‘I’m in the Band’ Ep. 6: Gina Birch Talks Women Being Left Out of Punk History
Experimental musician, visual artist and filmmaker Gina Birch got her start in art school in 1970s London. She dove into punk rock after witnessing the Sex Pistols’ first show and was inspired to start playing music after seeing all-girl punk band, the Slits. In 1977, Birch joined forces with art school friend Ana da Silva to start feminist, post-punk band, the Raincoats.
Self-described as the young, wild and crazy member of the band, Birch sought out and sang about bohemian adventures that challenged mainstream assumptions of women and constraints on their lifestyles. In this episode of I’m in the Band, Birch details being a special baby, falling in love with conceptual art, and how women create the language to paint their own experiences.
On buying her first bass guitar… I had this desire to be in a band, and I ran into a guitar shop and bought a bass without trying it. I didn’t know how to play it. Those shops were full of guys who — I don’t know if they intentionally wanted to embarrass you — but they liked to show off to each other about how brilliant they were. So you felt two inches tall if you didn’t know what you were doing. Of course, I was terrified of these guys, and so I just grabbed this bass and ran out. It was the cheapest one they had, and I had no idea how to play it.
On how seeing the Slits’ first show inspired Gina to start a band… The Slits had quite a big influence on me. I knew a lot about the Slits, and I was definitely at their first show, right at the front. The first show completely had me enraptured. It was something that I’d never thought of before. I’d seen all these bands — the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Buzzcocks, the Subway Sect — and thought they were all amazing. But I never ever thought it was something for girls, for women.
It seems bizarre now how that kind of gender thing was so strictly enforced. Seeing them and their chaos and energy, and the fact that the songs spoke to me — it wasn’t speaking to my boyfriend about me. It wasn’t the, ‘Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed.’ It was songs to me. It was songs about me. It was so thrilling. And to see these girls tripping over, messing about, and just emoting with such force, energy and dynamism just opened the floodgates of my mind. I thought, ‘This is crazy. I so wish I was there in that band doing this. I want to be there. I really want to be there doing this.’
On media misrepresentations… Some journalists found us completely unpalatable. Just things like, ‘Gina squirms on the sofa.’ You know, those words that you probably wouldn’t use for a man. They’re kind of insulting and slightly demeaning. There’s a power structure that’s so deeply ingrained that they have the right to treat you as though you’re cute or sweet or squirmy or tickly. It’s just so built into the language and the culture.
And when we played in Poland, they described us as ‘whores escaped from prison.’ I also think it’s that they don’t have the imagination to have a language for what women do. Hopefully that language is developing. A lot of them aren’t imaginative enough to see something. And that’s why Jenn [Pelly]‘s [33 1/3] book is so good, because she manages to articulate something about a female experience, of a band of creative women.
On female bands being left out of punk history… When the history’s written, it’s usually by men about the bands that inspired them. The more women writers there are that can hear and see that female experience, that’s great. I’m not saying that only women can write about women, or only men can write about men. But men have had a history of writing about men, and so they feel more comfortable in that arena. And when it comes to choosing some tracks for a compilation, they remember the Clash, the Damned, the Pistols, even the Stranglers and the Vibrators, and God knows what.
In effect, we did all come slightly later. The Slits, although they formed early, hadn’t released a record. They just did the Peel Sessions. And by the time their album came out, it was post-punk time. So we all get put into a kind of post-punk time: The Mo-dettes, the Delta 5, the Raincoats and the Slits. So in a way they’ve got an excuse.
There was a big thing at the British Library about 40 years of punk, and I went. They’d very carefully planned it up till the end of ’78, and our single came out in ’79, and the Slits. But I hadn’t quite realized that. I went round and I yelled at everybody, ‘How could you do this? You’ve not included the women! I just can’t believe it!’ I was yelling and yelling.
About a week later, Viv Albertine [of the Slits] went in and scrawled on the wall, which she’s famous for. But I just yelled at everybody I could find who was involved in curating it. Having said that, it was true that the women didn’t get to release the music until a little bit later. But we were there as performers and participants and audience, and helping with the buzz, the electricity. So it did feel that we were written out at that moment. The reality was that the timing made it that we weren’t there. So there’s always a good excuse.
(Photo credit: Peter Cook)
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