Retro Action 58: Saluting Women’s History Month — With Punk and Rock Reissues

If you think about it, in many ways, women are the most authentic of punk rockers. Trudging along in a male-dominated — and often overtly macho and misogynistic — genre that lays claim to DIY ethics and the idea of bucking the status quo, women have endured mistreatment and marginalization since its inception. But despite it, they’ve played key roles in its evolution. From Wendy O. Williams to Exene Cervenka, Lydia Lunch, Kira Roessler, Patti Smith, Dinah Cancer, Kathleen Hanna and many, many others, the punk canon would be a lot less vital and creative without them, even though they’ve frequently been relegated to second-class status. Often positioned as novelty acts, vacuous pop starlets and ultra-commercial balladeers, women have been foundational to rock ‘n’ roll’s development whether they’ve received proper credit or not. To celebrate the contributions of women in punk and rock, here are a few new and recent reissues that you need to know about. 

To early punk and power pop enthusiasts, Pearl Harbor and the Explosions were a serious force to reckon with. Born Patricia Gilbert, Pearl began her career in the blossoming San Francisco punk scene of the late ‘70s. The band — with its mix of scrappy pop hooks and rousing anthems — would score a major record deal and release its trailblazing debut in 1979. But as luck would have it, the group would break up and Pearl would soon move to England, become part the The Clash’s entourage and change the spelling of her name to the English version: Pearl Harbour. When it came time to record her second album, Don’t Follow Me, I’m Lost Too, Pearl worked with Clash associate Kosmo Vinyl to assemble a crack studio band including Clash all stars Topper Headon (drums), Mick Jones (guitars) plus future husband and Clash bassist Paul Simonon, among others. 

Released in 1980, the album finds Pearl exploring her passion for rockabilly, which was also enjoying a bit of a resurgence at the time. Eschewing power pop hooks for a more dark and swampy sound (think The Cramps or early Misfits with a more upbeat and melodic sound), the album thrives on Pearl’s smooth voice and flair for drama, as evidenced in the eerie driver “Alone In the Dark” and shuffling “Fujiyama Mama.” Stealth reissue label Liberation Hall has unearthed this long-hidden gem and released it in a slick digipack with crisp remastered sound and a slew of bonus tracks. 

Speaking of early SF punk, all-girl trio The Contractions made quite a racket in the early days with their brand of idiosyncratic punk. Brimming with sarcasm and an emotional range that spans wispy refrains to spastic fits, the band — featuring Mary Kelley (guitar and vocals), Deb Hopkins (drums) and Kathy Peck (bass) — and its eclectic take on punk rock sounds years ahead of its time, with a style that would easily have fit in a few years later when post-punk explored a wider alternative landscape. Musically, for a small power trio, the band sounds extremely tight, while at the same time, musically adventurous, as demonstrated on the new live comp, 1980. As part of Liberation Hall’s “Sounds of the San Francisco Underground” series, standout tracks include the offbeat “Shadow Boy,” and the eerily catchy “Breaking Up is Not Hard To Do.”

Another new release from the Sounds of the San Francisco Underground series is Shakin’ Street’s new live comp Scarlet: The Old Waldorf, August 1979. Fronted by former actor and model Fabienne Shine, the band had a penchant for heavy metal but bore an indisputable punk pedigree. As a former romantic partner of Jimmy Page, at his encouragement, Shine formed Shakin’ Street in France where she resided, and released the band’s first album Vampire Rock in 1978. Playing successful shows all over Europe and opening for the likes of The Damned, the band eventually moved to San Francisco where it would soon be joined by punk royalty in the form of ex-Dictators guitarist Ross “The Boss” Friedman (who would later follow his own metal muse to Manowar). 

This new live CD finds the band in fine form, highlighting its knack for punk-fueled hard rock numbers such as the fist-pumping “Solid As a Rock” and the slow-burning “Every Man, Every Woman is a Star.” The set does a fine job of highlighting Shine’s colorful vocals and Ross The Boss’s searing guitar attack.

