Lead singer of the first wave punk band Penetration from Ferryhill, County Durham
Joe: First wave punk was a short-lived phenomenon and Penetration, before its 2001/2 reformation, lasted only three years. What do you think drove the explosion of the genre and led to its rapid decline?
Pauline: I think it was a bit of a black swan event, to be honest, that you can’t really put your finger on. Everything’s connected and, to that point, we’re talking 1976, music was sort of at a stage where if you went to see a band it was sort of in a city hall, it was a big venue, it was record company driven, it was all of that. I think the punk thing was just ordinary kids who had a go at doing something, not being able to play or anything like that, so it was a real kickback against everything that was going on at the time, I think. Even things like pub rock, which preceded punk, even bands like Dr Feelgood were playing city hall levels at the time. So, from my point of view, I’d been going to see loads of bands from the age of fourteen and I’d seen most stuff that passed through – I was really lucky to do that – and there wasn’t a lot going on in that particular year and I was the right sort of age, eighteen or something like that, and I was interested in music and then saw something written about this band called the Sex Pistols and they looked pretty wild. I’d already been down to the King’s Road and seen the shop, Sex as it was at the time, and Malcolm McLaren rang us, me and my boyfriend, to ask if there were any venues in the North East that they could play but we didn’t know any. Then we saw them in Northallerton, a tiny little venue, and we saw them about six times, which was a lot. I think what it did was it inspired young people, the attitude of it all was like, it was very powerful energy, it was ‘we’re doing this, we’re kicking against everything that’s gone on before, we’re speaking about things that mean something to us’, you know? We’d never written songs or anything before, but it just inspired you to have a go to do it, we thought ‘we can just do this’, you know? And we had no experience whatsoever of being in a band up to that point, we just picked up the instruments and started to then link up and ask for gigs with Buzzcocks and we supported The Stranglers very early on, I mean The Stranglers were playing city halls at that time as well. I think it was just an undercurrent, you know, kids of the right sort of age being inspired into kicking against everything, in a sense sort of drawing a line and saying, ‘we’re going forward, not backward’. A lot of the bands didn’t have record companies or anything at that point, we just used to link up with bands like The Fall in Manchester.
You know, I think we were young and had the energy and believed in what it was, we went out there and did our thing. There were bands all over the country that started to spring up so then that made the movement much more empowered to the point where record companies couldn’t really ignore it. That first wave, in those years, we went from never being in a band, to forming a band, to playing city halls three years later. We went through the clubs, we went through the universities, we went through the big venues. With a lot of the punk bands, I think, we were all chancers, just taking our chances and never expected to get that far and it was really not what punk was about – it was against the establishment really. But then, as it all rolled out, and the music business realised that it couldn’t close the doors on it any longer because there was too many, too much of it, then it started to sign it and then that meant they were able to control it. I think that’s how it was short lived, but it wasn’t really meant to last anyway, I don’t think. I think it was a black swan event that happened, that wasn’t planned by anyone, but all the elements just seemed to link up into it being something.
Joe: That’s really interesting because I’ve heard you mention seeing the Sex Pistols in those early years before. I was just wondering, regarding the Pistols, when you first heard them, how much of it was the music and how much of it was the message that drove you to form your own band?
Pauline: Well musically, a band like the Sex Pistols were pretty much like Small Faces or like a sixties band, in a way, but they were playing it with a lot more ferocity and purpose. Then you had Johnny Rotten, who was the frontman, who you hadn’t really seen a frontman like that, he had a really bad attitude, well a bad-good attitude. Lyrically he was speaking about things that you’d never heard before, saying ‘God save the queen, she ain’t a human being’ – you’d have been hung for heresy like a hundred years ago to put that sort of thing out into the public. Pretty Vacant, all of that, it just seemed to reflect what was going on at the time, people were very complacent. I’d never really heard, I mean I’d heard a lot of music up to that point, but I’d never really heard anybody spout those sorts of lyrics with that sort of anger, and the anger was like a driving force. So politically, up to that point, I hadn’t really thought that much about politics even though it ruled our lives. You know, you’re just a young person getting on with your life, but it made you aware, because it was so anti-establishment, it made you more aware of what the establishment actually was. It was very inspiring and eye-opening and empowering. Obviously, I’d never have been in a band had that not have happened.
Joe: You’ve been referred to as “the Durham contingent of the punk scene” and much has been made of the fact that you came out of Ferryhill at a time when the UK scene was dominated by Manchester and London. Do you think the band’s origins had any impact on its output and what was the local response to you creating such powerful music under such a provocative name?
