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The Dishrags, the Zellots, the Persisters, the Moral Lepers and the Animal Slaves are just some of the revolutionary women's groups that came of the culture of the 1970s—a time when it was a radical concept to claim a musical space for women, when coming out as a feminist was a daring admission, and came with consequences
Punk was not unique, and I say that with great respect. It sounded different; it was louder and faster. For an audience not used to dancing to their politics, who preferred the black sounds in the gay discos, or harmonies and endless free-form drumming, it was unlistenable. Punk was difficult. But it was also similar to what had gone before. The scene could be violent, it could be angry. It most certainly included drugs. The desire to “stick it to the man” was not that different from the discrimination felt by hippies, and beats, and any other outsider group who rejected the lifestyle and political choices of their time. And no one trusted the police. Punk was also a boys’ club. Its sexism grew out of the same misinformation and blurred vision as every other institution. It shared the same historical prejudices. Women had been making music since the beginning, but it was within punk that women stood up and screamed.
The “do it yourself” dictum was already in motion in the women’s movement. In 1972, anti-war activist Holly Near started Redwood Records in California as an outlet for her political beliefs. A year later, an east coast lesbian collective, Lavender Jane, began work on Lavender Jane Loves Women, an album written and produced exclusively “by and for lesbians.” That same year, 1973, while being interviewed on an early feminist radio program, songwriter Cris Williamson, who had released an album on Ampex Records (a label shared with Creedence Clearwater Revival, Todd Rundgrun and Gil Evans), suggested a “women’s music” label be formed.
That label was Olivia Records, a launching pad that soon became a landing strip as many musicians who were already in the business, working in isolation, arrived at the door in California to offer their services. They produced and engineered albums, played backup, arranged music, raised money and packed boxes. Women taught each other. This was the big idea.
By the mid-1970s a renegade network of women’s coffee houses and bookstores, women’s centres and festivals supported by other women-run recording labels, women’s production and distribution companies, publicized by a growing number of female music journalists and historians (the late Rosetta Reitz of Rosetta Records and others) began spreading throughout the western world. It was mail order and word of mouth and long-distance calls on Sunday when the rates were down.
The first women’s music festival in Canada took place in 1974 in the Kootenay region of British Columbia, an area described by a provincial tourist bureau as having “a reputation for seclusion…several generations of settlers have found a safe haven here from the anxieties of religious persecution or social unrest.” The two-day festival featured local and regional musicians, workshops on witchery and crafts, a film festival, square dancing and an arts and crafts fair. It was open to both women and men.
Almost every city in Canada had a women’s coffee house or an area set aside for women only: Clementine’s and the Fly by Night in Toronto, the Powerhouse Gallery and Co-op Femme in Montreal, the Women’s Building in Winnipeg, the Guild in Regina, and a place down an alleyway in some guy’s dance studio in Dalhousie. In 1972, after returning from her first women’s liberation meeting, Rita MacNeil wrote her first song.
Vancouver’s early women’s community caught fire during this time. Coffee houses rotated between the basement of the New School (the Gay Alliance Toward Equality did child care), the Vancouver Women’s Bookstore on Richards Street, Ariel Books in Kitsilano and finally the Full Circle at 8th and Main. Laurine Harrison, in her communal house off Oak Street, started Womankind Productions, hosting women-only dances at Simon Fraser University and producing concerts for many high-profile musicians coming out of the feminist movement in the US. Womankind also took a turn at hosting a women’s music festival. Local musicians Susan Knutson and Wendy Solloway worked with artistic director Gary Cristall to integrate the stages of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival with feminist-themed music (they went as talent scouts to the newly happening Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival), and in 1976, Ferron, one of the most prominent singer-songwriters to emerge from this era, released her first album on her own label, Lucy Records. (More than ten years later, she performed with Holly Near at Carnegie Hall.)
It cannot be overstated how radical a concept it was in the 1970s to actually claim a space just for women. With the exception of outdoor festivals and concerts, it was still unacceptable in many clubs and bars for a woman to dance alone or with a female friend. It took a lot of courage to walk into a lesbian drop-in or attend a consciousness-raising group at the Vancouver Status of Women on West 4th Avenue. To come out as a feminist was a daring admission. There could be repercussions.
