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Sam Knee’s Untypical Girls
Courtney Love, 1991Photography Brad Sigal

Early photos of the radical women who changed music forever

The heroines who turned rock, punk, indie, and grunge upside down – including Kim Gordon, Courtney Love and Viv Albertine

In an industry traditionally dominated by men, women in music usually have to shout to be heard. Author Sam Knee’s most recent photo book traces the punk heroines who were the loudest – the “untypical girls” who changed the face of rock forever. Drawing from both photographic archives and unknown photographers across the world, a new book titled Untypical Girls traces the attitudes and styles of women in the UK and US indie rock scene between 1977-93: an era at the height of women’s flourishing visibility in punk. Turning both the lyricism and music of rock on its head, these women brought a new radicalism and deep political meaning to the presence of women in music. Kim Gordon, Courtney Love and Viv Albertine all feature in the book alongside unseen photos of bands like The Slits, Primitives, and Babes in Toyland.

Below we speak to Sam Knee about what made these women so revolutionary.

What first drew you to documenting the history of women in punk across 1978-1993?

Samuel Knee: 1978-1993 covers the most vital era of punk’s evolution incorporating women's growing visibility within the indie scenes, from post-punk to riot grrl and every sub scene in between. Before 77/78 it was embryonic, slowly taking shape, and post 93 the scene became repetitive, losing pace without any significant social impact. I feel this occurred earlier in the UK, arguably around 88/9 when the action shifted stateside for punks final installment.

What makes them ‘untypical’ girls?

Samuel Knee: The rock industry in the 70s was steeped in a deeply ingrained male chauvinism towards women. A woman’s role in rock music was perceived as subordinate to a man’s, if there was any role at all. In the 60s girl groups only wrote about meeting boys and gaining affection from them. The whole hippy era and well into the late 70s that overall opinion remained much the same, dominated by virtuoso male guitar god shite like Led Zepplin. When groups such as Kleenex, the Slits, Raincoats finally came along they seemed completely radical, and I guess they were, considering the dull environment from which they'd sprung from. Breaking that systematic brick wall ideology down, standing up for themselves, forcing a change, paving the way for all scenes that followed: anarcho-punk, the indie scene etc

What are some key actions that made these women so revolutionary? 

Samuel Knee: Back then each day lived was an act of defiance. Mainstream rock culture was then, as it always has been the acceptable face of macho, meathead society. It's never gone away, but prior to punk, there wasn't that much of an alternative scene to turn to. I'm speaking not just for women feeling marginalised, but for us chaps too.

“Back then each day lived was an act of defiance. Mainstream rock culture was then, as it it always has been, the acceptable face of macho, meathead society” – Sam Knee

Why is it important to permanently document the early history of women in punk?

Samuel Knee: I had my own approach mapped out in my head and I felt it was crucial to join the dots between the scenes on a transatlantic level from the late 70s to early 90s to really convey the full punk panorama. Punk’s discourse is usually distilled down and discussed in terms of such rigid regionalism, the London, LA, Seattle, Olympia scenes etc that you lose focus on the wider phenomena.

What were the biggest social issues these women were battling and addressing?

Samuel Knee: The struggle to gain equality overall, overcoming institutionalised sexism, declaring war on mundane society, to be heard and seen.

The book is also a strong documentation of fashion. Can you tell me a bit about the style documented in Untypical Girls?

Samuel Knee: It was largely thrift, charity shop based style depending on what was available locally at that time. Having said that there's always zeitgeist threads that bind the scenes internationally. In the 80s everyone in the indie scenes was into the 60s from their own perspective one way or another. Sixties clothes were easily acquired for cheap and always looked sharp however you mixed them up, be it in a mod-y or preppy guise, dour, downbeat post-punky, death-rocker trip or tough garage punk vibe, it was always the 60s at the core of the look.

Why did you choose Julia Cafritz from Pussy Galore to write the introduction?

Samuel Knee: I loved Pussy Galore when they came out. Those first three EPs were unsurpassable in that time and space. I was massively into mid 60s suburban punk rock like “Back From the Grave” type garage crud, as well as contemporary noisy feedback guitar combos such as early Cramps, Sonic Youth, Scientists, Birthday Party. Pussy Galore combined all the above plus bad ass lyrics – I just dug them big time. So Julie for me was an obvious choice.

What do you believe is the legacy of these key women on women in music today?

Samuel Knee: No idea, I don't listen to any music past the late 80s. I'm a relic. Young people don't need old farts like me analysing their scene. To quote SSD “The Kids Will have Their Say!”

You can find out more about Sam Knee's Untypical Girls here