Poly Styrene, Lost & Found

Like many of her peers, she discovered the sound of being a grown woman

Pop's natural wastage is inevitable, but the U.K. punkettes who overcame the derision of the rockbiz ladocracy were pretty much obliterated ASAP. There was some relief; they'd been an embarassment to the rock establishment. (While features editor of a London punk weekly, I endlessly fielded grumbles from the boychick scribes—"Women aren't into music and don't buy records; why should we write about them?")

In the 1980s, the Thatcherite boy bands out-greeded punk's squat rats with a flick of their blow-dried hair. Their slick videos on tropical yachts epitomized the gilded allure of superficiality. It was a Year Zero; influential women were soon so forgotten that the only general book on the era, by academic/musician Helen Reddington, is titled The Lost Women of Rock.

So all the wild women scattered. Ari left for the jungles of Belize and Jamaican sound systems; Viv Slit entered the jungle of TV. Poly found shelter in George Harrison's Hare Krishna commune in Surrey.

Defiant, exultant: Poly Styrene
Falcon Stuart
Defiant, exultant: Poly Styrene

"We women were obliterated. We did it ourselves," says Gina Birch, bass player for the Raincoats and a filmmaker. "That door opened for a while and we all rushed through. We didn't expect to always be in bands, strutting the stage; for us, it was all tied up with punk and new wave and (the indie label) Rough Trade. When the scene started dissipating, we let it flow away."

In 1993, Kurt Cobain spearheaded the effort to reissue the Raincoats' out-of-print albums and invited them—then, a mostly inactive concern—to support Nirvana on tour. He died before it happened, but the Raincoats regrouped. "It was riot grrrls and all those young women whose mums were feminists, into the Raincoats, who energized us," she recalls.

Now Gina is a mother of two and the Raincoats are performing again. "Why the fuck shouldn't we?" she asks.

Happily, that's what Poly thought, too, and Generation Indigo now serves as a testament to an artist who insisted on being allowed to grow. The choice to project innocence and joy in its whimsically radical reggae and trance tracks could only have come from the brilliant misfit who helped free a global tribe from bondage in the 1970s.

"Making music is in your bones," notes Neneh Cherry. "You feel like, 'I've done a full circle, accomplished other things. Now it's my time. There's a place for me.' "

Cheerfully, Albertine agrees. "I'm going to be the one they take the piss out of again. But there's nothing a new generation can level at me that I haven't heard before.

"And it doesn't hurt so much the second time around."

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