As a fashion conscious teenager in the mid 1970s, Jeanette Lee was already familiar with the Kings Road and London’s budding Punk world, and although more publicity shy than some people who came out of that scene, she has quietly racked up one of the longest, and possibly coolest Punk Girl C.V.s ever.
“I was still at school really and I used to buy all my clothes in the Kings Road from SEX, Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s shop, and then by complete coincidence I bumped into Don Letts and he asked me to come and work with him and that was a dream thing because I was already moving around in that scene. Towards the end of that, punk happened, I knew all those people because we were all hanging out on the Kings Road and then John came to me and said after the Sex Pistols if I would come and work with him and PiL and that was a no brainer!”
Jeanette initially took on a management role with PIL, but was soon a full blown member of the band itself. Appearing in press shots, and featuring as a creature in Lydon’s cover art for PIL’s “Paris Au Printemps” album. Jeanette is also the face on the cover of the single “The Flowers of Romance” from 1981, when she also appeared playing a cello, on the band’s unlikely appearance on Top Of The Pops.
By all accounts, Jeanette’s was a voice of reason and positivity in the chaos and aftermath of the first wave of Punk, and she travelled with PIL to New York, where she witnessed first-hand the band’s controversial “appearance” from behind a stage curtain/video screen at The Ritz – where their avant-garde, non-appearence, annoyed the audience so much, there was a riot.
On her return to London she was approached by Rough Trade’s head honcho Geoff Travis, who invited her to join him managing the Rough Trade label;
“Working with Geoff was kind of what I was doing anyway,” she says. “Listening to records all the time, having strong opinions about things and tweaking things, and telling people to change little things here and there, which I thought would be better, it was a very similar kind of role and I realised quite quickly that that was actually the perfect role for me. It was kind of what I was doing unofficially anyway.”
With a roster of bands like The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Sundays, Galaxie 500 and The Smiths, Rough Trade was booming and Jeanette and Geoff, it seems, were another good fit;
“I find that there are not that many people that you feel you are really on the same wavelength as when you’re talking about music. You know, people listen to music in so many different ways – you might be listening to the drums and bass where as I might listen to the guitar; people pick up on different things and what I discovered quite quickly when I went to work with Geoff is that we had the same take on things and I think that’s quite rare. We never get bored and we’re always looking for new things and talking about new things – both of us get genuinely thrilled when we find something new and I think we sort of feed each other like that a bit in a way! I get excited about something and then he does the other way around.”
In an interview with The Independent in 2015, Geoff Travis called Jeanette his “bullshit detector”, possibly because Jeanette’s style of band and label management, is not the sort of thing they teach you on media degree courses. Jeanette seems to carry her adolescent enthusiasm for music with her, there’s a Punk DIY-ness to it, and she posseses the kind of navigation system that comes from a genuine feel for the music, rather than the all to often major (and sometimes indie!) labels approach of “bands as cash cows”.
“I won’t say it happens in all independents, but I think there is an element of making it up as we go along, not that we’re totally making it up; we know what we are doing but there is an element of we just do what we love, we just find things that we totally adore and we don’t do any market research to see if people are going to buy into it or not. We just find ways of getting from zero to the finish. We get excited about trying to get other people to experience that love. All you do is try to beat your own path and try to find the way, to get to that point where everyone else is into it as well and that idea of being able to invent it as you go and write the rules is a great feeling. It’s not as much like that as it used to be but it’s still a bit like that around here!”
There’s really no-one quite like Jeanette, while other Punk Girls brought about culture change by writing the songs and making the records, Jeanette, very quietly went about making the process of getting that music out, or buying it, a more interesting place to be. As far as Punk credentials go, she ran a shop with Don Letts, was in a band with a Sex Pistol and went onto label manage at Rough Trade – if there was a Punk Girl Top Trumps (which has just given us an idea), then Jeanette would be an excellent secret weapon.
“Even at the time when I was going to see the Clash and the Sex Pistols I liked Abba. Joe Strummer gave me the ‘Arrival’ album so it was allowed! He said to me listen to this it’s great and he handed it over and I loved it. He loved it too.”
Quotes from 2014 Ian Roebuck interview from loudandquiet.com
Profile feature in The Independent 2015