Review: God Save the Queens: Hit Girls, by Jen B. Larson Celebrates Punk Women of the 70s and 80s

Tonight, Quimby’s will host an off-site book party for Hit Girls: Women of Punk in the USA, 1975–1983, at GMan Tavern (3740 N. Clark St.), Thursday, April 27, at 7:30 p.m.

“Punk Rock” is the opening track on Scottish post-rock band Mogwai’s Come on Die Young album. Throughout the song, the band strums plaintive guitar licks beneath a talk show diatribe delivered by Iggy Pop. Recorded in 1977, Mr. Pop was unimpressed with the media and society’s abuse of the title term, saying, in part:

“…punk rock is a word used by dilettantes and heartless manipulators about music that takes up the energies and the bodies and the hearts and the souls and the time and the minds of young men who give what they have to it and give everything they have to it.”

Specifying “young men” was telling for the time. Even for a genre priding itself on flipping the bird at a paternalistic establishment, punk was often viewed and portrayed as an angry young man’s game. Punk has a thousand godfathers, including Pop, John Lydon, Lou Reed, assorted Ramones, and others. As for godmothers, at least according to the rock press, you can count them on one hand: Patti, Joan, Debbie, Siouxsie, and (take your pick of) Poly, Viv, or Exene. Beatified as these names may be, there’s a larger, mostly unseen history of other women in early punk rock. Chicago-based writer Jen B. Larson does a public service revealing it in her new book Hit Girls.

Punk seems resistant to semantic satiation. The more often it’s said, the wider level of meaning it enjoys. Punk can be an noun, adjective, adverb, or verb. In time it’ll become a determiner. How many other musical sub-genres have been spread so thin?

The definition of punk in Hit Girls, by Larson’s own admission, is likewise loose. Seeking out the book’s 80-plus acts on music and video platforms, the casual reader/listener finds the familiar brief, distorted, and angrily shouted songs often connected with punk, but also encounters more new wavy, experimental, minimalist, and singer/songwriter tunes. 

Even so, Hit Girls hits on the most appropriate use of the term: DIY music created by women fighting a battle with two Establishments, one outside and one within. Attention must be paid to these women and their bands, says Larson, and by God—or rather, by Godmother of Punk Patti Smith—she’s right.

As a collection of essays and interviews, Hit Girls is best dipped into rather than read cover to cover. Bands are divvied up by region—Midwest, South, Northwest, West Coast (north and south), and East Coast. For Third Coast Review readers, Chicago is represented by the past and present acts DA!, Bitch, The Dadaistics, Kate Fagan, and Algebra Suicide.

Larson’s efforts recall the 50s and 60s American Folk revival, when 78 rpm record collectors explored the hills and valleys of Appalachia and the Deep South in search of the names on all that 1920s shellac. Fortunately for Larson, everyone is connected now, and nothing is ever lost. Through email, texts, and teleconferences, she tracked down and recorded the thoughts of an impressive number of performers, and produced essays on the handful who’ve passed on. Larson thoroughly gathers the memories and impressions of folks who were there, wherever there was at that time, in that region. Hit Girls is an important work, letting numerous integral yet overlooked female performers share their experiences while they can.

As with most musical era coverage, there’s little ongoing and interconnected narrative—life is like that. Gigs happened. Some nights were magical, some were soul-crushing, most were just another show. Unlike painting or film or the like, musical performances are made of fleeting moments, dissipating as they manifest. Expect more anecdotes than sustained biography here.

What is most striking about Hit Girls, is the sameness of the subjects’ experience, even across the country. The near-misses and disappointments every band undergoes while trying to make a name or at least a living at music are compounded by misogyny, stereotyping, and discrimination. Then again, we also see the big and little successes and dedication that make and sustain a scene. What’s clear, however, is that the women of Hit Girls had to work harder than their male contemporaries for fewer rewards. Inspiration and frustration walk hand in hand.

The cliche of the punk male quartet, rank in both amateurism and odor, doesn’t simply get a sex change in Hit Girls. It’s more interesting than that. The ladies in these pages are a dizzyingly diverse group. Classically trained musicians, envelope-pushing visual artists, and ethnically diverse performers who put paid to the idea of punk as a sweaty white guys only field.

What do punks rebel against? To quote Marlon Brando in The Wild One, “Whattyagot?” Back in the 70s it was economics, capitalism, conformity, authoritarianism, racism, and the biggest enemy, the Establishment. Sexism is another enemy of punk, though the assorted scenes back then were slow to fully adopt it. The women of Hit Girls faced sexism (and for some performers of color, a double whammy of racism) from both sides. Even as feminism got the barest toehold in 1970s American society, the titular Hit Girls had to fight twice as hard for recognition. We mostly hear about feminism’s bigger historical fights: equal rights, equal pay, and breaking through the glass ceiling. That same ceiling extended to punk rock—covered by graffiti and band stickers, perhaps, but a ceiling all the same. Nevertheless, they persisted. Alice Bag of Los Angeles’ The Bags puts it well in her section:

“People who are oppressed have the power to use their experience as the fuel for change. There’s a saying that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and I think it’s true. Life can be like boot camp. If you’re constantly facing, jumping over, or smashing hurdles, you become better at getting past them than those who travel a smooth road.”

Larson’s book is fueled by her own experiences playing in bands, and in memory of her late sister, who introduced her to a wealth of girl-powered music through mix tapes. Her personal record collection is doubtless replete with unsung female musicians of the 70s and beyond. Hit Girls’ collection of recollections gives them a louder voice.

Hit Girls is available at most bookstores and through the Feral House website.

Picture of the author
Dan Kelly

Dan Kelly has been a writer and editor for 30 years, contributing work to Chicago Magazine, the Chicago Reader, Chicago Journal, The Baffler, Harvard Magazine, The University of Chicago Magazine, and others.