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Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Sexploitation Music - Part 1

Gordon's last blog (see below) was an interesting one for me, as I also obtained a copy of PIL's Death Disco at the time (although not by the nefarious means of tricking my innocent old Grannie into purchasing it for me) and I like to think that this demonstrates that Gordon and I were bonding over something more meaty than just The Barron Knights at the time (see 'here' if that reference makes no sense).
His passing reference to Honey Bane also was timely as she is someone who has been on my mind recently. Most particularly, I've been thinking, with not a little despair, on the horrible and almost predictable downward spiral of her career and how it serves as a cautionary tale on the insidious and incessant sexism and exploitative nature of the music industry.
In Gordon's recent piece on feminism in music he rightly praised those smart and assertive women who were able, through the punk and post-punk movements, to be treated with respect, as serious artists with significant and credible messages. However, that they did so at all, is testament to their determined and indomitable characters, as the default position of the 'industry' is, and always has been, to sideline and trivialize female musicians. Indeed, the music industry only ever seems happy when they can promote female artists based on an overt, and occasionally disturbing, sexuality.
The success of artists like The Slits and Poly Styrene was also, to some extent, a demonstration of the prevailing attitude of the time; an inconoclastic and egalitarian attitude that allowed outsiders of all types to stand up and make themselves heard after years of silent deference to authority. Don't be fooled into thinking, however, that in those days everything was bright and auspicious and that 'the man' could only stand by impotently as we forged our brave new world. Oh no, in time, punk, and its offshoots too, were corrupted by commerce like all other art-forms, and tonight I wanted to talk about the first of two young women, contemporaries in the post-punk era, who both produced pieces of music which remain dear to me and who were both eaten up and spat out by the all-devouring pop monster in the most shoddy and exploitative manner.

The first of the young women is, of course, Honey Bane. Born Donna Tracy Boylan, in 1964, London, Honey reputedly had a difficult and unstable childhood, gaining the reputation for being a 'problem child' by her teens. Finally, at the age of 14, as she became increasingly involved in the nascent punk scene, she ran away from home. With her mother seemingly unable to cope with her behaviour, in the summer of 1978, Honey was placed in Youth Treatment care.
At that time, Honey had formed her first band, The Fatal Microbes, with herself as lead singer. Other band members were Gem Stone (Gemma Sansom) on drums, Pete Fender (Dan Sansom) on guitar, and Scotty Boy Barker (Scott Barker) who was briefly replaced as bassist by It (Quentin North). Interestingly, the Sansom siblings were the children of Poison Girls singer Vi Subversa. Fatal Microbes first record was A 12" split with the Poison Girls and was released on Xntrix/Small Wonder records in October 1978. The outstanding track on this release is the Microbes' eerie and ominous ‘Violence Grows’, written by a young Honey. This track was later released,along with the songs ,‘Beatiful Pictures’ and ‘Cry Baby’, as a 3 track EP on Small Wonder Records. It was this release, and in particular the song Violence Grows, which received repeated airplay on the John peel show and achieved single of the week in Sounds, that brought Honey Bane to the attention of this writer. If you've never heard Violence Grows, then you're in for a treat. Here it is below.

Isn't that just amazing? The menacing bass-line, the phosphorescent, reverb-laden guitar, and Honey's precocious lyrical and sinister vocal talent all combine to make this song one of the outstanding punk releases of 1978, in my opinion. Once you've heard this song once, you never forget it, the mood of the music, with its clever restrained use of the guitar and its unusually slow tempo for a punk song, match perfectly with the lyrical theme of urban alienation. It undoubtedly marks the high point of Honey's career and from here on in it becomes a tale of diminishing returns. With the Microbes fallen apart before they can release anything else and Honey now serving a sentence at the St. Charles Youth Treatment Centre in Essex, the future doesn't look bright. Undeterred, Honey went on the run from Social Services and spent the next 12 months living on people's settees until she was 16 and legally outside the system's reach. During that time, Honey began a collaboration with Crass who, as well as giving her a place to stay, provided the musical backing for her 1980 EP release 'You Can Be You'. Released under under the name Donna and the Kebabs, this is the first non Crass release to came out on the Crass records imprint.
The music is actually pretty good, if not quite to the standard of Violence Grows. The A-side is the ironically-titled 'Girl on the Run', which documents Honey's real-life experiences 'on the lam' and the B-side features 'Porno Grows' (which bears a passing resemblance to the Microbes' Violence Grows and in which she rails scathingly against the pornography industry) and 'Boring Conversation'.

