PENETRATION- Q&A with Pauline Murray
For those of you that have heard of Penetration, the majority of you will have fond memories of the clear, clean and robust voice of Pauline Murray. Easily one of the best voices deriving from the punk movement back in the late seventies, it’s often noted a sincere shame that the band hailing from the north of England didn’t quite meet the celebrity of their colleagues.
Reuniting back in 2000, and following up fifteen years later by releasing their third album Resolution, the punk ensemble are currently celebrating forty years since their formation as a fully-fledged, performing outfit. The band are planning a UK tour in October, along with a few unique gigs commemorating the anniversary. Earlier this week, Underground got the amazing opportunity to catch up with Pauline.
2017 marks 40 years since Penetration was formed. Back in 1977, do you remember at the time sensing something pivotal was happening and knowing how important the punk scene would become?
Yes I do. Well…I didn’t know that I would be talking about it forty years later! But we were 18, 19 year[s] old at the time, and we had just formed this band [Penetration].
It was very new; there weren’t that many bands doing that sort of thing at that particular time, it was very early days. There certainly wasn’t any in our local area anyway. But yes, you knew it was something really different. It really felt like closing off the old, and starting something new. It was very primitive, exciting- and you didn’t have to be a virtuoso. I really don’t think there has been anything as groundbreaking as that since.
It was many things- it was all encompassing. You know, it was the sound, the zines, the clothes, the attitude. We didn’t like anything that had gone before. All these people who had never done anything like that before were now starting their own bands. Primitive, but so much positive energy.
What do you think separated you guys from the rest of the punk bands at the time?
Well, where we were, in the North East of England, we were really isolated. There were only a handful of bands that we knew of in our local area that were into that stuff. But it’s not where you’re from; it’s where you are headed.
We’d go up to the nearest city, Newcastle, and see bands there sometimes. At that point, there were the Sex Pistols. I had already seen them six or seven times by then, I was really into my music. We’d already read about the start of punk, the American bands like Television and all that. So we were primed for it really. We were asked really early on to support the Stranglers- so we were making connections with most of the bands.
But not really, no. We were just so inspired by what was happening around us. We hadn’t come up with our particular blueprint at that point. Like, we were really into the Pistols, so the guitars really sounded like the Sex Pistols. It was quite organic, it just developed as we went along. We never were like: ‘this is an art project’, we were influenced by [punk], and we did eventually put our own slant on it.
Being from the North East, that was something that influenced us, you know, you were supposed to write about things that affected you, your environment. ‘Silent Community’ was one, expressing about where we lived. All the coalmines closing down… no future… people really stuck in their ways. They really didn’t like the punk thing.
Just to be doing that, at that time, in that area, was something profoundly different.
Absolutely. Do you think Penetration would have been different it had not have been based in County Durham?
I think so. I think it does put a different slant on things. If we had been in London, it would have been different. You would have been influenced by different things, a new every day life. A lot of the London thing… you know, it was more of a fashion-orientated thing. Which is great, but ours was like a completely different take on it all, being from such a distance.
Considering that making a career in music for women still has its challenges, what you were doing four decades ago is phenomenal, especially in regards to the band’s hit ‘Don’t Dictate’ and a few others actually. Did you find the punk scene more accepting of women in more dominant roles or on the contrary?
I do. First of all, I never thought of myself as ‘a woman in a band’. I was just a member of the band. And I didn’t want to make an issue of my femininity. In punk, the women made themselves ugly. They didn’t want to be thought of as a sexy chick in the front of a band. I always played that side of it down, I was myself. I mean, it was all men around [the industry] and I just didn’t want to have been thought of like that. People like Poly Styrene (X-Ray-Spex), Gaye from the Adverts- you did get picked out for being a woman in a band, but that is just how people translate and perceive it all. [Punk] for me, was against all of that. I preferred to be thought of [for] my contribution to the band, not as a woman.
Did people criticize your unwillingness to utilize your sexuality?
[Pauses] Possibly… because. I mean, [pauses] I appeared to be kind of a-sexual, you know? [Pauses] Mmmm. I don’t know. It’s a tough one that.
[Not utilizing my sexuality] was the very nature of punk, to me. You know, Debbie Harry was very feminine. But she looked great anyway and was from a different era. Patti Smith was quite masculine looking. [Pauses]
Would you say you were somewhere in between?
