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Lance d'Boyle - Poison_Girls

“Bombing cities pulling switches
We won’t do your dirty work
Making death is full employment
We won’t do your dirty work
Bombing cities bombing people
While you eat your dirty meal
We won’t serve you at your table
Screw your dirty deal”

Poison Girls. 1981. Dirty Work (lyrics by Lance d’Boyle)

 

LANCE D’BOYLE, DRUMMER WITH and founder member of Poison Girls, who died on 16 January 2017 at the age of 76, lived in the Andalucian mountains of southern Spain for the last third of his life. Lance (aka Gary Robins) eked out a sustainable living working as an independent artist (a creatively rewarding occupation, but less so financially). He clearly loved the rustic, frugal artisan life, and the clement climate, of Spain. He continued to make music and, infrequently, to perform live, but it was sculpture that had become a more persistent artistic outlet for his talents. “He worked mostly in plaster and wood, as well as found objects, including wire and scrap metal,” recalls Pete Fender. “A well-known series that he did in later years, The Life and Death of the Pomegranate, depicted the fruit itself in various stages of decay and was recorded in a series of photographs.” When his long-term friend and compatriot (the pair had been partners earlier in life) Vi Subversa also moved out to Spain in 1994, Lance relished the opportunity to have Vi in his life once again and the pair once more shared a great deal of warm, companionable and creative time in each other’s company. One of the bands that they both played together in, “The Rooms”, developed something of a reputation in the local area.

Lance was never the most prominent nor the most publicly demonstrative member of Poison Girls. He was arguably most comfortable about being in the limelight when he was able to refract the attention on his presence there through something absurd, ridiculous, passionate or distracting. He wasn’t alone among anarcho-punk musicians in picking a silly and playful stage name (hiding his ‘real’ identity from audiences and (D)SS Snoopers alike), but for Lance the daftness of it seemed an especially good fit. From the band’s earliest days, he played an indispensable role in crystallising their approach to their work. If Lance’s reluctance to occupy centre stage is part of the explanation for the fact that his contribution could be overlooked, that is reinforced by the fact that Poison Girls were as reluctant to assign individual attribution to the creative outputs of the band as were another famous beat-combo of the period with whom the band enjoyed a brief period of close collaboration. Yet that should not detract from a proper appreciation of Lance’s contribution to the band.

Lance was an inseparable part of the trio at the core of Poison Girls, between 1977 and 1984 especially. As one half of the band’s rhythm section, Lance had to adjust to the style and technique of a succession of bass players over the course of eight years. In the role of drummer and percussionist, songwriter, lyricist, poet, artist, graphic designer, propagandist, publisher and master of ceremonies he was indivisibly and indisputably Poison Girls.

Lance’s punk was informed by his anarchism, long before his anarchism was informed by his punk

As was the case with Vi Subversa, Lance d’Boyle’s own pre-punk political experiences further overturns the myth (much propagated by certain members of another, Epping-based, popular music ensemble) that the catalytic convertors of anarcho-punk had no pre-knowledge of the politics or practice of anarchism. “I’ve counted myself as an anarchist since I was 23”, he reflected in his early-seventies, the age at which he had become “a member of CND and sold Freedom and Anarchy in Cardiff.” By the time punk broke, Lance had decades’ worth of experience in student activism, anarchist circles and in the counter-culture on which to draw. His punk was informed by his anarchism, long before his anarchism was informed by his punk. Lance was not attracted to the dutiful, ideological ranks of the organised anarchist movement, and was more of a bohemian than he was a Bakuninite. But his political worldview was infused with an understanding of anarchist precepts and shaped with an excoriating loathing of the crippling effect that systems of power and control had on ordinary people and of the machinations of the war state that kept such systems in place.

Poison Girls - The_Vault - 1977 - with Bella Donna

In the early 1970s, Lance (still known as Gary to his friends) began his first experiments as a “percussive musician”, and (as Richard Famous recalls) taking “Animal from The Muppets” as a role model became a drummer. Gary was working as a tutor at the North London Polytechnic, teaching the Diploma of Applied Behavioural Studies (DABS) course. “I think his work as a DABS tutor was a major contributor to his outlook and modus operandi,” Famous suggests. “It was an internationally respected and innovative course, exploring how people react and interact in group situations. Gary met Frances (Vi Subversa) on the course, and the DABS, for want a better word, ‘method’ provided the framework of how Poisons were to operate.” Later, Gary moved in with Frances and her two children Gem Stone and Pete Fender. At the Edinburgh Fringe Festival Gary joined the production of the soon-to-be-infamous Body Show, with which Frances was closely involved. The Body Show was a radical, avant-garde theatrical piece. “My performance as the ‘Id’, in a wrestling bout with the ‘Superego’ drew protests to the town council and rumours in the local press of nudity and more,” Lance recalled many years later. “The instant notoriety guaranteed full houses for every performance.”

When Poison Girls formed in 1977, he was closely involved in setting up the celebrated venue in the Brighton called The Vault. Together with Richard Famous, he produced the first-wave fanzine Spitting Blood, which focused on different aspects of the emerging punk scene (and which, with typical mischievousness, opted not to mention the connection with Poison Girls even as the band was interviewed in its pages). Spitting Blood was a well-regarded and well-produced fanzine, but its simple page styling only hinted at the graphic and design abilities that Lance would reveal in the early 1980s.

The formative days of Poison Girls were experimental, in a creatively unstructured and sometimes disorderly sort of a way. “Our music was turning out strange,” Lance conceded. “We had a great performer in Vi and we wanted to make a go of it without funds or any kinds of backing.” A set by the band Wrist Action (playing support to The Buzzcocks in The Vault) was a personal turning point for Lance. The group impressed Lance with “their fuck off attitude and dangerous energy. They didn’t give a fuck what they were called [‘punk’ or anything else]. I said ‘yes’ to punk that night.” Recently posted on Facebook by Pete Fender, a fantastically evocative early photo of the band from 1978 shows Lance ripping loose, in some madcap costume at the front of the stage, as the band (featuring mother and son, Subversa and Fender) provide the suitable musical accompaniment. “Gary’s song ‘Radio City’ closed the set,” Fender recalls. “It’s about humans being ‘work androids’ and he loses control at the end and freaks out robot-style!” It’s a joyous image, but even there there a sense that Lance might best enjoy occupying the front spot as a prank, a stunt, a magical and fleeting ‘moment’ rather than as a career choice. He did not possess the natural temperament of a ‘front person’.

Poison Girls - late 1978 - Radio City - set closer

In the early years of Poison Girls he was, though, a song writer. Angered at being on the receiving end of a real-life drugs bust (a minor possession charge), he penned the early punk thrash “Busted”. Amongst a slew of his songs that the band never recorded were “Massacre of the Flowers”, “Wallpaper Rock”, the aforementioned “Radio City”, and the enigmatically entitled “Green Vinyl Burns”. Two d’Boyle songs that were honed into a shape to record were the inspired and caustic “Political Love” which featured on Hex (“I’ll release my locked lust with you, animal in my brain. I must put my trust in you, take you in my pain”), and the impassioned, righteous polemic of “Dirty Work” from the All Systems Go seven-inch (“We won’t make your dirty weapons, to defend your dirty cause. All that’s left is dirty water. We don’t want your dirty war… Ask yourself what else.”).

