In 1998, Nelson Mandela celebrated his 80th birthday. Among the guests were Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Michael Jackson – and Skunk Anansie, the British rock band fronted by Brixton-born Deborah Anne Dyer. Known originally as Skin for her gawky teenage limbs, Dyer harmonised with Jackson on Wonder’s Happy Birthday and drank cognac with Simone long into the night.
This international regard might come as a surprise to British readers, for whom the 90s remain forever synonymous with Britpop. Actually, a plurality of sounds proliferated at the time.
Skunk Anansie’s first three albums of melodic, emotional rock sold 5m copies worldwide. Skin bought a bolthole on Ibiza. When Stormzy tweeted about being the first black Briton to headline Glastonbury last year, Skin pointed out that Skunk Anansie had done so in 1999; in turn, she hailed Maxim and Leeroy from 1997 headliners the Prodigy. Dyer apparently can’t walk down the street in Italy, having become a judge on that nation’s version of The X Factor in 2015 on the back of Skunk Anansie’s popularity there.
You can imagine the way up was complicated for Skunk Anansie, a band that lost drummers, nearly died at European festivals and dallied with substance issues just like any other, but had the added burden of being trailblazers. Record execs, in particular in the US, where the music industry operated a system not dissimilar to apartheid, could not compute the idea of black people in a hard rock outfit. More nuanced, however, is the discussion here on how the younger Dyer grew up admiring the Cure and Blondie and grunge more than dancehall reggae, her tastes at one remove from what a black girl “should” like. However you feel about Skunk Anansie’s music, Skin’s story is one of a rhomboid peg spurning both the round and the square hole, drilling dimensions of her own.
It didn’t seem that weird in the 90s that Skunk Anansie should share a label with Björk. A joint Top of the Pops performance of Skunk’s remix of Bjork’s Army of Me registered a number of complaints because Skin, apparently, terrified children.
Having been self-conscious of her appearance as a girl, Skin later went on to occasionally model and became muse and buddy to the late Alexander McQueen. Style emerges as an important tool of her individuation and pleasure.
In this frequently jaw-dropping memoir, Skin also recalls finding her voice. A blood-curdling scream let out by Judi Dench, a guest at her school, made for a fabulous early example of female catharsis. Later, when Skin turned on the stalker who had sexually assaulted her, shaming him at volume in a busy Brixton street, she overcame more than shyness.
Skunk Anansie’s songs were often visceral responses – to inequity, racism or abuse. Weak, from their first album, came out of the assault she sustained from a male partner, an experience she processed during her time in Middlesbrough, where she fell in with the local LGBTQ+ scene and the rape crisis centre.
“Yes it’s fucking political,” went another song, “everything’s political.” A funk-rock track, Intellectualise My Blackness, articulated Skin’s frustration at having had expectations of her ethnicity mansplained to her by some presumptuous berk.
Just as interesting as the glamorous highs is the detail of what a jobbing part-time icon does when her solo career doesn’t quite go supernova. She is particularly good on the importance of learning how all the gear works and how to talk to sound engineers in language they can understand. As with many musical autobiographies – Keith Richards’s is another – the landscape of Skin’s childhood and family has some of the most evocative writing.
That’s not to say this is a perfect read. It might have been smoother to have one voice throughout or a more regular interplay between Skin and co-author O’Brien.
But among the pleasures of this peek into an extraordinary life are the intriguing facts it pumps out. Rod Stewart ends up doing a cover of Weak. Skin’s anti-apartheid-era Brixton buddies end up running the Namibian stock exchange. An outraged Robbie Williams takes on racist Russian nightclub bouncers when they refuse Skin entry to the club.
We now have a lot of language – intersectionality, microaggressions – to describe many of the events in this memoir. However, nothing can really equal candid, first-hand experience, recounted matter of factly here. It would be instructive for anyone who thought they knew the story of the 90s to spend 300 pages in Skin’s skin.
• It Takes Blood and Guts by Skin with Lucy O’Brien is published by Simon & Schuster (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15
This article was amended on 5 October 2020 to correct a song lyric quoted in the piece