Think of Punk, and if you get past bands such as The Clash and The Sex Pistols then you might think of Sid Vicious’s girlfriend Nancy Spugen, or of singer Siouxsie Sioux (though probably in her post-Punk years). But, though women were influential in the early movement and subculture, some of the most important have been largely forgotten. Below is our shout out to who we think are the most important.
One of the “Bromley Contingent” — a group of some of the very first Punks, that lived in Bromley, in Southeast London — Soo Catwoman shaved her head in the center, spiking up the sides like cats’ ears. Like the rest of the contingent, she was associated with early Punk and, ore specifically, with The Sex Pistols, who capitalized on her image, getting a young Judy Croll to play Catwoman in their movie The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle. Catwoman appeared on the cover of the 1976 Sex Pistols magazine Anarchy In The UK.
The first successful all-female punk group, the charmingly-named Slits supported The Clash on their 1977 White Riot tour (“White Riot”, a much misunderstood phrase, was supposed to be a clarion call to disaffected white youths to join black youths (such as had formed the Black Panthers) to riot against “the establishment”).
“They were loud brash bold and unrepentant,” says Mark Perry, author of And God Created Punk, “They never compromised their image or stance…they must have inspired loads of women to pick up a guitar and form a band.”
Of all of the women of Punk, British singer and actress Toyah Wilcox is perhaps the most overlooked. Probably because she not only did that most un-Punk thing of not only forging a successful music career, with each new single flying high in “the charts”, but also by becoming a regular on a range of rather un-edgy, mainstream British television shows. She also adopted a Japanese aesthetic for her record covers — this was an aesthetic that would become associated with the softer, more glamorous New Romantic movement.
But the entertainer with dyed red hair was not only an early-ish Punk singer, fronting the band Toyah, but, perhaps more importantly for her street cred, acted in two of Britain’s most important underground movies: Derek Jarman’s Jubilee and Quadrophenia.
Released in 1979, the latter was based on a rock opera by the Mod band The Who. Jonny Rotten of the Sex Pistols was also offered a part, but the movie distributors refused to insure him, and he was subsequently dropped. Toyah played the role of “Monkey.” Directed by Derek Jarman, Jubilee (1978) was perhaps the most important move of the Punk era. It portrayed the nihilism of “Thatcher’s Britain” at the time of Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee, contrasting the optimism and desire for knowledge and expansion under Queen Elizabeth I. Toyah played “Mad”, a member of an aggressive Punk gang, with short, boyish red hair.
Jordan, another of the original Punks, also appeared in Jubilee, playing the anarchic and raunchy Amyl Nitrite. She was associated with The Sex Pistols early on, prior to their becoming known nationally or internationally, and she also managed the band Adam and the Ants in the early phase of their career. She was also an employee of the Kings Road shop Sex, owned and run by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, the latter of which would become famous as the manager of The Sex Pistols.
Best known as lead singer to Punk Band the X-Ray Specs, Poly Styrene was a Hippie in her early teens who turned Punk, and formed her band, after seeing The Sex Pistols. Styrene’s lyrics were self-consciously feminist. The band’s first single, “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” was a commercial success. The theme of the song was about shaking off oppression, sexism, and the sexualization of women. However, unfortunately, the makers of the movie Sid and Nancy chose to portray Styrene trust up in bondage gear on stage, completely subverting her message and image.
One of the most colorful and eccentric female Punk singers, Nina Hagen was born in East Berlin, and raised by her mother, Eva-Maria Hagen, a well-known movie and TV actress, and and her stepfather, dissident singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann. She left East Berlin with her mother in 1976, after her stepfather was exiled.
By then, she had already begun singing, and challenging the communist state, releasing “Du Hast den Farbfilm Vergessen” (“You forgot the color film”) in 1974 with her band Automibil. The lyrics were a subtle attack on the colorlessness of East German life.
Her music seems to evoke the cabaret of 1930s Germany, then a dissident, underground movement, as well as Punk. Hagen was photographed by famous French photographers Pierre et Gilles, who depicted her as the Hindu goddess Kali, Medusa, and as a trust up dominatrix.