As a drummer, Lance always chose techniques and patterns that were to the left or to the right of the obvious ones. On songs like “Statement” and “Dirty Work” he showed just how brilliant he was at handling the tight “stop-start” timing and pin-point rhythms that those songs demand. Yet given sufficient space to manoeuvre, in the band’s more open numbers, his expressive and inventive style was immediately in evidence; as he sought out the unexpected, the undercut, or found a way to play through, around or against the beat. His military-style snare switches lit up “Piano Lessons” and “Crisis”; his love of weird rhythms held together songs like “Ideologically Unsound” and “Daughters & Sons”; he held back on “Cry No More”, accentuated the power of “Cream Dream” and let rip on “Fucking Mother”. He was also naturally generous when encouraging other (usually younger) drummers in and around the scene to hone their skills and experiment with percussive techniques. “Gary showed me it wasn’t all about the bell on a ride cymbal and lent me a flat ride cymbal that was amazing and got me into Buddy Rich and the elusive one-handed roll,” reflects Sid Truelove of Rubella Ballet.

Lance sought out the unexpected, the undercut, or found a way to play through, around or against the beat

“I first met Gary in Ladbroke Grove, maybe 1981, in a café around the corner from the Rough Trade shop,” recalls Hugh Vivian of Omega Tribe. Vivian and bassist Daryl Hardcastle had arranged to catch-up with Lance and future Omega Tribe guitarist Pete Fender. “Daryl and I were meeting Gary because he was helping with the printing of Daryl’s fanzine The Realities of Society, which included an interview with Poison Girls.” Printing and publication were quickly sorted, but the contact with Lance grew into long-term friendship.

“I spent a lot of time with Gary over the coming few years, growing close, sharing a lot,” Vivian adds. “He was very generous, with his time, his wisdom, his pleasures and his enthusiasms. I grew to love him and really enjoyed spending time with him.” As well as sharing insights into anarchist ideas and history, Lance encouraged Vivian to explore other more spiritual and esoteric ways of thinking. “He was a great one for ceremony, and there was something of the Shaman about him,” Vivian suggests. “Gary introduced me to magic, the I-Ching (Book of Changes), and tea ceremonies. I have never got anything from these things with anyone else, it was only Gary’s energy that made them work.”

Many years later, Vivian visited Lance in his Spanish home. “I remember the most beautiful time, a month in the mountains at his home in Orgiva – August into September,” he recalls. Vivian’s snapshot memories are evocative: “Gary, Splinter the dog, the tree that would drop its ripe fruit during the the hours of darkness (‘the Fig Monster’), the dying donkey, the water in the night… The soundtrack was the brothers Neville, Isley, Triano, reggae and a track by Jon Secada that we happened upon called Otro Día Más Sin Verte.”

Lance was a natural advocate for the outsider, the deviant, the disaffected, and the rebel. He had an innate affinity for those refuseniks and malcontents whose objections to the way things were were implacable and obstinate. After the band’s relocation to Burleigh House in London, Lance was centrally involved in setting up the place as a rehearsal space and an impromptu rehearsal studio. It was Lance’s work as a tutor at North London Polytechnic that led to the discovery of Poison Girls’ new base of operations. “Finding Burleigh House, and subsequently meeting ‘that band from North Weald’, was a result of the DABS course using Burleigh House as a weekend retreat,” Famous confirms. It was no accident that the name the band chose for their label was Xntrix. The label and its activities were eclectic, its identity obstinately independent, its interest in producing ‘more of the same’ limited. But the work that it produced on the shoestring resources at its disposal was impressive.

As other artists passed through or took up residence at Burleigh House, Lance was a continual source of support and encouragement to a younger generation of musicians and performers. As Rubella Ballet wondered how they might DIY release their debut mini-album on no budget, it was Lance who suggested that they adopt the Ballet Bag format: cassette, poster and lyric book in a resealable plastic wallet; a truly innovative format at the time, which several other bands then emulated and adapted. As members Zillah and Sid acknowledged from the stage on the ‘Vi Day’ of the 2017 Another Winter of Discontent, without the encouragement and support of Poison Girls there would have been no Rubella Ballet. They are far from being the only band who could make the same claim.

Poison Girls - 1980

The lines in a person’s character that separate passion, eccentricity and independence of spirit from obstinacy and awkwardness can often blur, and there were times when Lance’s enthusiasm for mad schemes and impossible dreams could pose challenges for those around him. “Lance could be a difficult and infuriating man,” says Richard Famous, “but could also be relied upon to be honest, warm, funny and dependable.” If Lance’s view of the world sometimes left others floundering, that was in the end evidence of the “special take on reality” he possessed, Famous suggests.

His work on The Impossible Dream enabled Lance’s creative artistry to come to the fore. The first black-and-white issue was convincingly strong on ideas, but it was the first of three colour issues that showed him at his most confident. At a time when the majority of ‘fanzines’ were simple A4 monochrome photocopy or duplicated affairs, the glossy, A2 colour canvases of The Impossible Dream were a revelation. “I had been inspired by John Heartfield’s photomontages and the Dada and Surrealist manifestations of the 1930s and 1950s,” he said later. This was propaganda, pastiche, homage, humour, whimsy and rage bundled into just a few sides of bold colours, big designs and elegant typography. “What I wanted to do was to illustrate Vi’s lyrics and set them in a wider context, and to include the work of other writers and artists,” he explained. His work, though, ranged much further than the visual representation of the band’s songs.

The visual and textual components of The Impossible Dream were as inspired as they were innovative

More than three decades on, those works continue to stand out from pretty much everything that was being produced by their peers at the time. The visual and textual components of The Impossible Dream were as inspired as they were innovative. “They were so inspiring because they said ‘look again at everything’,” says Easton. “I believe they took a long time as well, it taught me to never be casual with images, each one can be a bomb.” Collages blended and juxtaposed media images of gender, consumerism and alienation. ‘Well? You wanted full employment’, read one slogan beneath a compound rendering of the Nazi’s Nuremberg rally (as a delighted Thatcher and Howe look on, as Hitler appears to be ‘preaching to the converted’). ‘Pleasure not shame – desire not jobs’ read another two-page spread which mixed images of industrialism and punk, with the form of Adam torn from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco. (Adam is no longer pointing towards the heavens, but is now holding an oversize feather with which to swat away giant flies). The surreal in the service of the subversive. “Those magazines are iconic and timeless; or rather ahead of their time,” suggests Vivian. “His paper collages were fabulous compositions, fine art from torn strips of magazines. He was a ground-breaking artist. His designs were superb.”

Impossible Dream 4

In one issue of The Impossible Dream there’s an intentionally disorderly interview/conversation between Lance d’Boyle and fellow percussionist Penny Rimbaud. In some respects, it’s perhaps surprising that, given the things that they had in common, the pair were not closer or did not collaborate more widely on joint projects. “I think I was sort of prepared to meet Penny, especially since I had been part of the anarchist movement… so we were on the same page politically,” he suggested later. “I was interested in avant-garde music and, in fact, I was in another band called called Sigmoidascope… at the same time as Penny and Bernie (our subsequent bass player for the next two years) were doing their thing as Exit at Dial House just down the road.” This pair of thirtysomething drummers went on to share the same spot on the stage for the 100+ gigs that their two bands played together (even if they each preferred to use their own drum kit, rather than share) before they went their separate ways.

What is clear is that, as the early 1980s progressed, and the political temper of Rimbaud’s band darkened, Lance (and the rest of Poison Girls) were did not want to find the band consumed by an incredulous (if understandable) sense of rage. There was a determination not to allow the band not simply to be defined by the expression of anger. Even in the realm of political action, Lance preferred the ridiculous, the absurdist and the impractical over the doctrinaire or the formulaic. The abortive efforts of his troupe of “Kamikaze Kultural Warriors” to closedown the operation of all record stores on London’s Oxford Street (in the midst of the pre-Xmas rush) through the deployment of stink bombs gives a “whiff” of his self-mocking Situationist style. That contrast between such “childish pranks” and the seriousness and sophistication of Lance’s own political worldview was, of course, another exercise in deliberate Dadaist misdirection.

