East London’s The Gymslips, Paula Richards, Suzanne Scott and Karen Yarnell,
stumbled onto the post punk landscape in their monkey boots and Levi’s in 1981. For live performances they would sometimes dress in school pinafores, but even kitted out in actual gymslips they still looked more like troublesome and mouthy extras from Grange Hill rather than members of say, the Mallory Towers lacrosse team, which their name might have suggested. Long before Britpop’s “Lad-ette” culture – you know, that time in the mid 1990s when media girls pretended to like football, pints and Oasis for a couple of months – The Gymslips openly embraced drinking, Pie & Mash, monkey boots and double denim right from the get go. Some would have them down as the first female Oi! band, but really they were so much more than that.
Accused of shoplifting riffs and bits of other songs from everyone from The Sex Pistols to Status Quo, their punked up 60s influenced girl pop, stomped around the musical landscape that lies somewhere between playground chants, and sophisticated three part harmonies. If you can picture a Monday morning version of The Shirelles having enjoyed a particularly wild weekend in a Butlin’s chalet with Suzi Quatro, Chas, Dave and Sham 69, then you’re on the right track.
Getting together in 1980, The Gymslips started playing out the following year, and opened up for Dolly Mixture on a 1981 UK tour. The band referred to themselves as “Renees” a late 60s term for mod girls, the same subculture that named boys “Ronees”. Drummer Karen Yarnell told the NME that a “Renee was a girl who got as much shagging done as a bloke while also matching him for pint drinking, fag smoking, nose-picking, farting and the wearing of skinhead style double denim”.
And the sleeve notes of their only album “Rocking with the Renees” describe Renees like this “Diet: excessive alcohol, Pie & Mash. Clothing: Jeans, monkey boots, denim jackets. Habits: Most disgusting things”
In the spring of 1982 they recorded the first of five sessions for John Peel, after which they signed to Abstract Records releasing their first single, a version of Suzi Quatro’s “48 Crash” (ABS 0011), in November 1982. The following year they released their only LP “Rocking with the Renees” (ABT 006) which started off with their theme tune of sorts, called “The Renees” where, around a Duane Eddy rockabilly riff and glam rock drumming, they set their stall out in verse “We’re the Renees, here we come, 1, 2, 3, and up your bum, we’re the Renees…here we come”.
The album includes a rendition of the theme tune to the late 1970s BBC early evening hospital drama “Angels”, and name-checks for 1970s pop stars The Osmonds, The Glitterband and David Cassidy “I liked him till I saw him, cos he was covered in zits”, as well as Barbara Cartland and Daily Mirror Agony Aunt Marge Proops. It was like popular culture had been put in a blender.
The cover versions, and the primary school swearing were possibly just a distraction to what The Gymslips were really saying. Sure they were East End boot wearing Lad-ettes with a penchant for a night in the boozer and a takeaway, but here were 3 (later 4) girls crafting great pop songs. Their particular swagger came from the type of confidence that was won in playgrounds, secondary schools and pubs rather than art schools or Universities like many of their contemporaries. The Gymslips were feminism in action, not the dry academic feminism that clogged up libraries and well meaning Guardian columns, but the visceral, day to day real life feminism, and all on their own terms. Up yer bum indeed.
The Gymslips are also to be found on the soundtrack of THIS forthcoming documentary.