X-Ray Spex and Pussy Riot: Inspiring a Global Revolution

Tom Taylor examines the role of women in punk. For Issue #18 ‘Rising’.

On February 21st 2012, five women walked into the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow wearing thick winter fur coats. They approached the altar, then suddenly jumped onto it, throwing their coats to the ground to reveal colourful outfits. Each woman wore a knitted fluorescent balaclava, in stark contrast to the black suits of the men who, within seconds, rushed to remove them from the altar. Dodging the security guards, they began to punch the air and dance around, shouting lyrics to their latest song: ‘Mother of God, Drive Putin Away’.

Thirty-five years earlier, Marianne Joan Elliot-Said went to see the Sex Pistols on Hastings Pier for her 19th birthday. Inspired by the punk band’s raw, do-it-yourself attitude, she decided to form her own band:  X-Ray Spex.

There is no indication that the women protesting Putin’s misogynistic, authoritarian regime in Moscow, who announced themselves to the world as Pussy Riot, were inspired directly by X-Ray Spex. Yet, it’s hard not to make comparisons when listening to Marianne, who performed under the name ‘Poly Styrene’, scream, ‘Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard / But I say… Oh Bondage! Up yours!’, at the opening of her 1977 single.

Born of Somali and British heritage in 1957, Marianne was known for her uncompromising, energetic vocals and wrote about topics from consumerism to feminism. She cut through the sexualised, male-dominated record industry, once stating that ‘I said that I wasn’t a sex symbol and that if anybody tried to make me one I’d shave my head tomorrow.’

In an interview with the Guardian in April 2017, Marianne’s daughter explained: ‘Even Mum didn’t like a lot about punk, too. There was loads she found exciting, of course, but she’d tell me plenty of the negative stuff: the aggressiveness of the crowds, the spitting on stage, how very few women were present at many of these gigs – and how that made her terribly anxious about performing.’

 X Ray Spex only released one album, ‘Germfree Adolescents’, which gained critical acclaim and is regarded by many punk fans and music critics as a classic of the genre. Whilst the band’s music could more easily be labelled anti-consumerist and anti-capitalist than feminist, the very fact that Marianne appeared as a strong frontwoman in a heavily male dominated industry inspired feminist punks for years to come.

Six musicians have comprised X Ray Spex since their formation: Poly Styrene (vocals), Lora Logic (saxophone), Jak Airport (guitar), Paul Dean (bass) and B.P Hurding (drums). Pussy Riot have a largely anonymous revolving membership of around eleven women. They were founded in August 2011, inspired by the 90’s Riot grrrl movement as well as groups such as Oi!, Bikini Kill and the Cockney Rejects.

Pussy Riot rejects what they see as systematic discrimination against women in Russia and the merging of Putin’s government with the Russian Orthodox Church. Journalist Elianna Kan emphasises that the band has to be seen in the context of Russia, where highly conservative opinions on sex and the role of women in society are the norm and often enshrined in policy. 

Weeks after their Cathedral performance, three members of the group were arrested and shamed in what was essentially a show trial. Maria Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova were held without bail and eventually sentenced to two years in prison. The trials attracted global attention, inspiring similar protests around the world and prompting Amnesty International to criticise the Russian government. The view in Russia, however, was much more critical of what many saw as indefensible blasphemy against the Church.

Pussy Riot continue to perform and protest, with a noticeably higher production budget, and made headlines with ‘Make America Great Again’ in October 2016 which heavily criticised the U.S President’s sexist and misogynistic attitudes. Marianne sadly passed away in April 2011 at the age of 53 having released a final album ‘Generation Indigo’ which received excellent reviews. 

X-Ray Spex and Pussy Riot, although different in many respects, both inspired women around the world to rise up against oppressive regimes and patriarchal societies. Watching Nadezhda Tolokonnikova scream in defiance in Red Square and Marianne wail in her distinctive style on The Old Grey Whistle Test, is certainly inspiring to me.

Artwork by Rosa Stevens.

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