Pauline: Well, it was very unusual to think that anybody could come out of a place like Ferryhill, County Durham. The only reason it did come out of that and the reason we were called the Durham contingent – I had a boyfriend who was four years older than me and he was really tuned into music, he would get the music papers every week, he would study them, he was obsessed. He was quite instrumental in that but also people like Gary Chaplain and myself and Rob (Robert Blamire, Pauline’s husband), it was a few people into music. I mean, I went to Ferryhill, it was called grammar school at the time, and you were either into Led Zeppelin or you were into like Roxy Music and Bowie and we were into the Bowie side and the arts-type side of it, tuned into all that. So we lived in Ferryhill but the music papers came out every week and he used to read them from cover to cover, we used to come up to Newcastle and buy records so it was more to do with that than where we came from – being tuned in to what was going on in music all over. So, we were picking up all that but, obviously, you’re coming from Ferryhill, you’ve got a totally different background to the London people. I always think that coming from somewhere like that you never have as much confidence as the people from London or Manchester, coming from a pit village. Even though you were very capable, you didn’t have that bravado and confidence that some people had, and you weren’t living in London where you could network and things like that. So, locally, there was a few people who were into music and we were the ones that connected and formed the band and took it out there. But most people were going to the workman’s club, people of our own age, the normal progression for them once they got to adolescence, they would start drinking, going to the pub, get married and never leave the place. So, we actually broke out of the place and did something totally different. Locally, I don’t know what people thought because at that time ‘punk’ was a dirty word, I had cousins and that who were actually disgusted about what I was doing, ‘punk’ was a very, very dirty word to people, they didn’t like it. We used to get chased, we had a brick put through our window, things like that. It was a very difficult environment to live in and it was totally different to what we were doing out there. We would come back and it was a totally different world, we didn’t fit basically.
Joe: Ari Up, of the punk band The Slits, was apparently stabbed twice during her career for her controversial dress and behaviour, did you ever face discrimination or abuse in your career as a result of your gender?
Pauline: I faced abuse, I’m not sure whether it was because of my gender. There was an incident where we were playing a gig and the bouncers were at the front and they were being quite rough with the crowd. I sort of said something and then afterwards they came looking for me and I had to lock myself in a room and they said, ‘no woman speaks to me like that’. So, there’s always been that sort of thing, I mean there was violence, a lot of violence, I don’t know whether that was because I was a woman. You can see on the footage of Don’t Dictate where the guy’s throwing beer, I don’t know whether he was throwing it because I was a woman or he was just throwing it anyway. We had a lot of violence going on at the gigs, and a lot of spitting, but all the bands got it, not just us.
I was a member of the band, I was doing my own thing, writing my own lyrics and women didn’t really do that prior to that. Yes, you’ve got your Joni Mitchells and all that, but in the mid-70s women were just backup singers and had to look pretty. With the punk thing it was the opposite, you didn’t want to look pretty, well personally – I mean you’ve got people like Debbie Harry who looked very pretty anyway – but from our point of view you wanted to dress down in a way. You didn’t want to look pretty, you didn’t want to be seen as a sex symbol, you wanted to be seen for what you were actually doing – for the music and what it actually was. Sometimes you think you’re putting a message over but all they’re doing, sometimes, is looking at you as a woman. I’ve always just thought of myself as a person and it’s other people’s problem how they perceive it.
But I only just found out the other day that women were only allowed to have bank accounts in 1975 which I found astounding. If women wanted to take out a loan, single women, they had to get their father’s signature, and that’s 1975, that sort of tells you were women were at at that point in time. I mean it was starting to change but, as I say, people like The Slits and what have you, they weren’t pandering to being sex symbols, let’s put it that way. They were more interested in expressing themselves and they were part of the punk movement. I think the men involved in the bands were… I was going to say fairly protective of the women, but I think you were actually there just doing your thing and having to look after yourself, in reality.
Joe: I’ve heard you level criticism against people, and the media, for “trying to turn punk into a museum piece”, do you think the ethos of the early punk movement is still useful today?
Pauline: Well, it’s a different world today. It’s totally different, it doesn’t bear any resemblance in many ways. In some ways it’s the same, I suppose. You’ve still got a lot of racism, but you’ve got to look at a broader picture of the British culture. I mean, obviously, a lot has changed because of the digital era. That world was very much in the 3D, it was physical, it was tangible, we’re in a different world now and nobody seems to want to protest about anything. People don’t seem to have the will to actually put their energy out there into any sort of action. We tried to do that, tried to effect a change, but the bigger picture is that the establishment has still got very much of a hold on everything and now, with the digital era, it’s very different. I don’t think you’d get that same thing happening now. For instance, in the mid-seventies, you’d go to the chip shop, I’m not talking about being a female I’m talking about as a male, and you’d probably get beaten up by someone, people used to fight a lot on the street. There was a lot of discontent and a lot of anger and a lot of energy. I don’t think you get that now because people just sit and look at their laptops, sit and look at their phones and see the world through a filter. So I’m not sure, it is a different world now.
Joe: Well that kind of brings me on to my last question. What do you make of the modern punk movement?
Pauline: Well, when we reformed all those years later obviously we were like an established band from the first wave, but when Margaret Thatcher got in, that was everything changed, in 1979. That was like a seismic shift, everything changed. The eighties bands were quite different to what had gone in the first wave. In the first wave, all the bands like The Clash, the Pistols, all of them, they all did their own thing. Every band sounded like themselves and were coming up with original thoughts. When the eighties came people sort of took all the elements: the way it looked, the hairstyles, the leather jackets, and sort of copied, musically, what had gone on. I don’t feel there were a lot of original statements. That next generation was different to the one we were in, I think it just got filtered through and then it became ‘punk’ as you would think of as punk. But a lot of the early bands were very original, and they sounded like themselves. Every band sounded different, yes it was punk, but the bands all had their own thing. It was more creative. I think the next wave took all the elements and tied it up into ‘this is punk’, you know, what people think of as punk.
Conducted by Joseph Callow, Editor and Interview Coordinator
Many thanks to Pauline Murray for her time and sharing her experiences with the History in Politics team for the purposes of this interview.