Original Riot Girls – the Trailblazing Women of the First Wave of Punk

“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.’”

Gina Birch, the Raincoats

“All the books about punk have failed to realize that these women were involved for no other reason than that they were good and original.”

Johnny Rotten

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Fifty years since she first arrived in London looking for a band to join, Chrissie Hynde is still pushing the boundaries of rock music.

In November, the Pretenders announced a spring 2024 tour of the UK, as well as a summer schedule supporting the Foo Fighters across America. Tickets sold out almost immediately.

The live dates follow the September release of Relentless, the Pretenders’ twelfth studio album, with Hynde declaring: “I think anyone in a band is constantly questioning if they should keep going. It starts as a youthful pursuit and eventually, it makes you wonder, why am I doing this? It’s the life of the artist. You never retire.”

Relentless might feel like a comeback, but like she says, the Pretenders have never really retired – apart from a quieter period in the early 2000s, they’ve averaged an album every three or four years since their 1979 debut. And aged 72 Hynde herself shows no sign of slowing down: the Pretenders spent much of 2023 on the road in a tour of the US and Europe that also included a showstopping set at Glastonbury in June.

But Chrissie Hynde is not the only punk rocker with something still to say.

Also at Worthy Farm this summer – and hot off appearances at Coachella and Pasadena’s Cruel World festival – was another septuagenarian iconoclast: Blondie’s 75-minute turn on the pyramid stage drew rave reviews, with the Guardian describing 78-year-old Debbie Harry as “awesomely cool… an atomic charisma bomb.”

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If you caught Blondie at Cruel World in May, chances are your head was also turned by the headlining appearance of Siouxsie Sioux at the same festival, in what was billed as the (relatively youthful) 66-year-old’s return to the stage. A month later Siouxsie’s performance at the Noches del Botánico festival in Madrid was described by Spanish Time Out as “subversive magic.”

That all three women are still playing live (and in Hynde’s case still creating new music) is extraordinary in itself… but given the chaotic origins of their starts in the industry, it’s also little short of miraculous.

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Debbie Harry, Chrissie Hynde and Siouxsie Sioux are heralded now as trailblazers for women in rock, the original Riot Girls, kicking their way into a male-dominated business. Blondie and the Pretenders have both been inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, and in 2011 Siouxsie was awarded the Outstanding Contribution to Music award at the Q Awards (which as we all know is a far more prestigious gong to have on the mantelpiece) – but five decades ago, as women simply trying to be heard, the odds were stacked firmly against them.

They emerged from the filth and fury of the original punk rock explosion in New York and London, overcoming prejudice and lack of conventional musicianship and often violence to form and then lead bands in a male-dominated scene… and in doing so become inspirations for a generation of other young women to do the same.

Their story is the story of how punk brought a new voice and new opportunities to a whole wave of female musicians… but there’s so much more to the tale than simply Siouxsie, Debbie and Chrissie. The real history is far messier… and much more thrilling.

“Before I picked up a guitar (straight to electric, no acoustic for me!) I had no female role models I could emulate,” says Viv Albertine, guitarist with the Slits and author of Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. “There was limited access to information in those days, so although there were a few female guitarists, bassists etc. in the world, especially in the USA, I’d never seen or heard of them. There was no one I could relate to before I saw a picture of Patti Smith when I was about 20 or 21 years old. The women in music I had come across weren’t in bands, like boys, like gangs.”

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“Atomic charisma bomb” Debbie Harry of Blondie.

Rock music in the 1970s was by and large an overtly masculine proposition – on the one hand a cartoonish display of brawn and bluster and bare-chested, axe-wielding machismo… and on the other a stereotypically male exercise in earnest muso noodling. What women did feature were either relegated to doe-eyed sex objects and broken-hearted, well, sex objects, put on a pedestal as ball-busting dominatrixes, or else revered as sensitive, winsomely-complex poets.

