A Reference of Female-Fronted Punk Rock: 1977-89

Upon listening to this collection of mostly obscure and some well known female-fronted punk for the first time, I was immediately reminded of something that has always bothered me about being a musician who happens to have a vagina. Here it comes. How many times have you read some bullshit article or album review that references and/or compares women in punk on a scale of Debbie Harry – Siouxsie Sioux with not much other than the occasional Patti Smith in between? That is a serious question and yes, I’ve lost count as well. It’s pretty infuriating, not because there is anything wrong with these famous female punk/rock archetypes but because these mindless comparisons are often careless, lazy & downright inaccurate. Call me crazy, but I personally think that a person who decides to make a career (or an obsessive hobby) out of critiquing music ought to do a lot of very thorough research on, you know, music. Just a wild idea! I am willing to acknowledge the possibility that writers may be trying to make the most identifiable comparisons in order to assist the artist being covered by giving readers who may not have many reference points a recognizable list of other “similar” artists. Anything is possible. Perhaps this reactionary intro paragraph within the context of an album review seems uncouth and maybe a bit angry (I know some of you don’t like it when people with vaginas get “angry”), but since the content being reviewed is punk music made predominantly by badass women, I feel inclined to remind you that you are free to fuck off at any time.

Still with me? Ok. This 12-disc CD compilation, assembled by two friends in San Francisco in what they refer to as a “labor of love”, features over 300 songs, most of which I can pretty much guarantee you’ve never heard. It is mental. Who knew there were this many international female dominated punk/post-punk/hardcore/crust/etc. bands? After all, the media only lets a select few of us (thoughtful, intelligent and dynamic women who actually create and control their own musical and visual output with passion and maybe even aggression) in at a time and then strategically pits us against each other using the always reliable divide and conquer technique. Uh oh, she’s getting angry again! Ok, ok. Again, I am willing to admit that I am being reactionary. This compilation focuses on music made & released between 1977 and 1989 when underground music still circulated primarily by word of mouth and homemade fanzines. Some of these acts were from the Eastern Bloc, so the distribution of their material outside of small inner circles must’ve been next to impossible.

Only 36 tangible copies exist but I really hope someone has the sense to pick this up and release it on proper vinyl. This behemoth is so overwhelming to listen to and write about that it would take me a year or more to cover it in its entirety and would have to be released as a book. For now, I’ve decided to pick songs to specifically discuss that I’d never heard before and felt the most inspired by. I’ll leave the rest up to you to dissect for yourselves. For the sake of posterity, some of the more well known acts featured include Penetration, Siouxsie & The Banshees, X, The Nuns, The Raincoats, Conflict, Au Pairs, Xmal Deutschland, Crass, The Fall, 45 Grave, The Slits, Teenage Jesus & The Jerks, Honey Bane, Delta 5, Bow Wow Wow, X-Ray Spex and The Avengers.

The whole shebang kicks off with a driving, distortion laden, off-kilter pop/punk gem from a German group called Blutsturz. Apparently the track, entitled “Schweigen”, was only released as a demo sometime in the early 80s. It actually sounds a bit like “99 Red Balloons” (doing the shitty comparison thing, busted!) but more in the style of the 7 Seconds cover than the original. “Schweigen” translates to English as “to keep silent”. Without being able to identify and translate all of the lyrics, I feel like I understand what these Germans are putting down. Oppression of self-expression. I also inferred some pretty heavy socio-political commentary from the lyrics I was able to make out in songs like Anorexia’s “Rapist In The Park” (England 1980) and The Flowers’ “After Dark” (Scotland 1979). These tracks feel reactionary to rising acts of sexual violence toward women in the British Isles in the late 70s/early 80s. A minimal surf punk band from the USA called The Frigidettes have this to say in intro to their song “Turmoil”: “The world is in turmoil. Can you hear the people cry? The cost of living is rising and I’m too young to die.” Sleeping Dogs discuss “unspeakable violence, unimaginable suffering, too many bodies, too little land” in their dissonantly melodic noise-punk song “(I Got My Tan In) El Salvador”. One of my favorite songs on the entire compilation is one called “Latex Love” by England’s Vice Squad circa 1980. It’s a pretty straightforward dark punk song about having an intense latex fetish (“You’re my little rubber scrubber; how I love the scent!”) and it is amazing. Lyrically direct songs like these written from a female perspective are incredibly important to me for (what should be) obvious reasons, but when the quality of the music matches the message you have something truly special.

