- Not Playing ProperlyAmateurism as Generic Choice in Three Postpunk Case Studies:
The Slits, Lora Logic, and the Raincoats
At the Hammersmith Odeon on October 22 and 23, 1976, New York punk-poet Patti Smith played her second round of London concerts. In her review of the performance for the weekly UK music magazine Melody Maker, critic Maureen Paton noted how Smith’s appearance was especially captivating for the female members of the audience: “A lot of women present clearly got off on the idea of having someone up there to identify with (an attitude with which I have a great deal of sympathy), and there were more yells of encouragement from women than I’ve ever heard at any other concerts.”1 The “yells of encouragement from women” demonstrate how exceptional Smith’s performance must have seemed: here was a woman who derived her stage persona from channeling male icons such as Doors lead singer Jim Morrison and poet Arthur Rimbaud and who was not only participating in the hitherto male-dominated field of rock but actually leading a rock group. In the rest of her review, however, Paton wrote scathingly about Smith’s reliance on her exceptional status as a woman in rock in lieu of displaying conventional musical skill: “But it’s precisely this kind of freak originality that Smith exploits so mercilessly by playing the rock and roll hero. The guitar that she hadn’t even bothered to learn to play properly was toted around the stage as a symbol, nothing more. And that just isn’t good enough.”2
Paton thus implied that Smith was using her gender—her exceptional status in the rock field—as her primary means of winning approval. Paton appears to have judged Smith according to mid-1970s classic rock criteria, in which notions of musical virtuosity (i.e., a display of conventional musical skill) were prized, and does not appear to have been au fait with the emerging enthusiasm for the self-consciously [End Page 159] amateurish, DIY approach that characterized punk, where you didn’t have to be able to “play properly.” In fact, Paton’s review of the Smith concert appeared only months after Caroline Coon’s often-cited Melody Maker article “Rebels Against the System,” in which Coon christened punk and championed its “anyone can do it” approach. For Coon, punk defined itself in opposition to virtuoso instrumentalists and “gentlemen rockers” such as Yes and ELP and instead “stripped [rock] down to its bare bones” by using minimal equipment and performing fast songs with no solos and “no indulgent improvisations.”3 Furthermore, Allan Jones’s article “But Does Nihilism Constitute Revolt?,” which appeared underneath Coon’s two-page punk special, referred explicitly to the Patti Smith Band as a punk group and argued that “Smith and the like” were part of a lineage of groups from the 1960s who prioritized “physical energy and passion” over “technique or musical competence.”4 Thus Paton’s review, which framed Smith as a rock poseur, appeared concurrently with propunk articles such as those by Coon and Jones.
Paton’s opinion was, however, not atypical in its assessment of women performers in guitar-based groups in the mid-to late 1970s rock press. While it is true that punk and postpunk’s irreverence for conventional musicianship and gender normativity created a space in which women artists could participate,5 certain critics evidently ran against this “anyone-can-do-it” ethos and implied that it wasn’t “good enough” for women to be onstage making music and participating in the new wave / punk moment; they had to be able to “play properly.” Indeed, Helen Reddington stresses how notions of punk amateurism in fact worked to both advantage and disadvantage female instrumentalists: on the one hand, punk amateurism offered women who lacked experience an opportunity to participate in rock; but on the other hand, punk’s rejection of conventional musical skill and celebration of amateur aesthetics left women musicians vulnerable to the critical gaze of both male and female “gatekeepers” in the rock media.6 [End Page 160]
In this article, then, I am interested in exploring the double bind...