In the course of the past year and a half, I have spent a lot of time researching, writing, and editing a six part series for the F-Word website on the subject of Women and Punk. In the course of my research, I sent an email questionnaire to the author Zoe Street Howe, concerning her book ‘Typical Girls? The Story of The Slits’. We are more or less the same age, and yet we come from very different backgrounds and have had very different introductions to, and relationships with, punk. A number of similar age friends are also into punk, and over the past year as the series has appeared people have talked to me about their relationship with punk, or have emailed me about it, suggesting that no one story is the same. One theme that has cropped up a lot is the idea of local first generation punks informally ‘adopting’ and generally influencing (in a friendly, non sinister way I hasten to add…) interested members of the post punk generation; a sort of punk apprenticeship on the streets, and in the gigs, of various small towns or big cities, if you will. I had a number of such guides as I was growing up, not just from the seventies punk scene, but also from the eighties twee scene, from the eighties goth scene, and from riot grrrl. They tended to be generous without being controlling, influential without being didactic, and I got a lot out of that.
During the research period I found myself thinking more and more about my own relationship with punk, and how it is probably a very atypical one, for this reason I decided to seek other perspectives on it. I turned to my friends Sara Shepherd and David Wilkinson, two PHD students working on two very different, punk related, research topics in two very different subject areas – Sociology and English. Sara was born in 1975, David in 1984. I started the interview, as I did with my other interviewees, by asking them to tell me when they first discovered punk, how old they were, and what the circumstances were.
Sara struggled with this, “I don’t know, is the answer to that.” She tried again, “It was a very roundabout thing.” She explained that, like me, she “knew what the cartoon image of punk was from Sid Snot, on the Kenny Everett Show, and from my parents talking about that kind of end of punk, but in terms of music, it was very roundabout, and I guess, from listening to John Peel, from being about nine onwards, [I] would’ve been listening to what would now be known as punk, or post punk, but I wouldn’t’ve realised it at the time, until much, much later.”
David, like me and Sara, had come to punk via a roundabout route “It depends on what discovering entails, about whether it’s when you first encountered it culturally, or whether when you discovered it as something that you enjoyed.” He added “the same as Sara in terms of cartoon images of punk in the media, but obviously in my case, being a bit younger, they weren’t fresh; they were even more caricatured by that point, cos it’d been longer, so it’d just be studded leather jackets and bright green Mohicans, and that would be it. My parents told me, if I asked about them, and maybe I was vaguely aware of the Sex Pistols from being about… 10,11, starting to ask questions on music, but not really getting into it til about 13 or 14, and at 13 or 14 I got into American, Californian bands like The Offspring, and obviously that was an offshoot of a different kind of punk, and through that, I then worked my way back to the original stuff.”
“I was gonna say actually,” added Sara, “from what David was saying, that I discovered The Fall and The Smiths through John Peel, and obviously The Fall are seen as, you know, a second generation, immediately post punk. For me, the experience of then getting into punk bands, as such, after that… For a long, long time, until I was possibly in my early twenties, it was very much focused on local bands – Manchester and North West bands – so from The Fall, it would’ve gone onto Buzzcocks, because reading the music press, I was led to…” she trails off, then changes tack. “Obviously, listening to Peel, my first experience of anything that would be deemed post punk was indie, what was indie music, at that point, and then I worked backwards, having read that Buzzcocks were such a massive influence, you know, and basically created what we now know as indie, or the indie single. But for a long, long time my only experience of punk was The Fall, Buzzcocks, bands local… It was only really quite late on in my early twenties that I would even consider listening to anything like the Pistols or the Clash, because, to me, it felt strangely disloyal. I had a natural antipathy towards bands from London, which I obviously don’t anymore.”
“I had a more mixed approach to it,” said David, “Because I discovered it aged 13 or 14 but I wasn’t really making distinctions, and I was part of the mosher subculture [post-grunge], which has since evolved, I think, into maybe emo, and the approach to music within that subculture was very pick’n’mix, so you’d get lots of contemporary, like I say, American bands, but then you would also have that mixed in with Pistols, and the Clash, and really the more well known British punk bands, and the post-punk stuff was not something that… even though I got the feeling that at the time, maybe, it was all seen as one thing, it was all those sort of bands [that] I didn’t discover until I was about 18, when it all started to come back into fashion again.”