The music during this time was exclusively about the story. The personal was political. It was the lyrics that mattered most. In the tradition of the troubadour, abuses, struggles and triumphs were documented and shared. An enemy was identified. Although many of the songs could be joyful and healing—Elaine Stef, a guitarist with the Moral Lepers, once described the genre as music for women to hold hands and sway—the words were also raw and bleeding. The delivery was crucial. Even the angriest protest song was sung a cappella or with an acoustic guitar. It was the only form of music that was acceptable.
In this way, the women’s movement mirrored the biases of society. Girl groups of the ’60s, blues and country singers of decades past, and “straight” folkies were wrongly dismissed and discredited as being mix-and-match drug-addicted victims of their men, or skinny perfect blondes pining for Jackson Browne. No one clued in that Karen Carpenter played drums or that Bo Diddley had Peggy Jones behind him on rhythm, or that the guitarist Ellen McIlwaine had jammed with Hendrix or that she even existed. But it may not have mattered. All would have been seen as pawns of the male-controlled music industry. Generally, the women’s movement did not respect women who played any kind of rock ’n’ roll. It was particularly problematic if you came from a jazz or rhythm and blues background and wanted to express yourself in that way. Plugging in was seen as male-identified. It was a curse like no other.
It must be said that no history of women’s contributions to music was being taught. There were no special university courses. There were no books or magazines in the library. Obviously there was no internet. Any piece of information about a woman playing music was most likely found in a bin in a used record store. The radio “rule” was no more than two female singers in a row. This held true even for the earth-shattering FM format, which blasted great music to hungry minds barely weaned off transistor radios. (When my mother was a cleaning lady for a small radio station in the American Midwest, she used to save all of the demo 45s for me that had been thrown away. Most of these records were by women: the band Fanny, country singer Skeeter Davis, Aretha Franklin’s sister, Erma, singing “Piece of My Heart.”) But even among leftists there was an assumption that women weren’t making music. In 1981, when I went on the air with Rubymusic, a radio show specializing in this very subject, even my radical (and very supportive) radio station, Vancouver Co-operative Radio, was concerned that I might not be able to find enough music by women to fill half an hour every week.
The emergence of women players in Vancouver came in fits and starts and was largely invisible. Although it coincided with the early punk scene in Vancouver, the two political communities did not mix and they had no real awareness of each other’s existence or importance.
Ad Hoc was a familiar band in the left-wing and feminist communities. They played at least a hundred benefits, rallies and dances, beginning with their first gig on International Women’s Day in 1978. They were a very politically conscious mixed band with an equal number of men and women. They struggled publicly to overcome sex roles, which at that time included the difficult fact that most women did not have the technical knowledge needed for set-up or sound production. Even the act of carrying one’s equipment or getting a beer for a male band member could be viewed through a political lens. American recording engineers Karen Kane and Leslie-Ann Jones notwithstanding, the shortage of trained female sound personnel was a problem everywhere throughout the early women’s movement, brought home when it was “discovered” that the female tech on some of Olivia’s feminist and lesbian-focussed albums had previously been a man.
Sapphire, an all-woman band produced by Womankind, came together in 1976 in Vancouver for a few dances but has disappeared from memory. Contagious was another matter. So rare was it to see a band made up of all women that Contagious was constantly referred to as “that women’s band,” the assumption being that there was only one. The women first got together in 1977 at drummer Jorie Cedric’s old house on Alberta Street “to see what would happen,” and the band stayed together for three years. As was typical of the era’s politics, they functioned as a collective. They worked hard to create a sound and image that they saw as different from the music they considered created and produced by men. At one point they debated whether to let a good male friend be their manager and first sound engineer. (They did, although it was uncomfortable at women-only dances. Jin Hong later trained for the job.) So sensitive was the issue of technical ability that when one of the musicians commented from the stage that they (the band) didn’t know how to use microphones, she was reprimanded by other band members who didn’t want to reinforce the image of women not knowing anything about sound equipment (an issue that also surfaced in punk music). Everything was new.
