From Debbie Harry to Patti Smith: The 7 women in punk that changed music forever
Across the years, punk music has seen multiple bands and sub-genres develop alongside the emergence of unique fashion trends and, most importantly, an entirely new mentality. This, partly, is due to the great number of female superstars who have revolutionised the genre over the years.
We thought we’d look back at some of those iconic women because, after all, you can never get enough of these timeless goddesses of punk who have helped shape today’s musical landscape.
Before we get stuck in to our list of remarkable punk women, it’s important to remember that one of the rare achievements linked to punk music is undoubtedly the beginning of equality between male and female performers.
Even after many girl bands such as The Ronettes and The Shangri-Las made themselves known in the sixties, rock music was still a man’s territory, and rare were the women who surpassed the wrongful perception of their gender at the time, and more importantly, gained the recognition they deserved.
Having said that, it was only a matter of time before determined and independent-minded female artists took over, rocking the boat of gender inequalities for good. Punk was just the rocket fuel they needed—a no holds barred movement that encouraged rebellion wherever it could.
Beyond their oh-so-daring outfits and provocative make-up, women have contributed to some of music’s most notable phases such as punk rock, the new wave and even hip-hop. Whether they were punk fashion designers like Vivienne Westwood, or great performers like Debbie Harry and Patti Smith, it’s almost as though women and punk music were born to be together.
We’ve chosen seven women who have not only left an indelible mark in the genre but influenced many artists today, and in turn, changed the face of music as we know it. In a time where the number of countries on lockdown is growing by the day, let your mind drift back to punk’s no man’s land.
7 women in punk who changed music’s history
First up, it’s Deborah Harry. The famous Blondie lead-singer from New York may well be known for her signature two-toned bleached blonde hair, but most of all for her unique high-pitched voice and innovative musical style. Harry’s career started in the late sixties when she was part of various bands including the Stilettoes. That’s when she met Chris Stein, with whom she started a band called Angel and the Snake, before Blondie was created in the late seventies. Having written and co-written most of the band’s songs, Harry appeared to be somewhat ahead of punk’s time.
Blondie’s sound brought new influences to the New Wave movement—from reggae and hip-hop to the avant-garde. While their track ‘Rapture’ influenced some of the earliest rap songs and introduced this growing genre to a rock audience, ‘The Tide is High’ showcased some serious reggae vibes. Following the band’s sixth studio album The Hunter in 1982, Harry started her solo career and also made a debut in the film industry with different acting roles. Her five solo albums were critically acclaimed yet she’s still nicknamed Blondie everywhere she goes.
Putting the musical aspect aside, Harry revolutionised punk’s fashion with her signature hairstyle, outfits and personality. Being a close friend to the late pop-art king Andy Warhol, he used her photogenic skills and appearance as one of his muses. Deborah Harry is one of punk’s queens, and she has influenced a number of female-fronted bands such as No Doubt, The Cardigans and Garbage, but also male groups like Blur and Smashing Pumpkins. We’ve lost count of the number of covers of ‘One Way or Another’ and even ‘Call Me’ we’ve heard over the years. The tracks are timeless classics, and the same can be said for Harry herself.
Another figure from New York who’s been known in the music and literary domain for many years now is Patti Smith—AKA Godmother of Punk. She encountered poverty, fell in love with the likes of Robert Mapplethorpe, took on busking and worked on her own for seven years before starting The Patti Smith Group in 1974 with her fellow guitarist Lenny Kaye.
The five-piece band’s iconic album Horses appeared to shake up New York’s music scene, combining poetry with punk rock influences with a devastating effect. Listening to Smith’s complete discography, she’s the perfect example of a pure musical artist. From writing three-chord rock guitar tracks to experimental music, the artist has explored a wide range of styles, keeping her fine poetry and spoken word flowing. Her most famous tracks, ‘Because The Night’, was written with Bruce Springsteen and is still one of the most-loved classics today.
Like Debby Harry, the Godmother of Punk has been an inspiration to various photographers and artists. Her unique fashion sense has also played a big part in her identity as a punk star. Rocking an androgynous look, Smith has never relied on her sex appeal to make herself known, and liked to dress just like any male musician.
The number of singers who consider Patti Smith as one of their role models keeps on growing, from Sonic Youth to Johnny Marr, and more recently Florence and the Machine. The poet has some sort of hold on people when it comes to her beautifully-written songs and soothing voice—she’s the living proof that a woman can make just as much noise as a man. Patti Smith is all about daring to dare, whether it’s by unconventionally spitting on stage or by challenging women’s beauty standards—she’s done it all.
Up next, it’s one of the UK’s most influential female artists, namely Susan Janet Ballion AKA Siouxsie Sioux. Having been part of two bands—Siouxsie Sioux and the Banshees, and The Creatures—she’s had a huge impact on the works of PJ Harvey, LCD Soundsystem and many more.
Her interest in punk music started after repeatedly seeing the Sex Pistols live, she was even part of the famous group of hardcore fans, named by Melody Maker journalist Caroline Coon as The Bromley Contingent. It was only a matter of time before the young artist stood out from the crowd with her unique style. Indeed, she went from wearing fetish attire and erotic pieces of clothing before settling for her classic goth look. Deep red lipstick, heavy cat-eye make-up, black spiky hair—she had it all.