“What’s interesting, to me,” said Sara, “is that a band like Echo and the Bunnymen would now be seen as your classic post-punk group, as you will remember, they were on ‘Top Of The Pops’, I just saw them as a pop group, and really liked them when I was a kid, and, you know, just with them as one example, I must’ve been listening to so much that was deemed post punk, as a kid, but cos it was in ‘Smash Hits’, and on ‘Top Of The Pops’, didn’t even think about it in those terms, probably never did actually.”
I asked them if they had any friends at the time who were into punk, or if they had brothers or sisters who were into punk?
“I was an only child ‘til I was 10,” explained Sara, adding that she had uncles who “were into things like Roxy and Bowie, and Northern Soul, and Captain Beefheart, but no, none of them were at the age where they would’ve been into punk, so I didn’t have anything. My dad was John Peel!” she laughs.
“My parents,” began David, “I didn’t really get anything punk from, because, as they like to say, they switched off music sometime in the late seventies, maybe in preparation for having me, and then the 80’s were just foreign lands to them.” He explained, “I mean, they liked sort’ve pre-punk, like David Bowie, and maybe some Northern Soul and R’N’B type stuff that would’ve fed it in one direction, and my dad liked heavy rock, and metal, in the first wave of it, in the early seventies. But, really, all my friends were into the dreadful chart music of the mid to late nineties, and it was only when I made friends with a girl from a different school, who was part of an outcropping of the mosher subculture within her school, cos mine, it was completely absent in my school, that I actually discovered anything like that at all. And then I suddenly realised that my best friend was into it as well, but it was something we’d never talked about, and now, all of a sudden, we could talk about it together.”
When I asked them what it was about punk that attracted them, I was met with a deathly silence and agonized expressions.
“I think the punk moment, as such, became more important as I became more disillusioned with contemporary music,” managed Sara. She added “It functioned as some kind’ve alternative to…” she trailed off, then tried again, “It functioned as some kind of symbol of what was good, and what could be good, for music.” She explained, “I think, also, with me, it was getting into my twenties and getting to know, and being friends with, a lot of people who were around at the time of punk, was quite important to me, being given a real, proper perspective, rather than a skewed retrospective perspective. It was really important that I knew people that were around at the time, and felt like I was getting a really privileged insight into it, and that’s when it became quite illuminated for me.” She concluded, “In simple terms, I was the weirdo at school, I was the school weirdo, so, it’s the natural place, isn’t it?” she laughs.
“Pretty much the same,” admits David, “for me, it was the outlaw image, those strains of punk that attracted me. Because at first I felt like I was the only one, and then I felt like it was me and my few friends against the world. And we were into other types of music that had that kind of imagery as well, and sounds, and punk just happened to be one of them. And that, initially, through my teens, was what attracted me to it, but then when I went to university, and I started to get into other things, like avant garde art, and politics, I started to do a bit of reading, and realised that some strains of punk had been fed by that as well, and that became really interesting to me. It became dear to my heart in another way because it was linked to other things I liked, in this really enjoyable, cultural way.” He added “In terms of finding more and more out about music as well, it’s a reference point, isn’t it? It’s something that’s a line in the sand, and the more you learn about music, the more you realise that it’s a very blurred line, but, all the same, it is one.”
As to the fashion aspect of punk, “the approach to music was pick’n’mix, the approach to fashion was as well, and subcultural fashion. You’d just throw anything together, as a teenager, which I suppose was quite punk because as far as I’m led to believe, from people who were there, the few people that I know that were there at the time, say that it was more thrown together than you might be expected to believe.”
“As a woman,” said Sara, “that kind of punk influence is – you know, you probably take it for granted, I suppose – but it’s really important in terms of dressing for yourself, that’s a massive, massive thing.” She added “The more and more you see young girls being styled by ‘Cosmo’ magazine, or whatever, you hang onto that feeling, it’s really important, and that’s why it’s great to see young kids, whether you like new forms of punk or not, the fact that the girls are not dressing for boys, that’s really important that that’s still happening I think.”