Janet Lumb, a founding member of Contagious, recalls: “It was through this band that we learned to call ourselves musicians. The realities of a collective band: touring and performing hungry, cold, sick, exhausted, vulnerable, pissed off at someone, and the show is on. On the road, we were seven women including the sound person, one van, one Volkswagen bug, three children and two dogs.” On one tour, “we arrived at a gas station that had a phone booth, filled up on gas and parked. Wendy [Solloway] pulled out our box of food supplies, bulbs of garlic, veggies, crackers, bread, water and fruit. We fed the kids and ate. Everyone at the gas station stopped in awe and disbelief to see Jin, our car mechanic and sound person, under the hood fixing the radiator amidst a troop of women, kids and dogs in two vehicles packed to the brim. We phoned the venue organizers to say that we were on our way. They’d already heard.”
The emotional attachment felt by the women’s community for this band was so deep that more than four hundred people (mostly female) showed up for a farewell concert on March 17, 1980, at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre. A music critic for the Province newspaper wrote at the time:
There was once an all-woman band from Vancouver that had the germ of an idea. They called themselves Contagious… These ladies didn’t want to be confined to the traditional female role of vocalists; they had to play instruments, too.
If there is one lesson these women might take with them as they go their separate ways, it is: This kind of music (swing, be-bop, or whatever you want to call it) requires much discipline. It looks easy and easy-going when people like Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks are doing it, but don’t be fooled. To get to that point, you need to sweat and swear and wear your fingers to the bone. Anyway, Contagious has made its point. Let’s see more brave women spreading germs on the musical front.
The same week that Contagious ended their run, the Dishrags went into the recording studio. Contagious had not been the only band of women in town.
When Contagious first began defining itself within the women’s movement, other women in Vancouver were also forming bands or joining with men they knew. But this time the women were not openly connected or supported by feminism or even aware of an established feminist community. They were young musicians answering a different call, and their escape from their bedrooms was into the basement practice spaces of the very harsh and very male world of punk rock. It was emotional anarchy combined with a desire to play—loud and hard.
A trio of Vancouver Island teenagers crossed the water. Mary ran away from home. Sue yelled out her bedroom window at Kim, “one of the only other girls in my school who was into punk.” Heather and Conny placed an ad, and Ebra was asked by her guitar-playing boyfriend to scream.
In a flash it had begun. The Dishrags, the Devices and the Zellots became bands. Mary, renamed Mary-Jo Kopechne (after the young woman left to drown in a submerged car by US Senator Ted Kennedy), took up guitar with Wasted Lives and then the Modernettes. Ebra Ziron and Nathan Holiday, calling themselves Tunnel Canary, stood downtown at the corner of Georgia and Granville, and with Nathan playing his electric guitar, Ebra wailed like a banshee. “It was like plugging into a very creative stream of energy that we thought was quite beautiful, not frightening,” Ebra said years later in an interview with Allan MacInnis. “Like a thunderstorm would be beautiful.”
In an article in Kinesis, the Vancouver women’s newspaper, in 1982, Janie Newton-Moss wrote: “For the majority of us growing up in the 60s and early 70s, fantasies about performing in a rock band were quickly obliterated when it became apparent that our role was to be consumers not producers of rock music. Like it or not, we had to content ourselves watching brothers and boyfriends experiment in garages or basements and listening endlessly to the radio.”
It has been noted occasionally that some of these young women had connections to male relatives, boyfriends, husbands or ex-husbands who were musicians in the scene, as if this explains and justifies their presence. It could also be said that when the door was open, they walked right in.
“We felt very strongly about what we were doing,” says Scout Upex, the drummer with the Dishrags and later Blanche Whitman. “I was thrilled to be able to express how I felt. It was like all the oddballs joining the same club—artists, writers, musicians, all feeling encouragement from one another, often trying out each other’s mediums. In the beginning, it was a love fest.” She was just sixteen when she gave it up for rock ’n’ roll.
Barbara Bernath also hit the Vancouver streets as an underage drummer a few years before the birth of the band Bolero Lava (in 1983) and played with a “wild-n-wonderful cross section of other creative people, ranging from hardcore-speed-punks and exotic-eastside strippers, to scholarly-experimentalists and downtown-art-boys.” She remembers: “The time was all about brave manifestation. You had to be fully committed to the moment in every way. You had to show your stuff, walk your walk, talk your talk. And you had to do it live.”
