I feel like this mix – of punk bands that feature women – needs a small introduction.
Let me start by saying that it covers proto-punk and post-punk along with more straight-ahead Punk Rock.
But it is by no means comprehensive – there is, necessarily, a lot of stuff I left out, because otherwise it would be more like a box set than a mix tape.
The title of/image for the column comes from Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth and Free Kitten, and neither of those bands even wound up on here.
I stuck to bands where women take the role of frontperson, so it is missing all the amazing bands where talented women play instruments but don’t sing lead.
I also avoided the whole ‘riot grrrl’ thing (with the exception of Sleater-Kinney), not because there weren’t some great riot grrrl bands, but because that is one of the few eras of punk music where women are acknowledged for their contributions, and I wanted to focus on stuff that is often more overlooked.
And, as I looked back over this playlist, I realized that there is a lot of stuff from the ‘70s and the ‘90s, and a few songs from the ‘00s…but only two songs from the ‘80s wound up making the cut.
There really is so much I didn’t include that I may have to make a second volume, eventually.
Because, no matter how dude-centric it might often seem – there always have been, and there will continue to be, women in punk.
1. Patti Smith – My Generation
Patti is the original. She was punk before punk was a thing. She lived her life, and made her art, on her terms. She had an androgynous swagger. She was also a poet, and she has written some amazing original songs. But she does covers better than almost anyone else. She has a knack for making other people’s songs her own, and that is the mark of a great cover.
In her early days performing music (1974-78), she often closed her sets with a cover of this tune by The Who. In and of itself, this song has a punk sentiment – hope I die before I get old. And this version – it’s punk, it’s rock’n’roll, it’s sloppy, Patti wails. And at the end, she says: “We created it, let’s take it over.”
In this context, let’s imagine she’s saying that women created punk, and that they should take it back from the men who stole it.
2. The Runaways – Cherry Bomb
This proto-punk hard rock song was an anthem for me as a juvenile delinquent punk rock girl.
You could argue that The Runaways were a pre-fabricated band, created and run by Kim Fowley, but you can’t deny that they were also badass. Cherie Currie rocked out in a corset and made all the boys cry, and Joan Jett was, well, Joan Jett – who is still rocking as a songwriter, singer, guitarist, producer, and general awesome babe. And this song! It still makes me feel like a juvenile delinquent punk rock girl every time I hear it.
It makes me want to put on my shortest skirt, my reddest lipstick, and my most ripped-up fishnets, to stand in front of my mirror singing into my hairbrush: Can’t stay at home, can’t stay at school. Old folks say, ya poor little fool. Down the street, I’m the girl next door. I’m the fox you’ve been waiting for.
3. X-Ray Spex – I Am A Poseur
X-Ray Spex were an anomaly.
In a scene dominated by men, they had not one, but two women – Lora Logic (Susan Whitby) on saxophone, and Poly Styrene (Marianne Joan Elliott-Said) as the frontwoman. In a scene that was predominately white, Poly was Scots-Irish and Somalian. In a scene that, despite its supposed difference from the mainstream, was into women being pretty girlfriends rather than people with their own bands and other creative outlets, she said (presumably inspired by punks’ penchant for fetish-wear as fashion) “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!”
I chose this song because, even more than “Oh Bondage,” it sums up the experience of being a woman in the punk scene, or indeed in any music scene. Men are always considered the originators of cool, and women are just posers. Well – I am a poseur and I don’t care. I like to make people stare.
4. The Slits – Typical Girls
Around the same time, and the same scene (mid-late ‘70s British punk), there were The Slits, an all-girl band – Ari Up, Palmolive (who later joined The Raincoats, another great woman-fronted post-punk band), Viv Albertine, and Tessa Pollitt. They supported The Clash on tour, twice, in 1977 and 1978. Joe Strummer referred to Palmolive, the drummer, as ‘the female Jerry Nolan.’ They combined punk and post-punk, reggae and new wave. They dressed themselves in loincloths and mud for the cover of the album Cut.
And in this track, from that album, they sing of both the benefits and the drawbacks of being a typical girl – Typical girls stand by their man. Typical girls are really swell. Typical girls learn how to act shocked. Typical girls don’t rebel.