“Yeah, I agree with that as well,” said David, “and… in the same way that, I mean, I know it happens to a lesser extent, but boys dress for girls, as well as, being gay, like, the sort’ve crossover between gay and punk subculture, like boys dressing for boys, [and girls dressing for girls] or just dressing for themselves, and I think that’s important too. And I like that, as the world turns more and more towards things that I don’t like, I do still like to see kids just experimenting and looking completely daft, even if they look daft, I prefer it when they look daft, actually, prefer it because it’s not as styled and complete an image, and that’s why I was sad when emo came along, because I do feel like it’s more of an off the peg, high street look.”
Sara’s favourite punk bands, around the time when she first discovered punk, were The Fall, Buzzcocks, and – slightly later – Subway Sect. “Subway Sect were the first first generation punk band that I really, truly, loved” she said, adding “because I think I probably recognised that kind’ve scratchy influence on later indie bands.”
For David it was The Offspring, Blink 182, Green Day, and The Atari’s, also the Sex Pistols and – unusually – Bauhaus “Nobody else knew who they were” he explained, “but I think I read some article about them in ‘Q’ or something like that. I just picked up one of their albums.” He also liked the Clash, and “all the obvious ones really” including Joy Division.
As to their favourite punk bands now, Sara began by very tentatively, and quietly, saying “Mudhoney?” to mass laughter. “That’s not really punk,” she amended, adding that she still really loved Subway Sect and Kleenex.
For David, the discovery of post-punk when he was eighteen had a big impact, and he likes early Fall, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Gang Of Four, the Pop Group, and the Slits.
Because my series discusses the extent to which women have been written out of punk history, and are – at last – being written back in, I decided to ask David and Sara how they felt about punk books, and punk films, and the various ways that punk has been represented in both.
“With non fiction, it’s had all the life analysed out of it, hasn’t it?” said Sara, adding, “The non fiction kind of representations don’t seem to bear any resemblance to the reality that has been transmitted to me by people who were there. But that’s the nature of the beast, isn’t it?”
David had recently read Jon Savage’s ‘England’s Dreaming’, and had enjoyed the esoteric elements of it. “I found that fascinating, and all the background as well, on Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood. I think the main problem, which almost goes without saying with that book, is that it’s very Londoncentric, and he knows that, he’s aware of that, and in fact, I think he makes apologies for it, within the book. But because I didn’t know that much about those very early stages of punk, like 1975, and the immediate pre-history, part of it, specific kind of scene figures, I found that really interesting, I did really enjoy that book.” He does have reservations however, “He makes that distinction in that book, doesn’t he? Between the arties and the social realists, and even though he says ‘it’s an artificial distinction’, he said that, partly out of the fault of the music press, and partly the fault of some of the bands themselves, that division grew and grew and grew, then he contributed to that, in a way, because that book was only published in 1991, and punk was still a going concern then, really, like it’s been filtered through other music’s and stuff, and maybe looking at that you would decide whether you were one or the other, without realising you could maybe be both.”
“I’ll just add that, any time I wanna read about punk, or just go back to thinking about it,” said Sara, “[I] just go back to Lester Bangs, actual reviews, records and the gigs, from the time, think that’s gonna be more revealing than anything really, and just more interesting.”
Film wise, David had recently watched Derek Jarman’s ‘Jubilee’, and both had seen the Joy Division film ‘Control’. “I didn’t like the film [‘Control’] at all,” says Sara, “but it felt like it was a truer kind’ve portrayal of the way that real people lived at this point.” She added, “Like David said, the lines were pretty fuzzy, you’d be listening to Bowie, and Northern Soul, but also listening to Iggy, and drawing on more esoteric influences…”
“I didn’t realise that glam rock had such a big influence on it as well,” said David, “not just Bowie and Roxy, but all of it really, even the more laddish stuff did.” He sees ‘Control’ and ‘Jubilee’ as reflecting the distinction marked out by Jon Savage, “’Control’s a bit more social realist, and ‘Jubilee’s arty, and I love ‘Jubilee’! They all hated it at the time, didn’t they? All the people in the ‘punk circle’ said it was crap, because Jarman wasn’t on the inside, and that’s why I get the feeling they were all quite scene-y people, and maybe because Jarman wasn’t on the inside, they automatically rejected it. But I think it reflects some elements of punk very well, like the avant garde influences and the nihilism, that fake nihilism, and some of the fashion as well, I mean Jordan embodies one particular side of punk look.”