Of course there were exceptions. Patti Smith was nobody’s victim, and nobody’s fool, and Stevie Nicks, Janis Joplin and Grace Slick remain some of the most powerful voices in rock history. But, as author of The Lost Women of Rock Music: Female Musicians in the Punk Era, Helen McCookerybook (and there’s as perfectly punk a name as you’ll ever hear), explains:

“During that period there were women in rock and there were women playing instruments. There just weren’t very many of them and there wasn’t a driving purpose behind them. I remember as a 14-year-old kid, looking at Top of the Pops and seeing people like Barbara Dickson playing the piano, all these very skilled musicians, or Mary Hopkins, very, very pretty… and thinking ‘I will never be able to do that.’”

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patti smith
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Patti Smith was an inspiration to a generation.

And even if the likes of David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Mick Jagger and Bryan Ferry all pushed against gender stereotypes… make no mistake: Bolan, Jagger and Ferry remained the kind of men who might lead your daughter, your wife, or, in Ferry’s case maybe your mother, astray. And as for Bowie – even when Ziggy Stardust mimicked fellatio on a high-heeled and spangly leggings-wearing Mick Ronson on stage, Ronno still looked like he could sink eight pints and then take you outside for a lesson in good manners.

And then, in the mid-seventies, everything changed. From the basement clubs of New York and the council estates of London, Birmingham and Manchester, came a new kind of music, and with it a new attitude… to everything.

Nobody who saw the Ramones at CBGB or the Sex Pistols at the 100 Club were under any illusions that they were “skilled musicians.” Those early Pistols shows especially were famously so shambolic that they inspired their audiences to start bands themselves, the reasoning being they couldn’t do any worse than the jokers on stage (the most oft-quoted example being their 1976 gig at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall, organized by the Buzzcocks, at which an audience of just 40 included Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner, Morrissey, Mark E. Smith, Mick Hucknall, and future Factory Records supremo Tony Wilson, among others).

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sex pistols
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Filth and fury: the Sex Pistols.

And not only could they not play like the “real” rock stars on Top of the Pops, for the most part they didn’t look like real rock stars either. Johnny Rotten was not only anathema to the bare-chested machismo of the time – he barely looked human at all, let alone a sex object.

The result was profound. Those chaotic performances opened the door to a whole other kind of rock ‘n’ roll wannabe; including a generation of teenage girls and young women who, like Helen McCookerybook, had until then always thought: “I will never be able to do that.”

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For Viv Albertine, however, the reality on the ground was a little more complicated.

“I often say this, but ‘punk’ wasn’t an entity that existed when I picked up a guitar,” she explains. “When I picked up a guitar, and I felt a fool and a charlatan for doing so (being a girl and not able to play) there was no ‘movement’. There was nothing and no one to follow. We were on our own and at the beginning of things. I knew no girls in a band. I knew no girls who played electric guitar. I’d seen the Pistols play live twice. I’d seen a picture of Patti Smith. That was all I had to go on. So no, ‘punk’ didn’t make girls realise they could form bands. The girls who dared to pick up guitars and form a band did that. The Slits, Poly Styrene, Siouxsie, The Raincoats and the others. Not that many of us, and not the nice girls who had learnt to play the flute and the violin at school. Most of us who did it, did it from scratch. We took a huge leap of faith.”

That leap of faith wasn’t only happening in London. Three and a half thousand miles from the 100 Club, one woman had been determined to “do that” for almost a decade before the Pistols had even formed. The fiercely ambitious Debbie Harry (born Angela Trimble) had worked as a go-go dancer, Playboy bunny and folk singer through the late sixties and early seventies before meeting Chris Stein in 1974. The pair had formed Blondie, and quickly built up an incendiary reputation at CBGB, releasing their eponymously-titled debut LP in 1976.

Although serious chart success would not follow for another two years after that, once the world did wake up to Blondie, the band – and Harry especially – went stratospheric. Their unique musical blending of punk, pop and disco, along with an untouchably cool New York aesthetic and Harry’s luminous beauty and take-no-sh*t attitude, saw Blondie transcend the scene they emerged from, and made Harry a genuine rock icon.

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cbgb new york
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New York’s CBGB club launched punk bands including Blondie, the Ramones and Talking Heads

In 1976, however, that was all in the future – and even as Harry perfected her craft to the kids at CBGB, back in the UK, scores of young British women were borrowing or blagging instruments from wherever they could find them and forming bands of their own.