Lance preferred the ridiculous, the absurdist and the impractical over the doctrinaire or the formulaic

It’s not difficult to see the connections between the sensibilities of The Impossible Dream and the later experiments with the ‘Big Brother is Watching You’ and ‘Cabaret of Fools’ tours. Poison Girls leave behind the novelty of the rock emporium in a determination to explore the atmosphere of the nightclub and the cabaret circuit. This was the realm of the unexpected and the unpredictable, where interaction between performer and audience afforded a degree of intimacy that the full-on projection of punk performance could rarely hope to emulate.

The cabaret sensibilities of Poison Girls seemed to hold more attractions for Lance that the more distant and didactic approaches of the monochrome strands within anarcho-punk. It fed directly into his appreciation of the ridiculous and the absurd and the bizarre and the subversively surreal. Never one to hold back from the opportunity of dressing up, or using costume or make-up, parody or pastiche, Lance was more fired up by the warmth and the richness or openness and the idea of ‘total exposure’.

Together with Richard Famous, Lance d’Boyle’s cultural-political identity was bound up with a sense not always present in the lexicon of anarchist punk – that of gentle man. Foursquare behind the anarcha-feminist and radical gender politics of Poison Girls, the male members of Poison Girls were proud to project a sense of vulnerability, of tenderness and of emotional literacy, as well as identities of anger, defiance and personal strength. Theirs was a reading of punk masculinity that, in a scene defined by the imperatives of angry, aggressive thrash, stood out, and became a key influence on and huge (and an underappreciated) inspiration to other artists, of all genders and identities. Poison Girls could rip it up and tear the roof off with the best of them (as the uncompromising attack sounds of Total Exposure attest), but Poison Girls decision to refract their sound and practice through other styles also reflected a sense that the audience of hardcore punk was not the one which any of the band felt that they were most obviously in tune.

Poison Girls were keen to use the platform of the music and mainstream press where they judged that that engagement could help them get their message across. If either Lance or Richard felt uncomfortable at the recognition that Vi Subversa attracted more immediate attention and became the clearest ‘face’ of the band, they never expressed it.

Poison Girls - band portrait

This rethinking of gender relationships, this reimagining of the dynamics of home and of family, this exploration of different ways of existing together as lovers and as partners remained integral to Poison Girls’ creativity throughout the band’s life. But as the band sought to explore how the shadow of the ‘war State’ was refracted through the prism of personal relationships, the group’s lyricists readily acknowledged uncertainty, and even contradiction, alongside the assertion of concrete political imperatives.

This embrace of the roles of the ‘tender lover’ and of other ways of being a ‘real man’ did not, of course, insulate the group in any way from the perils of being a radical political band out on the road. Members of the group experienced being attacked and assaulted, were targeted by leftist and rightist gangs, and (as the association with “trouble” hit hard) found some gigs were cancelled. During pre-planned attack on the band by a rightist hit squad at The Theatre Royal, Stratford, Lance recalled that he was “pushed off the stage and our roadie was beaten to the ground and had his ribs broken. We were all over the papers the next day. The incident I’m sure affected people’s willingness to ask us to play.” As well as the high profile incidents, such as the violence attack on gigs at Conway Hall and at the Stonehenge Festival, there were many smaller scale incidents. “We had a few scuffles,” Lance suggested later, somewhat downplaying the band’s experiences. “I was held in a half-nelson and punched in the stomach. It was some of the darkest time, at some cost to our wellbeing and that of our children. Something we hadn’t bargained for.”

Theirs was a reading of punk masculinity that, in a scene defined by the imperatives of angry, aggressive thrash, stood out

Lance was also an enthusiastic (if not exactly a prolific) filmmaker. “He worked in 8mm film,” recalls Pete Fender, “memorably producing a couple of short surrealist films with Mark Easton, Neil Mouat (Moet the Poet) and Lee Gibson, one of which involved stop-frame animation.”

“Gary understood the power of images more than anyone I had ever met,” says Mark Easton, who collaborated with Lance on the 8mm film project Do You Love Me? in the early 1980s. The central theme of this work was the representation of masculinity in advertising, “a subject which dominated much of his collage work too of course,” says Fender.

“Although I had more technical knowledge of filmmaking it was Gary who really directed the film,” Easton explains. “For some of the film he suggested we re-film adverts off the tv screen with the Super-8 camera, I would get it processed then cycle the 12 miles to Poison Girls house in Leytonstone where we would watch the rushes,” he adds. “Weeks later I would cycle back and he would settle us down with cups of tea and then explain what he had found through viewing the material.”

Lance possessed a keen ability to ‘read’ film and TV; a literacy in the narrative of the moving image. “He analyzed the adverts’ film language, because he had a filmed copy of it he was able to very slowly run through it and re-edit it to change the meaning,” Easton remembers. “We would try to subvert the intended meaning of the adverts very carefully, he would suggest a few frames more or less when we were editing the film and it would increase the tension.” Lance was an excellent teacher and creative collaborator, as well as a highly focused practitioner. “The film was a journey for me into exploring what it was to be a man, he helped me understand sexual politics and was always mentioning people or movements I should look up,” he says. “But just as much he taught me to laugh at myself and others, he was never too serious, always demanding that things be looked at with stunning clarity, never accepting what they tell you is true.”

Do You Love Me? became a labour of love for the pair, although few people got the opportunity to see the completed work. “In the end the film took seven years to make and only lasted 15 minutes,” says Easton. “I remember it being shown at CopyArt, a community arts project in London’s Kings Cross, to a good crowd, but this was before internet and it never found an audience.”

I have many memories of my own from my all-too-brief and infrequent encounters with Lance. The two I’ll mention here are not particularly ‘significant’ in themselves, but they are, I think, illustrative of aspects of Lance’s character. I was never quite sure if his comments on finding the exertions of drumming more difficult as the 1980s progressed were entirely true, or partly for effect. But I can remember the morning after one superb performance at The Mermaid pub in Birmingham in 1983 (Al from Toxic Shock ran me off a copy of her surprisingly good quality Walkman recording, which I’ve played countless times over in the intervening years), walking with Heff to a Moseley bus stop to get Lance under way on his journey. Feeling the effects of a series of live dates, Lance joked that when executing an extended drum roll, and ending up pounding his sticks on the floor tom and, looking longingly back at the snare and hi-hat, think that it seemed like a really long way back across the kit and that he’d wondering if he’d make it back, or whether this would the time that he wouldn’t. Unselfconscious self-deprecation honed to a fine art.

The cabaret sensibilities of Poison Girls seemed to hold particular attraction for Lance

At a packed Poison Girls and Omega Tribe gig at the Queens Walk Community Centre in Nottingham in 1984, Lance took on the impromptu role of master of ceremonies. Introducing Omega Tribe from the centre of the stage he declared to the audience simply (I’m paraphrasing, from memory, of course): ‘Let’s not have this empty semi-circle at the front of the stage nonsense. No standing back. The evening starts now, get involved and let’s not have that distance. Fill the space.’ And, of course, the people at the front did exactly that. It was a simple (though, clearly a memorable) change that lifted the reception for Omega Tribe and changed the dynamic of the ‘show’. He also provided the drumming accompaniment for the more physical (Max Wall-inspired) sequences in stand-up performer Tony Allen’s act.