In addition to her band 50% Off, Barbara played (again, underage) in the Braids & Arthur, aka the Sweet Shadows, “a self-assembled group of exotic female dancers I met downtown who worked the big strip clubs like No. 5 Orange and the Marr during the day and then played as musicians at night in various warehouse parties and off-the-grid events. This was way before the current burlesque revival, and another example of women in the scene who were bold and unapologetic toward mainstream life.”
Heather Haley, a founding member of the Zellots (with Conny Nowe, Jane Colligan and Christine DeVeber), having returned to Vancouver from working and studying music in Edmonton, also entered the punk scene searching and ready, “just as young people were becoming fed up with staid, institutionalized, inaccessible and barely rock music, I was floundering, confused, aimless. Punk brought rock back to its roots, its essence, with a vengeance and provided me with a catalyst, direction and drive.”
“We asked the Subhumans and DOA if we could use their practice place if we swept up after their rehearsals,” says Susan MacGillivray of her days with the Devices. “Kim [Henrikson] and I would move our gear using a skateboard and onto the city bus.” The girls were seventeen and fourteen years old. “The scene moved very quickly back then. I was given a guitar from a youth centre and started saving for my first Gibson, purchased later that year. The Devices were born out of a group effort in naming our new band. IUDs was suggested.”
Me (to Kim): “Were you aware that it was unusual for young women to be playing in a band?”
Kim: “Not at all. It was normal to us.”
For the bass player Mary-Jo Kopechne—who, one music critic wrote, provided some “much needed glamour” to the scene—punk provided something more: “I was a runaway from age thirteen. I had nothing and no one. I went to an east end party. Victorian Pork was playing and I danced the dance of the devil to them. Party’s over and I went back to the house that was keeping a roof on my head. I heard voices; the guy hosting the party told the Pork where my head laid. They found me, took me away and were my father son brother sister mother guiding light. I was saved from a life of desperate prostitution. I was fucked without them and they took me in like I was their little sister. I went from a go-go girl dancer to a ‘hey wait a minute if they can play so can I’ girl.”
There is a scene in Susanne Tabata’s 2010 documentary Bloodied but Unbowed in which the Dishrags are on stage and a voice is heard in the audience shouting an obscene demand. Tale as old as time—those same words could have been said to Janis Joplin. (They were most certainly repeated years later to the riot grrrl band Bikini Kill.) It is a brief but potent moment, a reminder that these young women, while immersed in a raging joy, must be put back in their place. They need to be reminded. It’s an irony not lost on the Dishrags when they were denied an opportunity to compete in a 1978 Battle of the Bands, yet were asked to play backup for the other bands competing.
“We dressed differently from other girls,” says Jade Blade, guitarist and singer. “We wore leather jackets and T-shirts and torn jeans—in other words, we dressed like boys, and people found that shocking. We were the novelty group. People would come and see us but not take us seriously, and would often berate us or hurl other kinds of verbal abuse (and the occasional beer bottle). The punk scene in Vancouver was pretty good to us, given the usual attitudes of the time. It was when we played to non-punk crowds that things often went off the rails—that was when people, mostly guys, but sometimes women, too, would yell horrible things at us, often of a sexual nature; we really made ourselves vulnerable, simply by the act of strapping on instruments and getting onstage. I’d like to think that doesn’t happen anymore.”
Nancy Smith (aka Rita Ragan), one of the few certified women sound engineers in Vancouver during that time and a valuable member of the Dishrags team (“I had something a lot of the other local musicians didn’t have: a car”), remembers a night in Seattle when the Dishrags were opening for the Ramones. “The girls had already played a couple of songs and the audience was enjoying the music, pogo-ing, waving their hands. All of a sudden, the manager of the club came out onstage, stopped the Dishrags mid-song and announced that Joey Ramone was sick and the band wouldn’t be playing. The angry audience starting hurling their bottles at the stage, beer and glass shards flying everywhere. The backstage crew worked fast, hustling the girls offstage. Shortly after that, the City of Seattle made it illegal to sell beer in bottles in clubs; it had to be served in plastic or paper cups.”