One of the first was the Flowers of Romance, formed by Jo Faull and Sarah Hall, girlfriends of the Pistols’ Steve Jones and Paul Cook. The Flowers of Romance was typical of the punk spirit – so unsophisticated that the band only ever really existed as an idea, and despite never playing a single gig, boasted a line-up that included Sid Vicious, Keith Levene (later of the Clash and Public Image Ltd), and Viv Albertine and Palmolive, who later became key members of the hugely influential the Slits.

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viv albertine of the slits
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Viv Albertine: “We were on our own and at the beginning of things.”

Also in the Flowers of Romance was guitarist Marco Pirroni – and in September 1976 he and Vicious were to make their live debut in another band, fronted by a 19-year-old from Bromley who after seeing the Sex Pistols for the first time the previous February had changed her name from Susan Ballion to Siouxsie Sioux, and decided to have a go herself.

Siouxsie and the Banshees’ first gig – with Pirroni on guitar and Vicious on drums – was at the Malcolm McLaren-organized 100 Club Punk Festival on September 20, 1976, and, in the absence of any actual written songs, comprised solely of a 20-minute jam around the Lord’s Prayer.

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If the Sex Pistols’ effect on their teenage audience was dramatic, Siouxsie’s was explosive. Her upfront, in-your-face, deliberately shocking image both celebrated and subverted her sexuality – and gave young women license to get up and do it themselves, regardless of their looks, and regardless of whether they could play or not.

“Siouxsie just appeared fully made, fully in control, utterly confident,” Viv Albertine later remembered. “It totally blew me away. There she was doing something that I dared to dream but she took it and did it and it wiped the rest of the festival for me, that was it. I can’t even remember everything else about it except that one performance.”

An inspired Albertine was to join the Slits, formed by fellow Flowers of Romance member Palmolive and a 14-year-old whirlwind calling herself Ari Up – and in that band herself inspire another wave of teenage girls.

siouxsie sioux
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Siouxsie Sioux’s effect on her audience was explosive.

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Among them was Helen McCookerybook. Still performing today, with her songs regularly played on BBC 6Music, she formed the Chefs and played her debut gig just three days after picking up the bass guitar for the first time. Fantastic as it sounds today, her story is typical of the late ’70s zeitgeist.

“I was so quiet and so meek,” she remembers. “I was brought up in quite a restricted religious family and I just felt like I’d behaved myself for 17 years. And then suddenly I just thought: literally, f**k all that, you know?

“When punk happened it was like: this is where I belong. It was a huge rescue mission, even though it was really bright and scary. It was a pot of misfits who had this kind of common purpose of making music that made them feel that they had something that belonged to them.

“Most of the women who picked up instruments were motivated by the fact that they had something that they really wanted to say. Punk was ideal for creating your own way of being who you were as a female and playing your music your own way.”

The Slits – Live

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Not all attitudes had changed, however. Young women might have been forming bands in unprecedented numbers, but despite – or perhaps because of – that, there were still hurdles to overcome. Most notably, prejudice from the old guard.

“It wasn’t fun being in the Slits,” says Albertine. “We were attacked and put down everywhere we went. We were very committed to challenging stereotypes for girls and making music that wasn’t derivative of male rock music and writing lyrics that weren’t derivative of male rock lyrics and presenting ourselves live in a way that undermined the status quo, dressing and moving and playing our instruments in ways that were new, because we were new. We didn’t see the point in rehashing blokey tropes.”

Gina Birch, who formed the influential punk band the Raincoats after seeing the Slits perform, remembers facing constant skepticism.

“All around us there was there was this kind of pervasive thing of ‘are you sure? Are you serious? Women aren’t supposed to be doing this,’” she says in the 2018 documentary film Stories from the She-Punks, made with McCookerybook. “And in a way, I had that anxiety about myself; I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be doing it and I wasn’t sure if I was any good. Society made it difficult, but also punk made it possible.”

Like punk itself, it was not just about the music. One of the main draws for these nascent riot girls was that, for perhaps the first time, they also had the freedom to dress however they damn well pleased. In some cases that meant making a virtue out of looking as un-beautiful as they could.

“A lot of the women who played in bands back then just didn’t bother with a sort of sexualized image at all,” says McCookerybook. “A lot of the women in the punk bands just rejected that appearance completely.”

