MRR COLUMN

The Story of a First Timer, Pt i

Here is a story I have probably told before. I did not play in a band until I was twenty-one years old. This was more than seven years since I’d begun to define myself entirely through music. That’s a long time to feel like a fraudulent half-a-participant, especially as a teenager. It’s also a long time to internalise that you’re not enough. You see, I was hearing voices. The voices of people who thought they knew my place. I can taste the weight of the air after I deigned, in the back of a car, when I was sixteen, to half-joke that maybe I could be in this new band being formed in my presence. Silence suddenly cracked into unstoppable laughter like I’d offered to fly us to the moon. I treaded carefully so as never to face the same humiliation. These words echoed around my peripheral vision like a traffic light that you know to obey before you’ve even really looked at it. They words formed a sort of naysayer chorus in the back of my mind, half their words half mine. You can’t. You’ll be a joke. You have bad coordination, guitar is too hard, you’re too fat to perform, you won’t have anything to say. Others were direct quotes: ‘Girls voices don’t suit hardcore,’ ‘Girls can’t drum, “girlbeat” sucks,’ ‘Girls just look terrible on stage it’s so awkward’ and on and on and on. This shit was in the air and it certainly wasn’t being challenged. Maybe this is still happening for some people, but the shadows and the alienation are much less brutal for today’s baby punks, I have to hope. I made a rolling vow during those years to do my bit to make this type of shit less likely, once I felt like I could justify my own attempts. I just didn’t know how, quite yet.

 

And then, finally, something came together and I was asked to be in a band. And I said no. Over and over. Because it was terrifying. But the inexorable pull and the persistence of other women registered on a different frequency, and I finally gave in. My first band was called Back Stabbath, a hastily assembled all-woman powerviolence style band called that played four gigs over three weeks in 2007, bizarrely crossing the gamut of support slots for both 108 and Whitehouse. There is a reason for this incongruous set-up. BS consisted of me, who was mostly into chuggy hardcore and expensive streetwear t-shirts at that precise moment, my dear friend Maya, who was making experimental noise music that I was too much of a philistine to understand whilst roaming the lanes of Brighton in Victorian nightdresses, plus a bombastic rainbow-mohawked street punk from Berkshire called Christina. Then there as Meeso, an Australian crust gal in town for a while, who I just assumed was the seasoned pro amongst us, so wrapped up was I in my own neuroses. Meeso had her own struggles which are not mine to write about here, but I had hoped I might catch up with her now living down here. Sadly she passed away a few months ago. I would learn that it had been her first band too, just like me, and she had said to many people how her life had been forever changed by the experience too. RIP Meeso. Like a DIY version of the Spice Girls, we stepped up and played through our sub-ten minute sets. The spell had been broken. I was hyper-critical of myself and was still under the influence of the cock’s chorus, whose increasing desperate response had shifted from an undertone of ‘noone will like you because you are all women’ to ‘people are just patronising you by applauding because you are all women.’ I understood, at that point, that this wasn’t about me, it was about what others have to lose by seeing us do our damn thing.

 

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A few years later I’d moved to London, and had started putting on gigs in squats and social centres with deliberately mixed bills under the banner of ‘Big Takeover.’ I felt emboldened to make a mark on a city where at that point, the primary venue for punk gigs was a pub owned by Vice Media. Again, this fact is lost to the vaguaries of recent history but it was depressing as hell. It’s also hard to explain how few women there were playing in DIY bands in the whole of the UK at this moment, let alone openly queer, trans or gender non-conforming people. We are talking single figures for the entire COUNTRY. The environment at gigs backed this up, as did my experiences then singing in a band with three men. They were dear friends and certainly not hostile, but the subject of gendered difference was an awkward side note that I realised was not a fruitful topic to bring up. While singing in this band I was constantly met with disbelief, incorrect assumptions and the unwelcome hands of ‘punks’ who felt my body was fair game both on and off stage. I threw myself into putting together line-ups that would bring together spikey punks, clean-cut hardcore kids freaking out about health and safety, residual emos ‘n’ screamos, that breed evergreen crusties who (much to their chagrin) would probably survive a nuclear holocaust, sundry bike punks who love any excuse to bring their bikes to a crowded place and even some tie-wearing garage rockaz. The novelty of the spaces was unifying, somehow. We had some wild nights in not always totally legal buildings. Everyone always said how free they felt. I always considered and fought hard to resist just hosting predominantly single gender line-ups, but too often ended up capitulating just because there were not the bands in existence to ask to play. The negative feedback loop had had its way. Let it serve as a barometer that this was less than ten years ago! DIY music scenes were just not having the broad, public conversations about representation that we now do, and it had resulted in an almost entirely homogenous set of bands to pull from. I felt conflicted, wanting to keep the standards up and resistant to booking some really terrible punk-adjacent group that happened to have a woman bassist either (although more power to her always) because it felt like that would just allow idiots to confirm the myths surrounding women as ‘less than.’ I hated this. I wanted to see a groundswell of new bands but I had no idea how to bring this about, and furthermore had, I believed, zero musical skills to impart on a peer-to-peer basis. I could start, I figured, by facing down my own fear-demons first and finally picking up a guitar to reduce the overall sense of impotence. In the middle of winter, Louis all-but-barricaded me into the garage until I could play a riff he’d tactfully adapted for me which approximated a stripped-back-to-two-notes version of ‘Life of Crime’ by The Weirdos. The naysayer chorus didn’t go away, of course, it just got drowned out by atonal feedback as we held a warped mirror to pouting bearded faces and bulging side-eyes.

 

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