Atomic: the self-loathing memoir of a girl in a band

Blondie were one of the first bands I really remember. I was introduced to them so early on that, initially, Debbie Harry seemed unremarkable in her women-in-a-band-ness. As I grew out of childhood and into worldly awareness, that concept got flipped.

I began to see Harry refracted through the male gaze. A rare and untouchable sex object in a world of critically acclaimed white boy rock music. A shiny bird’s egg in a snakepit of auteurs with guitars.

I never paused to ask — why aren’t there more women playing this stuff? At the time, it seemed weirder that there were any women existing in that world at all.

Because the myth tells us that women can’t or don’t want to play in rock bands. It doesn’t appeal to them.

Take, take the noise in my head/I wanna turn, turn it up

But I always did want to, from being very small. I wanted to be the lead guitarist like Mark Knopfler, Nuno Bettencourt, then Jonny Greenwood and Graham Coxon. It was a difference I accepted about myself and I guarded that position very closely.

I was suspicious of other women who wanted similar things. I’m ashamed to say I was almost hateful at times. I refused to take them seriously.

While I was inspired by bands like Hole and L7, I didn’t really relate to them as women (too confident, too scary) and women closer to my own age, playing in my scene, felt inscrutable or even threatening. I look back now and I can’t begin to unpick the conflicts that must have been going on in my head.

And that was just the self-inflicted misogyny.

When I went to school in Olympia/ everyone’s the same/what do you do, with a revolution?

After titting about in bands at school, which was a fairly safe space to figure out how to play live and get good enough to not be embarrassing, I started at sixth form college. I went to rock music club on Wednesday afternoons, the only girl, and begged to be in bands with the boys. They knocked me back time and time again.

I was as good a player as most of them, but the idea of having a girl in the band to pollute the boy’s club dynamic — repellent.

When I did finally get a band going I was constantly patronised, often by people who were supposed to be my friends: “she’s not bad, she’s getting better.” I was supposed to take this as a compliment. I look back now and I think WHAT THE FUCK. None of the boys who were shitter than me at playing were getting any of this helpful commentary.

Of course, I thought all this resistance/indifference/othering was because I was not especially likeable as a person and not very good at playing guitar.

I probably just wasn’t cool enough, or maybe if they fancied me they would want to be in a band with me, but they didn’t blah blah. Because, you know, sexism in music wasn’t a thing anymore, girls could play guitars, duh, because I was doing it. So, obviously it boiled down to me being the problem.

I just couldn’t make it work. It was a constant internal battle.

I’m outta time, I’m outta fucking time/
I’m a gasoline gut with a vaseline mind

At university I was lucky enough to be in a band with a group of brilliant, kind boys who held a space for me to do whatever I needed to do to create, but I still felt myself leaning into our other guitarist, letting him take the hard parts. He got better and better and I just stayed still.

I look back now and I feel so frustrated with myself — why didn’t I just keep learning? I totally plateaued. I became scared of fucking up, so I stopped trying difficult stuff. Eventually, I stopped playing traditional lead guitar altogether, sticking to the easier rhythm parts.

At the same time I had become a reluctant lead singer, due to nobody else in the band wanting to sing. I had zero stage presence as a front-person and no idea how to get comfortable with performing. Yet, being at the front of the band, there was no escape from the glare of me being a novelty. We would get reviews that would comment on how I looked or the fact that I was a girl. Every gig billing said “female-fronted”.

As a band, we laughed at the reviews that compared me to Sandra Bullock (that well-known rock singer), but I don’t think I had my head on straight about it at all, looking back. The pressure was there. In the back of my mind, I still had that Debbie Harry ideal. Like, maybe the way to do this is to be good AND look good. Maybe that’s the easiest way.

Maybe that’s how you make the door unlock.

Maybe that would be a handy protective mask to hide behind when all these eyes are boring into you because you’re the only woman on the bill yet again.

Glory, glory, lay it all on me/50ft Queenie, 50 and rising

Still, I went deeper into the DIY scene, because I believed cracking on without thinking too much was the best way through it. And I loved the community, I loved the philosophy, I loved the music beyond anything I had known. It was life. University was a reason to be in this glorious city of punk rock, I didn’t particularly care about my course or getting a career.