Yeah. You know, we would have been a different band if we had traded on the fact I was a woman.
Well, that’s why I think I like Penetration so much.
And that’s why the punk world was so different. It’s a man’s world, as we all know, the music business especially. Women were usually backing singers, and didn’t have great deal of say within the band. Where with the punk scene, the women were all writing and expressing themselves. It’s quite extreme when you think about it.
It really is, considering that it’s still pretty rough for women today. So you guys disbanded in 1980?
What happened? Was it a mixture of things, or one thing in particular?
Well, we’d really been going at it. The amount of energy that was put out there, it was very intense. But we were young, so we could do it. But, it was so intense, doing gigs all the time. We went from forming the band, to supporting other bands, playing clubs, universities, supporting the Buzzcocks, and then doing our own tour, we recorded two albums- it was very intense.
Once we had gone to America for five weeks, I think we were just burnt out. We were tired, and I just thought ‘This isn’t really what I want to be doing’.
It wasn’t really meant to last, I don’t think. As far as energy output goes, it was really intense for a lot of the bands, and we all just crashed.
Are you feeling a similar sort of burnout with all of what you have lined up this year? Or do you feel like you’re approaching it differently now?
Well, we reformed in about 2000, 2001. I didn’t really want to reform. It had been talked about, but I had been doing other things in the meantime. I didn’t know if I could sing all the songs, and thought ‘Do they mean anything to me now?’
And well, we reformed, and we didn’t enter the machine this time- we don’t have managers, we don’t have agents. So now, we literally do it ourselves. We do what we want to when we want to, and we don’t have a heavy schedule. And you know, we’re a lot older now [laughs].
Now that you’ve reentered the industry- saying that the music business has changed a lot over the last forty years would be an understatement. In your opinion, what have been the worst and the best changes to the industry?
For me, punk gave the music business a shot in the arm. When punk came along, it was the advent of the seven-inch single, and it was a brilliant kick-start to the music business. They didn’t like punk, but they knew that something was going on, and it pushed them to what it is now. Look at post-punk, Echo and the Bunnymen, U2 and all them lot, all influenced by punk.
And you look now, it’s all downloads, its all digital. That’s the format. That’s where we are now. People don’t have to go wait in a record shop to buy anything, they just get it instantly. And for free, mostly.
It’s difficult for the music business to make the money that they’d like to make. But, I don’t care about that. [I] think they’ve made plenty of money, when they brought out CD’s, and everyone replaced their record collections with them. I have no sympathy for the music industry.
But for bands, yes, it is really difficult. I don’t just do it on it’s own. It’s almost like back to where it all started, people having to do it themselves.
We’ve actually got a campaign in the works promoting vinyl, and indie labels and bands in September. Would you say that people are missing out by not being able to experience music in the way you did in the seventies?
Absolutely. Now, they’ve got all their stuff on these iPods, with headphones in their ears. And they are getting the digital experience straight into their ear. Where, with vinyl, you put the record on, and the music emanates through speakers, into the air. That’s a whole different experience.
And listening to albums in full, not as singles individually I guess.
Exactly- listening to albums as albums. You know, the last album we did, we tried to make it as much as we can, to run as an album. On vinyl, as an album. But the minute it left our hands, it went into the digital world. Tracks- pulled out and separated. People just play odd tracks, they don’t listen to the thing as an album. But that’s just the way of the world, the way we are now. Clinical.
Speaking of your last album, you guys released a new album Resolution, back in October 2015. How has your taste in music changed from when you first started writing music?
Well, I was terrified to do it. We’ve got our legacy to live up to, how are we gonna do this? We were mindful of certain elements of the band in the past, and we brought that through on an invisible line. We linked it to the new album.
There were different writers on this album compared to the other two, I wrote some of them myself, others generated by our guitarist. I still try to make relevant points in the lyrics, they’re not totally overt, but I know what I am trying to say. It was an artistic endeavor in a way.
Back to the present now, Penetration have a UK tour planned in October. What was it that made you want to get back into the tour bus?
Well, because of the 40 years anniversary, we’re gonna do a different set. At the start, we had all these demos, and we’ve rerecorded three of those singles from 1977. Which is quite interesting! Lyrically, we [Britain] haven’t moved on! Things are still pretty bad; the lyrics are still fitting, forty years later.
