sley was so shocked she forgot to turn up her guitar, but Place played extra forcefully, and no one noticed.

The Bush Tetras were acclaimed as one of the most progressive of the New York post-punk bands. Theirs was a small world whose music rang loudly in the ears of eager international music fans; their domain consisted of the blocks below Manhattan’s Fourteenth Street, above which was considered “nosebleed territory” by scenesters. Experimental, edgy, and confrontational, spiked with their local New York funk, the Bush Tetras fit perfectly with British bands like the Delta 5 and the Gang of Four. After punk’s primal thrash, post-punks were keen to explore more rhythmic complexities. Yet they knew the implications of their singularity.

Says Pat Place, “It was a little different in our scene because there were more girls in bands.” The scene had created space for distinctive artists like the group Ut, Adele Bertei, Lydia Lunch, and Ann Magnuson’s collective/band, Pulsallama. Still, Place says, “I would definitely get attitude from male guitarists and soundmen about women playing guitar—as in, they can’t.”

Given the very exhausting circumstances of life in the post-punk fast lane, perhaps the outcome was inevitable. “We’d been on the road for three years and we were all burned out,” says Place. “There were some drugs involved. That was what was going on. Drugs were flowing, part of the whole deal. I just collapsed in the end.” Like the frenzied, fabulous scene from which they came, soon to be decimated by AIDS and Giuliani’s imperious mayoral anti-nightlife agenda, the Bush Tetras had largely succeeded in asserting their particular louche tough-girl, downtown cool persona. Within the hip confines of the Lower East Side, whose hedonistic mores helped lead to the band’s demise in 1983, they imploded under the strains of underground stardom. Yet, with the recent revival of interest in original She-Punks, the Bush Tetras began to play again and released an EP, Take the Fall, that broke a decade’s silence—they had carved a legitimate space for their cutting, deadpan hip.

*

The imperative for female space is nowhere more evident than the dance floor. For girls, being hit or kicked by pogoing blokes in a club, accidentally or not, or worse, groped by drunken strangers, is a (literally) painful intrusion that, worse, denotes contempt and the near invisibility of women to the perpetrators. Worse, it is a metaphor for the inequities of society, when even in the “rich” world, women routinely earn less than men, see few like them in powerful positions, and, after all these centuries, still have to struggle to be able to do what they want with their own bodies.

Make room for Fea from San Antonio, Texas. A common nightlife harassment scenario is vivid in their 2016 “Mujer Moderna” (“Modern Woman”) video, wherein the forceful band let their harassers know who’s boss. Crude abusers have to step back. Defining their modernity and giving Fea support in the club is the unusual sight of a neon Virgin of Guadalupe. “I don’t believe my mother thought we would make music a career. I’m sure she thought I would marry and have a baby. It was the structure in our family,” says drummer Phanie Diaz.

You can’t control it and you want it for free
I’m not a slut, I’m not a hooker,
I am a modern woman

Power-driven by Diaz and bass player Aaron Magaña, Fea almost verge on pop; harmonic guitar and vocal lines on “Mujer Moderna” mark them out as unusually tuneful for such heavy rockers. No wonder, as Diaz, whose drummer father is one among several musicians in the family, grew up hearing them play emotional Tejano and conjunto tunes at home—though she has never played with them. Fea means “ugly,” challenging pop-star norms á la Poly Styrene. Fea is aware of their “ancestors,” they say, such as the riot grrrls and even the original UK punkettes like the Raincoats and the Slits.

However, as Chicana (female descendants of Mexican immigrants) musicians, a solitary Hispanic star twinkled in the young artists’ firmament—Alicia Velasquez, a.k.a. Alice Bag of the first-wave Los Angeles midseventies punk scene favorites the Bags. “She loved punk. She wanted to play. She gave it just as hard as the men and still does,” exclaims Diaz. “To see a woman of color on stage is even more of a push to marginalized people that anyone can do it. Your race, look, size doesn’t matter. Just do it,” she urges. “We have to acknowledge that as women in music, in general, we are treated as lesser than. It’s assumed that men know more about their instruments and will play it better. We are also supposed to have a ‘look.’ Like women in music are a gimmick. This is not the case, and the more we bring it to light in song and in person, the more others will realize that women are not a gimmick. Maybe we can teach you something.”

