Women of Punk – Part 02 – American roots
Growing up in Scotland in 1975, I had no idea what was going on the other side of the Atlantic. Little did I know that American “women of punk” were in the process of breaking ground so that people like me could find a voice and be accepted despite our inherent weirdness!
The first woman who I remember having the ideals and attitude that define the category of “punk” was the wonderful and truly original, Patti Smith. I’m sure Patti hates labels as much as I do. In fact the majority of folks labeled “punk” would kick and scream against having it safety-pinned to them. Sadly it’s human nature to feel the need to classify so, Patti, sorry for calling you a punk but please see it as the badge of honor it’s intended to be!
Patti was 29 in 1975, a veteran in punk terms, when she released Horses, her debut ground-breaking mix of rock and poetry. Lenny Kaye, the bands guitarist was also a writer. Lenny has been accused of instigating the use of “Punk Rock” to describe the raw, basic, gut-formed music that was desperately in need of a genre-defining moniker.
Horses is one of my top albums of all time. It fits into my elite category of “albums I never get tired of hearing” (of which there are only about 20). She continues to record and perform today and her recent albums are just as compelling as they ever were. She’s one of those rare individuals who, as well as writing her own fabulous originals (like title-track Horses) can take other artists songs and make them completely her own, take for example her cover of Them‘s Gloria or, more recently, Nirvana’s, Smells Like Teen Spirit.
Patti also had a big influence on the “Punk look”, and on design. She was the first woman I remember seeing wearing a biker jacket, jeans and cowboy boots, just like the guys, and she looked great with her straggly hair and gaunt beauty. She lived with photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe who produced countless iconic images of Patti, including the album covers.
Patti was part of the legendary CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City scene in New York in the the early seventies. The scene was frequented by other great luminaries of the punk scene like Iggy Pop, Velvet Underground, Andy Warhol, The Ramones, Wayne (Jayne) County and of course Debbie Harry who started out as a waitress at the clubs and went on to form 80’s supergroup, Blondie. Debbie Harry brought sex to the Punk Rock movement, most female punks were considered unattractive by regular guys but Debbie Harry toyed with their affections by pouting at the camera, then following this with mocking, teasing gestures. Sadly, partly due to her cuteness, I think she never got the recognition she deserved as a top song-writer and performer. She and Blondie wrote some of the greatest punk love songs of all time including “Picture This“, “Denis“, “Hangin on the Telephone” and “In the Flesh“. After all, punks fall in love too y’know!
Nico became noticed as part of the Velvet Underground/ Andy Warhol scene at the Chelsea Hotel in New York. Her gorgeously, deep, flat vocals can be heard on Femme Fatale, I’ll be Your Mirror and All tomorrow’s Parties as well as others considered to be some of the best Velvet Underground tracks. Although the Velvets can’t really be considered punks their influence on the punk movement can’t be underestimated. People like Siouxsie Sioux had ground broken for them by the likes of Nico with her fusing of 60’s Berlin beatnik, Marlene Deitrich style deep vocals and a passion for the art of singing that can also be seen in the likes of Beth Gibbons from Portishead.
There were countless other acts that influenced me and others, and still continue to do so. Joan Jett was a rock chic of the highest order, as was the Pretenders, Chrissie Hynde. You just have to look at the amazing Alison Mossheart of The Kills, Discount, and more recently, Dead Weather to see their influence carried down the generations.
Without these ground-breaking women we wouldn’t have had PJ Harvey, Kate Bush, Annie Lennox, Madonna, Bjork who are mainstream pop icons of today. And we definitely wouldn’t have any of the women that formed the UK punk scene who we’re going to take a look at in the next installment. I hope you enjoy my little nostalgic trip down memory lane. Please listen to the music and please feel free to chime in if you think I’ve missed anyone!