Women Who Rock: 10 Essential Punk Songs
Many women found a new voice and musical identity during the punk-rock explosion of the 70s.
The anti-establishment philosophy of the punk rock movement was the perfect fit for those female musicians who still felt like outsiders in the male-dominated music industry. Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth said, “I think women are natural anarchists, because you're always operating in a male framework.” Patti Smith paved the way at legendary punk venue CBGB in New York City with her fusion of experimental poetry and garage rock.
British female punk rockers, such as the Slits, Raincoats, Siouxsie and the Banshees and X-Ray Spex responded to working-class discontent and racial division in Britain. Across the Atlantic, in the United States, musicians including Deborah Harry of Blondie, Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads and Poison Ivy of the Cramps added new sounds and ideas to the punk rock formula. “That was the beauty of the punk thing: [sexual] discrimination didn’t exist in that scene,” once noted Chrissie Hynde. Here the Rock Hall presents Women Who Rock: 10 Essential Punk Songs.
Patti Smith was dubbed the "godmother of punk," a moniker with merit. Smith's debut single was "Hey Joe," but its poignant B side, "Piss Factory," was her real introduction to the rock world. Written by Smith and Richard Sohl, the single was recorded on June 5, 1974 and released on Mer Records. Longtime collaborator Lenny Kaye produced the track, which was driven by Smith's urban narrative – a skill honed during live poetry sessions. Her voice was the lead instrument in a stripped-down arrangement that stood in stark contrast to the emerging arena rock bombast of the era. Injected with a dose of lyrical social commentary delivered without overwrought production, "Piss Factory" would serve as a precursor to the punk explosion that came a few years after its release.
Blondie formed in 1974 and polished their playing at New York City's famous CBGB beginning in 1975. Led by the charismatic Deborah Harry, the group would eventually earn eight Top 40 hits (including four Number One singles: "Heart Of Glass," "Call Me," "The Tide Is High" and "Rapture"), but the first song on the group's self-titled 1976 debut (produced by Sixties-rock veteran Richard Gottenhrer) kickstarted it all. Written by Gary Valentine and Harry, and originally titled "Sex Offender" (the name was changed at the insistence of record label Private Stock), the song showcased Blondie's energetic, uptempo, pop friendly sound tempered with bawdy, empowered lyrics: My vision in blue, I call you from inside my cell / And in the trial, you were there with your badge and rubber boots / I think all the time how I'm going to perpetrate love with you / And when I get out, there's no doubt I'll be sex offensive to you.
Formed in 1974 by Rhode Island School of Design students Tina Weymouth (bass), David Byrne (vocals, guitar) and Chris Frantz (drums), Talking Heads fit right in with their more straightforward punk counterparts, opening for the Ramones at CBGB in 1975. Beyond rock, the band's range of influences included avant-garde composers (Phillip Glass), Africa and Brazilian music, painters (Jasper Johns), postmodern choreographers (Twyla Tharp) and poets (Amira Baraka). The Heads' 1977 debut single "Love → Building On Fire" was co-produced by Tommy Ramone and highlighted the band's eclectic leanings and hinted at the musical exploration and experimentation that would follow in its wake. Sire Records impresario Seymour Stein noted: “‘Love →Building On Fire’ was the first Talking Heads song I heard. I didn’t need to hear another to know I wanted to sign them.”
Siouxsie Sioux was a figure in the nascent days of the British punk scene as part of the Bromley Contingent, who were instrumental in the development of the punk "image"as dedicated followers of the Sex Pistols. Emboldened by the burgeoning movement, she formed Siouxsie and the Banshees, unleashing the group's debut single "Hong Kong Garden" in 1978. The single reached Number Seven on the UK charts, propelled by evocative lyrics and riffs, a charging rhythm and Sioux's punchy vocals. The group's live presence also helped, as Sioux's supremely confident delivery, unique flair for fashion and seemingly evergreen energy made her a seminal figure in the genre.
