WOMEN IN REVOLT!
(Music For Nations)
Created to accompany to the forthcoming Women in Revolt! exhibition of the work of over 130 women artists working in the UK between 1970 to 1990 opening at Tate Britain on 8 November 2023, you could be forgiven for wondering what the point of this album is? After all, compilation albums are an anachronism these days, effectively representing a Spotify playlist you cannot change or add to. To answer that question, you really need to set the album in the context of the exhibition itself which sets out to explore how networks of women used radical ideas and rebellious methods to contribute to women’s liberation and break into patriarchal and misogynistic male strongholds. The music industry was (and is) certainly that. All set against a backdrop of radical social, economic and political change. The album features several of the artists included in the exhibition, including Throbbing Gristle founder member Cosey Fanni Tutti; co-founder of Ludus, Linder Sterling; The Raincoats Gina Birch, and X-Ray Spex singer the late Poly Styrene (1957-2011), alongside acts from the punk and post-punk scenes such as the Au Pairs, Strawberry Switchblade, Marine Girls, Slits, and Modettes and others.
It's an odd mix for sure, based in part on the non-musical work of some of those involved in the bands featured rather than representing the zeitgeist of the time when it came to challenging musical stereotypes. Those efforts encompass photography, performance art, film making, literature and political activism. Despite the album's title, the majority of the bands featured are not all women line ups and some of the tracks included have little or nothing to do with the exhibition's theme, most notably Chris and Cosey's syrup sweet track October (Love Song), and the inclusion of Girls at Our Best! who only ever had one girl member in all their various line ups. There are predictable choices too. The inclusion of The Slits cod Reggae hit 'Typical Girls' is painfully obvious and only serves to highlight their overblown retrospective self importance and exaggerated claims of breaking down barriers, a claim that Bananarama arguably have an equal right to. The Raincoats, Essential Logic, and Marine Girls contributions haven't stood the test of time either, sounding messy and unrehearsed, and the inclusion of the Poison Girls (again, not an all female band despite the name) is relevant only because they were part of a wider, non gender based, anarcho punk movement lead by Crass. The Au Pairs are probably the most relevant choice here (two female, two male members!), but the track included isn't the best one of theirs I would have chosen to fit with the album's and exhibition's theme. You could also equally have included The Belle Stars, Girlschool, Cookie Crew, (and if you extend your view beyond our shores, The Runaways and L7 also), which would certainly have given the compilation greater musical depth and diversity.
This is a very flawed selection overall, but that shouldn't dilute the core message here; that women should not have to comply with the male wet dream stereotype of a Debbie Harry or feel the need to strut the stage in their undies or less in order to get any attention. Music has always acted as the backdrop or an entry drug for social change and there was a time covered by this exhibition where women pushed forward real changes in attitude and culture that despite many attempts to reverse them (not least by some female artists only too keen to sexualise their role) have taken root and genuinely empowered women working in music. Some areas of music may still remain largely a boys club (step forward Industrial and Reggae), or are even grossly misogynistic (Rap!) but even those are gradually opening up. That acts like those featured here have contributed to that progress is undeniable, but taken as part of a wider push towards equality and also boosted by more recent movements such as MeToo and Riot Grrrl.
Female artists have always had a place in rock from Ella Fitzgerald, to Janis Joplin, to Siouxsie, to Lillie Allen, to Ellie Golding and all points in between (you can fill in the gaps) but the time period covered certainly saw a sea change in attitude and opportunity through the combined efforts of the protagonists featured and others. That has seen females finally taking the helm in record labels and promoters. These achievements are well worth highlighting to a new generation and reminding the older one just how much has been achieved and the struggles along the way.
So is it worth your buying this collection? On balance I'd say save your money and go and see the exhibition instead ( at a slightly pricey £17, such is the cost of liberation!), or make your own playlist up and include a more diverse and representative range of artists (suggestions above!). The heart and head of the compliers of this collection may well be in the right place, but their ears unfortunately let them down when it came to track selection. No matter, the important point here is to keep talking about the issue rather than fill up your CD shelf or phone.
Main image Gina Birch by Gina Birch
WOMEN IN REVOLT! - ART AND ACTIVISM IN THE UK 1970-1990
8 November 2023 – 7 April 2024