In 1983, Poison Girls attempted to launch a raiding party into the cultural mainstream with the singles Are You Happy Now and One Good Reason. Lance had little truck with any accusations that such an approach risked the band ‘selling out’. He would have been far more amused by the ridiculousness of the idea, the presumption of even attempting it, and the mischievous qualities of the whole endeavour. He did express his clear disappointment, not in the ambition of the commercial foray, but in the fact that the cultural gatekeepers of ‘pop’ radio and TV (the only shows in commerce town in a still-analogue era) so effectively repudiated the incursion.

During 1984, Lance took the difficult decision to stand down from the Poison Girls’ drum stool, although he remained closely involved with the band’s activities thereafter. Familial responsibilities had loomed large, and Lance needed to take time out to care for the elderly and ailing parents. “I went to live with my Dad for about a year and it became clear that I was seriously impeding the progress of the band,” he explained. “Agent Orange took my place. I stayed in touch and carried on working with Xntrix publishing.” There were plans to expand the scale of the operation of the “vinyl wing” of Xntrix, and provide a platform for other artists, but this did not progress in the way the band had envisaged and hoped for. As with the way that band had presented the frequent change of bass players that they had managed over the years, Lance’s retirement from active service was not widely publicized. For that generationally-comparable Epping punk band, the departure of a founder member became (it was said) the catalyst for that band’s dissolution, but Poison Girls kept trucking on. In many ways, it was a decisive turning point, and as incoming bass players were replaced (and keyboard players were not), Vi and Richard remained the core. Nothing should detract from the reputation of incoming Poison Girls’ drummer Agent Orange (aka Dave Bennett), who provided powerful and driving percussion for the remaining years of the the band’s life, returning to the Poison Girls’ drum stool for the reunion gigs in London and Berlin in 1995. But his drumming was markedly different for the inventive and unusual stylings of Lance d’Boyle. (Agent Orange, who also drummed for The Cravats, subsequently fell out of touch with former band mates, many of whom only became aware of his untimely death, some time around 1999-2001, many years later.)

Poison Girls - In the City - Pete Gilbert

After the ending of Poison Girls in 1988, the band’s profile slipped for a time, in part reinforced by the band members’ own reluctance to be drawn back into the public realm to defend it. A good few years after the release of the retrospective Statement CD compilation in 1995 (which brought together the band’s studio and live vinyl releases on four discs), Lance and Richard worked to set up the long overdue official Poison Girls web site, which offers a history of the band and an honesty-box download platform for the band’s back catalogue. Lance had also begun to overcome the band’s signature reluctance to be interviewed about the story of Poison Girls. After accepting one of numerous such interview requests, Lance provided what was possibly the longest and most detailed reckoning of his own role in the life and times of Poison Girls for the (short-run, print-only-and-proud-of-it) fanzine Positive Creed.

Lance was also supportive of all the recent activities around Poison Girls’ back catalogue, including the re-releases of Hex and Chappaquiddick Bridge, and Where’s the Pleasure on Water Wing Records, and the reissue of Persons Unknown (and the accompanying badge set) on All the Madmen Records, pleased to see the renewed interest in the band that this was a reflection of. When Lance got in touch with me back in 2014, he was keen to stress that Poison Girls “were at the heart of the phenomenon that came to be called anarcho-punk” (and I was quick to concur). He expressed his frustration that “our place and presence in the movement is overlooked” (I said that I agreed). “I would like to redress that balance,” he added, simply (and I made clear that I was eager to help with that process in any way that I could). Lance went on to provide insightful and encouraging feedback on a draft of my article on the band for Punk & Post Punk journal, my own small contribution to that process of redress.

Lance was keen to stress that Poison Girls ‘were at the heart of the phenomenon that came to be called anarcho-punk’

After he resettled in Spain, Lance found a whole new network of friends and associates, and a new period of contentment of artistic creativity. After his passing, many of those (who only got to know Lance after he had parted company with Poison Girls) took to social media to celebrate his warm, witty and convivial nature and to reflect on his great company. He was understandably hit hard by the loss of Vi Subversa in February 2016, and was hospitalised after suffering the after effects of a fall late that year in which he damaged his spine. He was discharged, but sadly died whilst convalescing. “Gary died peacefully among loving friends in a beautiful place,” Fender affirms. His sudden passing was as unforeseen as it was shocking, and the speed with which his funeral costs were covered by donations from friends, fans and family was an immediate indication of the affection and regard in which he was held.

Lance d’Boyle made decisive contributions to the sounds, the politics, the design and the passions of Poison Girls, and helped to shape the contours of early British anarcho-punk culture. One of the more vibrant memories of his from the time was taking part in the Zig-Zag squat gig in London late in 1982. “The gig is very fresh in my mind,” he recalled in 2013, “and was something very special and unique… Leaving aside the political ambitions, one of the most important aspects of anarcho-punk was the feeling of being with family, and loved just for that.” That sense of the importance of community and of belonging (of the outsiders banding together in recognition of their exclusion) stayed with him throughout his life. In his later years, Lance took renewed inspiration from the experience of the Occupy! initiative, and from the continuing evolution and reconfiguration of countercultures the world over. As is the case for Vi Subversa, Lance’s own place in the history of ‘the punk that mattered’ is assured. For radicals and renegades of each new generation, their insurgency will always need fresh tunes of their own. It is for that reason, as Lance observed, that: “The music goes on.”

Rich Cross
March 2017

 

Contributions to the fund to clear Lance’s outstanding personal debts (owed to friends not to the bank) are still welcomed by way of donation on the Poison Girls web site. Download a digital version of a song (or an album) or two by way of thanks.

My thanks to Richard Famous, Pete Fender, Sid Truelove, Hugh Vivian and Mark Easton for permission to quote from their reflections on Lance d’Boyle. Thanks also to Pete Fender, Richard Famous and Phil Tonge for their insightful comments on an earlier draft of this piece.

AWOD 2017 - Vi Day - after party - poster

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Omega Tribe - AWOD 2017 - Vi Day
Omega Tribe
Rubella Ballet - AWOD 2017 - Vi Day
Rubella Ballet
Lost Cherrees - AWOD 2017 - Vi Day
Lost Cherrees
Hagar the Womb - AWOD 2017 - Vi Day
Hagar the Womb
The Pukes - AWOD 2017 - Vi Day
The Pukes

The Another Winter of Discontent (AWOD) 2017 punk festival, held at The Dome, Tufnell Park London, 16-19 February, came to a memorable and fitting conclusion yesterday with ‘Vi Day’, a memorial for and celebration of the life of Vi Subversa of Poison Girls. Vi’s son Pete Fender, who performed on stage with Hagar the Womb, Lost Cherrees and Omega Tribe posted his appreciation to the organisers and bands who made the event possible.


 
Elsewhere on Facebook: Chris Low has posted some excellent photos of the sets by Dirt and by Rubella Ballet; Omega Tribe has added a gallery of photos from the band’s set.
 

 
Poster for AWOD 2017 - Vi Day

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On the official Poison Girls site, Richard Famous has posted the following news:

It is with huge sadness that we must pass on the news that Lance d’Boyle has died – 16 January 2017.

Lance was a founder member and drummer with Poison Girls from 1977 through to 1985. As well as his musical contributions he produced four editions of The Impossible Dream art/collage/photomontage magazine.

His importance to Poison Girls and Xntrix Records were immense.

He will be greatly missed by all his family and many friends.