“’Rudeboy’, the Clash film, really nails it I think” said Sara, “You know, the idea that the kid that’s kind’ve following them around, they have to have a little word with him because he makes racist comments about the audience, and the crowd. I really love that because, you know, this idea that suddenly everybody was very right on and race relations were all hunky dory and all that, and it obviously wasn’t the case.”
“People have become obsessed with Joy Division, haven’t they?” said David, “There’s been about four films about…” he suddenly broke off, adding “Oh, what about ’24 Hour Party People’?”
“Well I thought it was terrific,” said Sara, “Cos it sets itself up as adding to the myth rather than trying to dispel it, and I thought that was the point actually, that’s the great point about punk and Manchester.”
Isn’t there something slightly absurd about having Alan Partridge [Steve Coogan] play [Tony Wilson]…?
“But also strangely accurate!” laughed David. He went on to mention Joy Division, and how important the band have been to him over the years. “Because in a way there’s something very outsider-y about punk, I think, in a way that a lot of other subcultures are about belonging, somehow punk’s almost like a community, it doesn’t belong, and that’s why I like Joy Division.” He continued “Maybe it was just Ian [Curtis], and not the others, but they don’t sound like they belong anywhere, it’s very cold and distant, they do a good job of matching how you feel, every now and again.”
Both David and I have grown up in Stockport and, in a weird way, could almost adopt Joy Division as one of our local bands. The bands first album, ‘Unknown Pleasures’, was recorded at Strawberry Studios in Stockport, on Higher Hillgate, near the record and clothes shops me, my sister, and step cousin, used to shop at when we were into grunge. Similarly, Ian Curtis lived in Macclesfield (where my step cousin used to live and I used to work) and is buried there, their biggest champion within the music press at the time was Paul Morley, a Stockport boy, and when Tony Wilson died a few years ago, I found out through reading his obituary in the local paper that he had grown up in Marple.
“They’re very psychogeographical, Joy Division,” said David, “’Day Of The Lords’ I always think of Stockport, and all the post war, sixties and seventies council buildings, and I think it’s ‘Disorder’ that I always think of, sitting waiting for the bus back from Manchester, in the middle of the night after clubbing, going back to Stockport, in the rain.”
When I asked them how they felt about the way punk has been embraced by academia, they both laughed. Eventually, Sara asked David, “Shall we just put out heads in our hands and just cry?”
“Weep, yeah…” was his response.
Sara confessed to feeling “Horrified,” whilst wearing an expression that shared elements of horror and sheepishness. “But… you know, I’m completely involved…” she turned to David, “you were talking about Joy Division, I was thinking, I feel like all the life has been knocked out of their records for me, over the years: They’re not even my pet band or anything, but The Fall, definitely. I very rarely listen to The Fall anymore, and they’re my favourite band of all time.” She sighed, “Where to start? Can I just say ‘Dick Hebdige’ then just… end.” Despite herself, she continued, “The idea that you should just isolate popular cultural moments, set them in aspic, and they’re safe, and then fetishise them.” She added, “You’d be more interesting to analyse the analysis, that’s more telling now, I think. Because I think all the meat has been picked off the bones and I don’t know that there’s anything more to say.” She concluded, “I think it’s really sad, it makes me really unhappy, but it probably says more about me than it does about mainstream.”
“I used to be wide eyed, optimistic, and iconoclastic about writing about popular music in academia” said David, “I wrote my best piece of work, which was my undergraduate dissertation, on the links between post punk and the avant garde, because at that point Simon Reynolds’s book [‘Rip It Up And Start Again’] hadn’t come out, and the only thing was Greil Marcus, ‘Lipstick Traces’, which was one good source.” He added “But it’s very American, it’s very freewheelin’, free association, and I wanted something a bit more rigorous, and Marxist maybe, and kind’ve linking it to the situation, and I sort’ve wrote this great manifesto, and it was full of me, it was very personal, about how the links between post punk and the avant garde live on in certain popular music, how they manifested themselves back then, what that could do for people if they let it, and where it could possibly lead. In itself it’s maybe not that significant, but it can take you to places that are significant, and it can take the world to places that are significant. And I still half believe that, on good days, but not as much anymore.” He became disillusioned when he realised just “how much more complicated things are than I thought they were.”