Speaking of royalty, when it comes to early LA punk, The Brat should be counted among its top luminaries. Fronted by vocalist Teresa Covarrubias, the band hailed from East LA and was one of a few key Chicano punk bands of the day, alongside The Plugz, Los Illegals and Cruzados. While the band’s history spans several years from 1979 to 1985, it only had one official release during the period, 1980’s Attitudes EP, which now fetches high-dollar online in its original issue. While slightly more in line with the burgeoning new wave style of the time, the band’s socially conscious but melodic sound was elevated by Covarrubias’s smooth, angelic tones. 

Beyond Attitudes, the band recorded a treasure trove of unreleased material that was finally officially issued in 2017 on the killer comp Straight Outta East L.A. selling out briskly on CD and vinyl. Now, you can finally get the comp once more on a deluxe red/blue swirled vinyl release, courtesy of RockBeat Records. Musically, The Brat is less raw than many of its LA contemporaries. The band, featuring Covarrubias on vocals, along with Rudy Medina (guitars), Sidney Medina (guitars), Luis Soto (bass) and Robert Soto (drums) was a highly musical affair, with layers of textural instrumentation, accompanying keyboards, clever arrangements and a far more polished production than many other independent artists of the day. The Brat should’ve been huge, especially with numbers such as “Tombstone Blues,” with the its haunting Patsy Cline–styled vocal delivery, as well as the speedy, punk-driven “High School,” that was also featured on the original Attitudes EP, plus “Misogyny” which tackles dark subject matter with sunny hooks and Covarrubias’s earnest performance. 

Probably the best-known of the bunch here is the inimitable Kim Wilde. Barely out of her teams, the pop singer scored a global hit in 1981 with the iconic power pop/synth pop “Kids In America.” A song that has transcended the new wave scene and been covered several times has woven its way like a gaggle of infectious ear-worms into the psyches of millions of pop fans over the decades.

Oddly enough, the song was actually written by Kim’s father Marty Wilde and brother Rickey Wilde, both of whom had been singers and stars in their own right across the pond. To help with street cred, Kim’s self-titled debut’s cover has the chanteuse surrounded by punk-ish looking bandmates dressed in black, one of whom is a young James Stevenson from the punk band Chelsea and later of Gene Loves Jezebel. Brimming with new wave and power pop anthems such as the the punchy “Water on Glass” and “Our Town,” a more somber, but no less hooky number, the album is blast from start to finish. Kim’s voice sounds a tad raw and thin in spots when juxtaposed against the layers of synths and guitars, but that’s part of the album’s charm. Her tough-girl persona is endearing even though her image was tightly controlled from the top.

Kim Wilde’s mega-selling debut, as well as her two later prime-era albums are now available as part of the box set, Love Blonde – The Rak Years 1981-1983 (Cherry Pop). Each of the releases comes packaged in a mini-LP style sleeve just like the original vinyl did during the ‘80s. There’s also a fourth disc of 12-inch remixes and the like, plus a booklet. 

The aforementioned Wendy O. Williams (RIP) was probably the most overtly “punk” of all. The Plasmatics front woman was a songwriter, performance artist, unwitting fashion icon and badass provocateur all at once. Wendy O. had a knack for stirring shit up, whether it was destroying cars on TV or advocating for animal rights, and her music was like nothing else you’ve ever heard. Seriously.

During the mid ‘80s, with the release of her more metallicized solo albums WOW and Kommander of Kaos, Wendy O. toured extensively with her new band. The DVD Live and F*@king Loud From London (MVD) documents a live show from 1985. Filmed in London’s Camden Palace, the show captures Wendy O. and her band at the peak of their powers, playing tracks such as “Pedal to the Metal” and the Motörhead song “Jailbait,” with special guest appearances from that band’s Lemmy and Wurzel. The visual quality is clear and sharp with decent stereo sound as well, making it a rare and highly sought-after artifact from the period. 

For questions, comments, or something you’d like to see, drop me a line. @JimKaz1

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