Photographer Angela Boatwright shares her photos from the DIY backyard punk community, as five musicians tell us about the women that inspire them
When the first wave of punk hit Los Angeles in the mid-1970s, it was a predominantly male scene – but women quickly brought their voice to bear. While many musical trends have come and gone over the past 40 years, punk continues to speak to a new generation of teens.
Punk’s DIY ethos empowers people to be the change they want to see in the world, giving them an outlet for their rage at injustice, hypocrisy, and fraudulence. The artists do not need formal training – just guts to get up on the stage and expose themselves.
While making the documentary Los Punks: We Are All We Have over a four-year period, photographer and filmmaker Angela Boatwright connected with a group of young women in East LA’s backyard punk scene, a DIY movement led by the city’s Latinx youth, and created an incredible collection of never-before-seen photographs – presented here for the first time.
Boatwright’s work inspired us to delve deeper into the culture’s history. Here, we spotlight five women in the LA punk scene who share their thoughts on the women who inspired them to join the cause.
ALICE BAG (THE BAGS) ON BESSIE SMITH
Alice Bag is a singer/songwriter, musician, author, artist, educator and feminist. Alice was the lead singer and co-founder of the Bags, one of the first LA punk bands, which got its start in the late 1970s. Alice went on to perform in other groundbreaking bands, including Castration Squad, Cholita, and Las Tres. She is the author of Violence Girl and the 2015 self-published Pipe Bomb For the Soul, based on her teaching experiences in post-revolutionary 1980s Nicaragua.
In 2018, Alice’s released her self-titled debut solo album on Don Giovanni Records. She will release her follow up album, recorded with her touring band, The Sissy Bears, later this year.
Alice Bag: I discovered Bessie Smith by accident. I was 11 or 12 years old when I went with my sister to see Lady Sings the Blues, in which Diana Ross portrays Billie Holiday. In the film, a teenage Billie Holiday is playing a Bessie Smith record over and over again and like the Billie character, I became obsessed with the song ‘T’aint Nobody’s Business If I Do’. There was something powerful and forceful in her singing style but at the same time, she managed to convey a sense of vulnerability in her timbre. Her voice wasn’t necessarily pretty; she wasn’t trying to smooth out the rough edges and perhaps because of that, her music comes across as honest and emotional rather than slick and rehearsed.
Smith was punk in spirit. She challenged the status quo just by being herself. She lived life on her own terms and became a respected performer and successful businesswoman, a huge feat for anyone but especially for an outspoken black musician who grew up during a time when segregation was the law and lynchings were common. She was also bisexual, so she was bucking convention in a very personal way.
I found Bessie’s unapologetic acceptance of who she was to be very inspiring. Bessie exuded self-confidence in the way she carried herself. I identify with Bessie Smith in many ways. Like her, I’m a person of colour, I’m bisexual, I’m outspoken, and I don’t shy away from confrontation. I admire the way she lived her life – and I’ll never get enough of her music.
MARINA DEL REY (BACKSTAGE PASS) ON THE RUNAWAYS
Native Angeleno Marina Muhlfriedel (aka Marina Del Rey) launched her career in the 1970s as Entertainment Editor of ‘TEEN’ Magazine and as a keyboard player of Backstage Pass. Her next group, Vivabeat, released two albums. After touring for several years, Muhlfriedel went into the film business, working as a producer on as The War of the Roses and Throw Momma From the Train. Her true love has always been writing, which has manifest in screenplays, essays, prose, and poetry.
Marina del Rey: I was inspired in reverse (laughs) by the Runaways. What happened was I was invited by Kim Fowley to see this girl band he was putting together called The Runaways to play at the Whiskey back in late 1975. As time went on I had a lot of respect for Joan (Jett), Lita (Ford), Cherie (Currie) – all the girls. But the night I went to see them, I saw something that really bothered me. They were women acting how men wanted them to act: this soft-porn fantasy ‘Cherry Bomb’ stuff that I found appalling. That night, I went over to the Rainbow Bar & Grill. I saw a couple of my girlfriends there and said, ‘We can do better!’
At the time, the punk scene hadn’t really taken hold, but the attitude I had was springing up all over the world. We decided right there and then we would start a band. We were at our table discussing it and Rodney Binghenheimer (a radio personality and DJ at LA’s KROQ famous for breaking new bands like Blondie, the Ramones, and the Sex Pistols into the American market) came by.
I said, ‘Hey Rodney, I just started a new girl band!’ He asked, ‘What’s your band?’ and I said, ‘Backstage Pass.’ I just threw it out there and because of that, we started getting press before we were a band! I have to thank the Runaways for inspiring me to do something of my own.
