The typical punk girls we write about were our ’70s and ’80s role models. We loved The Buzzcocks, The Clash, The Pistols, but what was most thrilling was to see young women on Top Of The Pops being just as bold and ballsy as Johnny, Sid, Joe or Mick. It’s clear that a whole generation of girls has been inspired by the force of punk and this shows in their subsequent music, fashion, literature and day-to-day sass.
But, whilst punk drew in a lot more females as singers, musicians, stylists and journalists, the record industry was – and probably still is – a largely male preserve. There is one woman whose contribution to music around that time is worthy of note: Tessa Watts (born Stephanie Siddons).
Tessa started working with Richard Branson in the early 1970’s. With three other entrepreneurs, Branson was setting up a mail-order record retail business that he was planning to call ‘Slipped Disc’.
” …..until a member of Branson’s team, Tessa Watts, noted that they were all “complete virgins” when it came to business. The Virgin Group embraced the idea and started their company with confidence.”
We’d like to think that the political awareness and feminism of the 1970’s meant that the fledgling Virgin Records was a fair and equal organisation; it’s good that Tessa gets credit for her idea. Another thing that Virgin changed by the late 1970’s was the branding and dominent musical style, which moved from wet-dream hippie stoner to simple punk:
In his book ‘Losing my Virginity’, Richard Branson explains that, by 1977, the Virgin brand ditched their hippie image, by signing The Sex Pistols – a move that transformed them into the punk, and post-punk label of the era. Whilst the conversations and meetings that led to this change in logo and mindset aren’t recorded, it seems that Tessa Watts, as head of PR was a driver in the adoption of punk-influenced bands to Virgin. Read this quote and interpret it with 2018 wisdom:
“the playful, collegiate atmosphere of the office in Vernon’s Yard was down to Branson, with his penchant for exuberant horse-play.”
Neither Branson, nor anyone else, ever made the mistake of taking liberties with Tessa, however. She had a warm but forthright manner that could translate as formidable. The Guardian
Later in her career, Watts became well-known as a successful plugger (persuading radio DJs to play her records), the woman behind MTV’s European launch and an important player in the new world of music videos. In 1986, she commissioned the Peter Gabriel video for ‘Sledgehammer’ which went on to win many awards and become the most-played video on MTV. From then on, Tessa continued to have influence and to innovate within the music and visual industries for many years. wiki/Tessa_Watts
Tessa Watts died in 2014; her daughter Sophie Watts appears to have taken her mother’s drive for innovation and creative success even further.
To have been a successful part of the record industry in that era, Tessa had to be a determined, tough woman with insight and the ability to argue her case. The Guardian’s obituary, written by ex-husband, journalist Michael Watts, paints a great picture of her:
“Her political incorrectness, softened by a gift for taking people just as they are, endeared her to the next, and more street-wise, generation of Virgin artists, such as Boy George and the Sex Pistols, who were veterans of squats. She was motherly towards Sid Vicious, a lout who habitually stole from the desks of employees, and was instrumental in helping Boy George kick heroin. Occasionally, she washed George’s laundry when Culture Club was on tour; and the Human League did their make-up for Top of the Pops at our marital home in west London.”