Let the beat go on.

Richard Famous

Lance d'Boyle - Poison Girls

Pete Fender has posted the following announcement on Facebook.

We are mourning the sad loss of Gary Lance Robins, better known as Lance d’Boyle, the founding drummer with Poison Girls and our friend and companion for 45 years.

For the last 26 years, Gary has been scratching a meagre living as an artist in a remote part of the Sierra Nevada, high up the mountains of rural Granada in Spain.

In February last year, Gary’s life-long friend and soulmate Frances, Vi Subversa, passed away, leaving him devastated. Before she passed, Gary came over to England to see her for the last time, and during this visit he was the victim of a credit card snatch that left him in debt for thousands of pounds, and without any means of support apart from his basic pension and the proceeds of a few pieces of art. The credit bank have refused his case for compensation and in fact have charged substantial interest on the original amount.

In light of this fact, we are launching this urgent appeal to raise funds for Gary’s funeral costs and to clear his debts. If you can, please head over to the Poison Girls downloads page – where you are free to download whatever you like, and donate what you can. Thank you xx

 

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Where's the Pleasure  - front cover

Following their successful vinyl re-release of the Poison Girls’ albums Hex and Chappaquiddick Bridge, Water Wing Records are to re-issue the acclaimed (and deservedly so) 1982 Poison Girls’ LP Where’s the Pleasure.

First released in September 1982 on their own Xntrix Records label, Where’s The Pleasure was described by Johnny Waller in Sounds as “The last great punk record”. The record came out of a period of change for Poison Girls. A new house, a new bass player, a completely new set, and, with it, a determination to challenge the expectations of their audience. What resulted is an outstanding collection of songs. Vi Subversa’s lyrics seamlessly make the personal political, and the political relevant to everyday life. The music bristles with inventiveness. What we hear is a band at the top of their game, exploring different styles and enjoying themselves in the process. It is Poison Girls flexing their musical muscles, rediscovering their roots, and connecting with the true spirit of punk, which is of course, unbridled, messy and adventurous creativity. Where’s The Pleasure is a truly wonderful achievement by a truly unique band.

The record can be ordered direct from the Water Wing Records site (in the US). In the UK, as with the earlier Poison Girls’ releases on the Water Wing label, All The Madmen are also offering Where’s the Pleasure for pre-order.

Digital downloads of all tracks on the album are available on the official Poison Girls web site (for a suggested donation of £6.50).

Where's the Pleasure  - back cover

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AWOD 2017 - Vi Day

Vi Day – a charity event celebrating the life and work of Vi Subversa of Poison Girls – is to be held as part of the 2017 Another Winter of Discontent festival on 19 February.

The line-up comprises “all female fronted bands paying tribute to and playing the music of Vi Subversa and the Poison Girls.” All profits are to be shared among women’s charities. The initial line-up includes Dirt, Rubella Ballet, Hagar the Womb, Dub the Earth, Lost Cherrees, The Pukes, Lab Rats, Dogshite, Refuse All and Bratakus.

Vi Day is being held at upstairs at the Boston Arms, 178 Junction Rd, London N19 5QQ; and tickets are available online.

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Poison Girls’ Richard Famous has written an a biography and appreciation of Vi Subversa that has just been published on the band’s official web site.

In a fascinating and informative piece, Famous revisits Vi’s family background, her childhood, her formative political activities, her family life, the different places she called home, and her varied musical and creative work before, during and after Poison Girls – which became one of the defining and recurring features of her life. Famous observes:

Many people have talked about Frances’ razor sharp insights, her listening skills, her sense of humour and deep belly laugh, her common sense, her moments of sadness and happiness, her absolute presence, and the love and generosity with which she lived her life. Anyone who met her was affected in one way or other. She was truly a one off.

Vi Subversa - Poison Girls

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Vi Subversa - Poison Girls

“There are no leaders fit to rule
We’re all half saint, half bloody fool”
Poison Girls

Vi Subversa, who has died on 19 February 2016, aged 80, after a short illness, will always be remembered as one of the the most distinctive figures in the first wave of British anarchist punk. Poison Girls, the band that she fronted, wrote with, recorded with and performed with, were as important a catalyst in the formation of the subculture that became known as ‘anarcho-punk’ as were Crass. The fact that these two bands emerged independently, worked closely together and then evolved in sharply different directions is the reflection of many different influences, but the clarity of vision which Subversa was able to articulate so effectively played a key role in presenting the shifting subversive perspectives of Poison Girls.

Born Frances Sokolov in 1935, she had enjoyed a successful career and brought up two young children before the arrival of punk in the mid-1970s. She had played a part in hippy culture but had been disenchanted both with its failure to make political headway and also the peripheral status that many women within hippy culture found themselves occupying. Prior to the onset of punk, Vi had been involved with counter-cultural art happening The Body Show, which attracted a great deal of censorious and outraged press attention (which focused on the apparent, but entirely illusory, nudity in the show), but which had longer significance as a formative project in the formation of Poison Girls.

One of the fallacies of the ‘story of anarcho-punk’, often recounted by members of Crass and some of their biographers, is that the catalyst bands of the movements were formed by political innocents; inexperienced activists who fumbled in the direction of anarchism through trial and error and largely in the interest in rebuffing the attention of the recruiting sergeants of the political right and hard left. It was always a wholly unconvincing (if suitably romantic) account of these activists’ ‘discovery’ of the world of anarchism, but in the case of Poison Girls it was patently untrue. Like Lance d’Boyle, Vi Subversa had long associations with the organised British anarchist movement.

Subversa arrived at the intercession of punk as a single mother of growing children with years of political engagement and knowledge behind her

Decades before the punk explosion, she had street-sold the anarchist paper Freedom, taken part in libertarian initiatives and anti-nuclear campaigns and been a member of different anarchist groups, following the evolution of the post-1968 libertarian left. Subversa settled down with the British anarchist activist, illustrator and author Philip Sansom (19 September 1916-24 October 1999) with whom she had two children: Pete Fender and Gem Stone. Sansom had been a regular at London’s Speakers’ Corner (arguing for any number of libertarian causes); has been an infrequent editor of Freedom and in the final year of the Second World War had been jailed (along with other anarchist comrades) after being found guilty of “conspiring to cause disaffection among members of the armed forces”. Subversa had been an active, literate (and critical) participant in the early years of the first wave of British feminism, and arrived at the intercession of punk as a single mother of growing children with years of political engagement and knowledge behind her. Hardly the story of an anarchist ingenue.

By 1977, Subversa and the newly Poison Girls (Richard Famous, Lance d’Boyle, and the first in a long line of different bass players) were living and working in Brighton. Members of the band played a key role in setting up new punk venue The Vault and the first breakthrough punk fanzines in the city. From the very beginning, Subversa stood out, because of her age and her sex. In a punk culture which heralded a ‘year zero’ approach to youth and a suspicion to any hangovers from the hippy era, she asserted her determination to part and parcel of this new oppositional movement without a hint of apology or self-doubt. Fronting her band as an older woman doubled the challenges she faced down from those in the scene who saw her as an interloper. What made Subversa such an inspirational figure within the alternative punk scene was not simply the fact of her presence (an older women, of comparable age to the parents of the majority of those in the audience), but its manner. She remained gloriously unrepentant and unapologetic: completely convinced about her right to be there, and determined to be accepted as an equal contributor to this latest wave of counter-cultural opposition.