“One afternoon at the Smilin’ Buddha,” recalls Jane Colligan, the guitarist with the Zellots, “the RCMP and a bunch of plainclothes police rushed in and busted a bunch of innocent punk bands, sound men and friends, in the middle of the afternoon. It was our first taste of police brutality and totally unprovoked. John McAdams rushed me out of the back door to an alleyway and hid me on the floor of a car, but I saw an undercover cop dragging Chrissy [the Zellots’ bass player] out by her hair. She was handcuffed behind her back and slammed face down on the hood of a cop car. Her crime? She couldn’t produce enough ID. If I wasn’t particularly anarchistic before that day, I sure as hell was after.”
“Like many of my peers,” Heather Haley says, “it was a struggle to survive, find work, pay the rent. Sexism, being condescended to, left out, left off, despite a lot of forward-thinking punk rockers. The status quo largely remained in place. Many record companies and radio stations were reluctant to promote female artists. Violence. At various times I was harassed, stalked, raped, nearly strangled to death. It was a dangerous time, often. One had to be aware. I adapted.”
But they were not out there alone. Uncontrollable, appalling sounds were coming out of the UK. The Sex Pistols, the Buzzcocks and the Clash rolled over the landscape like a tank, but when the Slits walked out on stage in 1977, they didn’t break ground, they broke rock. At the time, their unconventional looks and deliberate rejection of traditional roles was shocking. Not only did they claim the same rights as men in the punk movement—such as the right to learn while doing—they called themselves by that name! The Slits were too disturbing to be dismissed and they were often the target of violence at clubs and on the street. (Ari Up, the lead singer, was stabbed twice.) Others enlisted: the Raincoats, Eve Libertine, Poly Styrene, the Bodysnatchers, Delta 5, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Vi Subversa, the Au Pairs, Mo-Dettes and Pauline Black. They shouted out their abuses, struggles and triumphs. In Vancouver, the Visitors were soon to follow.
Marian Lydbrooke met Jill Bend outside the Paddington Street police station in London, UK, in 1978. They were both protesting the arrest of a group of so-called anarchists (dubbed “Persons Unknown”) on conspiracy charges. Jill was in London as an “associate” for the Vancouver anarchist newspaper Open Road. She was also very active in the anti-prison movement. Marian was getting ready to travel to North America.
“I’d come from the squats in London, where Nazi gangs roamed the streets outside at night,” she says. “There was the Anti-Nazi movement and Rock Against Racism and bands like the Clash, X-Ray Spex, Steel Pulse, Gang of Four, and women’s bands like the Raincoats and other agit-prop women musicians playing at feminist conferences. I’d seen Holly Near play at a women’s conference in London and loved the lyrics (at the time). When I arrived in Vancouver, I was exhausted, exhilarated and angry.”
Although Marian had seen “large, colourful Open Road posters in every anarchist squat in London” (by Dave Lester, a graphic designer and one half of the future Mecca Normal), they didn’t meet until she got to Vancouver. She rented drums, moved in with Dave and his brother Ken (later the manager of DOA) and started jamming. She was joined by Rachel Melas, a bass player from an all-woman bar band, the Distractions, and by guitarist Bonnie Williams. “And then Annie [Moss] came around with some songs she’d written, I added some of mine, and voilà!” They called themselves the Visitors. Their coming-out party was at the Windmill on Granville Street. “The gig at the Windmill was a watershed moment,” says Marian. “It was the first feminist punk gig to hit Vancouver. I sang ‘Suicide’ [co-written with Dave Lester] and ‘Witches in the Wood,’ which was a big hit with the more adventurous radical dykes who’d heard we’d be playing and packed the place.”
The Visitors played a few other gigs, including the men’s prison at Matsqui (“I told them we are musicians. We are not ‘pretty girls’ ”) and benefits for Betsy Wood and Gay Hoon, activists who had been charged with attempted murder and complicity during a bungled escape attempt at the BC Pen while they were visiting inmates. (They were acquitted.)
