Western Mail (8.1.03)



She's been labelled the new Princess of Punk. As Kelly Osbourne prepares to support Robbie Williams tonight, CHRISTOPHER REES asks if it takes more than spiky hair and black nail varnish to live up to the tough singing antics of the great ladies of punk who went before her

IT may sound absurd but certain corners of the pop press have recently branded Kelly Osbourne 'The new Princess of Punk.' With her ever-changing hairstyles, make-up and colourful fashion sense, she might look the part.

But in a time when the word punk gets over used in association with anyone sporting an alternative image, a fast guitar and a bit of attitude, can we really accept this spoilt little rich kid from Beverly Hills as the new face of female punk?

Is it just a clever marketing tag or a sad reflection of how diluted the notion of punk has become since it first exploded onto the streets of London and New York over 25 years ago?

With bands like The Ramones and The Sex Pistols, punk once boasted an exuberant energy, raw power and controversial attitude that reacted against mainstream rock music and the establishment in general.

Like a revolutionary rallying call to the nation's disenchanted youth, it had a real message that reached out to its audience and turned the music industry on its head.

Although punk was very much a male-dominated scene that reflected the state of the music industry at the time, it did include and empower women and helped open the door towards the strong position they now hold in contemporary rock music.

Mark Perry was in the thick of it when it all kicked off and chronicled the birth, rise and demise of the original movement between the summer of 1976 and the end of 1977 with his seminal punk fanzine, Sniffin' Glue.

He believes that the explosion of energy and creativity encouraged women to get involved.

'Probably more women came into music through punk as either band members or movers and shakers than in any other previous movement ever,' said Perry.

And they weren't just sexy girls on the sideline or a novelty band.

'If you think of Vivienne Westwood, who was probably the single most important female figure in UK punk and Siouxsie Sioux, Soo Catwoman, The Slits, Gaye Advert, Ana Da Silva from The Raincoats, Poly Styrene of X Ray Spex and Pauline Murray from Penetration, all those people came through in a very short space of time and on their own terms.'

There may have been a lot of testosterone flying around at punk gigs but Perry also believes that they were a new breed of rock personality, far more receptive to what women had to say.

'We were all part of the post-David Bowie generation who'd gone through these conversations about our sexuality and all that, so we were quite open to more female influences.

'There was a sensitive side to us, we weren't all misogynist male stereotypes,' he said.

It was a time of great social and sexual upheaval and although strong women like Janis Joplin and Aretha Franklin had already made some bold statements during the 1960s, the punk movement had an altogether different and more anarchic agenda.

If we look back at some of the key proponents of female punk power over the years, perhaps we can place Miss Osbourne's over-zealous new title into some sort of perspective.

Probably the first important representative of female punk rock came in the form of a beat-inspired poet from the New York underground scene.

Patti Smith's 1975 debut album Horses slightly pre-empted the UK explosion and presented a performer of powerful intellect and passionate vocal rage.

Produced by Welsh maverick and former Velvet Underground legend John Cale, it opened with a dramatic and arresting cover of Them's Gloria.

Incorporating a poem called Oath that she wrote in 1966, aged 20, it was one of punk's most vital initial moments and immediately became an assertive benchmark for young female would-be punks.

Smith summed up the importance of that first album in her 1999 book, Complete.

'When I look at it now, I believe we captured some of the anthemic artlessness of our age. Of our generation. A breed apart who sought within a new landscape to excite, to astonish and to resonate with all the possibilities of our youth.'

Smith has maintained her artistic integrity and inspiring presence for close to 30 years and continues to release reactionary and uncompromising music to this day.

Without doubt the most commercially successful and influential female-fronted band of the punk and new wave scene was Blondie.

Led by former Playboy bunny and Marilyn Monroe look-a-like Debbie Harry, they made their live debut at the infamous home of New York punk - CBGB's.

In an age when punk was still not considered widely suitable for radio airplay, Blondie helped to transform it into a much more palatable and accessible entity and with hits like Denis, Heart of Glass and Hanging on The Telephone, they soon became arguably the biggest pop band on the planet.

Although Blondie were perceived to be a lot less threatening than many of the other New York bands of the time, they were not without substance or edge.

Blondie always valued melody and song over moronic attitude and aggressive abandon, but as songs like One Way Or Another display there was a lot more going on beneath Harry's platinum blonde veneer.

'We weren't as conservative as people thought,' said Harry. 'To counterbalance the pop melodies we had this dark, lurking thing going lyrically that has some reality and substance.

'I always liked that dichotomy. One Way Or Another is about a stalker, a potential serial killer and rapist and the song's going di-di-da-da, bouncing around. That was a nice sick touch. I would hate to be all light and buoyant.'

There's no disputing the influence that Harry has had over female rock and pop music. Everyone from current New York punk darlings Yeah Yeah Yeahs to other female-fronted bands like Garbage, The Cardigans and even Madonna continue to acknowledge her importance.