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poly styrene of x ray spex
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Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex: looking how she likes and liking how she looks.

Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex, all baggy jumpers, grannyish twin sets and braces on her teeth, was not so much kicking against the idea of the female pop star as a sex object, as making the point that looks shouldn’t actually matter anyway. As she told the NME: “I said that I wasn’t a sex symbol and that if anybody tried to make me one I’d shave my head tomorrow… I just want to be like me. Me: normal person.” She later did shave her head, just to reinforce the point.

And if Poly Styrene was rejecting sexual stereotypes, and Siouxsie subverting the male gaze, other female punks were weaponizing their sexuality. For the cover of their debut LP, the Slits – even their name was a deliberately provocative statement – appeared naked but for mud and loincloths. The result was not so much titillating, as challenging.

“The Slits were totally uncompromising,” says Albertine. “We didn’t write in normal time signatures or construct songs or write lyrics that could cross over. We didn’t look or act nice. Most reviewers and record company types were male and they honestly couldn’t even hear or recognize what we did, they were so horrified by us. Our attitude in interviews and record company meetings was wild and irreverent. Our name had us banned from the radio. We didn’t stand a chance. I’m happy with where we are in history. Outsiders. Some money would be nice though.”

“For a lot of women punks, the Slits were really, really important, because they took that idea of female sexuality and made it frightening,” says McCookerybook. “It was very much a case of using the weapons that were created by the media and turning them around and saying, look, have some of this yourself.”

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siouxsie
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The first wave of female punks made their own rules.

Both the Slits and X-Ray Spex would rise above their DIY roots to achieve lasting success – in the former’s case with the bouncy “Typical Girls” (originally a B-side to their breathless ska-take on “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”) and in Poly Styrene’s band’s case with “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” and the 1978 top 30 masterpiece Germfree Adolescents.

1978 was also the year that the world finally heard the name Chrissie Hynde. The Ohio-born singer had been trying to break into the music business since moving to London in 1973, with stints as a writer on the NME, as a shop assistant at Malcolm McClaren and Vivienne Westwood’s alternative boutique SEX, and abortive attempts to join early incarnations of bands that would become the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Damned.

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chrissie hynde of the pretenders
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Chrissie Hynde: still pushing the boundaries of rock.

In 1978 she finally took charge of her own destiny and built a band around herself. The Pretenders’ first single, “Stop Your Sobbing,” released in January the following year, made #33 in the British charts. A year later, the Pretenders’ third release, “Brass in Pocket” hit #1… immediately followed by their debut album, which stayed there for four consecutive weeks and also broke into the Top 10 in the US Billboard charts.

Like Blondie, the Pretenders never looked back. By the early ’80s, as the initial fire and fanaticism of punk faded, Chrissie Hynde and Debbie Harry had grown into international superstars, as beloved by parents as they had been by their angry or idealistic daughters. And even if Siouxsie Sioux remained fiercely true to her roots, her own refusal to compromise only endeared her further to an audience far beyond anything the kids at the 100 Club Punk Festival could ever have imagined.

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Five decades on, with all three women now proclaimed as rock royalty – and all three playing shows to crowds including kids young enough to be their grandchildren – it’s easy to forget just how profound the influence of their music and attitude was to a whole generation of young women. And not only their influence – but also that of many of the less-heralded singers and musicians who formed the vanguard of the original riot girls.

“The Slits were so uncompromising, we would’ve liked to be more recognised but the times weren’t ready for us,” says Albertine. “We scared the sh*t out of most industry blokes who came near us, and we didn’t have any infrastructure around us to keep us going in isolation so we imploded. Since the internet, young people have discovered us and sort of brought us back into the light. Without them, we wouldn’t even have the recognition we have now.”

“In my circles the male punk bands are really secondary,” says McCookerybook. “You know, I like the Clash. I’ve got Clash records, I really like the Sex Pistols, I like the Damned, I like that music, it all sounded really angry and that’s how I felt at the time… But the thing is that when you’ve got a song like “Typical Girls” by the Slits or “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” – that’s really speaking to women of my generation.”

X-Ray Spex – Oh Bondage Up Yours! (Twndish 1978)


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