“Typical girls stand by their man…”
– “Typical Girls” by The Slits
“You didn't stand by me / No, not at all”
– “Train in Vain” by The Clash
What Mick Jones of The Clash (shockingly) failed to understand was, the women of the late ‘70s UK music scene were not your typical girls. They defied the preconceived notion of what a woman should be, turning their leather-clad backs on old-school views of women clad in pantyhose and sensible pumps. At the time, there were certainly singer/songwriter artists to look up to like Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, or even the godmother of punk, Patti Smith. But it wasn't until these pioneering punk bands premiered that you'd see all-female line-ups, playing their own instruments, writing their own songs, and singing them.
On their 1979 debut single “Typical Girls,” The Slits sneered at gender stereotypes with lyrics like:
Don't drive well”
Don’t create? Don’t rebel? The Clash clearly didn’t know who they were dealing with.
Which is why, on this International Clash Day, KEXP wanted to shine a very over-due spotlight on just a few of the female-fronted groups of the London punk scene, who were truly making a revolution at the time. (I mean, four white dudes in a band? Hardly radical.) These women made contributions to music that paved the path for future female musicians, inspired the riot grrrl scene to emerge in the ‘90s, and even elevated the music of their male peers (even if those guys won’t admit it).
The Slits are often considered the first all-female punk band (usually by the band members themselves), and while that timeline could be contested, the impact they had on music is undeniable. While their career was short, their influence has extended for decades beyond, inspiring bands like Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, Warpaint, and more. (Even Madonna is said to have been at The Slits' first New York City show.)
Founding members Ari Up (real name: Ariane Forster) and drummer Palmolive (real name: Paloma Romero) actually met at a Clash concert in 1976. (Wikipedia says it was a Patti Smith show, but Ari herself set the record straight to Pitchfork.) Palmolive had just been kicked out of Sid Vicious’s pre-Sex Pistols band after refusing his advances. After that, she knew she wanted to form an all-girl group, so she could write and perform music without having to worry if some bandmate wanted to sleep with her.
Ari was only 14 years old at the time, but Palmolive saw her at the show and had a hunch she was destined for stardom. “She was having a temper tantrum right there, swearing at her mom,” she remembered to 3 AM Magazine. “I thought she would be a great front person.”
In the early days, The Slits and The Clash nurtured each other. Clash bassist Paul Simonon gave Paloma the nickname Palmolive, which she used as her stage name. Joe Strummer taught Ari her very first guitar chords. He and Clash co-founder Mick Jones recommended Mick’s girlfriend Viv Albertine join the band, and according to her 2014 biography Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys, it was Viv who encouraged The Clash to be more political in their songs. It’s advice they clearly ran with, aside from a few exceptions including Mick’s chart-hitting single “Train in Vain,” inspired by none other than Viv.
"Train in Vain, what a beautiful song,” she said to the website Eccentric Sleeve Notes. “It still makes me laugh when I hear it because mmm… I wasn't that bad." She adds, “I'm really proud to have inspired that but often he won't admit to it. He used to get the train to my place in Shepherds Bush and I would not let him in."
The Clash brought The Slits along to open for them on their 1977 White Riot tour, where the ladies scared the tour bus driver and were refused from hotels for their raucous behavior and outrageous outfits. Their shows were marked by chaos. Ari was a livewire, buzzing with energy and just as shocking. She actually urinated on stage once — not even as a stunt to provoke the audience, she just really needed to go.
Their 1979 debut album Cut is a post-punk masterpiece, showcasing an eclectic mix of punk, reggae, dub, and funk. They recruited reggae guitarist Dennis Bovell to produce the LP, and as Viv described it to The Guardian, “Dennis corralled us into shape and tidied up all the ends, but without trampling on creativity. It was so rare for a man in the 1970s to put himself inside the heads and hearts of four crazy young women.”
Their 1981 follow-up, Return of the Giant Slits, was even more experimental, but by the following year, the band called it quits. Ari and bassist Tessa Pollitt briefly revived the Slits in the 2000s, releasing a final album, Trapped Animal, in 2009. But, tragically, Ari died the following year at the age of 48 after a battle with cancer.