Personalities like Jon Savage have commented on Siouxsie’s incredible confidence and attitude over the years. Also, NME classified Siouxsie and the Banshees’ debut album—The Scream—as “one of the best debut albums of all time”, next to Patti Smith’s Horses.
While her rock sound was dominating her songs up until then, the independent woman then decided to try out different genres. ‘Peek-a-Boo’ showcased some hip-hop influences and was a true turning point in her career. Following that, her musical inspiration varied from blues to jazz and flamenco continuing to portray her as a brave and bold artist. Over the years, Siouxsie has gained an incredible amount of respect on behalf of other female and male performers in the industry, and her career covers a huge chunk of punk’s history. In fact, she is a huge chunk of punk’s history.
Chrissie Hynde is our fourth woman on this list. Being the founder of The Pretenders, she has collaborated with notable singers over the years—some of whom are Frank Sinatra and Cher. The Ohio-born artist started out as a music journalist at NME for a short period of time after having met Nick Kent and then found a job at Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s iconic boutique ‘SEX’.
Hynde went through lots of auditions to be part of a band before she met Pete Farndon, with whom she ended up founding The Pretenders in 1978, along with James Honeyman-Scott and Martin Chambers. Their signature hit ‘Brass in Pocket’ was released in 1980 and immediately topped the UK charts for two weeks straight. Her unique contralto vocals and lyrical skills have been praised by the likes of Simon Reynolds for being original and some of punk’s finest.
Along with Debbie Harry, Patti Smith and Siouxsie Sioux, Chrissie Hynde has revolutionised the genre’s fashion and empowered women’s image by showing who’s boss. The artist is yet another independent and strong-minded female of the punk era, and she even encouraged her long-time friend Viv Albertine to start playing with The Slits. Adding to that her influence on the Riot Grrrl movement, it’s fair to say Chrissie Hynde will keep on rocking for a long time.
Speaking of The Slits, the fifth person to feature on our all-female punk list is one of the band’s guitarist—Viv Albertine. Being another fan of the Sex Pistols, her career started after she became friends with the likes of Sid Vicious, Mick Jones and Joe Strummer of the Clash. The curly-haired woman joined the punk girl band The Slits, following a conversation with Chrissie Hynde who simply told her to “go for it” or she’d never get anywhere. Some wise words which came after Albertine was part of a band called The Flowers of Romance.
Above all, although Viv Albertine played her part in The Slits’ success, her memoir Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. proved to be a personal achievement. Retracing her life, her encounters and love stories—including one with The Clash’s Mick Jones—Albertine opens up about her rage and deepest secrets and most permanent scars.
Having faced a fair amount of deaths on her friends’ behalf, the ex-Slits member is a true role model when it comes to strong women. The band is the perfect combination of female empowerment and pure punk rage. The Slits were one of the first groups to make music for girls—and not just for the male gaze. Following the rise of their daring attitude and authentic vision of what female performers should look like, more and more women started making music without even thinking about what society or male artists would think.
Damn, it feels good to be a woman.
We couldn’t talk about punk without mentioning Poly Styrene. Born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, the British singer was the vocalist of X-Ray Spex. Her vocals have been defined as piercing and unique (owing to her operatic background) and Poly Styrene remains one of the gems who surfaced from the punk movement. Embracing massive braces on her teeth, it was also the Sex Pistols who influenced her to start a career in music, and some might say defined it with her rallying cry “Oh bondage! Up yours!”.
X-Ray Spex was known to be a creative and high-energy punk band, and although they only released one album and five singles altogether, they toured the UK once before Poly Styrene was diagnosed with schizophrenia and then bipolar syndrome.
Nevertheless, the group then reformed several times later in the nineties, and that didn’t stop Poly Styrene from going solo. Her albumTransculence waved goodbye to her loud X-Ray Spex signature sound and welcomed a jazzier approach to her music. She died in 2011 following a battle with cancer, but her musical heritage continues to show people how to be a true individual.
Last but not least, it’s the ‘I Love Rock ’n’ Roll’ queen—Joan Jett. Having been part of the famous Runaways, along with Cherrie Currie, Lita Ford and Sandy West, this teenage girl band was one of the first to come to light in the seventies’ American male-dominated rock scene. Like many other punk artists, the girls encountered a great worldwide success but struggled to gain recognition in the US.
The Runaways decided to disband four years after their debut, but Joan Jett didn’t stop there—she has since then been known as Joan Jett & The Blackhearts. Some of their biggest hits include the ‘I Love Rock’n’Roll’ cover of The Arrows’ track, ‘Bad Reputation’ and ‘Do You Wanna Touch Me’. Her distinctive grunge voice and her confidence has inspired many young artists, including The Vacancies and The Eyeliners—who are signed on Jett’s record label—Blackheart Records.
The ex-Runaways member played an important part in the Riot Grrrl movement, which saw an incredible number of women take control of rock music altogether and promote feminism. Like all the other artists mentioned above, Joan Jett remains one of the go-to artists where punk music is concerned—and there’s no doubt that her works will keep on being played at every throwback party for a long time.