Excerpt: 'Listen Up: Reshaping the Cultural History of Punk Music' by Isabella Trimboli

Photo by Lee Campbell.

In 2016, the British Library held a major exhibition entitled Punk 1976-78. Viv Albertine, the former guitarist of punk band the Slits — who formed in 1976 — was set to speak at the exhibition one night. A yellow sign bearing a blurb about the show attempted to explain the movement’s early beginnings for those who didn’t have any precursory knowledge in a few, simple paragraphs. Punk was “rowdy” and “confrontational” and “exhilarating,” the sign read. It did not make mention of any women artists or bands with women in them.

Upon seeing this, Albertine decided to make some revisions. Where it noted: “Groups such as Sex Pistols, the Clash and Buzzcocks stimulated a nationwide wave of grassroots activity, sparking a vital cultural legacy that endures to present day,” she drew a line through the bands’ names and wrote in messy cursive: “The Slits, X-Ray Spex, Siouxsie and the Banshees. What about the women!!” On other lines where the Sex Pistols were hailed as “anarchic” and “wilfully provocative,” she crossed out their name and wrote in her own band.

The cover of the Slits’ 1979 debut LP Cut has the band members covered in mud and dressed only in loincloths, and the album features bouncing, frenetic odes to thievery (“Do a runner! Do a runner!” Ari Up gleefully yelps in ‘Shoplifting’). I would say those things make them both provocative and anarchic. And while the band are certainly deemed influential, they are rarely called innovators in the way their male contemporaries are.

I wasn’t surprised when I heard about the omission. I’d come to punk — and other independent, DIY music — through the same curated version of music history that routinely centres white guys shredding on guitars, and sidelines anything outside of that standard.

Like most teenagers who find refuge in punk and indie rock, naïve as I was, I was drawn to its anti-authoritativeness, its raw anger and politics. Plus, it was fun and frantic, and imbued with a sense of freedom. I studied the history diligently, taking in anything I could get my hands on: books, documentaries, musty old copies of NME I bought in bulk off eBay.

A pattern quickly started to emerge: the faces of these movements, and the musicians and bands deemed foundational and fundamental, were mostly white guys. The contribution of anyone else in these spaces were designated to secondary status. Like, you have to listen to Nirvana’s Nevermind but you can take or leave Hole’s Live Through This.

Sexism is entrenched in almost every facet of the music industry. To wrap your head around the enormity of the situation is dizzying: it’s at work in the upper echelons of the mainstream pop music, down to the local all-male bill at your local pub. There are layers upon layers of structural inequality to unpack — from the idea of male genius that looms heavy over what we deem culturally significant, to sexual assault within the industry. It doesn’t end at sexism either — different axes of oppression play out within music culture just as they do outside of it.

Over the past few years, however, there has been a slow but sure reckoning (of sorts) within music communities, and one of the biggest bearers of the change in Australia has been LISTEN. Using a feminist perspective, the grassroots organisation is dedicated to promoting and amplifying the voices of women, gender nonconforming, LGBTQIA+ people, people of colour, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, people with disabilities and other marginalised people in Australian music.

Since forming in 2014, LISTEN have run panels, workshops and conferences; put on lives shows; and released albums through their affiliated label, LISTEN Records. In 2015, they teamed up with the Victorian government, and SLAM (Save Live Australian Music) to create a taskforce to stamp out sexual assault at live gigs and music festivals. Their most recent initiative, LISTEN LISTS, is an open Google document that has compiled a list of women and gender non-conforming audio and sound engineers. It exists as a public resource to curb the preconceived notions that women and GNC people are uninterested, or unskilled in, behind-the-scenes technical roles. The list — a lengthy one — ensures employers can’t plead ignorance when called out for only hiring men.

The idea for LISTEN started with a conversation about how we shape our collective cultural histories. In an essay published online for this magazine, LISTEN founder Evelyn Ida Morris wrote a critique in response to James Kritzler’s Noise in My Head: Voices from the Australian Underground. The book, released in 2014, is a weighty anthology that chronicles contemporary bands and artists that have existed in the margins of the Australian music scene.

Morris took aim at the subtle sexism that appears throughout Kritzler’s book – it’s not that women aren’t included, but rather, they are depicted superficially, not truly heard. Morris’s former band True Radical Miracle is described by Kritzler as “all self-aggrandising machismo,” and Morris felt their contribution to the scene had been disregarded as merely “peripheral.” The music, Morris writes, is analysed through a reductive lens: “Dark and Angry = Male. Pretty and Sad = Female. Harsh and sonically challenging = Male. Simple and ethereally beautiful = Female.”

Noise in My Head’s primary aim, Kritzler writes in the introduction, was to create a time capsule, representing bands in their peak to ensure they didn’t “reside in obscurity.” It’s noble in its attempt to capture something as it is, as opposed to letting time and nostalgia cloud the editorialising. And while Kritzler makes a point of noting that his book is highly subjective, informed by his own experience moving throughout these spaces, Morris writes that despite his intention, books like this will inadvertently shape how these communities and artists are remembered: “It will come across as a historical document and — intentionally or otherwise — will take on the role of being canonical, in the event that nobody else documents things further. There is a responsibility that goes along with presenting yourself as the voice of a movement.”

With cultural histories so easily distorted or manipulated through dominant narratives, there is power in making a document that shows things as they are. One of LISTEN Record’s latest releases is Listen Compilation 3, the third in an annual compilation series including twenty-two songs from women and LGBTQIA+ underground artists across Australia. Listen Compilation 3’s appeal is that it is ostensibly a cultural archive.

A lot of my teenage years were spent trawling through Tumblr pages to download links to weird, hyper-specific mixtapes and compilations. The kind of albums that were discontinued long ago and never re-released, but thanks to the internet, lived on, disseminated to small circles of feverish music fans. I feel indebted to the likes of Can’t Stop It! Australian Post-Punk 1978-82 for exposing me to the caustic and creepy ‘I Hear Drama’ from Voigt/465. These compilations always seemed to enhance my understanding of music history, providing the missing blocks that that allowed me to see the links between one artist and another, and to hear how genres evolved or disintegrated.

This is an excerpt of a piece that appears in full in The Lifted Brow #38. Get your copy here.

Isabella Trimboli is a writer and the co-founding editor of Gusher, a print rock music magazine written by women and non-binary people.