At one of these prison benefits, Contagious and the Visitors shared the bill. It was an all- too-common culture clash. A member of Contagious let it be known that they considered the Visitors too aggressive and male-identified. Janet Lumb of Contagious remembers: “The conversation flew back and forth with the Visitors responding to what Contagious understood as punk, versus the history, movement and principles of punk, which the Visitors believed in, stood for and was fighting for. In the end, an understanding was laid out and initiated. In the end, I became a punk and still consider myself to be a punk.” As the Visitors sang in “I Can See Right Up Your Nose,” “Don’t give me all that feminist crap / if all that it leads to is another trap.” Janet later joined the reformed Visitors when they became the Moral Lepers.
“It was a time in Vancouver when there was an incredible political community,” Marian says. “The Open Road anarchist paper was incredibly well organized and had an amazing office and a mailing list of thousands from all over the world. So much was going on. But the people working in social justice, food co-ops, rock and folk bands, bookstores, radical presses, rape crisis centre-type places weren’t too enamoured with the punk scene, which up to that time had been mostly male.
“There was a certain hostility from feminists around sexism in the punk community, understandably. Some of the feminists who came out to see the Visitors were still suspicious of rock music. They were reeling from the real sexist part of rock music that had happened in the ’60s. Seeing women up onstage being able to do it and being angry and strong changed their minds to some extent.
“Also, some of the male music community in Vancouver hadn’t really rubbed shoulders with lesbians and feminists. The Visitors (and particularly the Moral Lepers) started bringing more of those people together.”
When Jill Bend returned to Vancouver and to her work with the organization Women Against Prisons, she had been pushed further into battle by her meetings with the Clash in London and by “the militancy of political activism” she had encountered in the UK. She called an open meeting of all women musicians in the scene. The idea was to come together to raise money for a bail fund for women in prison. (“A First Nations woman in Vancouver, Geri Ferguson, had been working with Women Against Prisons on her case, which involved charging a male guard from the Oakalla Women’s Prison with assaulting her while locked in one of their isolation cells. She’d been picked up on a minor charge and needed bail. We had to get her out!”)
By all accounts between fifteen and twenty musicians showed up. “Ideas were flowing and combinations of instruments, personalities and genres tossed back and forth,” Jill says. “Some rejected, some embraced and out of that confusion and madness came a kind of natural selection. It had seemed like an unlikely project, that what normally needs months of time and space to create even one band, could coalesce in one meeting. But that spark can ignite something greater and I guess it was one of those nights when more happens than you had expected.”
From that night came a short-lived reggae band called Lionchild, a funk band with women from Ad Hoc and Contagious called the Persisters, and the rebirth of the Visitors as the Moral Lepers. Bail was raised.
“Moral Lepers were a huge influence on me,” says Jean Smith of the duo Mecca Normal (with Dave Lester). “Even though I didn’t see them live, hearing their record brought an entirely new vantage point to my awareness. Being in a band had potential. For me. There was always something of a comprehension barrier watching guys in bands. I didn’t imagine myself in DOA, for instance, but it was different somehow with women. The configurations they played and sang—their intensity—seemed accessible to emulate, in a way. Likely it’s because of the Moral Lepers that I ever dared to take a chance on singing feminist themes with an electric guitar.”
“We were Moral Lepers,” says Marian, “which was attractive to a lot of different people for a lot of different reasons. We were very conscious of the lyrics we were writing, really working hard on our instrumentals. Working together collectively. In a sense we were like a political and cultural statement in ourselves.” Elaine Stef says: “We were a hardcore feminist, political band. We were strange women who were fairly unpredictable.”
By now, the spectacularly developed early feminist music network, which had heralded a new musical revolution, began to fray, particularly in the US. The debate as to what constituted “women’s music,” as it was now officially called, was in full force. It was a black hole. Although there were extremely significant songwriters and musicians in the movement, the genre remained artistically narrow. It had also evolved into a politically separatist scene, with its own subsets, divisions and concerns.
For a growing number of musicians, regardless of their sexual identification, “women’s space” was fast becoming a ghetto. Goodwill gestures by mainstream music festivals to have a “women’s stage” only served in the long run to isolate women musicians from the rest of the festival lineup, even though in the beginning it seemed like a solution to a problem.
