Finding myself displaced by organised politics in the mid-1970’s, I happened upon two sources of sustenance. The first was new political theatre, at York Arts Centre. There, my father and I were riveted by electrifying Agitprop productions of workers’ theatre, including 7:84* and women’s theatre, such as Monstrous Regiment**
The other comfort was music, especially during the alarmingly hot summer of 1976. Squirreling away funds for gigs and festivals, babysitting topped up my wages from my regular job at a pottery (a repetitive routine of scraping mugs and emptying kilns). Another music lover proposed youth hostelling, between camping at Knebworth and the Reading Festival.
At the latter, I was horrified to hear racist abuse directed at the reggae artist, U-Roy. As an antidote, and with time to spare before our night-coach to York, my friend and I went to the Notting Hill Carnival. As one of my erstwhile babysitters lived in the area (on a previous visit she had suggested I form a feminist discussion group at school) I knew Joy would welcome us to Carnival. After leaving our bags at Joy’s flat, we joined the throng of carnival-goers, but most striking was the substantial police presence lining both sides of the streets. Tensions were palpable, and as conflict surfaced we left.
In May 1977, I attended my first Punk gig, The Clash, at Leeds Polytechnic. The backdrop to the stage was a hugely enlarged press photo of the Notting Hill riot. That image resounded on two levels. First, I was there. Secondly, having latterly read commentary on Brecht (for German A-level) the black-and-white backdrop was like a placard. To remove any suggestion of naturalistic performance other Punk bands deployed harsh lighting, frenetic beats, tuneless vocals, jerky movement and angry pose. The disruptive energy of Agitprop had, in my view, partly sparked Punk’s conductivity of discontent. https://madmuseum.org/exhibition/too-fast-live-too-young-diehttps://madmuseum.org/exhibition/too-fast-live-too-young-die
We disaffected young people, facing unemployment or limited prospects (as my new friends were) jumped into the newly turbulent music scene. Not only did Punk break with Rock’s tradition, but its volcanic fracturing of staid surfaces released free-spiritedness. Having been to funky feminist band*** Jam Today’s York benefit concert earlier that May, these new musical forces signalled, to me, freedom from the strictures of gender and sexuality identity.
In the North, second-hand clothes for punk outfits could be had for a few pence at jumble sales. Shocking pink dye served the dual purpose of converting a jacket and subverting prescribed feminine attire. My androgynous ‘look’ was at odds with the hyper-sexualised fish-net stockings and almost non-existent skirts a few young women sported at gigs. The sight of them troubled me: why revert to stereotypes to shock folk; and how could they dance in stilettos?
Those of us who were receptive to feminist influence were fortunate to find a sympathetic ear at York Women’s Centre and the Corner Bookshop in Leeds, where my friend, Shirl and I each bought a special fifth birthday edition of Spare Rib, with this article on Women and Punk
From that we tracked down Jolt. Here’s an extract of Lucy Toothpaste’s interview with the frontwoman of X-Ray Spex, Poly Styrene (sadly no longer with us).
Punk, in combination with feminism, enabled us to push at boundaries. Shirl and I jumped at the chance to carry The Slits’ heavy kit, in return for free entry to their gig (that afternoon we had hitched to Leeds from York, and wanted to save even more money). The organiser’s jaw dropped: he said he’d expected lads not lasses.
Another deeply unsettling spin-off from Punk was the freedom of expression it gave to the confused or alienated. One friend refused to be known by her name, having opted for a Bowie persona. Adamant that she didn’t want to be in a woman’s body, ‘Zed’ none the less chose relationships with women. My feminism sounded an alarm. I wondered whether Zed, keen to transition to a male identity, was in fact a young working-class woman who, given the constraints upon her, couldn’t accept her sexuality identity – as a lesbian. ****Despite the androgyny of Punk bands and New Wave musicians such as Patti Smith – whose album Horses we young dykes revered – it would take a much bigger lift-raft to rescue those who were adrift, like Zed.
Attracted by its disruptive effects, a minority of punks gave vent to racist vitriol. Hatred of difference manifested in other thugs’ pursuit. Once, with hearts pounding in our mouths, while they searched us out, my friends and I hid in a railway carriage.
Such terror was normal. To counter it and the racism that had long been accepted on the music scene, bands and fans were mobilised to oppose racism at gigs. In West Yorkshire, where the NF had a strong following, Rock Against Racism groups organised. The Tom Robinson Band performed at Bradford. In Leeds The Mekons – with Mary Mekon on bass – and the feminist three-woman Delta-5 impressed me with their courageous discordance.
RAR’s message was effective: at gigs, stalls displayed anti-fascist and anti-racist banners, emblematic badges, and the fanzine, Temporary Hoarding (for which David W. and Lucy Toothpaste wrote).At the end of April 1978, I caught the Anti-Nazi League coach to London. Thousands marched, fetching up at a free festival in Victoria Park, East London. A friend whisked me away from the park, however: rather than listen to music, we should make our presence felt in Spitalfields, where the NF was assembling.
In September 1978, I headed from Leeds (where I now lived and worked) to London for a second ANL rally. Marching with many others, the diverse vibrancy and collective show of strength instilled hope. Then, as we proceeded along Railton Road and neared Brockwell Park, I was enchanted by the Brixton Fairies, glittering in sunshine, waving us on from their gay squats. Yet, on returning to Leeds I had to watch out for NF thugs, and the Yorkshire Ripper.
In January 1979, my father and I attended a meeting on Feminism and the Left at a Bradford bookshop. Being the first to leave, he opened the door – to be greeted by men leaping through the air, their rallying cry: “Let’s get the Commie bastards!”. We slammed the door shut in their faces.
Soon afterwards, the Winter of Discontent at the back of me, I set sail for Hamburg – for better pay than I got at a Leeds hospital.
* 7% of the British populace owned 84% of its wealth.
*** https://womensliberationmusicarchive.co.uk/j/ **** After my father’s suicide, in 1983, I saw Zed in Wakefield. Having shaken off the old identity, she said that after referral for treatment and prescribed medication, she had realised, just in time to avoid invasive surgery, she had herself been in a deep crisis.