Leonie Cooper: Punk's forgotten female heros

Poly Styrene, the Raincoats and the Slits were among punk's most radical figures but have been overlooked by rock historians. As a new book finally celebrates their influence, Leonie Cooper speaks to some of the movement's forgotten heroes

Before Helen Reddington joined a punk band in 1978 the 19-year-old Brighton girl was so quiet that the boys at school had thought she was a French exchange student. Playing a bass guitar that had belonged to the Buzzcocks, no less, in the group Joby and the Hooligans turned her life around. "I was a really shy person," she says, "and getting into a band and getting up on stage completely changed the way I felt about myself and what I thought I could do."

So she was upset when she realised that her youthful experiences - and those of hundreds of other punk women - were being scrubbed from history. The only woman who ever seemed to be brought up in the context of punk was Siouxsie Sioux. Otherwise, all the talk was of the Clash, the Sex Pistols and the Stranglers. "About 15 years ago I started reading books about punk," she says, "and there was hardly any mention of the fact that loads of women were playing in bands. I thought, why hasn't anybody mentioned this? And I suddenly realised that all the people who were writing about punk were men, and the fact that women were involved may not have seemed important to them, but it was totally important to me."

Now an academic and musician, Reddington decided to write a book, The Lost Women of Rock. "I was waiting for someone else to write it actually," she admits sheepishly. "I would rather not have bothered because I'm not very good at sitting still but I thought, no one else is going to do this if I don't."

Reddington's book brings together the stories of female punk musicians from across the UK, including Marian Elliot-Said, who, under her pseudonym Poly Styrene, was among the most prominent. Elliot-Said says her musical streak emerged when she was only five. "I was writing protest songs in the playground," she says. "Our dinner lady used to make me eat meat and I didn't want to so I wrote a song about it." At 18, she formed the band X-ray Spex, transforming herself from a glamorous retro girl to a tomboy who said she would shave her head if anyone tried to turn her into a sex symbol. "And I did!" she giggles. While she now writes anti-war songs, in the 1970s her main target was consumerism. "I made a commentary of society how I saw it, and at that time I thought it was getting really plastic. Most songs for women then were very romantic and I wanted to write about other things, so I wrote about genetic engineering."

Elliot-Said's tomboyish look came from a night spent at a gig by the British female blues singer, Dana Gillespie. "There were these guys shouting, 'Get them out, get them out', and she was just dressed in a pair of jeans. Like me, she's just naturally quite busty, and I thought, I don't want any of that; so I covered up. I wanted to compete with men on their level."

She was still the victim of crude comments from her male counterparts, though. "I wasn't aware that I faced any problems being a woman in the beginning but as time went on I realised that I was vulnerable, being surrounded by men all the time. I got remarks from the guys, sexual comments, and it's not very comfortable. I remember one time I was at John Lydon's house and someone was saying, 'Just look at those lips'. It's not nice to get that from a fellow musician."

Elliot-Said still writes and records, and X-ray Spex will be playing a series of gigs next year - although, aside from herself, the line-up will be new. "I've still got a girl bass player, though," she says, grinning.

London anarcho-punks Rubella Ballet formed in the late 1970s. They had a similar outlook to X-ray Spex and despite various line-up shuffles, the band is still going strong. Zillah Minx has been singing with the band since the late 70s and says that in 1975 she was "a sort of hippy glam-rock East End teenage girl with long blonde hair and no makeup. I used to get a lot of men harassing me and whistling at me - I was only 14."

A year later, Zillah was a fully fledged punk, complete with home-made clothes and gold safety pin in her ear. "The harassment stopped, which was brilliant. Instead I got abuse, but I preferred that to the sexual advances men in the street would make."

As well as continuing to perform at benefits for a wide range of causes, Minx has just finished making a documentary, She's A Punk Rocker UK. This includes interviews with many key figures in the scene, including Gaye Black, bass player with the Adverts, who gave up making music 17 years ago when her band broke up and became a manager in a social services department. "It's taken me 10 years with no funding," Minx says of her film. "I wanted to make a documentary about real punks - to explore what it's like to be a punk and why women became punks."