Despite the over-analysed state of punk, in many ways, we all felt that there were still neglected areas. In addition to the neglect of the female punk experience, we also feel that American hardcore is sorely neglected, and also the links between punk and the gay scene. Derek Jarman, argues David, represents the link to a certain extent in ‘Jubiliee’, while Jon Savage and John Gill [in ‘Queer Noises’] have both written about the gay male experience, but this aspect is still very, very marginal.
“I didn’t know that Pete Shelley was gay,” says David.
I didn’t, I reply, not for a long time.
“Up until finding out about ‘Homosapiens,’“ says David, “the single that he did after the Buzzcocks, which was only about, like, about five years ago. I’d known about the Buzzcocks for ten or twelve years, and just had no idea whatsoever. It’s never written about, it’s never talked about.”
We discussed Morrissey for a bit, before David asked, “What about gay women in punk?”
I explained at this point that I’d made a brief, largely abortive, attempt to discuss this area with a couple of my interviewees, but had given up after that, partly because I’d had to drop questions with all my interviewees due to time constraints, partly because of the reaction I’d had: Puzzled, ranging through to baffled. “It’s a similar issue to the way that women’s role in punk has been marginalised,” said Sara, adding “It’s pretty pertinent to Manchester.” Both Jon Savage’s ‘The England’s Dreaming Tapes’, and an appearance he made with Liz Naylor in early 2010 at a night of discussion, film, and music at the Deaf Institute on the theme of the gay scene and the music scene in Manchester, would seem to back this up. I’m also reminded of Nicholas Blincoe’s novel ‘Manchester Slingback,’ which takes place amongst the echelons of the punk and gay scene in Manchester in the late seventies. We would have all said more, but the tape stopped, and we then moved on to discussing the legacy of what all my interviewees had referred to: the asexual nature of punk.
“I was thinking about the way that punk directly fed into the idea of eighties indie being asexual,” says Sara, “and also, it was freedom to have friends of the opposite sex, platonic friends of the opposite sex, that surely comes from punk, and that’s a massively important thing that, presumably, is still hopefully, there’s still some kind of influence there.” She added that “it does turn into a bit of a twee fest, Belle and Sebastian, becomes its own fetish, doesn’t it? It’s not liberating anymore.”
“I’m really glad you said that,” says David, “because I’ve only ever seen the negative side of that asexual lineage, which runs through punk and eighties indie, because all my friends and I were into looking like that for a while, behaving like that, and I never kind’ve discovered myself in terms of fancying people, I always fancied people that were completely outside of my circle, because they were forbidden fruit!” we all laughed at this, “So I could never have them! Because everyone in my circle – you’d never think of them that way, so I only ever saw the negative side of it. But, like you say, there is a positive, in that you can kind’ve have cross gender friendships without people going ‘ooh’ and stuff, and exist in a world without regret or the pressure to deal with anything related to relationships, or sex really.”
When I asked them where they saw the influence of punk today, there was a long, deathly silence. “In Topshop!” said Sara, at last, adding, in relation to the voxpops, “We saw it all over Afflecks Palace yesterday,” and we discussed the baffling array of punk influenced fashion we’d seen, up to and including the shop selling Plasmatics handbags, Blondie babygro’s, and child sized Bowie t-shirts. “It’s the CD ‘Punk Rock Baby’ isn’t it?” said Sara, “You know, lullaby versions of ‘White Riot’, all very nice isn’t it?”
David chipped in at this point, “And even ‘Nouvelle Vague’, even though I might quite like some of the bossa nova versions, my party line is that I hate it, it violates punk”
Fashionwise, “It’s nothing but brief experiments in looks” said David, “cos as we said before, that can feel exhilarating, to look different from other people and to not care that you don’t fit in, but when its just part of the kind of horrible, freemarket, smorgasbord of you’re entitled to everything you want, you don’t have to give a shit about anything else, and punks a part of that, it’s just very sad really, very sad.” He adds, “I mean, I’m not completely miserable about it, just don’t seem a bit too obviously inspired by it, though obviously the weirdo’s at school, it’s still feeding through them.”
Sara adds, “It’s so easy now, so conveniently packaged, and… it’s not an alternative. But maybe it is? I don’t know, but there’s a packaged version that can be taken straight off the peg.” The sheer frustration is evident as she cries, “There’s no pain involved! And that’s not right…”
This interview was conducted at The Social in what was then still URBIS, on 22nd November 2009