Sunday, 12 March 2017

Book review: The Lost Women of Rock Music

I sometimes find myself having to explain punk rock to women my own age who weren’t part of it. On one occasion, someone said to me: why did you like punk, wasn’t it very male and aggressive?

On the contrary, I said, punk was great for women because lots of women were making music where they had not had the chance before. I’ve always believed in this line and until recently it never crossed my mind that after punk this didn’t really carry on.

There should have been a legacy. But every Friday night I watch men talking about men’s music making on the telly.  Women don’t get asked what they think about rock and pop music. Women are still a minority when it comes to making that music. And it appears to be pretty common for women to get sexually assaulted at gigs (and I don’t think this was the case in my day).

Last month, BBC4 ran a documentary about Chrissie Hynde. It was a good programme, even if she refuses to discuss feminism and wears dead white men on her T shirts. (Because she’s a “rock chick”, one of the boys, an honorary male, and that’s probably why she’s still successful.)

But it felt like token women night. The programme was followed by a repeat of a documentary called “Girl in a Band” and then there was a repeat of a clip show called “Girls in Bands at the BBC”. At which point I turned off the TV saying “This is ridiculous”. 

No-one would ever make a documentary called “Boy in a Band”. And it would be considered ludicrous to run a clip show of totally unrelated musical acts just because they had men in them.

That’s why I tend to resist anything that’s about “women in rock”, when it just lumps people together because of their gender.  But I still think we need a “women’s history of pop”, when it comes to talking about specifics.

That’s why I wanted to read The Lost Women of Rock Music by Helen Reddington. It’s subtitled Female Musicians of the Punk Era and outside academia the writer is also known as Helen McCookerybook, one-time bass player with The Chefs and still a musician.

I think there’s a good case that all academics writing about rock music should be required to have been in a band or worked in the music business, because so much of it misses the point. The content of this book is, though, spot-on.

It’s also personal. Her starting point was this question: “How could the music I had been involved with have felt so important and revolutionary at the time, yet have made no impact at all on the history of rock’n’roll?”

This is an academic book, so you have to get used to words like “discourse” and “recuperated”, but the style is easier to read than a lot of the people she quotes, and she does debunk some of them which made me happy.

In between quoting academics she writes about her “primary research” which is interviews with women musicians from the time and specifically a case study of the punk scene in Brighton which she was involved with. And out of this comes a very convincing theory which is that the doors that opened to women during the punk/post-punk period were very quickly slammed shut again. And some very convincing analysis of how and why this happened. You can blame it on Thatcher, MTV, fashion, the end of punk… but the overwhelming factor can be summarised in three words: the status quo. According to men, rock music is for men and always will be. That’s it, basically.

I loved this book: so much of it rang so true. There is lots here that I could quote but it would make a very long blog post so I think you should read it yourselves. You can buy it direct from the publisher and it’s not expensive.

There’s a lot of good stuff here about punk in general “from the point of view of its female protagonists” – something that’s  been missing in both academic writing and music journalism. Including some myth-busting, like the fact that we weren’t all panda-eyed punkettes in fishnets and stilettos.

There was one section that I found particularly interesting and that’s the bit about rock journalism. Helen discusses the biases of male rock writers and then goes on to look at female rock writers. I was working as a music journalist in the post-punk period so for me this is personal.

She writes: “Just as with an all-female band, a decision has to be made by a female writer as to whether they are writing for a female audience, a mixed audience or a male audience”. Actually, I don’t remember ever consciously doing this: I wrote for people like myself. Music writer Caroline Coon is quoted as saying: “When you’re in your own skin, you look outwards, you don’t see yourself ‘as a woman’. You see yourself as a person.” That’s how I felt when I started.

You find out, of course, that’s not how it works. Later, I went through a stage where every time I interviewed women in bands I tried to have conversations about feminism, whether they wanted to or not. I can see now – particularly after reading this book – why that would be annoying. But from my point of view there were important questions to be asked about women’s place in the world of music-making and if women weren’t going to have those conversations then who would?

It’s a bit sad that, decades on, we still need to have those conversations. But if we do, let’s have more books like this.

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