From their earliest days, the group championed an independent approach to their musical and cultural practice. The first vinyl release by the band, a joint release by Small Wonder and Poison Girls’ own Xntrix label, demonstrated that commitment to a DIY ethos, but it showcased much more besides. The band’s initial take on the ‘punk idea’ produced some innovative musical thinking, but foregrounded Subversa’s own distinctive vocal style: the rich timbre, the gravelly undercurrent, the understated power, the evident passion. Extraordinarily, the other side of the twelve-inch featured The Fatal Microbes, fronted by Honey Bane, and featuring Subversa’s children Gem Stone and Pete Fender. What better rebuttal could there be of what Richard Famous dismissed as the ‘crap’ of the generation gap than having a mother, daughter and son collaborate on a shared punk record? And from the perspective of the younger generation, how many entrant punk musicians recorded records ‘with their Mum’? It was the beginning of a long period of collaboration that would see mother and children share the stage time and again (whilst securing the autonomy of their respective independence – and making no direct reference to their familial connections).

Fronting her band as an older woman doubled the challenges she faced down from those in the scene who saw her as an interloper

The first conversation I had with Vi Subversa and Poison Girls was when the band played in Exeter in October 1981 as part of the ‘Total Exposure’ tour. The first thing she said to me? ‘You play in a local punk band, right? Can you play a support slot in an hour?’. That simple; that direct; that open. Poison Girls had been appalled by the soundcheck of the icky, inappropriate club act that the local CND organisers had lumbered them with. (‘What has ten legs but no kneecaps?’, a seething Tony Allen asked the audience from the stage later. ‘A crap band that tells too many Irish jokes.’) Our band couldn’t do the gig (to my eternal regret), but Poison Girls readily agreed to be interviewed before the show. So three of us (an eighteen year old, a seventeen year old, and a fourteen year old) were given an uninterrupted 45-minutes backstage to quiz the band about their politics, practice and aspirations.

It was (without a hint of hyperbole on my part) a revelatory experience. Up to that point in my life, no adult outside my family had ever spoken with me face-to-face before about huge, world-changing ideas without coming over as hugely patronising (or, like my WRP politics lecturer, unhinged). Vi, Richard and Lance (with Tony Allen chipping in at points) spoke clearly, persuasively and passionately without a hint of condescension or of compromise. Subversa, in particular, was razor-sharp, convincing and compelling. That conversation (which ranged over questions of anarchism, feminism, radicalism and age, abortion, the possibilities of punk and hippy, the Bomb, and about resistance and resilience) was one of the most significant, exciting and inspiring political dialogues of my teenage years. And Poison Girls played an absolute blinder that night. They had me at the opening bars of Statement (the song began as a pre-recorded intro tape blasting through the PA; with the band gradually taking over a live performance on stage as the song progressed – a Brechtian technique for dispensing with rock’n’roll hubris that I’ve rarely seen bettered).

Poison Girls - live

There was a great sense of resilience surrounding Poison Girls. Despite (and, of course, because) of the band’s opposition to machismo, thuggery and ugliness of discrimination, their gigs frequently became target for the attention of bully-boys. The band’s live performances could be marred by violence; often these could be serious incidents  involving assaults on the band as well as other members of the audience. Some such events, such as the controversial ‘anti-fascist’ assault at one of the early Crass and Poison Girls gigs at London’s Conway Hall, and both band’s horrific experiences at the 1980 Stonehenge festival are well recorded. But sporadic and organised acts of violence were an unwelcome recurrent feature of an unfortunate number of Poison Girls shows. Subversa’s position as frontwoman of the band put her in the clearest jeopardy in such situations, and, as a fortysomething woman in the midst violent mayhem engineered by teenage and twentysomething men, she exhibited impressive levels of bravery. In the face of attempts at intimidation, she didn’t buckle; she bristled; outraged at the attempt by anyone to silence her.

Subversa’s vocal style was extraordinary and genuinely distinctive, ranging from the full-on assault, through the textured and melancholic, to the whispered and cracking. It was a voice that could intoxicate with its righteous passion; its sense of bitter regret; and its revelation of vulnerability and self-doubt. No-one else in the scene sounded like Vi Subversa; and, very wisely, no-one else tried to.

The band’s first full-length release Hex was an early wave punk record almost without parallel

Although the band’s relationship with the music press developed along much more productive lines than that attained by Crass, Poison Girls did not take criticism lying down. While Crass responded to the poisonous dismissals of Bushell and Parsons through the musical vitriol of Happy Up Garry/The Parsons Farted, Subversa’s response was, on one famous occasion, more direct and personal. Music journalist Paul Morley had made caustic and deeply unpleasant comments about Subversa’s appearance (the band were convinced he’d been in the bar for the entire set). When Subversa heard he was in the Music Machine in Camden some weeks later, she went looking for him – and found him in the bar, where, Richard Famous recalls: ‘he had his tongue down some poor girl’s throat (he was supposed to be reviewing that gig too).’ Whether it was the loud volume in the venue, or Morley’s attempts to feign disinterest, it was clear that conversation was pointless. In the circumstances, Subversa decided that a firm slap around the face would deliver a suitable rebuke. ‘He entered the Poison’s mythology as Mauled Poorly, and Vi got a tad of respect all round’, Famous remembers. ‘He dined out on that story for years, and incidentally when Hex came out he gave it a good review (and sort of apologised too).’

The band’s first full-length release Hex was an early wave punk record almost without parallel. As well as providing further space for Vi Subversa to demonstrate her distinctive vocal talents, and the band to further explore their own musical style, what made Hex stand out was its lyrical preoccupations, and Subversa presented an exploration of the alienation and misery women experienced in the home; of the crushing expectations of narrow gender roles; and of the quiet horrors that awaited wives and mothers in the ‘normality’ of the nuclear family. ‘Is it normal? Is it normal? Is it just another day? Have you emptied out the washing? Have the kids gone out to play?’, asked Subversa, in anger and desperation. It was not the kind of subject matter that interested many other early punk lyricists, and for many of the young punks listening to the record provided a completely unexpected perspective on the world of home, family and the lives of their parents.

Follow-up release Chappaquiddick Bridge saw the band broaden its political perspectives, to address the contemptible arrogance of unconstrained political power (typified by the ugly metaphor of the Chappaquiddick Bridge scandal) and restate its broader anarchist principles. The album’s unlisted intro and outro track became one of the band’s most recognised (and quoted) songs. State Control and Rock’n’Roll focused the band’s attention on the exploitation, cynicism and co-option of the music business; a theme that would continue to intrigue the band in the years to come. If State Control showed the band’s mischievous, witty side, the accompanying Statement flexi was the boldest declaration yet of the band’s anarchist intent. Voiced with spine-tingling sincerity and commitment by Subversa, Statement railed against the inexorable, destructive, all-consuming power of the war state and the band’s fulsome and absolute rejection of it. ‘I denounce the system that murders my children’, raged Subversa. ‘I denounce the system that denies my existence.’ Her vocal delivery is as startling as it is impassioned.

It was Poison Girls’ decision to relocate to Epping, taking up residence in Burleigh House (a licensed squat destined for demolition to make way for the M25), that brought the band into contact with Crass. Neither band had been aware of the other’s work, but, by sheer coincidence, Poison Girls’ new base of operations was only around four miles from Crass’ home, Dial House. A meeting of minds quickly set in motion an intense period of close collaboration. Poison Girls provided the funding that underpinned the launch of Crass Records, and in turn Crass re-released both Hex and Chappaquiddick Bridge on the Crass label. It was a hugely positive association, from which both bands benefitted, and through shared projects, such as the celebrated, landmark Bloody Revolutions / Persons Unknown single, both bands together raised the profile and appeal of anarcho-punk. Subversa’s rendition of the lyrics of Persons Unknown is remarkable, circling through the incisive, biting and sharply perceptive lyrics before intoning ‘flesh and blood is who we are; flesh and blood is what we are; flesh and blood is who we are; our cover is blown.’ Yet as both bands played more and more gigs together around the country, Poison Girls became concerned that Crass’s popularity was beginning to overshadow Poison Girls’ own.