Many, like art student June Miles-Kingston, seem to have encountered the movement by accident. Having studied at the National Film School, Miles-Kingston helped Julien Temple make the Sex Pistols' film The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle. "I met the Pistols and made friends," she says, "then I moved in to squat with Kate Korris [the Slits] and Joe Strummer [the Clash] and bought a drum kit from Paul Cook [the Sex Pistols] for £40."

Cook showed her how to put the kit together, and, within a few months, Miles-Kingston and Korris had formed the Mo-dettes with two friends. The Mo-dettes toured for four years, supporting two-tone ska bands such as Madness and the Specials before breaking up in 1982. Miles-Kingston went on to play drums with Everything but the Girl and the Communards. She still performs as a jazz singer. "I think I blossomed through punk," says Miles-Kingston. "I found my political head which I had started to discover at art school. Punk made it easier to express yourself at a time in your life when you needed an identity, when you were finding out about who you were, the most difficult time for most people - that time between adolescence and becoming a grown-up."

Another accidental punk was Gina Birch, who came to London to study fine art in 1976 but soon realised the endless nights of gigs and clubs were more important to her than being cooped up in a stuffy art studio. Inspired by the Slits, Birch and a friend, Ana da Silva, formed the Raincoats. "I went and bought a cheap, brown, grotty bass guitar," says Birch, "the cheapest I could get."

She took the guitar apart and spray-painted it a more aesthetically pleasing sparkly blue. "I didn't know anything about guitars and taking it apart was due to a mix of naivety and confidence - if you don't know what something is, you don't have as much respect for it. I wasn't thinking about if I was affecting the pitch or anything like that."

The Raincoats were all about ideas, rather than being the best musicians. "I never claimed to be technically proficient. It was about trying to make something fresh and our own. It's not that I didn't want to be technically proficient," adds Birch, "it's just that it wasn't at the top of my agenda - that was a long journey. I would never have got up on stage after three weeks of owning a bass if I really wanted to be technically proficient then and there. It was about saying 'I want to do it, the time is right, the space is there and here I am.'"

While Reddington is now a vehement feminist, she notes that at the time of punk she considered herself anything but. "A lot of young women, including myself, completely rejected the idea of feminism because feminism at that time came as a set of rules and punk was about anarchy and rejecting rules. I thought, I don't want that. I want freedom. Now though, to me feminism means freedom, but it didn't look like it at the time." Although they may not have declared their feminism, female punks were trailblazers for their sex, creating not just their own space for performance, but their own kind of music, separate from the thrashing of male punk. Bands including the Slits, the Raincoats, the Mo-dettes and the Bodysnatchers took musical inspiration not from the 4/4 garage rock of the 1960s but from reggae music. "Punks had a lot in common with the British reggae artists, because we were all outsiders - women doubly so," says Reddington.

"We all did a lot of Rock Against Racism gigs together. I remember standing next to this guy who was in the band Misty in Roots watching this punk band and I said to him, 'This music must sound so awful to you,' because reggae is such good music. And he said, 'No, we feel exactly the same thing.'"

Gina Birch of the Raincoats is still making music, as well as directing music videos, working with acts such as New Order, the Libertines, Beth Orton, and chic girl/boy rockers the Long Blondes, a band whose punk posturing could be said to carry the torch for those women who, 30 years earlier, grabbed the nearest guitar and yelped their hearts out. Who does Helen Reddington - the woman who is rescuing female punks from obscurity - think is currently living out the spirit of the movement? "I see it partly in Lily Allen," she says. "A lot of the attitude is there because she's willing to say things that aren't just to please men in her lyrics."

And how about that other enfant terrible of British pop, Amy Winehouse? "She's obviously really intelligent and capable, but I think getting drunk is such a waste of time because you've got to recover from it, and if you're permanently recovering from a hangover, how are you going to change anything? When you realise from the other side of things how short your window is, you just think, please don't waste that time."

· The Lost Women of Rock Music: Female Musicians of the Punk Era is published by Ashgate, £55.


Leonie Cooper

The GuardianTramp

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