In 1986 the artistic director of the Winnipeg Folk Festival, Rosalie Goldstein, disbanded the women’s stage. “I did so with the most loving care,” she said at the time, “because I believe it’s important for women to be dispersed throughout the entire body of the festival. I would not put up a tent at the festival and say ‘here are all the blacks’ or ‘here are all the Jews,’ and that’s exactly what was happening with women. I don’t think it shows off women to their best advantage.”
Elizabeth Fischer, for ten years the force behind the artistic punk trio Animal Slaves, says: “I considered myself a feminist, of course, although probably of a different variety than most, at that time. I considered myself perfectly equal and I always had, in brains, in talent, in ability, in potential. I refused female ‘roles’ as much from women as men. Men and women [as] equals, which also manifested itself in Animal Slaves, and in any other band I have played with since…I never felt that artists should be ghettoized. I felt that artists were a necessary brick in the village.”
By the early ’80s, there were dozens of women musicians in Vancouver inspired by punk and its offshoots. In addition to the Dishrags, Devices, Zellots, Persisters, Moral Lepers and Animal Slaves, the bands Junco Run, Perfect Stranger, Twin Twist, Work Party, Bolero Lava, Playdough Republic, Industrial Waste Banned, Quantum Leap and Liquid Wrench were sharing bills and musicians. Kitty Byrne and Danice Macleod were part of U-J3RK5. Emily Faryina was out there solo with her Casio keyboard. Mecca Normal was on the cusp. Even Katari Taiko, Vancouver’s first Japanese taiko drumming group, formed with women at the core.
In December 1983, the anarchist newsletter BC Blackout featured a cover story, “Play It, Don’t Spray It!” on the “emerging women’s new music scene.” They noted that “along with such familiar staples as war, eco-devastation and mindless consumerism, women musicians are insisting that a range of topics from sexual stereotyping to porn and child abuse get serious attention.” The newsletter questioned whether these women were indicative of a “full-blown movement,” but noted: “They have played alongside men in a variety of mixed bands, they have written their own songs and arranged their own gigs (no boyfriends or brothers to haul the speakers), they have swapped expertise and equipment and they have put together a number of bands that have already started to make a dent across Canada.” The newsletter gave the Moral Lepers and Industrial Waste Banned as examples. There was also a notice that the “all-women” Persisters would be playing for their final time that month. There was no mention of whether the Persisters would be carrying their own equipment.
In 1984, when Bolero Lava won the “Hot Air Show,” a Battle of the Bands at the University of British Columbia sponsored by radio station CITR, not much had changed in the way women musicians were regarded. Like Contagious, they were “that women’s band.”
“Being an all-female band like Bolero Lava was a blessing and a curse,” says drummer Barbara Bernath. “We were overly adored in some ways, and then fully disrespected in other ways. Either way, being female always seemed to be our primary tag and identity. I remember one gig in Victoria at the New Era Social Club, we dressed in reverse-drag as an ‘all-male band’ to show the irony of our situation. I mean, what male band of any genre is ever referred to as an ‘all-male band’?
“It shows intrinsically what we were dealing with every day as women publicly expressing our musicality. I also remember constantly having to prove ourselves as musicians in ways that men would never have to—especially in a scene that was supposed to be non-conformist. (I always loved sitting down for the drum check and knocking the socks off an unsuspecting soundman who was expecting me to not be able to play.) Sexism was definitely all around us, but we blasted onward, enjoying each other and the thrill of doing something as a team of stunning underdogs.”
Christine DeVeber, bass player for the Zellots, says: “We knew that the ‘all-girl’ initial draw was only good for the first few minutes. We had to back it up with strong original material, and in the back of our minds, wanting to be taken seriously as artists, we embraced hard-to-play or sometimes challenging musicianship because of this. We could have played it very simple with three-chord rock and that would have been fine, but at the time, we liked challenging ourselves and came up with a little more sophisticated songwriting, while keeping the basic energy of punk as the mainstay.”
