Ignore us? Just try. Why punk’s riot grrrls will never go quietly
1st July 2021

For then-teenaged punk guitarist, Sarah Blaby, landing her first live gig with her band Hecate as the support for Melbourne indie heroes The Dirty Three meant starting at the top.

As a student of Collingwood’s Rock’n’Roll High School, Melbourne’s fabled launching pad for girls keen to hone their rock credentials and technical skills and grab their slice of Australia’s pumping ’90s live scene, that kind of entry carried heavy promise of things to come.

Sarah Blaby, far left, with Rock ’n Roll High School headmistress Stephanie Bourke (centre) and fellow students Alex Castaniotis (drums), Sarah McKeown (bass) and Jessie McEvoy in 1997.Credit:Michael Clayton-Jones

It was 1995 and the US feminist music movement riot grrrl was in full swing. Fierce young singers such as Hole’s Courtney Love and Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill were tearing up stages and inspiring cult-popular zines, and echoes of their disruption to the male-dominated (and notoriously sexist) punk scene had put fire into girls and young women around Australia.

Blaby and her many musical peers had every reason to expect a future where the movement’s catch-cry “girls to the front” would be Oz rock’s new reality. “The Dirty Three gave us a bunch of equipment that day and we took it back to the school; you felt like part of the scene,” says Blaby, who is now 44 and, after more than a decade with the band Plaster of Paris, about to launch her (and their) first full-length album.

Plaster of Paris, from left, Nicola Bell, Sarah Blaby and Zec Zechner.Credit:Nicola Bell

The barriers faced by the album, Lost Familiar – “lack of income as women, lack of family and social support of us as musicians and then chuck in lack of industry support for women, especially as we age” – could be viewed as a metaphor for the fortunes of the energy-rich but profile-hampered wave of powerful young Aussie riot grrrl-inspired outfits. Many seemed set for big exposure but found the equality they pushed for was slow to eventuate in a music scene set in its gender-biased ways, even at the most convention-busting end.

Twenty-five years on, as male contemporaries continue to tour, reform bands or make new ones, long-time music industry worker Cara Williams describes the landscape thus: “There is no shortage of middle-aged men/rock dogs forming new bands, playing in heritage outfits and filling space in music venues all across the country on any given night. Yet the women who once proclaimed ‘girls to the front’, and who once occupied the stage are now standing at the back or not in the venue at all.

“Of course [female] rock’n’roll royalty exists in Australia … but the older-adult male-female ratio is tipping enormously one way.”

Given the powerful cultural clout of third, and now fourth-wave feminism, the prominence of movements such as #MeToo and the attendant expectation that women artists have a chance of making it into view, a fair question for Australian punk’s female firebrands would be: “Why?”

Many of the original riot grrrl demographic, now in their mid to late 40s, are still involved with music behind or in front of the scenes, but often as an interest shared with passionate communities they built and that have stuck with them, rather than as a primary income.

From left, Janelle Johnstone, Linda Johnston, Sarah Blaby, Zec Zechner and Laura MacFarlane.Credit:Simon Schluter

Some have been able to return to live performance after caring for young children, some are part of a recent resurgence of interest in their powerful early work, which has put some on live bills with bands decades younger. Increasingly, younger performers are seeking out their frontwomen-forebears to hat-tip the legacy they created.

Kahlia Parker, who performs in Girl Germs (named after a popular zine), says the influence of predecessors is a big source of inspiration for contemporary artists. “They made such huge statements and impacts: someone picking up a guitar and playing in front of people, taking up that space, it’s kind of like, ‘Oh, there is someone like me’.

“It’s hugely important to see women on stage; music, and punk especially is a counter-culture. If it’s just one sex, one gender, men screaming on stage, it’s only one side of the conversation. It’s so important for that non-male to be on stage and screaming so more people like me are like, ‘Oh shit, that’s how I’m feeling, that validates me, I’m not alone and at least during this song or that song, or during this set, I’m heard, I’m seen, I’m valued and I feel safe’,” says Parker, who also runs her own record label, Roolette.

Still, as Sarah Blaby, who plays in two other bands, is a board member of Music Victoria and is sponsorship manager at community radio PBSFM, will attest, for women who hit the scene with a raging head of steam, enduring has been a comparatively hard slog.

“As we got older, you saw others get more opportunities, it was very hard [for all-female bands] to get signed, very hard to get management, and the older you got, you noticed [male-dominated] bands you played with were getting slots on the festival scene and you’d hear, ‘There’s already a girl band in this festival’.

“Anecdotally, we’d hear management say to other acts, ‘Don’t play with women, you’ll get a reputation, it’s just not a good thing to do [because women’s bands were not viewed as being as credible]’. Even if there was a successful act breaking through, they’d get told not to play with us. You’d never see many women on the bill – Adalita from Magic Dirt, [Kellie Lloyd] from Screamfeeder and Janet [English] from Spiderbait, they were the only ones on stage you’d see.”

Perhaps surprisingly, given the music was all about tearing down the status quo, Blaby and her all-girl line-up ilk discovered “when you’ve got a man in a band, you’re endorsed: managers and labels will deal with the guy; when you’re all women, it’s much harder”.

Despite barriers of gender (and in Blaby’s case, queerness), she and others including punk stalwart, festival organiser and band booker Janelle Johnstone, Laura MacFarlane, a singer-songwriter and one-time performer with American riot grrrl originals Sleater-Kinney, and Linda Johnston of the enduring act Little Ugly Girls continue to produce, decades on.

