“We’re the Catholic Girls, and we’re going to do a short set”
Author, journalist, academic, and fem-culture pundit, Lucy O’Brien has been writing about big subjects like music, girls and feminism since the early 1980s. She wrote for the NME, she has contributed to the groundbreaking feminist magazine “Spare Rib”, the alternative London listing guide “City Limits” and is also a seasoned columnist for UK national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Independent. She is also the author of the books “She-Bop – the definitive history of women in rock pop and soul”, a biographer of Dusty Springfield, Annie Lennox, and a weighty look at Madonna in her recently updated book “Like an Icon”.
Lucy continues to document, catalogue, lecture and comment on the role of women in rock – but who documents the documenter? Punkgirldiaries met up with Lucy, not to talk up the weighty fem-pop debate (which we can all do for hours, believe me), but to drink beer and find out more about where it all started, and the time when she was the keyboard player for Southampton’s all girl post punk band, the Catholic Girls.
Pints ordered, and the best available table commandeered, we kick off with the story of how she started off as a punk girl during the summer of 1978. Still at school, Lucy along with the core of this soon-to-be band, really were in the Lower Sixth at the local convent school, hence the name. (Nowadays of course, the poetic and evocative moniker “Lower Sixth” has been cruelly replaced by the less romantic and somewhat Orwellian “Year 12”, but that’s by the by). With a combined interest in feminism, animal rights, socialism and music, they had already started going to gigs and rallies, and so following the narrative of the day, it was really only a matter of time before someone suggested that maybe they too should form a band, which is where our story starts. We wondered whether their initial approach was as ramshackle and under-whelming as both Ruth and I have previously confessed to;
LUCY “We were quite systematic about it, we needed money to buy instruments, so I saved up from my Saturday job to get my keyboard, Maddy and Judith got their Dad to sign an HP agreement for the drum kit, and they made more money by making earrings, with bits of old plastic, I don’t know where they got the plastic from….but they were really interesting, and we used to sell them at school, and we’d bake cakes and sell them and that all went towards instruments, and once we got the tools that we needed, then we started rehearsing”.
They were not ramshackle at all, which also seems to neatly illustrate why Lucy has published several major books, and one of us still can’t work their phone with any degree of dexterity. With a line-up of four girls and two boys: Tina Poole – Vocals, Lucy O’Brien – Keyboards, Judith Groves – Bass, Maddy Groves – Drums, Adrian Hoole – Guitar, and Dave – also guitar, the Catholic Girls set about writing and rehearsing a set of songs, all from the comfort of Lucy’s living room.
LUCY “We had a real work ethic, we did at least two rehearsals a week. We practiced at my house where we had a big room, and I think my Mum quite liked the subversiveness of it. The drum kit took up permanent residence in our lounge. I’d come home from school, do my homework, and then at about 7.30 they’d all come round and we’d rehearse for about two and a half hours, after which we’d have Marmite sandwiches. We’d listen to a few records, like PiL, Siouxsie & the Banshees, and we would dissect the records and talk about what all the instruments were doing. We also wanted to do something that hadn’t been done before and we were constantly challenging ourselves to make sounds that we hadn’t heard before, and that was one of the criteria”
Hot on the heels of rehearsals come the gigs, and vocalist Tina Poole’s brother worked at Virgin Records in Southampton city centre, “he was in that punk network, and very soon someone offered us a support slot at The Joiners Arms, and suddenly we had two weeks to write and rehearse”.
We were curious to find out what these seemingly organised teenage punk girls were writing about, so we got onto the subject of songs and subject matter, and Lucy told us, “One song was called “Lonely Housewife” – all the songs had a feminist subtext, and there was another about anorexia and the first line was “I’m so fucking skinny” it was called “Life on a Lettuce Leaf”. There was always lots of rebellion against the beauty myth, and another song called “Small Talk Small People” which went “Nothing to say, they talk all day….” we used to shout that one!”
Far too cool to be so obvious as to try to subvert their school uniform for gigs, Lucy and co. headed straight for the Punk Girl staples, “When went out or did gigs, it was stilettos, 50s suede from a jumble sale, borrowed 1950s granny jackets and day-glo tops from my Mum, it all had to be fluorescent day-glo. I had a bottle green mohair cardigan I loved it, with tight jeans and the stilettos. Hair short, and a bit spiky, the day I left school I dyed it blonde!”
The Catholic Girls first gig was at Southampton’s Joiners Arms in 1979 with a synth based band called Program something Lucy could relate to, being an analogue keyboard type of girl, “I loved it and I was quite techie and loved mucking around with all the controls. Maddy and Judith built a really good rhythm section, as a music journalist now, I can look back on them and still think how great they were”.
Lucy pictured on the right
Whatever that spark was, the one that Punk so effectively set off, it meant that for the first time girls were suddenly in bands, making fanzine’s, dressing to please themselves and creating a whole new soundtrack to live their lives by. “We were doing it because we wanted to make music, play gigs, hang out and go to gigs and the local punk pubs which were a real dive. I think we had more in common with the boys around us than the girl punks who we didn’t really click with. They didn’t really know how to relate to us, they were more into the fashion and style end of it, so we hung out more with the boy punks, who in turn seemed to like us. Gender just wasn’t an issue. It was LGBT before LGBT. It didn’t need a framework it just sort of happened. It was fairly tribal, I think it attracted people who wanted to be free of gender stereotypes”.
From their first rehearsals in August 1979, The Catholic Girls had plenty of gigs under their belts in just six months, and by April 1980 they were regulars on the Southampton scene. LUCY ” In April 1980 we played at one of those gigs when suddenly the instruments became part of you, and the audience were great, then in the middle of the set a bunch of skinheads thew a brick through the front window of this pub, and then came inside and there was this wild west sort of fight with tables being thrown and we were on stage thinking “what is going on?”, and our roadie June, who was a bit older than us got us to grab our stuff and bundled us in the car. It was with Catch 22 who became The Men They Couldn’t Hang who were headlining, and it was one of those gigs where everybody turned up, but that was the last proper show, after that I left the band to go University “.
Although The Catholic Girls never released a record, several years later some recordings turned up as part of the “Messthetics” releases. Curated by long-time collector and dealer Chuck Warner, the series covered UK DIY post-punk produced between 1977 and 1983, and The Catholic Girls appear on #108.
Finally, we asked Lucy about how she thinks her experience of being a teen post punk girl shaped her, and what, if any, have been the lasting effects from that time?
LUCY “I often say to people it was such a formative experience, standing on a stage and looking out at the sea of faces, and this absolute terror inside, so we did it, and I think I learnt to be fearless, it’s like a skydive, once you’ve done it, nothing is as scary again”.
We’d like to thank Lucy for talking to us, and go on to both recommend her books, and also her suitability as a very entertaining drinking companion! You can find out more about Lucy O’Brien HERE and follow her on twitter @LucyOBrienTweet