The Slits were anything but typical. If they had been, this song would not exist.
5. The Bags – Survive
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, there were The Bags.
Alice Bag (Alice Armandariz) and Pat Bag (Patricia Morrison) met at an audition for Venus and the Razorblades – Kim Fowley’s attempt to create a new band after The Runaways had left him. Alice and Pat formed their own band, instead. They were known for their wild shows, where they got in altercations with celebrities – including Tom Waits, which I want to know more about, because it would be like my two worlds crossing – and they burned out in the fashion of any legendary punk rock band. They had very few releases, which only adds to the legend. But they did leave us with this song.
It’s like a shrieking girl-punk version of a song from a spy film.
6. The Avengers – The American In Me
The Avengers were from northern California – San Francisco, to be exact – and were also legendary. They opened for the Sex Pistols at their final show at Winterland in San Francisco (ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?), which led to Pistols guitarist Steve Jones producing a recording session for the band.
This song seems eerily prescient in terms of the state of the United States today: It’s the American in me that makes me watch the blood running out of the bullethole in his head. It’s the American in me that makes me watch TV, see on the news, listen what the man said.
7. Au Pairs – Diet
The Au Pairs had a way of putting a biting, cynical spin on traditional gender roles. This song has always given me chills. The throbbing bassline, the angular guitar, Lesley Woods’ speak-singing, all create a backdrop that makes the lyrics really hit home. It is even more relevant to me, now, though, being a wife and mother.
It’s not that my life fits in with the song – He works the car. She the sink. She’s not here to think. – my husband washes the dishes more than I do, and here I am writing a music column. But the lyrics are about the mother/wife trap that western culture would have me fall into, and sometimes I do feel like the woman in the song, or at least feel that I should be more like her. There’s a constant pressure behind her eyes. She needs to be tranquilized.
8. Crass – Bata Motel
I could write a whole column just about Crass and their various members and permutations.
For the purposes of this column, let’s say that they are considered founders of the anarcho-punk movement, and were often more like a collective than a band. In a less-hierarchical group such as theirs, women were more prominent. (I’m sure there was still sexism, but I won’t focus on that right now.) Their third LP, Penis Envy, released in 1981, had exclusively female vocals (by Eve Libertine and Joy De Vivre), and once again railed against the system, this time from the standpoint of women – more about marriage and sexual repression, less about minimum wage.
This track from Penis Envy gives me chills similar to the ones that “Diet” gives me, although this song is not so much about being a wife as it is about how one is perceived, used, and abused as a woman: Tease me, tease me, make me stay. In my red high-heels I can’t get away. I’m trussed and bound like an oven ready bird, but I bleed without dying and won’t say a word.
9. The Gits – Whirlwind
The Gits formed in Ohio in the late 80s, and then moved to Seattle, where they were part of the burgeoning punk/grunge scene.
The band dissolved in 1993, after the tragic rape and murder of frontwoman Mia Zapata. In 2000, Seafish Louisville, a compilation of Gits songs, was released. It is primarily a collection of live tracks and alternate takes, and it includes this previously-unknown song, “Whirlwind.”
Like many of their songs, this song deals with self-destruction and alcoholism. Mia, with her bluesy voice that can also break into a raspy yell at any moment, sings: When I woke up today, I was dizzy in my brain. It’s not that I like to feel this way. The wagon’s shaking and I feel it start to tilt, and I just go tumbling right back in a whirlwind again. It’s raw, it’s painful, and I have been there before.
10. Blatz – Lullabye
Blatz was formed in the late ‘80s in Berkeley, California.
They started off as a quartet of guys, but after they played a few shows, they decided they wanted a woman in the band. Because of a miscommunication, they wound up with two women in the band – Anna Joy Springer and Annie Lalania. I’m glad they had that particular miscommunication, as both Anna Joy and Annie add something essential to the band. Annie has an ear-splitting yowl, like some kind of feral cat, and Anna Joy has a deeper, growly voice.
On this track, Anna Joy sings a dark and poetic tale of having innocence washed away and being faced with the harsh realities of life. So sleep, little one sleep, take comfort in any kind of embrace – cuz the morning sun’s gonna open your eyes, and you live in a fucked up place.