The ubiquitous Kelly Osbourne also sights Harry as her biggest hero.

'She's amazing,' said Osbourne.

'You know how there's a reason you become a musician? Well, she's mine.'

In the UK girl groups like The Slits began a radical shift of female ego.

Fronted by the arch vocal delivery of Viv Albertine, they were a fixture in London's punk elite early on and whilst being closely associated with both The Clash and The Sex Pistols, they set a feminist manifesto that questioned, 'who invented typical girls?' and encouraged far more exciting ones to come through.

After seeing The Pistols in 1976, former hippy Marion Elliott became Poly Styrene and X Ray Spex was born.

Her piercing voice, flamboyant plastic dresses, dental braces and anti-consumerist stance helped her stand out from the crowd and alongside other frontwomen like Pauline Murray from Penetration, she proved that punk had a hidden positivity, allowing girls to scream without requiring them to parade their sexuality in order to sell records.

The most iconic female figure in British punk has to be Siouxsie Sioux.

Since making her live debut with The Banshees at the 100 Club's monumental Punk Rock Festival in 1976 (with a certain Sid Vicious on drums) she created what John Lydon described as, 'The quintessential punk look.'

Combining 1920s Hollywood, Isherwood's Berlin and 1960s Hammer heroines, she inspired a generation of clones.

Just as punk was beginning to find its visual identity, Sioux became a guiding light.

'You were supposed to aspire to Doris Day-type girls that appeared on the covers of Jackie,' she said.

'I was the antithesis of that.'

Her image should not, however, overwhelm the band's musical achievements (18 top 40 hit singles in all) or the authenticity of their early punk roots.

For many purists, like Sniffin' Glue's Mark Perry, punk died the day The Clash signed a deal with CBS in 1977, contradicting everything they were singing about.

'Once punk got owned by the bigger record labels, it became part of the established system and the music business,' said Perry.

'It became more acceptable, compromised and diluted.'

The influence did, of course, continue to have a significant effect on music after that milestone, exposing a new generation of empowered females in rock music with a certain punk ethic.

During the '80s people like Kim Gordon supplied a strong, yet sexy feminine voice amidst the walls of white noise created by New York art rock band Sonic Youth.

Alongside her step-sister Tanya Donnelly, Kristin Hersh and Throwing Muses produced a compelling female force and as a member of The Pixies Kim Deal helped inspire the Seattle grunge explosion.

The early '90s brought a wave of fierce, feminist punks known as Riot Grrrls.

Bands like Huggy Bear and Bikini Kill announced the arrival of a new girl-boy revolution, but although these songs and singers helped shape the feminist leanings of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain amongst others, the explosion was shortlived and it was left to the women in grunge like Hole's Courtney Love to carry the torch.

The current resurgence of so-called punk rock may still be a male-dominated scene with bands like The Strokes and The Libertines grabbing most of the headlines, but the girls still have a lot to shout about.

Olympia's Sleater Kinney and New York's electro-punks the Yeah Yeah Yeah's are currently receiving a hive of media adoration.

So where does Kelly Osbourne fit into all of this? Well, nowhere really! She does not bear comparison. She's playing stadiums with Robbie Williams and living it up as a reality TV show celebrity in a Beverly Hills mansion.

The new Princess of Punk? You've got to be joking.

The first ladies of punk

Patti Smith

Literary punk rocker with powerful intellect and a fiery edge. Her 1975 debut Horses was produced by Welshman John Cale and was hugely influential.

Debbie Harry

Former Playboy bunny turned front woman and punk icon with the band Blondie, the most commercially successful act of the entire punk and new wave scene.

Siouxie Sioux

Fiercely single minded about her music, she broke away from the punk scene as early as possible and with her band, Siouxie and the Banshees, continued to be an important female presence throughout the '80s.

Kim Gordon

A strong yet feminine and sexy voice in the midst of walls of white noise created by New York art rock band Sonic Youth.

Kim Deal

As a member of The Pixies she helped inspire the Seattle grunge explosion and a generation of girls with guitars.

Kat Bjelland

Courtney Love's arch enemy Kat Bjelland founded the raucous Babes in Toyland and continues to rip it up with her new band Katastrophy Wife.

Kristin Hersh

Alongside her step-sister Tania Donnelly, Kristin Hersh and Throwing Muses produced a compelling female force best captured on their 1989 album Hunkpapa.

Courtney Love

Love her or loathe her, before she went all Hollywood, Courtney Love fronted Seattle grunge band Hole and made some good records like 1991's Pretty on the Inside. She famously married and buried Nirvana's Kurt Cobain.

PJ Harvey

Yeovil's best musical export. Heavily influenced by Patti Smith, PJ Harvey is an intense vocalist and engaging performer. Her 1998 album Is This Desire won the Mercury Music Prize.

Contributed by Jerry Burch.

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