But the scene was all about the boys. The network revolved around musicians, promoters, fanzine writers, and they were virtually all male. They were orbited by girls, but the girls themselves rarely connected directly to each other. There were a few like me who were playing or putting on gigs, but we just never forged friendships, or if we did, it took years to build up that trust. Some of those women are still among my closest friends but, jeez, it took ages to get even to a point of speaking to some of them.

It didn’t seem like an issue at the time. I failed to see how it could cause any damage.

Deep down, I thought if I played like a boy, was cool like the boys, I could climb to this invisible pinnacle and be like them. And for a while, that’s what I did. It was only later on I look back and think how fucking lonely I was. And, for the life of me, I couldn’t work out why.

My enemies are all too familiar/ they’re the ones who used to call me friends

It took the collapse of a major relationship, wiping out most of my male friends (which meant — pretty much all of my friends) to get smacked back down to earth.

I was living on my own, desperately trying and failing to get another band — any other band — off the ground for the sake of my mental health. I’d been playing solo gigs but my confidence was still dreadful and I’d have panic attacks after every show. Plus — people clapping and cheering after songs that articulate your pain — not great, it turns out.

The answer finally came in the form of a pop covers band, birthed out of the ashes of old scene bands. Covers mean you can play a role on stage, you don’t have to be yourself. You can sing songs written and sung by women who have already made their space in the world. You stand in their footprints. You can be fun and frivolous and nobody cares. You can make people smile and dance and feel good.

We had another woman in the band, which shifted the group’s energy. And we were playing non-scene shows: village fetes, local festivals, weddings, birthday parties. The level of judgement dropped like a hot rock. People either danced to us or were indifferent, scene points were out of the equation.

Finally, there was a space where I was free to mess up, as I frequently did, without fear of reprisal. Quite the reverse. And I found myself being hugely supported by my female bandmate, Nicky, possibly one of the most encouraging people you could ever wish to meet.

So, for ten years now, I have done party covers. But as a singer only. Ten years not playing guitar live.

Ten years of my guitar, that was in daily use for fifteen years before that, gathering dust under my bed.

Until it wasn’t.

I should be hoping, but I can’t stop thinking/ of all the things I should’ve said/ that I never said

I looked up and realised the world has changed so much in those ten intervening years.

Since I’ve been in my party music bubble, there are women playing rock music everywhere. Not just a handful, but, brilliantly, loads of them. On festival bills, all over the radio, in my new favourite bands, passing me in the corridor at our practice studio. And they’re not fighting anything alone, they’re not hating on each other, they’re just holding each other up and getting on with it.

I saw the fantastic Screaming Females at the Brudenell in Leeds a couple of years ago. I watched as Marissa Paternoster played lead guitar in exactly the way that I had always wanted to play as a teenager, so fluidly and effortlessly. It unlocked something profound in me.

I felt the weight of all those years that had passed, with me not trying because I was scared of getting it wrong or inviting scrutiny. And I thought, I’m in my late thirties, I’m a mum. How much longer have I really got left to try doing this thing I love?

So, here we are again. Back in the practice room, writing music, making loud guitar noises. Still getting it wrong, still not knowing more than one scale, still drifting off halfway through the second verse and forgetting what I’m doing, still constantly wondering if the fact that I’m not jaw-droppingly brilliant is ‘letting the side down’.

But it is still there, the joy is still in there. It’s just as exciting as it was before. More so because I’m so delighted to find it hasn’t gone away.

And the world feels a safer, more supportive place to step out into than it did back then. Even as a middle-aged mum trying to play whacking great riffs, like some kind of weetabix-spattered Duane Denison.

And once you feel safe, loved and supported, among people who get it? When you’re truly, honestly free to not give a shit?

That’s when the fun can really begin.

This post was written as part of the #write52 community writing project, although to be honest this stuff has been spinning in my head for years and this was a convenient place to get it out.

I’m Penny, I’m a freelance writer, comms strategist and lead-ish guitarist. Still working enthusiastically on my stage presence and pedal collection. Find me on Twitter and Instagram.

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Copywriting | Content Strategy | Comms

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Penny Brazier

Penny Brazier

Copywriting | Content Strategy | Comms

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