Typical: you wait ages for a compilation hip enough to include 70s postpunks pragVec and three come along in the space of as many years. Following a brace of British-focused box sets on Cherry Red, here’s Guerrilla Girls! She-Punks & Beyond 1975-2016, a rather stunning compilation with an impressive absence of duplication with the aforementioned, aided by Ace Records’ dependable attention to detail, an idiosyncratic but on-point tracklist, and an admirably ambitious scope. This album aims to cover four decades of transatlantic women-led punk and post-punk (in the broad sense of ‘everything alternative that came afterwards’) all on a single disc. Bonkers, but it just might work [spoiler: it does].
It’s hard to overstate how refreshing it is to have a collection like this without ‘Oh Bondage’, ‘Typical Girls’, ‘White Mice’, ‘Too Many Creeps’, and other songs equally it’s-obvious. Instead the selection ranges in chronological order from album tracks to lesser-known singles, beginning with the timeless ‘Gloria’ from Patti Smith’s debut LP, this narrative making the probably-accurate point that Patti is where this particular story begins, with all due respect to Fanny or the earlier bands showcased by Ace’s ‘Girls With Guitars’ series.
Prefaced by an essay from ‘She Bop’ author Lucy O’Brien, the selection here tells a story from pre to post-punk, through (1980s) garage, grunge and riot grrrl. Later song choices are sometimes more standard (‘Her Jazz’, ‘Rebel Girl’, ‘Pretend We’re Dead’) but we should bear in mind how rare it is for these groups to be included in any such collection at all, with only Vivien Goldman’s recent German-issued ‘Revenge of the She-Punks’ tie-in attempting something similar.
Blondie bring a half-forgotten song from their pre-fame second LP, the Slits a track from their underexposed second album, there are brilliant b-sides from Bush Tetras and X-Ray Spex, and the Bangles deliver a rare surf instrumental. With sequencing as inspired as the sourcing, I don’t mind admitting that on first listen, at some point in between the Raincoats‘ ‘You’re A Million’ and Mo-Dettes’ ‘Kray Twins’, via Essential Logic, pragVec and Ludus, I nigh-on lost myself in a hallucinogenic haze of postpunk bliss. You don’t get that from watching Jools’ ‘Hootenanny’, I can tell you. At its best this music somehow gives the simultaneous sense of being both field recordings of a forgotten dialect, and a fantastical futuristic language whose syntax we have yet to master.
Of course, motivations and contigencies vary: the more famous bands here embraced a well-deserved pop crossover, while others burned brightly but risked burning themselves out addressing struggles political and personal. The Bags’ solitary seven-inch ‘Survive’ broods with theatrical but mercurial menace: “Set in your monotony, I’ll desecrate commodities!” Au Pairs’ ‘Shakedown’, from the second of their criminally-underplayed albums, exemplifies their style of counterhegemonic communiqué delivered to an early-80s public who were in the process of abandoning musical engagement for new-romantic escapism. Huggy Bear’s early-90s transmission was over-and-out in just three years, taking a counterintuitive journey from indiepop to hardcore to oblivion: the “sound of a revolution” the long-term influence of which, to misquote someone, it is too soon to tell.
More than just a selection of songs, then, this collection is the soundtrack of very real struggle. As O’Brien has written elsewhere (‘The Woman Punk Made Me’), “the streets [were] a battleground.. all the punk women talked of that sense of running the gauntlet every time they went out the front door.” She quotes Ludus vocalist Linder to draw a parallel with punk culture itself: “those of us who experienced that battleground have been shaped by it”, and by the way it redefined feminism.
Other stories remain to be told and hopefully further Ace compilations will duly follow to help fill some of the inevitable gaps in the timeline here, and there really is a huge wealth of musical material to be mined (Snatch, Siouxie, Scrawl, Slant 6, Silverfish, Sidi Bou Said, Sleater-Kinney, Shrag, Shopping, Slum Of Legs come to mind immediately, and that’s just the S’!), including from the seven-year itch since the titular 2016.
This collection ends with three tracks from that year, from the Regrettes, the Tuts and Skinny Girl Diet, all of whom I’m happy to say I crossed paths with early on, recognising as Loud Women always has and as this collection demonstrates, the continuity and untold herstory behind the music. The latter two groups may have now quietly disbanded, but not before helping to catalyse the current cultural explosion of un-male DIY music in the UK (speaking of which, Loud Women Volume 5 is available right here).
Guerrilla Girls! She-Punks & Beyond 1975-2016 is released on Ace Records on Jan 27th and is available for pre-order NOW. The CD edition comes with a booklet packed with liner notes, photos, cover and poster art, and excerpts from interviews with Viv Albertine, Lora Logic, Alice Bag, Lesley Woods, Susan Gogan and more.