Although the band only produced five singles and one album (Germfree Adolescents, 1978) during its three-year run from 1976 to 1979, X-Ray Spex embraced a singular sound among their punk counterparts. The group was led by lead vocalist Poly Styrene (born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said), with guitarist Jak Airport (also known as Jack Strafford), bassist Paul Dean, drummer Paul “BP” Hurding and saxophonist Lora Logic (born Susan Whitby), the latter supplying the instrumentation that most helped set the band apart. Written in 1977 by Poly Styrene, "Oh Bondage Up Yours!" was the debut single by X-Ray Spex. The song's edgy lyrics (Thrash me crash me / Beat me till I fall / I wanna be a victim / For you all / Oh bondage up yours / Oh bondage no more) were indicative of the mixed-message, sensational leanings of the genre, while Styrene's cutting vocals and the sax-supplied groove carved a simultaneously anachronistic and prototypical niche.
The Slits was the first all-women punk band, formed in 1976 by Ari-Up (born Arianna Foster, vocals), Kate Korus (born Katherine Corris, guitar), Palmolive (born Paloma Romero, drums) and Suzi Gutsy (bass). The group incorporated elements of ska and dub – styles prevalent on the British scene – and opened for the Clash in 1977. Their first album was not released until 1979 and included "Typical Girls," an unabashed, tongue-in-cheek commentary (Typical girls fall under spells / Typical girls buy magazines / Typical girls feel like hell / Typical girls worry about spots, fat and natural smells / Stinky fake smells) punctuated by a raw sound that would inspire countless acolytes.
British act the Raincoats delivered a sound that owed more to post-punk than the immediate style that surrounded them. Formed amid the boom of bands in the late-70s by Gina Birch (bass, vocals) and Ane de Silva (guitar, vocals), the group was inspired by the genre's DIY spirit. The band eventually expanded to include Palmolive (of the Slits) and violinist Vicki Aspinall. What they lacked in instrumental dexterity, they made up for with creative and often deliberately shambolic arrangements that proved the foundation for their first single, "Fairytale In The Supermarket," released in 1979 on influential UK imprint Rough Trade. The quirky tune managed to bridge the gap between avant-garde and accessible, proving dissonance could be captivating.
Often imitated but never quite replicated, the Cramps took their signature distillation of Americana – from 50s rockabilly and 60s garage to b-movie horror and camp film – to the stage in the mid-70s. Founders Lux Interior (Erick Purkhiser) and Poison Ivy Rorschach (Kristy Wallace) landed in New York City's punk scene by way of Ohio and California. With a healthy reverence for rock's past and a forward-thinking interpretation of its present, the band's first release, 1979's Gravest Hits, featured mostly covers, including the group's unique take on country-rock performer Jack Scott's "The Way I Walk." Poison Ivy's rockabilly-inspired guitar lines shared the spotlight with Lux Interior's reverb-drenched, highly idiosyncratic vocal style, essentially laying the groundwork for all the psychobilly bands that were to come.
Originally hailing from Los Angeles, California, L7 was the brainchild of vocalists and guitarists Suzi Gardener and Donita Sparks, who would bring on bassists Jennifer Finch and drummer Dee Plakas. Grounded in the velocity of punk and the crunching churn of metal, the group signed to Epitaph in the late-80s, releasing their eponymous debut in 1990. The Gardener composition and album opener "Bite The Wax Tadpole" (derived from Coca-Cola's first attempt at transliterating its name for the Chinese market) embodied the metallic sound and muscular riffing favored by the band – and many of the grunge acts that would dominate the charts in the early-90s, including Nirvana.
Led by the enigmatic Kathleen Hanna on vocals, Bikini Kill was at the forefront of the riot grrrl movement, which emanated from the Pacific Northwest and Washington, D.C. as the first overtly feminist movement in rock and roll. Bikini Kill – featuring Hanna, Billy Karre on guitar, Tobi Vail on drums and Kathi Wilcox on bass –formed in 1990 in Olympia, Washington. Penned by Hanna, “Rebel Girl” was first released on Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah, an album which featured Bikini Kill and the English riot grrrl band Huggy Bear. The song was subsequently re-released by the label Kill Rock Stars as a single produced by Joan Jett in September 1993. With its chugging guitars, steady beat, Hanna's emotive wail and clearly defined message, "Rebel Girl" became an anthem.