Queens Of Punk: Poly Styrene & Jordan, The British Library, 04.07.19

Last night I was lucky enough to go along to a very special night celebrating Queens Of Punk at The British Library. Hosted by self proclaimed ‘Professor Of Punk’, Vivien Goldman, the panel discussed the release of two books about two of the most legendary ‘queens of punk’: Defying Gravity: Jordan’s Story and Dayglo: The Poly Styrene Story

Prior to talking to the authors, Goldman (also having recently released her own book Revenge Of The She Punks) delivers a poignant and stirring introduction, describing both Jordan and Poly Styrene as “prophetic” in the topics they addressed through their work, asserting that the most important aspect of punk was that women finally found a voice. Considering artists such as Jordan and Poly Styrene, as well as bands such as The Slits and The Raincoats, this would certainly seem true – the 1970s seeing these women coming to the fore and finally being heard. 

And now, nearly 50 years later, when we’ve witnessed almost a regression in politics and equal rights, the spirit of punk – and in particular these strong female voices – is needed now more than it has been for decades. 

To be honest, I hadn’t really been aware of Jordan’s prominence in the world of punk before tonight, and so her discussion with Goldman was both enlightening and inspiring. Describing how she wanted to create herself as a work of art, the way she dressed becoming a part of who she was, she explains that being self aware was a major part of being ‘punk’; it was about being aware of you are and “not giving a damn” what other people thought – a community for people who didn’t fit the mould. And, hearing her talk about her vibrant fashion choices (and work in in Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s ground-breaking boutique, SEX, then Seditionaries and, later, World’s End), and position as a woman in the industry at the time, it becomes clear just how courageous and innovative she has been. 

Discussing the writing of the book, Jordan’s co-writer Cathi Unsworth (Sounds, Bizarre, The Guardian), describes their writing process as like making a dress; together they cut and pieced together Jordan’s memories to fit a narrative. However, Unsworth asserts that this wasn’t difficult, as Jordan is just like a person she’d invent to be a heroine of a novel, her life being filled with fearless adventure and outrageous events. Whatever the process of writing, it seems to have worked; Goldman describing Defying Gravity as like a “window into the [punk] culture”. 

Asserting how “punk encapsulated everybody”, Jordan credits the gay clubs of Brighton and the role of the gay community in helping her feel comfortable in who she was, before discussing her work with Derek Jarman (he cast her as the ferocious Amyl Nitrate in his 1978 film Jubilee) – who she describes as oozing the essence of punk, as he didn’t care what anyone thought – and Adam Ant. Of the later, she recalls a night at The Roundhouse where Adam and The Ants were playing alongside X Ray Spex… 

And so to Celeste Bell and Zoë Howe (Typical Girls? The Story of the Slits; Stevie Nicks: Visions, Dreams & Rumours) who worked together on Dayglo: The Poly Styrene Story. Having initially met Zoë when she was writing her book about children of ‘rockstars’ –‘How’s Your Dad?’ Living in the Shadow of a Rock Star Parent – Celeste decided to write a book about her mother on realising she had a large archive of material from Poly Styrene’s life, that had mostly been in the hands of her old manager prior to her death. Including artwork, diary entries, and hundreds of unrecorded lyrics, as well as letters that Celeste has since written to her mother, Howe explains that they put the memories and archive together like “one big conversation”, trying to reflect Poly’s character as much as possible. 

As well as the book, Howe and Bell have also recently been working on a documentary about Poly Styrene: Poly Styrene – I Am A Cliché. Directed by Paul Sng, the film includes never-seen-before footage of Poly throughout her life, as well as interviews with other people in the industry including Kathleen Hanna and Thurston Moore, about the great influence she had on them. We’re lucky enough to be treated to an exclusive showing of the trailer, and it looks like it’s going to be a wonderful watch! 

Resuming the discussion about the book, Celeste opens up about her mother’s struggle with having Bipolar Disorder, and other people’s perception of her as being ‘psychic’. Celeste explains that her mother was very intuitive and would soak up any energy that was around her, which would often aid her creative process – her feelings being transformed into poetry – but could be psychologically difficult to deal with. 

