Savages aren’t a great girl band. They’re a great band

Last month in Derry I sat in a church pew chatting with Savages. Not the “all-girl band Savages” or the “all-female quartet Savages”. Just Savages.

Approach with caution: Savages

Approach with caution: Savages

Sat, Mar 9, 2013, 08:25

Last month in Derry I sat in a church pew chatting with Savages. Not the “all-girl band Savages” or the “all-female quartet Savages”. Just Savages.

I was aware that the Londoners (unsurprisingly) hate enquires about being an all-girl band, girl musicians or having double-X chromosomes. Fair enough: no one ever asks Bruce Springsteen: “As a man, why do you make music?” or refers to Grizzly Bear as an all-male group.

Still, I wanted to hear their thoughts on why it’s asked so frequently.

“It never occurred to me that being female was a reason I should, or shouldn’t be playing music,”
said guitarist Gemma Thompson. “People are interested in what we do live. It surpasses gender.”

“Gender is like ageing,” offered singer Jehnny Beth. “It’s a bit boring. We got to know Geoff Barrow [of Portishead and Beak] and I like what he says about us because it has nothing to do with us being women – ‘they’re just a good band’.”

Barrow also gets a mention in Tracey Thorn’s memoir Bedsit Disco Queen , when Thorn speaks candidly about women, music and feminism. Growing up, she knew few female musicians, and because she desperately wanted to be one, took on the role of “token girl” in a band of guys.

It was a route into a lifelong profession, and once in the door with a “masculine” Les Paul copy strapped to her back, she could subvert things. The repertoire of The Stern Bops (her first band) even included a song Thorn penned as an ode to Julie Burchill. When she joined The Marine Girls, they wrote songs about not being a typical girl, such as Getting Away f rom It All . “When it came to boys in bands”, says Thorn, “I didn’t just want to go out with them, I wanted to BE them”.

Watching Savages play last month was about hearing a tight group of skilled musicians belting out loud, frantic post-punk.They made me think of interviews I’d done with The Slits’ Ari Up, Joan Jett and Polystyrene of X-Ray
Spex. All three spoke of the daunting lack of role models in the 1970s. Jett said bottles were frequently thrown at her mid-gig; Ari Up talked of The Slits being chased by angry men.

The problem was not that they were noisy, or punk, but they were women. Did anyone ever call The Beatles a boyband? No, but then “boyband” is synonymous with overly groomed quintets, sitting on stools waiting for the key change. It’s shorthand, and one with a pejorative tang.

“Girl band” is only used to point out that the members are female. Our time would be better spent focusing on what’s good and bad in music terms; separating the exceptional from the unlistenable, and dumping gender designations.