Echoing these experiences, Nancy Gillespie, bass player in her band SHE, a group that played regularly at the Town Pump and shared the stage with DOA, the Sons of Freedom and the Scramblers (and who also played at the Matsqui prison), says: “We worked really hard to be good musicians and to have a strong, clear sound, which was sometimes held against us as that was seen as being too professional. But as women musicians we wanted to be fierce and to be taken seriously. Thus we were not as raw as the riot grrrls, but we had a solid, driving edge. And we were a little ahead of them historically. Being a woman musician was a little bit more difficult then, I think. We were a band on our own, in between the waves so to speak, in between significant historical moments, and not part of a ‘scene’ so we often get forgotten about, fall through the cracks of history.”
By the end of the decade, the Moral Lepers had become a perfect seed band spreading out across the country. Marian Lydbrooke and Elaine Stef were part of Demi/Monde in Toronto and Janet Lumb joined Matchum in Montreal. Rachel Melas teamed with Animal Slaves in Vancouver and later was reunited with Elaine Stef and Conny Nowe, to play the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival with the Lillian Allen Band and multiple individual projects. Two Devices became Dishrags (“Sue’s songs were epic,” Scout remembers). Heather Haley went to LA with the Avengers and the remaining Zellots re-formed back east. Bolero Lava changed musicians, Danice Macleod became BAMFF, Elizabeth Fischer regrouped and Mecca Normal kept on playing, becoming an early inspiration (along with Toronto’s Fifth Column) for the incoming riot grrrls. In 1988, in Vancouver, a newcomer named Nadine Davenport produced a women’s music festival. The bands Cub and Maow, and Bif Naked, were still to come.
Unfortunately, the riot grrrls of the ’90s fought the very same battles for visibility, credibility and access as their mentors in the punk scene and their sisters in the early women’s movement. The debate over women’s stages and the general lack of representation of women musicians on the Warped Tours and other heavy metal punk-like festivals is still loudly contested. The musician Shira crashed the 2004 Warped Tour with her pink box truck (named the Shiragirl Stage) and hosted more than two hundred female-fronted bands. She continued to do this for several years. “There is always the argument of ‘Why is it separate?’ But it’s either that or nothing,” she said. “No one else is coming in and fighting for the women”—a sentiment lived first-hand by Canadian musician Sarah McLachlan during her three years, 1997–1999, producing the all-woman Lilith Fair concert tours.
CBC music blogger Holly Gordon recently wrote: “Dear Canadian Music Festivals. Show Us the Women,” as she tabulated the percentages of women performing at festivals across Canada, finding that the numbers came up short. Even in the UK, the punk music mothership, artists and writers point out with regularity that punk still has a problem with women.
As for the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, now in its fortieth year, the booking policies have opened up to include performances by the “queer punk” bands, and former Bikini Kill Kathleen Hanna’s band Le Tigre.
For those first musicians in the late ’70s and early ’80s, punk had been the new world. For a woman (or a girl) whose soul was wrapped up in the chaotic, physical thrill of punk music and the political issues it championed, there was no better place to create, to be in control and to be fully oneself. It was natural. Not since the all-female jazz bands of the ’40s did so many women musicians storm the barricades en masse. To the BC Blackout, yes, it had been a “full-on movement,” full of contradictions and turmoil and opportunity. Without exception, every woman interviewed for this article who was on the scene during those years is still involved in music, the creative arts or community activism almost forty years later. Not bad for a girl.
“When I got involved in music, punk meant more than just testosterone-fuelled guitar-drum bashings,” Elizabeth Fischer says. “It was a social movement, both political and creative, and it was inclusive of many different voices, people experimenting, redefining and creating new musical expressions. And importantly, there were the women: women playing instruments, angry women, intelligent women, thoughtful women, who presented themselves as equals in every way to the hitherto mostly male-dominated musical community. That community was politicized, redefined. That was truly revolutionary.”
— Connie Kuhns is a writer and photographer who lives on Salt Spring Island, BC. She worked as a music journalist for twenty years, including fifteen years as the producer and host of Rubymusic, a program specializing in music by women, on CFRO in Vancouver. She was a concert emcee, lecturer, columnist and host of the Rubymusic stage at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival. her essay "Last Day in Cheyenne" (Geist 84) was a finalist for a Western Magazine Award in 2013. In preparation for thsi article, Kuhns interviewed twenty-four women and one man, and consulted her extensive personal and professional archives. Read more of her work here. "Strange Women" was produced with assistance from the City of Vancouver.