The Slits were revolutionary, not just for being female, but for being fearless, and for kicking down doors with their big Doc Marten boots while also wearing a frilly tutu. Their importance in music history cannot be overstated; the unprecedented creativity and energy they brought to punk was instrumental in shifting attitudes in the male-dominated genre.
A home video from The Slits' manager Don Letts, circa THE late-'70s // Tune in to The Afternoon Show with Larry Mizell, Jr. to hear an exclusive interview with Letts for International Clash Day.
One of the bands that found inspiration in The Slits was The Raincoats, another all-female group that emerged from the late-'70s London punk scene. After attending a Slits show in 1977, art school students Ana da Silva and Gina Birch decided to give music a go. As Gina told She Shreds Magazine, “It was as if suddenly I was given permission. It never occurred to me that I could be in a band. Girls didn’t do that. But when I saw the Slits doing it, I thought, ‘This is me. This is mine.’”
The Raincoats infused their art school attitude into their songs, taking a DIY approach to music making and incorporating unconventional instrumentation, such as violin, cello, and even a balafon. Ana employed a range of vocal techniques, from typical punk shouts to Yoko-Ono-esque warbles. Even their song structures were atypical (no pun intended), eschewing the verse-chorus-verse model and traditional rhythmic patterns.
After a few line-up shuffles, Palmolive joined The Raincoats in 1978. (Sadly, she had left The Slits before their debut album Cut was released, but she still receives a songwriting credit on the LP.) At the same time, they added classically-trained violinist Vicky Aspinall to the line-up. Palmolive told Tom Tom Magazine, “When I was with the Raincoats I had this idea. I thought it would be so cool to have really raw drums and raw guitar with beautiful, uplifting violin on top. So I made an ad, and this girl Vicky took it. She took the whole ad so no one else would call.” The flyer read: “female musician wanted: no style but strength" and it was posted in a counter-culture bookstore that specialized in books on anarchism and feminism.
“Female Musician Wanted: No Style but Strength"
In fact, with Vicky aboard, The Raincoats became the first all-female punk band to declare themselves feminists. Gina recalled to Mutual Art, “She came and joined The Raincoats and said, ‘Well, you may not think it’s feminism, you may not call it feminism, but it’s what it is.’” Gina added, “I think once you discover feminism, it’s hard to put it back to bed. It’s like Sleeping Beauty: You wake up, and you can’t be put back down again.”
“I'm no one's little girl, oh no, I'm not /
I'm not gonna be — 'cause I don't wanna be”
– “No One's Little Girl” by The Raincoats
The Raincoats’ 1979 debut album is an essential milestone in the history of post-punk music, heralded as a significant influence on the burgeoning DIY scene in Olympia, Washington. Kurt Cobain was famously a huge fan, writing in the liner notes of Nirvana’s 1992 compilation album Insecticide that receiving a copy of The Raincoats' first album in the mail “made me happier than playing in front of thousands of people each night, rock-god idolization from fans, music industry plankton kissing my ass, and the million dollars I made last year. It was one of the few really important things that I've been blessed with since becoming an untouchable boy genius.” (In 1993, Kurt helped The Raincoats reissue their three then-out-of-print albums on DGC Records, and they released a final LP, Looking in the Shadows, on the label in 1996.)
On the 40th anniversary of that iconic first LP, Gina said to The Line of Best Fit, “It just seems to speak to people of all ages and to a lot of women, and, for me, that’s always been an important part of what we do. What inspires me is knowing that we inspire someone in the same way and that’s so gratifying. It’s almost difficult to articulate.”
Kim Gordon shared in the liner notes for the 1993 reissue of The Raincoats' 1981 album Odyshape, "They had enough confidence to be vulnerable and to be themselves without having to take on the mantle of male rock/punk rock aggression… or the typical female as sex symbol avec irony or sensationalism."
The band still performs together; this week, they played at the White Cube Gallery in London. And on February 24th, Gina will release her debut solo album, titled I Play My Bass Loud, via Third Man Records. (We’ll hear more from her on KEXP later this month.) Meanwhile, The Raincoats' music continues to connect with new generations: London trio Big Joanie formed after band members Stephanie Phillips and Chardine Taylor-Stone met at a Black feminist meeting, and Stephanie was carrying a Raincoats tote bag.