1. Insaints – Whore
Marian Anderson, frontwoman of Bay Area punk band Insaints, was known for her brash, overtly sexual persona.
She often worked as a dominatrix and sex-worker, and many of the Insaints songs deal with sexual themes. Even the band’s live show often included nudity and on-stage sex acts – the most infamous one being the 1993 show at 924 Gilman that got Marian arrested for lewd conduct. In this song, she sings from the point of view of a sex-worker who finds power (and money) in her work: If it weren’t for me, you’d be alone tonight. So I’ll take your money, and I’ll keep you company. But you don’t know me, you don’t own me, and I won’t give it away.
Sadly, Marian died of a heroin overdose in 2001.
In 2011, Last Fast Ride, a documentary about Marian and her reckless and heartbreaking, yet inspiring life, was released.
2. L7 – Shirley
L7 had a longer career than many of the bands on this playlist.
They formed in 1985 and continued to release albums until 1999. They have, at different times, been called a punk band, a riot grrrl band, a grunge band, and a hard rock band. Whatever you label them, they were a really good band. This track, from their 1994 album Hungry for Stink, is not so much a song as it is a story set to pounding drums and loud, fuzzed-out guitar.
It’s about drag racer Shirley “Cha Cha” Muldowney, and Donita Sparks yells out a chorus that’s just as relevant to being a woman in punk as it is to being a woman in drag racing: How many times must you be told? There’s nowhere that we don’t go.
3. X – The Stage
X was formed in 1977 in Los Angeles, by bassist/singer John Doe and guitarist Billy Zoom. John Doe and Exene Cervenka were dating at the time, and after she came to a few practices, she wound up joining the band. And thank the punk rock gods for that, because Cervenka’s addition to the band was what made them great – the tension between Doe and Cervenka, the blending of Doe’s low voice with Cervenka’s higher one, and, most especially, the lyrics that Exene wrote.
Now, you might be wondering, if X formed in 1977, why did I choose a song from 1994, and a song that sounds more overtly country than punk, at that?
X always had a bit of a country influence in their punk, which is another one of the things that made them stand out from their peers. Also, it is a track where Exene’s lyrics really shine: Fallen down by the wayside, she’s afraid to touch anything. She’s afraid it’ll turn to stone like everything else has in her life. Oof.
4. Sleater-Kinney – I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone
Sleater-Kinney was formed in 1994 in Olympia, Washington, by Corin Tucker (of Heavens to Betsy) and Carrie Brownstein (of Excuse 17).
It began as a side project for both of them, but quickly became their main musical focus…and they went on to do amazing things with it. One of the most interesting things about Sleater-Kinney is that they never had a bassist. Both Corin and Carrie played guitar.
Normally, a band without bass would sound lacking, but Sleater-Kinney never did. To make up for the fact that they were bass-less, Corin and Carrie tuned their guitars one-and-a-half steps down (C# tuning), and Corin’s style usually filled the role a bass would normally take. This track is from 1996’s Call the Doctor – about which Allmusic said: “Forget the riot grrrl implications inherent in the trio’s music — Call the Doctor is pure, undiluted punk, and it’s brilliant.”
In this song, Tucker and Brownstein make sure you know that they aren’t content to simply be thought of as ‘girls with guitars,’ no, they are rock stars, just as much as Thurston Moore and Joey Ramone are. When I saw them play this song live in early 1997, men and women alike were swooning for them. Everyone wanted to wrestle with them on their bedroom floors.
5. Sarge – Fast Girls
Sarge was only around for four years (1996-2000), and only released three albums.
They were sometimes called an indie rock band, and sometimes lumped in with the mid-‘90s emo thing, but I would call them solid, melodic punk rock. In this song, Elizabeth Elmore sings sweetly and desperately about crushing out on a ‘fast girl,’ even though it seems she has some kind of previous romantic complication. I can’t count the number of times I listened to this song as a teenager, when I was crushed out on a girl.
The song spoke to me – because I like the fast girls best, they do whatever they wanna do. And also, I usually had some kind of romantic complications going on. But what did that matter, when I met this girl at a Madison punk rock show; heard she’s the kind of girl who gets around. She doesn’t care what people say, she’s gonna live her life her way. And she’s awfully blunt, with no tact – you gotta like a girl like that.