Jenn Alva and Phanie Diaz have been jamming since they sat next to each other at middle school; Diaz was already into punk and played guitar. Swift accomplices, they formed bands. “We pretty much taught ourselves on stage. It was always by ear.” After the folky feel of Girl in a Coma, built around the vocals of Phanie’s sister Nina, the sisters tapped into their tougher side with Fea—and have kept Girl in a Coma alive too.

“Texas is definitely a macho state,” Diaz says. “The women were always cooking. Growing up there as Latinas, it was ordinary for them to serve the men first, before sitting down to eat themselves. But I grew up with a vision of music and knew no barriers, even if it was a male-dominated career.”

Happily for Fea, like their contemporaries Big Joanie in London, they benefitted from an established sisterhood of older musicians, particularly the ones who had inspired them. Their mother introduced them to the Runaways’ Joan Jett, who signed Girl in a Coma, then Fea, to her own Blackheart label and enlisted Alice Bag to coproduce their album. They reaped the rewards of hard-won battles. They have found a way to function somewhat independently and developed their own audience and market, so their survival is not dependent on success in the mainstream majority commercial arena. “Being a queer, Latina, thick woman, I felt the world was against us. We were judged as too fat or too gay,” Diaz concludes. “Whatever it was, it didn’t and doesn’t faze us. We just know we love to play and we will; and if another girl sees us up there and we are just like them, that’s the mission. Eventually everyone will see a musician and not just a woman up there. A strong musician.”

*

Since the midseventies and the dawn of female punk, women have been fluidly using the full-frontal genre to outwit their ever-evolving, m challenges. Invariably, they have to battle to make music their way—and sometimes also struggle to find out what that way is. There has been some successful selling of the rebel girl archetype: a mass audience for some contrarian punkettes, a motley crew operating within various styles. United in bucking the norm, their faces still fit. Excellence helps. They include artists as different and distinctive as Luscious Jackson (who helped segue punk into hip-hop), Deborah Anne Dyer a.k.a. Skin, Pink, Icona Pop, M.I.A., Beth Ditto, Björk, the Noisettes’ Shingai Shoniwa, Kelis, Kesha, Meshell Ndegeocello, FKA Twigs, Janelle Monáe, Santigold, Angel Haze, and Princess Nokia. Nonetheless, as the heart of punk is always with the marginals, let us also consider the weird ones who don’t fit the still often male/reductive multinational concept of what girl act will work this season. Arguably that is the female punk majority: seen as less palatable to the mainstream despite quality and originality, so never even tested.

We must make a place in a market manipulated to pander to the clichéd male gaze; find a voice for our feelings when we’ve never heard anyone sound the way we hear in our head; break generations of our family’s female mode of being; construct new forms of family and effective motherhood; position ourselves within the newly possible flexing of gender experimentation and fight for the right to do so. All this while adapting to changing projections of girly sexuality, from fifties repression to the free love, polyamorous flirtations of the sixties, seventies, and early eighties—flirtations that would mutate into the twenty-first century’s acrobatic, pornographic smorgasbord of internet lust. This very different sort of pressure on teenage girls led to a mid-twenty-first-century rise in the sort of self-harm that in a 1976 club bathroom shocked Poly Styrene into defying the bondage of society’s norms. With all of that, particularly in politically progressive and, yes, often leftist circles, outside of the mainstream conveyor belt industry, supposedly marginal twenty-first-century girls committed to their music can find a support system and a platform their predecessors could only dream of. Hope is not a joke.

 

Born in London, Vivien Goldman has been a music journalist for more than forty years and was the trusted chronicler of Bob Marley and Fela Kuti. She was a member of the new-wave bands the Flying Lizards and Chantage. Resolutionary, a retrospective compilation album of her work, was released in 2016. She is an adjunct professor teaching punk, Afrobeat, and reggae at New York University, where the Vivien Goldman Punk and Reggae Collection is archived in the Fales Library. A former documentarian, her five previous books include The Book of Exodus: The Making and Meaning of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ Album of the Century. Goldman cowrote the book for Cherchez La Femme, the Kid Creole musical that premiered at the La Mama Theatre in New York in 2016.

Excerpted from Revenge of the She-Punks, by Vivien Goldman. Used with permission from the University of Texas Press, © 2019.

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