There are some fucking blistering noise-punk/hardcore leaning tracks released between 1980-1983 that I want to get into for a second. One of the most intense burners entitled “Razzia” (German for “police raid”) is by a Swiss band called TNT. Most of the members were in the 1977 Zurich punk band The Dogbodys until they decided to reform as TNT with a new singer; 14 year old Sara Schär. Sara’s voice is fully of violent fervor and emotional intensity with an air of maturity that astounds me, considering her age at the time. This is by far one of the most standout vocal performances on the compilation. Bravo teen Sara! Another striking moment comes from the international collaboration between American no-wave pioneer Lydia Lunch and Denmark’s Sort Sol with their “Boy-Girl”. Its a spastic, nervous assault with a vocal delivery that starts out calm and low, invoking the lower registry in order to be the “boy” until her pitch changes as she becomes a “girl”. Joyce McKinney (England) and Capitalist Alienation (Canadian) are two more straight-forward hardcore bands featured, with their songs “Armchair Critic” and “Nuclear Trash”, respectively.

Sort Sol with Lydia Lunch – Boy – Girl by mrdantefontana

Absorbing the impressive variety and ferocity of the material available on this compilation is no easy undertaking. Writing about it is even harder if you are a person like me who thinks music is best left for experiencing rather than dissecting and grading. However, what’s exciting about this is that there is so much to listen to and learn about. It’s essentially a mixtape that can change your life. You know the kind. Although I find myself having to wrap up this piece of writing, I know that I won’t stop listening to and researching the music I’ve discovered for a long time. It’s unfortunate that so much of this music has remained relatively unheard and unappreciated for so long, but thanks to a few devoted music lovers we can all expand our female driven punk vocabulary.

Author Photo Credit: Piper Ferguson

4 thoughts on “A Reference of Female-Fronted Punk Rock: 1977-89

  1. Thank you Hether you have done right by the women of the world and especially by the punk rock pioneers. I am a CBGB veteran class of ’76 and a 30 year music business vet who’s done pr for albums by Siouxsie, Bad Brains, Killing Joke, Richard Hell, etc. I hope this gets wider reposting. Signed, A man with an open mind, a punk rocker for life, DIY 4eva.

  2. Thanks for this, Hether. It’s outstanding.

    I’ve always always always been grateful that the music scene I fell into in my teens had women in the audience, on stage, and behind the scenes. It was so obvious to me that it didn’t occur to me until I was much older how new and radical that was in the history of rock music. I don’t have rose colored glasses about it or anything; there were plenty of misogynist jerks in punk rock. But in every scene in the US, there were always women involved, usually in organizational and leadership roles. And thank goodness. Everything is stronger when everyone is welcome to participate.

    ANYWAY, are are two weird about this 12 disc (12!) set for me. First, on disc 12, the second song is “Moo” by my first band, the Hugh Beaumont Experience (this is from our very last recording session), and I only found about this because a friend happened to share a link to it because he happened to see it on a blog. That’s the Internet for you. The weirder thing is that there were never any female members in HBE. The band’s first manager was female, but that’s the closest it ever got.

    I’m dying to know how we got included on there. Do you know of any way to get in touch with the people that originally put this together?

  3. 1/1

    also I am on a message board that was part of helping suggest bands to be compiled for this to the people who did the actual leg work and distribution. It is truly a labor of love put out by rabid music fans, nothing more nothing less. It should be mentioned this is 12 CD-Rs not CDs and as far as I know all copies were given away for free (I didn’t pay for mine)

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