Young women took inspiration from her feminism, her confidence and her reappropriation of the ideas of beauty and artistry

Subversa’s passion and commitment, which shines through so strongly in the band’s early work, became an immediate inspiration to many people in and around anarchist punk culture: her formative position within anarcho-punk culture help to define different expectations of gender and of generation, and to tear apart any puerile assumptions about the connections between rebelliousness and youth (and the correlation between age and conservatism). Young women took inspiration from her feminism, her confidence and her reappropriation of the ideas of beauty and artistry.

The sheer variety of Poison Girls’ creative output was evident during their association with Crass, and throughout the distinctive timbre of Subversa’s vocal shone through. From the edgy, unsettling drive of Ideologically Unsound to the swirling, captivating poetry of Promenade Immortelle, it was the quality of Subversa’s voice that did so much to shape the distinctive identity and give depth to the band’s rich and textured sound.

Poison Girls were always a strong collaborative project, but within that Vi Subversa was a decisive, distinctive voice who it was rarely wise to ignore. As the band’s profile rose, Poison Girls became concerned that their own identity risked being submerged beneath that of Crass’ own. It was an oddly conflicted position – of being both too comfortable (of enjoying the increased pull that the association ensured) and uncomfortable (of being overshadowed by their partners) at the same time. Subversa spoke, with some evidence of a lack of diplomacy for which she and the band developed a reputation, that it would have been easy to have settled into becoming ‘Mrs Crass’.

The band’s first independent release, in this new period of independence, was a live recording of what was (apart form the ZigZag squat gig of late 1982) the band’s last shared bill with Crass. Total Exposure was an unadorned mixing desk representation of the band’s live sound, harsh, direct and unapologetic; with Subversa’s gravelled, edgy and compelling voice cutting through the songscape. It showed Subversa at her most directly confrontational, showcasing songs like SS Snoopers (an excoriating condemnation of the invasive practice of DSS investigators), in which Subversa rails: ‘SS Snoopers. SS Spies. Buzzing round your body, like flies.’ On the recording, it’s possible to hear Subversa react to a young male punk who spat phlegm at her from the audience. ‘Rot in hell!’, she screams, in withering response. No prisoners taken.

The follow-up release could scarcely have been more different. Where’s the Pleasure? gave space not just for Poison Girls to return to the theme of the exploration of personal relationships but to give Subversa the opportunity to again explore the more tender, softer and warmer aspects of her vocal range and her delivery style. Importantly, Where’s the Pleasure? saw a turning point in the band’s presentation of themselves as the group came out from behind the collective anonymity of banners and icons to reveal the group as ‘flesh and blood’. Subversa’s was the most prominent image on the cover; and her face would appear, in powerfully reflective pose, on the front cover of the weekly music paper Sounds to illustrate a feature on the band’s appearance in Belfast. On her own terms, and that of the band, she was asserting control of her image and public identity.

Subversa remained an outsider and, like all good anarchists (and quite a few bad ones) resisted any attempts by others to pigeonhole and lockdown her identity or persona. While, in parallel, the temper of Crass darkened, Poison Girls felt they had the mandate to move further away from the template of didactic, instrumental punk. While there were a number of different drivers pushing forward this process, there was a clear desire to move past the the simple presentation to male-dominated punk audiences, and to rethink again the idea of the format of the gig.

The aim was to sever the association with their monochrome, all-out-attack punk of their time with Crass, redefine the band’s identity and present a different, though equally immersive, experience. Reconnecting with their theatrical roots, Poison Girls assembled a new type of touring ensemble, comprised of a variety of artists and performers (comedians, poets, ranters, and duos such as Akimbo and Toxic Shock), and headed back on tour determined to offer a completely different ethic and ethos to that of the punk gig. It took the band away from the tension and high-stake confrontation of the anarchist punk gig and towards the unpredictable sensibilities, and the eclectic sounds and sights, of the nightclub.

Under interview, she demonstrated an impressive, articulate style, making her anarcha-feminist case with a natural confidence

The promotional work around the No Nukes Wargasm compilation benefit album (for which Poison Girls contributed a sublime orchestral reworking of Statement), saw Subversa pushed into a bright but brief media spotlight, and led to a number of radio appearances and newspaper features. Under interview, she demonstrated an impressive, articulate style, making her anarcha-feminist case with a natural confidence. Whether joining the ‘Punk debate’ in Sounds, or appearing as a panelist on Midweek on BBC Radio 4, Subversa came across as fluent, convincing, empathic and authoritative. If Penny Rimbaud of Crass could, on occasion, lose an audience in crisscrossing spirals of poetry, romanticism and existentialism, Subversa’s anarcha-feminism was always grounded, intelligible and locked into the practical realities of life. But, to her frustration, much of this press coverage sought to focus on the ‘novelty’ of Subversa’s involvement with contemporary punk counter-culture rather than its substance. And having ‘run the story’ on the ‘punk Mum’, most outlets considered the job done. This brief period of renewed press scrutiny did not mean that Poison Girls were able to secure ongoing media interest in the group’s work.

Poison Girls again shared the stage with Crass, and with many other bands in the anarcho-punk firmament at the celebrated London Zig-Zag squat gig in late 1982. But relations between the two band broke down a year later following an explosive disagreement over an essay on the dynamic between the exploitation of animals and the oppression of women written by Subversa. As anarcho band Conflict prepared their To a Nation of Animal Lovers single for release on the new Corpus Christi label set up by John Loder of Southern Studios, they commissioned Subversa to write a sleeve essay discussing the interplay of feminism and animal rights.

Subversa considered her options carefully. She could have authored a straightforward polemic, stressing the need for an anti-oppression politics that was all embracing: one that locked together the logic of feminism and of animal liberation. Instead, she chose to ruffle feathers, and penned an intentionally provocative statement which challenged what she saw were the often-blinkered gender politics of many male animal rights activists; militants who ignored (and contributed) to the oppression and exclusion of women whilst championing the rights of other species. The piece urged male listeners to reject the illusory protection of machismo, to accept their own vulnerability, and to embrace and cherish tenderness and love. It ended with a potent, and purposefully shocking, revenge fantasy, which declared:

do not be surprised if the rest of us rise up and turn against you.
We can invoke nightmares of revenge worse than you can imagine.
And the woman may rise up who will have her knife.
And in the name of life she will take up her knife,
and, castrating, will avenge even the the least laboratory rat
that, discarded, ends up in the tin of Pal
you may feed your pet tomorrow morning

Subversa was more than aware that the piece was, in anarcho-punk terms, politically incendiary. As the new Corpus Christi label was, to coin a phrase, ‘semi-detached’ from Crass Records, both Conflict and Subversa assumed that decisions around the release were theirs to make. When Penny Rimbaud of Crass caught sight of the proposed artwork, he was outraged. He insisted that the statement be removed from the sleeve, and he immediately severed all working relations with Poison Girls, sending all remaining record stocks round to Poison Girls’ house by taxi. Loder demurred, and the single release went ahead with new artwork replacing Subversa’s essay. It was the ill-tempered low point in relations between the two bands, but it reflected Poison Girls’ determination to assert their own politics, even when doing so brought them into direct conflict with former anarchist associates.
 