6. Lunachicks – Drop Dead (live)
Lunachicks were another long-running band – 1987-2000.
They formed when Theo Kogan, Gina Volpe, and Sydney “Squid” Silver were all still in high school. They managed to impress Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore at some of their first shows, Gordon and Moore sent a Lunachicks demo to a friend of theirs in England, and he signed the band to his label. Pretty impressive. They went on to release five studio albums, and one live album, over the course of their career.
“If love was a fist, if love was a fist…this is a love song. It’s called ‘Drop Dead!’”
That’s what Theo Kogan says at the beginning of this track.
But it’s better than a love song. It’s about getting revenge on sleazy guys who harass them.
7. Mary Tyler Morphine – Iron City
Mary Tyler Morphine were a short-lived, obscure band.
These days, it is pretty impossible to find any of their music, or any information on them. I was lucky enough to be part of the Chicago scene when they were in existence, and that’s how I know about them. They were great, loud-fast rules, punk f’ing rock. They put on killer live shows. This song, which is on the Thick Records compilation Magnetic Curses (a CD full of excellent Chicago punk rock), was an anthem for me to scream along to. I’ve given up on common sense, they say, and, well, I could relate.
I once gave up logic for Lent, and I don’t think it ever returned.
8. The Distillers – Oh Serena
I’ve gotten in fights with people about this band.
Punk rock boys who are overly fond of Rancid and think Tim Armstrong is god have called Brody Dalle a groupie, a hanger-on, and, after she and Tim divorced, a heartbreaking bitch. I have actually had to stop myself from punching the dudes who say these things. True, The Distillers were first formed when Dalle moved to the US from Australia, to be with Armstrong. True, their first two albums were on Hellcat (Tim Armstrong’s record label).
But I have to point out, that if the situation were reversed, if Brody had been the known musician and signed Tim’s band, no one would be calling him a groupie or a hanger-on. They’d be saying, “Oh, isn’t it nice that she helped him out? Isn’t it great that two talented people got together?” Double standards like that make me want to spit venom. And as far as their divorce goes – that’s between the two of them, and has nothing to do with Dalle’s abilities as a musician. And she’s fantastic, I tell you. With The Distillers, she shredded on both lead and rhythm guitar, and her uniquely damaged-sounding, glass-gargling voice spit out her beautiful, angry lyrics.
This song, from The Distillers’ self-titled LP, was probably the first Distillers song I fell in love with. Oh Serena, I know what they’re sayin’ about you. Night and day is like a haunted replay. I know it girl, I’ll pray for you. Just remember it’s not stronger than you.
9. New Bloods – Eyes
My goodness, does the New Bloods album The Secret Life slay me.
I don’t even really know anything about the band – other than that they are a trio from Portland – but this album is amazing! It’s post-punk, with a fiddle!
This track, featuring screechy violin, crashing drums, and bass lines reminiscent of Gang of Four, is one of my favorite cuts from the album.
10. Star Fucking Hipsters – Two Cups of Tea
Although they’ve only been around since 2005, SFH have had a hell of a lot of line-up changes.
Hell, the original lady who did the vocals was my pal Kisston! By the time their first album, Until We’re Dead (which this track is from), was released, Kisston had been replaced by Nico de Gaillo; and in 2011, Nico left the band.
The music is slightly similar to Leftover Crack (cos, uh, both bands feature Stza), but I think SFH are actually more dynamic and interesting – maybe because there’s always been at least one woman in the band. 2008’s Until We’re Dead features Nico de Gaillo on vocals and Yula Beeri (formerly of the World/Inferno Friendship Society, also of Nanuchka and Yula and the eXtended Family) on bass.
This track, from that album, manages to be about both political horrors and personal angst. It is a tirade against cops, and against fairweather friends, against anxiety and war. Nico both screams, and laments: Fair-weather friend, it’s on you I do depend. All the mountains we climb, crumble into sands of time. No mail to send, to fair-weathered friends. Anxiety, another gift from you to me. And so everything fails, my bleeding bitten fingernails, sore as can be. Anxiety.