While X-Ray Spex was not an all-female band, they bear mention for their inspirational frontwoman Poly Styrene, who was not only a ground-breaker for being a female in late ‘70s London punk but for being a Black female in the predominantly white scene (as KEXP’s own Martin Douglas writes beautifully about in this 50 Years of Music piece).
Born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said to an Irish/Scottish mother and a Somali father, Poly discovered punk after seeing a Sex Pistols gig in East Sussex in 1976. That summer, the then-19-year-old Poly took out ads in music magazines like NME and Melody Maker, looking for “young punx who want to stick it together.” From these applicants, she formed the band X-Ray Spex. (A 15-year-old girl who called herself “Lora Logic” was in the original line-up; she later formed the band Essential Logic, whose work was reissued in 2003 by Kill Rock Stars. Highly recommended!)
From the very start, Poly was incredibly determined. After just six band rehearsals, X-Ray Spex played their first show, landing a gig at the London punk club Roxy, where they blew all their peers away.
"She was a bit scary, because she had this incredible confidence,” Viv Albertine of The Slits remembered to The Independent in 2011. “Also, unlike most of us, she seemed to have proper talent and to really know what she was doing. She seemed a bit above everything else that was going on there. Her voice was a cut above everyone else, as was her songwriting. She was the real thing. She was very pure of thought. She didn't indulge in bad feelings. She was rather innocent, certainly very trusting."
In the 33 ⅓ series book on The Raincoats by journalist Jenn Pelly, Ana da Silva recalls how the BBC documentary Who is Poly Styrene inspired The Raincoats single “Fairytale in the Supermarket.”
“I remember distinctly thinking that her music sounded a bit like fairytales, but in a consumerist society. Suddenly it came to me. This is like a fairytale in the supermarket.” (Pelly hysterically points out: “In 1978, Mick Jones was lost in the supermarket; Poly Styrene stared its offerings dead in the eye.”)
The band’s first single — 1977’s “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” — became their most defining, and has since gone on to become an anthem for female empowerment. The track begins with the bold declaration:
Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard /
But I think "Oh bondage, up yours!"
– “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” by X-Ray Spex
The song isn’t about S&M; instead, it’s about all the societal chains that hold people down. In a 2008 interview with Mojo Magazine, she explained, “I come from a religious background and in the scriptures, the whole idea of being liberated is to break free from bondage. I had an idea of the bondage of slavery and all those images in history like the suffragettes or slaves being chained up.”
In fact, while most London punks were wearing bondage gear bought from fashion designer Vivienne Westwood’s boutique, SEX, Poly was wearing Day-Glo colors and thrift-shop-finds with the price tags still attached. She sought to break free from all the binds of modern society: consumerism, materialism, racism, and sexism.
Their 1978 debut album, Germfree Adolescents, is a fun, yet fierce tirade against these injustices. Songs like “Identity” take an early look at the importance of representation, while “Art-I-Ficial” is an in-your-face take-down on consumerism.
I wanna be Instamatic, I wanna be a frozen pea /
I wanna be dehydrated in a consumer society
– “Art-I-Ficial” by X-Ray Spex
X-Ray Spex broke up in 1979 while Poly dealt with her mental health struggles, but reconvened off-and-on throughout the ‘90s, releasing one final LP in 1995 titled Conscious Consumer. Poly released a few solo albums over the decades, but sadly, died from cancer in 2011 at the young age of 53. Her influence continues to shine: FKA twigs calls Germfree Adolescents her favorite album of all time. Neneh Cherry shared, “I found my voice and myself listening to Poly Styrene. There was no other black person in punk, and not a woman.“ Kathleen Hanna wrote, “Poly lit the way for me as a female singer who wanted to sing about ideas. She taught me, by example, that fame was less the goal than something to back away from when it started to invade your core. Her lyrics influenced everyone I know who makes music.”
As KEXP celebrates its 50th anniversary, we're looking back at the last half-century of music. Each week in 2022, KEXP pays homage to a different year and our writers are commemorating with one song from that year that resonates with them. This week, Martin writes about the band's 1978 single, the …
In celebration of International Clash Day, KEXP presents the first ever Clash video game, Lost in the Supermarket.