Poison Girls - 1984
 
It again also showed Subversa’s own implacable, awkward – and sometimes less than diplomatic – approach to the practice of politics. She and the band would not let the issue drop, and produced gig handouts containing the words of what Poison Girls’ dubbed The Offending Article. Adopting an approach unlikely to heal the rift, the flyers announced that this was the text ‘Crass tried to ban.’ Once again, Subversa was untroubled by the experience of being ‘out of line’ with the views of those politically close to her.

That same sense of distance and otherness also shaped Subversa’s relationship with the resurgent British feminist movement; a progressive current she always remained a dissident member of. She had little sense of affinity with the politics of ‘separatism’, and – despite the profile of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp in the culture of the anti-nuclear movement in the 1980s – Subversa retained a critical distance from its ‘women only’ perspectives and its assertion of a ‘natural’ correlation between the ‘essence of womenkind’ and the embrace of peace. Subversa also possessed a firm anarchist critique of those individual ‘professional feminists’ who secured personal career advancement through the offices of Labour Party and ‘municipal socialist’ local councils.

That same sense of distance and otherness also shaped Subversa’s relationship with the resurgent British feminist movement

While Crass disbanded in 1984, Poison Girls continued; not considering for a moment the idea of copying Crass’ ‘end of days’ dissolution. With their forays into the musical mainstream not delivering the hoped-for results, Poison Girls found themselves in a quandary. Should they redouble their commercial efforts; reassert the band’s identity as DIY outsiders; or look for new ways to meld the two approaches? The band struggled to negotiate the tensions. On one side came hard-to-resist offers to play lucrative gigs for the GLC; on the other was the desire to show solidarity with the Stonehenge festival goers attacked in the Battle of the Beanfield in 1985, an impulse which pulled the band back in the direction of the counter-culture. Poison Girls’ most well-received single release of this period was the riotous, celebratory I’m Not a Real Woman. As well as its brilliantly mocking lyrics, the front cover of the single brilliantly captured the joyous image of Subversa as a can-can dancer, grinning with defiance and abandon, gleefully upsetting the expectations of age and gender, and daring the viewer and listener to object.

The band began a short but concerted attempt to break through to commercial success and more mainstream accessibility, releasing two consciously radio-friendly singles: One Good Reason and Are You Happy Now? In the presentation of both songs, the subversive message was more subtle and a smoothness in production took away some of the tougher, spikier edges in Poison Girls’ sound. The singles simply did not showcase the quality of Subversa’s vocal style to most compelling effect. The work was witty and clever, but it lack the archness, the acidity and the biting edge of the Poison Girls of old. The band undercover incursion into the pop mainstream did not deliver much in the way of commercial or artistic dividends; and Poison Girls once again found themselves as cultural outsiders. The post-Miner’s Strike album Songs of Praise saw the tensions between the band’s outsider identity, and its continuing efforts to secure wider artistic and commercial recognition return, writ large. Here though, the richness and edginess of Subversa’s voice was again given freer reign, to satisfying effect. The sense of melancholy and of political frustration found in the lyrics of many of the album’s songs was perfectly reflected in Subversa’s vocal delivery; there is a recurring sense of sadness, but not of defeat.

Poison Girls - Cooking Vinyl promo

Though now without a record contract, Poison Girls continued to play live extensively and crafted a new set of songs that they never had the opportunity to record. As the band toured Europe, they were able to cement their reputation as a formidable live act, and built a strong and resilient following. Freed from the weight of anarcho-punk expectation, the band were able to experiment and to thrive. But it was not enough to sustain the band in the long term. The band continued to tour in the UK and beyond, before agreeing that the time had come to call it a day in 1989. Subversa continued to work with Richard Famous, on projects including Aids: The Musical, but her creative and political outputs became more occasional as she enjoy a period of semi-retirement. Subversa continued to enjoy huge amounts of support and affection in and around the anarchist punk diaspora, playing a 60th birthday gig (at which relations with former members of Crass were rekindled).

In 1994, Subversa moved to Spain and settled into a comfortable and well-appointed casa, spending much of her time on two of her favourite activities: making music and gardening. Several obituaries picked up on an anecdote outlined by Penny Rimbaud of Crass, which described how Subversa was injured in Spain when she fell victim to rogue builders who carried out botched repairs on her casa – which then collapsed, with her inside, injuring her badly. Rimbaud recounted how this soured Subversa’s Spanish experience, and led to her returning home, deflated, shortly after. Several members of Subversa’s family have objected to this story; and not just because of its factual inaccuracies, but because it paints Subversa as an unwitting victim of ‘cowboy’ contractors, and someone whose poor choices led her to return home defeated by the experience. In fact, it was not the builders working on the extension to the house who weakened the fabric of the casa (who were well-regarded local craftsmen, hired by Subversa); it was the original construction of the property that made the building vulnerable. After the cave-in of the roof, Subversa recovered from the injury to her leg, repaired and sold the house, and arranged for another residence to be built nearby, which caught more of the sun. She enjoyed nearly another decade of contented life in Spain, celebrating her 70th birthday there with a big gig and enjoying the company of friends, including Lance d’Boyle, who had moved to the area before her. It was a concern with some health issues and a desire to be closer to her children and grandchildren that encouraged her to return to the UK in 2012. She arrived back in Britain resilient and proud of her Spanish life experiences.

The richness and edginess of Subversa’s voice was again given freer reign, to satisfying effect

The three founder members of Poison Girls had long since withdrawn from the public realm, and while retrospective interest in the work of Crass drew at least some members of that band back into view, Poison Girls remained reluctant to agree to interview (missing out on inclusion, for example, in The Day the Country Died retrospective). Although reticent, in the last few years Subversa had allowed herself to be pulled back into the limelight, being interviewed for the She is a Punk Rocker documentary, the Truth of Revolution Brother book, Maximum RocknRoll and Zero Tolerance magazine and agreeing to perform at an eightieth birthday celebration in Hove in 2015.

Despite this renewed attention, Subversa (much like Lance d’Boyle and Richard Famous) remained concerned that Poison Girls had yet to secure the reputation that the band deserved. When I shared with all three of them the finished draft of an article I wrote on the band for Punk & Post-Punk Journal, Subversa was generous in her praise. “I must tell you the this is the nearest I have seen to an intelligent, truthful, and sensitive account of our history”, she revealed in an email in September 2014. “I congratulate you on the work you have done in researching the material. I feel grateful that we may come out of obscurity into a clearer and more just focus. Thanks and all power to you.” I was extremely gratified to receive such positive feedback (and similar encouragement from Famous and d’Boyle). Yet I remain convinced that Poison Girls have long been held in far higher esteem, and by far more people, than former members of the band themselves recognise.

On 5 December 2015, Vi Subversa played what would be her last public performance, at The Green Door in Brighton, performing a short set of Poison Girls songs (including semi-acoustic versions of I’ve Done it all Before and Persons Unknown), Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill numbers, and new song Whistleblower, the result of a continuing creative collaboration between herself and Richard Famous. There was, as The Shend from The Cravats observed from the stage, a huge amount of love in the room that evening. Her set finished with the uproarious Old Tart’s Song, a withering denunciation of exclusion based on generation and gender, which concludes with the its memorable assertion: ‘Everybody has their price. Up yours!’ Sharp, incisive and marvelously defiant, without any accommodation to the privations of age.  A pretty good metaphor for Vi Subversa herself.

Rich Cross
March 2016

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