When you grow up feeling different and isolated in a small east midlands village, you long to feel part of a group, something that gives you the confidence to be yourself and at the same time stick two fingers up at those you feel excluded from. Music has always been important as a focus for ‘outsiders’ from jazz and rock n’ roll right through to rave culture. The attraction with punk for me was the feeling that you could join in and be actively part of creating something. It felt like there was a whole lot less elitism than with other forms of music (though this wasn’t really true, it definitely felt that way) – you didn’t need to be a professional musician, even better if you’d never touched an instrument before.
I missed the first wave of punk, or rather, my experience was limited to sticking Sex Pistols’ and Buzzcocks’ lyrics on my bedroom wall – but when my mum made me to take them down, the idea stuck.
At school in the early 80s, punk was cool, in the sense that it wasn’t only the parents and teachers that hated it, but most of the kids too – after the Sex Pistols had become the tabloid newspapers favourite scapegoat, it was easy to get drawn to something that the establishment had decided was a subversive cult of drug- and sex-crazed wasters trying to undermine all the decent values of a society. For us, it was the world around us that was sick, obsessed with forcing kids into moulds, making us fit for a job-market that didn’t really exist, at least it felt that way living anywhere north of Milton Keynes. Wearing badges, swapping cassettes of Conflict and Disorder became tiny acts of rebellion, like smoking behind the bike-sheds. It was the idea that there were more of us out there that made us get cockier, backchat teachers, change our hair and get piercings.
Not coming from London or the south of England, we were always a bit cynical about the Sex Pistols, it all seemed a lot of theatrics by some kids (who could even play their instruments!!) who were told to form a band by a rich couple who were just trying to shift stock in their clothes shop ’Sex’. But when all hell let loose in the British press after the Sex Pistols appeared on a TV chat show (a few swear words on live TV were all it took!), the idea had been let out of the bag and it struck a chord with anyone who felt angry, helpless, frustrated or just plain lost in a system that seemd to be grinding to a halt. For me punk was just an expression of all the tension that had been building up over years, while it seemed everyone – our parents, the neighbours, teachers, the authorities, and those on the radio and TV, were trying to pretend that things were great. Punk just seemed to make sense. In the north, punk felt very different – it perhaps wasn’t so radical in terms of fashion but the attitude was there, and in many ways young people up there were feeling so much more forgotten, and this expressed itself in other ways. I don’t think it was so rigid either – we all thought the southerners were just copying one another, just trying to shock without much depth, like the idea of wearing nazi symbols which we thought was daft. Maybe it was the influence of the strength of the labour movement which seemed stronger in the north at the time, but punk seemed to be much more political and ironically more personal than in the south.
Their lyrics weren’t just empty provocation, they actually meant something! Even those bands that felt far removed from the usual punk rebel image – like Joy Division and the Buzzcocks – stood out for us from that collection of southern punks with their expensive T-shirts, big hair and posturing lyrics and machismo. Of course, this wasn’t all true, and there are loads of exceptions – we all loved The Slits, The Clash and X-ray Spex and ignored their southern roots.
In the 80s, anarcho-punk got me interested in politics, this was an advance for me – thinking bigger than personal acts of rebellion, and thinking we could really shake things up so much more being organised. Despite the presence of plenty of women and queers, punk had always had a sexist anti-gay side to it but things were changing. I’d moved to the nearest major city – Leicester – at the time, and despite, or perhaps because of the empty shell that Leicester had become through years of Thatcherism, there was a thriving youth music scene, often very political. Leicester in the mid to late 1980s had become renowned for its Goth and psychobilly scene, but it also played a large part in the anarcho-punk scene too. We lapped up the lyrics of bands like the Poison Girls and Crass. I never really got into anarchism but it was anarchists in that scene that drew me toward marxism in a big way at the time.
I then spent several years living in Manchester, surrounded by the acid-rave and hippyish scene they liked to call Madchester, but eventually me and some friends got drawn to London and back into punk in the early 1990s with the advent of Riot Grrrl – the feminist punk scene that had just crossed the Atlantic. Right away, my best friend and I wanted to form a band – we loved Riot Grrrl, even if we felt it was full of too many spoilt brats, but we wanted to give a voice to those young queers who were sick of the gay-scene, so we created Sister George and, with friends who quickly formed other bands, a queercore scene that set its sights on attacking our own « community » – the lesbian and gay establishment which for us was becoming just another rotten part of the system with its own sexism, racism and anti-working class snobbism. For me this was very much part of what punk should be all about, prodding where we shouldn’t, provoking those we weren’t supposed to provoke, and refusing to be satisfied with anything. We gained a bit of a reputation and made quite a lot of noise in the British music press for a band that only ever made one small album and fizzled out after a couple of years. We were helped and encouraged by other Riot Grrrl bands, and people from the original punk scene which was really exciting for us.