Gina Birch and Helen Reddington don’t look like money launderers. Yet, as the two elder-states-women of the UK’s first generation of punk tell it, this is pretty much what their local bank suspected them of being when they applied for an account to help fund their new film. Rather than some cops and robbers heist flick, however, Stories of the She Punks is a documentary on the largely untold history of the duo’s female peers who navigated their way through the gob-flecked scene to become musical pioneers.
One might have thought Birch’s tenure as bassist and co-vocalist with the Kurt Cobain championed Raincoats and Reddington in her Helen McCookerybook guise as front-woman of Brighton-based John Peel favourites The Chefs and Helen and The Horns would have been enough to convince any bank to support them. If not that, then their more recent careers as respectable academics should have swung it. Sadly, the pair’s artistic alliance wasn’t deemed to be a business opportunity worth supporting.
“We couldn’t work out what was going on,” says Reddington, “but there were these emails that just seemed to be going round and round and round.”
“Eventually,” Birch continues, “an older man sat down with us and said, I’m sorry, we can’t offer you a bank account. We were like, why, and he said, well, you could be laundering money, or you could be making a porn film. We said we’re academics, we’re making this for academic purposes.”
“There’s a thing on telly now, isn’t there,” she says. “Women Make Porn.”
“That’s us,” says Reddington.
Stories of the She Punks is anything but porn. As can be seen tomorrow night in Edinburgh when it screens as part of this week’s Doc’n Roll season of music-based films, over its forty-five rough and ready minutes, Birch and Reddington’s film gives voice to many of their contemporaries from the punk era who at the time were barely heard. Filmed over the last five years, the film flits between interviews with Viv Albertine from The Slits, Ana da Silva from The Raincoats, Gaye Black from The Adverts, as well as less well known but just as significant artists, including members of Dolly Mixture and The Mo-dettes.
Beyond the London scene, there are appearances from Lesley Woods of Birmingham’s The Au Pairs, and, from Manchester, Liz Naylor of The Gay Animals. There is also a star turn from Shanne Bradley of The Nipple Erectors, whose lead singer was a pre-Pogues Shane MacGowan.
“Shanne was in the thick of things from the start,” says Birch, “and had such a lot of lovely stories, but she’d never been interviewed before at all. She appears in pictures in books about punk as ‘unknown woman,’ but she’s the one who auditioned Shane MacGowan. There should be a book or a film about her by itself.”
Stories from the She Punks also features an appearance from Patricia-Anne Brown, aka Trash, of long-lost Edinburgh band, The Ettes.
“I was doing a gig in Glasgow and Trash turned up,” says Reddington. “I’d met her briefly before at Viv Albertine’s birthday party, and then I had a gig in Edinburgh, which was when we did the interview. She was the last person to be interviewed, but the camera wouldn’t work, so I filmed it on my very wobbly iphone.”
The roots of Stories from the She Punks stems from Reddington’s book, The Lost Women of Rock Music – Female Musicians of the Punk Era, first published in 2007. Birch was one of the first people Reddington interviewed for the book.
“We were friends anyway,” says Reddington, “and we’d toured together, doing song-writing workshops with old people.”
“It was a good excuse to sit around and drink tea as well,” adds Birch, “and the film was a by-product of that.”
At the time, Birch was also making a film about The Raincoats, whose self-titled debut album, released by Rough Trade in 1979, remains one of post-punk’s defining statements which has in turn influenced the ethos driving the film.
“It’s a DIY film of women talking about being in bands in the 1970s, and it doesn’t pretend to be anything else,” says Reddington. “The only message it’s got is the one that comes out of people’s mouths, which is very true and authentic, and I think people like that.”
“I think the good thing about it,” says Birch, “is that some of it is so badly filmed, and looks at times like we’ve perhaps filmed it from the back of a suitcase, that there’s a wonderful punk aspect to it, and it’s so DIY, and I think that’s its saving grace.”
“Bricolage,” Reddington posits.
“It’s kind of charity shop film making,” she says.
“TK Maxx,” counters Reddington.
A twenty-minute trailer premiered in 2016 at an event at the British Library as part of an exhibition to mark the fortieth anniversary of punk. The sold-out screening was pretty much the only representation of women in the entire show.
“I think it was a shame that a lot of the women were excluded from that, and in a way our little trailer was a kind of recognition of the women. There were all these singles on the wall, and none of them, except maybe Siouxsie and Poly Styrene, had women in the band. A lot of the women made their singles a little bit later, because they weren’t there with their guitars ready to go. They were inspired by it, and were practicing in basements, and their music came out perhaps a year or so later.
“I was quite cross at the opening, shouting ‘where are the women’, and probably upsetting a lot of people. Punk was such a massive opportunity for young women and older women to have some visibility in bands, which largely they hadn’t had before, so it seemed infuriating to me that there was this absence.”
During the screening itself, however, Reddington recalls “this wave of good will. It was absolutely rammed, and it felt like an affirmation or catalyst. I suppose that might have something to do with the editing choices that were made. There was so much film, and both of us have got a sense of humour, so we naturally picked things out that appealed to us from that perspective. A lot of the time people are talking about quite awful things, but in quite an upbeat way, so there’s a dark laughter kind of thing, but when you think about it, someone telling an anecdote about being attacked by skinheads might come across as quite funny, but it’s actually really horrible.”
Working with rudimentary equipment, Birch and Reddington eventually completed the film, with Doc’n Roll’s input a vital boost.
“They really believed in us,” says Reddington, “and you really need that when you’re doing something DIY. You call it DIY, but you still need to get it out there.”
The end result “dances about all over the place in terms of who did what when,” says Birch, “but the actual nubs of the ideas are nicely put together.”
According to Reddington, “It’s about forming a band and being in a band, and that can appeal to anyone, whether you’re a man or a woman. There’s no big fanfare at the start to say you have to be a feminist to get something out of it, but the stories in it are so interesting that by the end I think you’ll be a feminist anyway.”
Doc’n Roll runs at Cameo Cinema, Edinburgh, Thursday-Sunday. Stories from the She Punks plus short films by Gina Birch and a Q and A is on Friday at 6pm.
The Herald, April 24th 2019