STEPHANIE MENDEZ ON DESTRUYE Y HUYE
Stephanie Mendez is a journalist and musician from Santa Ana, CA. She has a Master of Arts and Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and Journalism from California State University, Long Beach. Stephanie organizes DIY punk shows in Orange County and spends her free time working on her film photography in the darkroom.
Stephanie Mendez: I didn’t have the opportunity to see Destruye y Huye when they were first making the rounds. It wasn’t until the last year or two that I started to look into them. Their vocalist, Angee, was also the front woman of this other LA band, Folleto. My first band opened up for Folleto at a spot called The Dog House, which belongs to the people from Generacion Suicida. That was the first time I heard Angee. She had a very strong command of her voice and she was in control. I really liked her energy. She was aggressive and confident. She looked people in the eye, walked around the room, and danced to the music. She was the perfect amalgamation of two opposite ends of the spectrum.
Last year, I was at a friend’s spot for band practice. We were getting ready to leave when we heard a knock on the door. When I opened it, Angee was there and I saw all the women behind her! I was like, ‘Oh my God, are you reuniting?’ She was like, ‘Yeah. I’m so nervous, I didn’t think anyone was going to be here.’ I asked if I could sit through a song and she said yes. That was the first time I saw them perform live. They started playing their first song, and I was like, ‘Wow!’
The reality of punk music is that all the bass player and guitar player has to do is learn three chords and bump up the distortion and even if they mess up, you’re not going to be able to tell as an audience member. But a drummer has to be so precise. Kat, their drummer, was fast and fluid. I was mesmerised by all of them. I was like, ‘This is seriously next level shit.’
It’s so badass not to only have an all-female punk band that’s active and playing shows, it’s even more profound to see an all-female, all Latina band. Representation is really important. To see these women holding down the fort is a very powerful thing.
KIWI MARTINEZ (GENERACION SUICIDA) ON ALL OUT ATTAK
Kiwi Martinez is the lead vocalist and drummer for Generacion Suicida, a Killed by Death-style punk band that plays melodic, undistorted punk music steeped in the traditions of the late 1970s, with the sped-up urgency of the hardcore scene. Founded in South Los Angeles in 2010, Generacion Suicida stays true to their Latinx roots, performing Spanish-language songs that deal with alienation and frustration with their environment. Their motto: “Musica del barrio, para el barrio.”
Kiwi Martinez: Reflecting back to my teenage years when I first got into punk, it was uncommon to come across women active in the LA punk scene. If I am not mistaken, the first time I heard and witnessed a woman in the scene was when I was 14 and attended a backyard show featuring All Out Attak (with Vanessa Attaks singing lead vocals).
Vanessa had a strong presence in the way she presented herself. She was bold, aggressive, and confident. It definitely made an impact because it empowered me as a woman. She embodied the aggressive attitude and boldness of LA punk. Her performance style stood out the most because to me it appeared that she created a safe space to express herself. That's something that I ensure to have for myself when I perform with Generacion Suicida.
KAT ARRUNATEGUI (LAS COCHINAS) ON ALICE BAG
Born and raised in Southern California, Kat Arrunategui is the frontwoman of the LA-based punk band Las Cochinas. Formed in 2006, Las Cochinas combine their punk roots with a modern, poetic, hip hop attitude. When not performing, Arrunategui is a career student. She has three degrees and is working on her Masters in Business Administration.
Kat Arruntegui: I was about 14 when I first heard of the Bags. I was at Headline Records and I was telling the guy that I was looking for punk bands with women in them because I was in a band. He was like, ‘Ohh cool. Let me introduce you to the Bags,’ and he gave me a tape. He told me, ‘Listen to this and study it.’ I really connected with it. It felt like, ‘Whoa this woman (Alice Bag) is strong and powerful, and she is doing something that I want to do!’ She was saying things that matter and you don’t really hear that in music. I was overwhelmed with being able to relate to somebody and feel that connection.
Alice represents for all women in punk. She’s a Latina, and there weren’t too many Latinos or Latinas in punk. She represents for women and people of colour. Her music helped me to not be afraid to speak up about things that really mattered, whether it was feminism or domestic violence. I took a lot of strength from listening to them. It really shaped me into the person I am. I don’t think I would be the same if I never listened to the Bags.
She’s still playing shows and with a lot of bands that are non-binary or have women in them to give them the chance to play with someone they’ve always looked up to or give them great advice. She listens to current bands and doesn’t think she is better than anyone.
Women seeing other women on stage is the most important thing, letting girls know there are people out there who are feeling what they are feeling, or experiencing what they’re experiencing now. We’re also there to tell men how to act right and teach them how to respect women. You can’t stick your hands on a girl’s ass and think that’s okay. It’s like, ‘Screw you, asshole.’