Now, if at this point, Honey had stuck with the Crass label then I wouldn't be writing this blog. Unfortunately, she didn't and soon after this, her one and only Crass release, Honey formed a new version of The Fatal Microbes and began touring extensively. The pretty, and very young, punk naïf with the 'enfant terrible' reputation began to attract the attention of the music press and to give you a flavour of the sort of things written at the time here are some excerpts from a 1980 Sounds interview with the loathsome Garry Bushell;

"On the phone Donna had been adamant that this was to be a
group interview and she'd sounded put out about something —
probably all the sexist rubbish some wag keeps slipping in Jaws
about her, y'know, references to her breasts looking like 'a pair of boxing gloves out looking for a fight', and so on."

"Despite the unflattering jumble safe chic you can see she's a looker. A little on the dumpy side perhaps but that's just puppy fat. She's still only sweet 16 after all, not that you'd blame the guv'nor for not batting an eye when I order her a large CC and coke."

This is the main pic they ran with the article:

This version of The Microbes never released any recordings and soon fate intervened in the shape of Jimmy Pursey of Sham 69 fame. Pursey, at this time was talent scouting for EMI/Zonophone and, as well as signing her to this label on a 5 year contract, he also became her manager. This period of Honey's career gained her a minor hit and a Top of the Pops appearance but also undoubtedly marks the nadir for her musically. EMI soon changed her image, marketing her at first as a glossy and pouting young New Wave star, and had her recording terrible songs with ageing session hacks. Her second single for EMI, in 1981, is an abysmal pop reggae cover of Holland, Dozier and Holland's 'Baby Love', which has to be seen and heard to be believed. Unfortunately, that's what I'd now like you to do:

Now here are some press excerpts from this period. This is from an interview in Zig Zag in 1981;

"Yeah alright mate. 'Ow yer doin?" Jimmy
Pursey grinned down at me, patted the
offended organ and pushed a pretty, but
crumpled little girl at me. "This is Honey
Bane, I'm 'er producer and she's gonna be
a fuckin' star." If she survives this lot. The
doors opened and changing into a surfboard
I was swept inside leaving Jim and his
protege hopefully about to ride the next
When I next met Honey she had just signed a five year
contract with Zonophone records, She looked
completely different. Taller than I remembered with a
Marilyn Monroe body. She assured me she was the
same person, "But I was only sixteen then."

"Simon (the photographer) wanted to take pictures, Honey stood up, tightened her belt and said she didn't want anything too sexy as that wasn't her image. Perhaps he should photograph just her shoes in that case. Actually even they were quite sexy. Red suede affairs on thin heels, clinging seductively to her black stockinged curvaceous foot."

Tragic, isn't it? A desperate EMI next gave Honey a perm, and a pop makeover, and released two more instantly forgettable singles. Both of them flopped and, just like that, by 1982, her calamitous involvement with one of the majors was over. In 1983 she was thrown back into obscurity with her punk credibility in tatters and her pop career down the drain. It gets worse though, Honey spent the remainder of the 1980s as a model for the very porn industry which she had castigated on her Crass release in 1980. I don't mention that though in a cheap attempt to prove hypocrisy. Far from it. I believe instead that a talented but young and vulnerable woman was cheaply exploited and abused by a shallow, vulgar and profit-obsessed music industry until she was at a point where the degradation of pornography seemed almost normalised. Like I said, tragic.

I can't end it like that though, and I won't. Violence Grows is, in my opinion, one of the great British punk singles and if you're hearing it for the first time then I envy you. Honey never reached those heights again, but she did return to making music in the 1990s and can still be found today on Myspace. In anything recent I've come across from her I'm struck by how grounded she now seems and I'm heartened to see that despite the trials she has faced she comes across as a decent and unembittered person. The Streetlamp salutes her!

Below are MP3 downloads of copies I made from my very own, very old, Fatal Microbes EP (complete with vinyl crackles):

Violence Grows

Beautiful Pictures

Cry Baby



In the next installment: Annabella Lwin

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