Johnstone, a guitarist in bands Bindi and Spot the Beast in the ’90s, has remained vitally involved with women’s punk. She ran ‘Rah! Rah!: A feminist punk retrospective of Melbourne music from the Wet Ones to Wetfest’ in 2019 and will run Rah! Rah! #2 featuring panel talks and performances from women and gender diverse artists at Fitzroy Town Hall on July 17. She has done an anthropology PhD on gender and inclusion in the music industry, and runs the women’s music project Sonic aGender, an event-based collective promoting conversations about gender and music.

Janelle Johnstone, far left, with fellow members of Spot the Beast.

A fellow graduate of, and sometime resident at, the Rock’n’Roll High School started by classical piano teacher Stephanie Bourke, Johnstone said the idea young women were just as able as their male peers empowered a large cohort to form “a big gang” and support each other into the live scene. The school ran for about a decade and attracted the attention of Courtney Love, who sent seven guitars for girls to use, before Bourke moved to Sydney and started the Kings Cross Conservatorium of music.

“We were like a scene. The other people I knew at that time were a bit older than us and it really felt like they were on their own in this wild frontier [of women breaking into the men’s world of punk]. One of the incredibly rich aspects of the Rock’n’Roll High School was it gave us this notion of structure,” said Johnstone. “Lessons were had in all sorts of crazy places, while the riot grrrl scene was happening.”

Women and gender-diverse people were attracted to punk as a way to push back against norms that subjugate them: “People talk about what it [performing] feels like; it’s a space to feel safe, to own space, it’s where you express revolt, it’s where you resist. It’s where you test all of those things … this binary category of what a woman’s supposed to look like or be or sound like regardless of age or sexuality.”

Once young women of the Rock’n’Roll High School era aged out of it, or moved beyond similarly women-friendly ventures such as Sydney’s Scooter collective, the industry’s gender-skewed realities kicked in.

“There’s an inherent sense of freedom that comes with masculinity, that idea of what punk was about – that sense of freedom. I think it’s something a lot of women have chased in that space, that promise of freedom is what I am looking at in my research: does it honour its promise [for women]?” says Johnstone.

For determined creators such as MacFarlane, a multi-instrumentalist, singer-songwriter for more than two decades with her band, ninetynine, and audio engineer, responding to exclusion was a matter of making your own channels.

MacFarlane’s fanzine, Woozy, promoted diverse acts from 1992 to 2003. She co-founded and ran Choozy Distribution, supporting various DIY music releases and zines within Australian and overseas, and since 1996 she has run her own imprint, Patsy Record Label, featuring women’s music.

Laura MacFarlane in 1996, during her time with ninetynine.

“The single biggest focus of Woozy was to promote DIY culture: if you’re not happy with the status quo, maybe you need to shake it up a little,” says MacFarlane, who also had global reach while playing with Sleater-Kinney. “We could see people making big strides by being completely independent, which was inspiring. “We thought, ‘Do we even need record labels? We can just do this ourselves’.“

Like several other artists who spoke to this masthead, Little Ugly Girls lead singer Linda Johnston credits female venue bookers such as Janelle Johnstone for not only having helped kick off Australia’s wave of riot grrrl-influenced punk, but for keeping the flame alive and lately breathing new life into it with small festivals, events and artist support.

Little Ugly Girls, described by Vice as “the legends of Oz punk you never heard about”, recorded its first album in 2018 after more than 20 years together, and a new album by Johnston’s other band, the Dacios, is in the making. Little Ugly Girls won The Age Music Victoria Awards best punk band in 2018 and this year played the Forum Theatre in February with two celebrated young punk trios, Cable Ties and Mod Con.

Though she was “blown away” to get booked regularly with Little Ugly Girls quickly after moving to Melbourne from Hobart in the ’90s, Johnston could see “women were never invited into the record industry”. She notes that many managed to forge DIY careers around it.

“I don’t want to be part of the record industry; I’m part of a community,” says Johnston, whose band has supported names including the White Stripes, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds and Bikini Kill. “We’re blessed to have this community and it continues to grow in strength with women and gender-diverse people. It’s only going to continue getting stronger and the men who are part of it are completely supportive of that.

“We’are part of an underground Melbourne music scene; I’m still playing music, I still feel relevant and positive about continuing to play music … I refuse to believe my music career is over because I’m in my mid-50s; there are a lot of people around still who have been around for a long time, who continue to play music in the underground.”

New ways to get your music heard have freed women who were always outsiders from needing the imprimatur of the commercial industry, and artists are thriving on the bond with their own communities. “I’m not saying there aren’t limitations on women in music; of course there are because it’s still a man’s world. We know that.

“But it’s a different time now; we don’t need the music industry the same way we did in the ’90s. There are so many other platforms … I’ve always found the platform a privilege, it’s so much fun to be on stage and have a voice, sing and perform, and Melbourne has such an incredibly vibrant scene. We’re the music capital of Australia and respected all over the world as a place for underground music.

“I feel part of that more than I feel the limitations of it.”

Plaster of Paris launch their debut release at Fitzroy’s The Old Bar on July 24.

Find out the next TV, streaming series and movies to add to your must-sees. Get The Watchlist delivered every Thursday.

Most Viewed in Culture

From our partners

Source: Read Full Article