Celeste continues to explain that her mother had had mixed feelings about her following in her footsteps and making music; although she encouraged her daughter to learn to play instruments, she was concerned about Celeste being a woman in a sexist industry, having being affected by her own experiences. Throughout her career, for example, Poly Styrene had always been described by journalists and others in the industry as “not conventionally beautiful”, which often had a negative impact on her state of mind; as Celeste explains, her mother would get extremely frustrated by the industry’s focus on her looks rather than the work she was creating, and – in any case – she was “fucking beautiful!” no matter what anyone else said. 

Recalling another instance of the industry’s ingrained sexism, Howe describes how a certain review of an X Ray Spex show seemed to pit Poly and saxophonist Lora Logic against each other, making out that Logic was the star of the show. Celeste describes how much this upset her mother, resulting in Lora being sacked from the band. This is a prime example of how the industry has, and continues to, pit females against each other, purely because of their gender, judging them on appearance, playing on insecurities, rather than focusing on the music being created. Lora and Poly, however, reunited years later, when they were both part of the Hare Krishna movement, and even performed together at Glastonbury.

It’s not only inspiring to hear about all the incredible steps Poly Styrene took as, not only a woman, but a woman of colour, in the world of punk, but particularly moving to hear Celeste talk about her mother and their relationship. Although rose-tinted spectacles are firmly off, it’s wonderful to hear her talk about Poly Styrene not only as the innovative figure for women in music that she remains to this day, but as a mother and a person.

Hearing about both Defying Gravity: Jordan’s Story and Dayglo: The Poly Styrene Story, and all the pivotal steps that these women before us have taken in a quest to be heard, leaves me feeling inspired and motivated. As Goldman said at the beginning of the evening, now is certainly the time to revive the punk spirit, to unite and overcome adversity: we need strong figures like Poly and Jordan now more than ever. 

Defying Gravity: Jordan’s Story and Dayglo: The Poly Styrene Story are both out now via Omnibus Press. 

Mari Lane

Interview: Slowcoaches

Like us Get In Her Ears girls – and most women in music – Slowcoaches bassist & vocalist Heather Perkins is pretty fucking sick of the pervasive misogyny inherent in the music industry today. But there’s no need to agonise, as her band and her voice provide a much-needed antidote to all the patriarchal nonsense we’re forced to stomach. We caught up with Heather to talk about Slowcoaches 2018 recording and touring plans, shouting back against dumbass sexism on Twitter, being appreciative of your band mates, and taking time to recognise and deal with your own mental health issues effectively…

Hello Heather, how’s it going?

Hi. I’m good.

Great stuff. It’s the start of a brand new year, and we’re keen to know what’s in store for Slowcoaches. Can you tell us what’s coming up for the band in 2018?

I’ve been mainly writing our second album, which will come out this year. I’ve moved out of London and I’m writing back in the town I grew up in which is weird but also really refreshing. Its given me a new place mentally and physically to write from, which is always interesting. We have a new track coming out in a couple of months which I’m really excited about. We’re also planning a huge tour in a huge country for later in the year, and I’m so damn excited but I don’t know how much I’m allowed to say about that right now.

That sounds exciting! We saw your tweets about Bono’s Rolling Stone interview at the end of 2017, in which he brands new music “girly” and says hip-hop is the only place in music where men can express “rage”. Where were you when you first read his comments?

Haha I don’t know where I was when I read it, but that’s because I read so much shit like this all the time now that it kind of becomes an everyday occurrence. I genuinely couldn’t give a shit what Bono thinks, but the things he says have such reach and they shape the opinions of his already small-minded but huge audience. He reflects an opinion that poses a huge problem to women the music industry and the world in general, that’s what’s so frustrating about it.

We also saw that you’d been tweeting about the first release on Slaves’ new label ‘Girl Fight Records’ too?

Yeah. This is the first time in a while that I’ve let something like this really piss me off actually. It took me a whole day to totally get my head around why I was so angry about it, and I realised there were so many layers to the whole thing that I found offensive – both as a woman and as a woman musician. I think this is why:

Slaves are a band with a lot of influence. Their opinions and endorsements affect the way their audience perceives music and more widely, the way they perceive the world. So, they’ve chosen to start releasing music under the label name ‘Girl Fight’. That’s the first kicker. The phrase ‘Girl Fight’ denotes pettiness, weakness and bitchiness. It has sexual and comical connotations. And more often that not a ‘girl fight’ involves two women fighting over a man.Those two words have layers of negative connotations that reach beyond simply pitching women as enemies of each other.

This is a problem then, when coupled with the fact that their first release is by an all-white, all-male band called ‘Lady Bird’ (check! Two more references to the female gender) – a song about a ‘traditional geezer’ who’s having a bad time in Wetherspoons which is something that we can apparently ‘all identify with’ (except for anyone who isn’t a traditional geezer – hell, I don’t even know what a ‘traditional geezer’ is). So that alienates all us un-traditional, un-geezer types.

Congratulations Slaves! You’ve created the epitome of a ‘lads club’ right there. Everything about this label and this release screams ‘punk rock is a boys gang and you’re not invited’.

Denoting women as enemies of each other whilst promoting and supporting maleness in punk music is the ultimate ‘fuck you’ to all women, female-identifying and LGBTQ individuals who are making music of this genre. They are reinforcing the idea that rock music is a boys game. And their audience will believe them.

But notice how both label and band use words referencing the female gender: girl, lady, bird. Its like, adding insult to injury. Not only are women banned from engaging or identifying with the content, they are referenced with the intent to both sneer at them, belittle them and use them as a decoration, a name, an aesthetic reference.

We can understand why you’re so angry about it. It’s really disappointing to see a band with such a big fanbase belittle women’s efforts in punk.

What inspires you when you’re writing new songs?

It’s taken me a while to get in to the routine of writing. It’s fun and frustrating in equal measure. I get really angry at myself really quickly, especially if I don’t feel like I’ve got a great idea within the first 3 minutes. I’ve spent a lot of time training myself to persevere through those initial few minutes of total shit. It’s like doing warm up before you go for a run.

I’ve also been forcing myself to sit down and just write for an hour or something every day. It’s easier the more you do it. It also teaches you about the best way to write. Like, for you. A few weeks in, I realised I was writing songs that I thought other people would like. And it just wasn’t working. So now I’m writing songs for myself and its all flowing more easily.

In terms of what inspires me, it can be anything at all. I often think about the live show and how songs translate to be experienced on a stage. I guess that’s the place I often start from.

You toured the UK in 2017 and you’ll be back on the road in 2018 too. Can you talk to us about the positive and negatives aspects of being on tour?

Our last tour was amazing. It was a pretty long trip and I learned a huge amount about myself and what I’m capable of and what I’m not.

I suffer from severe anxiety and panic disorder as well as a few other weird things including DPD (Depersonalisation Derealisation Disorder) that can make touring quite tricky for me. I basically got back and finally admitted to myself that I just can’t do some things in the same way as some other people can. Admitting that was a bit of a relief and now I know that I need to be stricter with myself and look after myself a lot better when we go away. Otherwise I’m making my life a hundred times harder than it needs to be.

I definitely couldn’t get through touring without Sean and Oliver and our awesome little team. Doing something so challenging can be a real confidence boost, but next time I want to be able to really enjoy myself.

Here at Get In Her Ears, we’ve noticed that bands and artists have been much more open about their struggles with poor mental health this year. Have you noticed this yourself, and do you think this open attitude will continue to prevail in 2018?

I hope so. I think music is so inextricably linked to emotion that it’s a great place for people to start to explore and identify and swap experiences.

Do you have any advice for new bands or artists who are concerned about their mental health?

A few things I learned whilst on tour:

Try to be open and honest with your band mates and crew. Don’t bottle things up. It only increases tension and anxiety.

Being around someone with a mental health issue can be as challenging as having one. You’re not expected to provide solutions, but it can help you and others if you’re explicit about what you need at any time. If you want to be alone, say so. If you want someone to sit and just hold your hand, say so. If there’s nothing anyone can do at that moment, say so.

Challenging yourself is good, but be realistic about what you can and can’t do. It’s ok to say “I don’t want to”. Having a few ground rules when you’re on tour is important. It doesn’t make you any less punk.

Good advice. As a new music blog, we’re always keen to hear about other people’s favourite new bands & artists. Who are you listening to at the moment?

I’ve just been listening to a great record that came out this year called LA Women, by a New Orleans band called Patsy. Nice gritty upbeat, catchy garage punk.

Finally, if you had to describe Slowcoaches’ music in three words: what would they be?

Infectious, vital noise.

Huge thanks to our (S)hero Heather for taking the time to answer our questions. Make sure you’re following Slowcoaches on Facebook to keep up to date with all their new releases.

Photo Credit: Priti Shikotra

Kate Crudgington