So each set is going to start from the beginning, and chronologically work our way through each era. Early stuff, then second album stuff, to newer stuff. We have slides with pictures from each different era that we will project.
We’re going to try it out at this film festival on the 25th August, the Whitley Bay Film Festival. After that, we won’t be going back to it again, we’ll only be working on new stuff.
What was your favorite show that you’ve ever played and why?
Oooh god, I don’t know. We did Reading Festival- that was pretty cool. We did some good gigs you know. Every one was different; it’s hard for one to stand out. We did Rebellion Festival a few times too. It all sort of floats into the ether once it’s done.
A few times I’ve read that Penetration played a few shows with Warsaw, who later became Joy Division. We have an installation about Ian Curtis in our shop in Soho at the moment. What are your memories of that?
Yeah, we did one in Newcastle at the Guild Hall, on the Silver Jubilee. And it was us, The Adverts, Harry Hack and the Big G, and this band called Warsaw, who had come up from Manchester. They went on first, and early on, there weren’t really any signs of them becoming Joy Division as we know them to be. It was just straightforward, punky stuff- like The Damned, like all of us. Everyone developed as they went along.
Well, do you ever meet people from that era now, and feel certain camaraderie? Like you’ve grown up together?
Yeah! Absolutely. There’s definitely a link with it all. I’ve met a lot of people in the last year or two, from that time. I did quite a few talks, one at the British Library, and I met Jordan, who I’ve met a few times since this year. I’ve met Tessa from the Slits this year.
We did the plaque for the Roxy. I was invited down for the unveiling, and that’s where I met Tessa; and Andy and Susan from the Roxy. Don Letts is another, who I met in Liverpool. And Cosey Fanni Tutti, fairly recently.
If you could offer your younger self any advice, what would it be?
[Pauses] Well, I don’t regret anything at all. We were really young when we started; we spent all of our energy very quickly. People in other punk bands, Joe Strummer, Elvis Costello, Patti Smith- they were all older than us. Maybe, if we were older, we’d been…[pauses] I don’t know. More grown-up I guess. We might of lasted a bit longer, but everything a happens for a reason. I don’t regret leaving the music business for twenty years, not any of it.
It’s a massive learning curve. Everything in life is a massive learning curve. Doing all that has contributed to the person I am now.
What was the first piece of music that you heard that really moved you?
I loved Bowie. Motown, when I was about eight. Loads of stuff. But when punk came about, like ‘God Save the Queen’- I mean, if you come out with stuff like that 150 years ago… those lyrics!
Were you shocked when you first heard those lyrics?
I just thought they were powerful. But these people, they were royalists, and they really didn’t like that. To the general public, that was quite shocking.
What was the last piece of music that you heard that really moved you?
Recently? I haven’t heard anything that’s moved me. Nothing has made me want to go out and do stuff. I find listening to music these days quite difficult- I prefer silence. Quiet is the new loud! I try to put the radio on and I can’t do it.
I’m more likely to enjoy making my own music, and focusing on that. I recently started to play acoustic guitar, and did a set- just my guitar and me. That was a massive learning curve. I wrote some songs on it.
It’s funny, it’s quiet. It’s the opposite of the band. I quite like that extreme of really loud and quiet. But no, nothing recently has moved me.
That actually brings me neatly to my last question. What do you think of punk now?
Oooh, that’s a difficult one.
Well, especially what with this year and the last, 40 year anniversary of punk.
Oh god, well! All the punks, who were young people back then, are near sixty year old now. Bald, health problems, and disillusionment with their lives. Life that has been lived.
You would have to look at the youth of today, the need for protesting. A lot of young people engaged in politics this year. To me, punk is about your attitude, about being creative. And I think there are a lot of people out there who want something to change. Punk was about getting out your message to your audience, making the t-shirts, writing the zines. But with everyone plugged into their virtual reality- who knows what’s going to come out of it?
You feel like something has to break?
I’ve felt like that for a very long time, but it always reverts back to being stagnated. It would take something very extreme to take people, get them on the streets. I think they are really pissed off, but what can we do about it? That’s the hardest part. If anything does break open, I think everyone will jump through it in a shot. But we don’t know what that is, do we?
Tickets are available for Penetration shows HERE.
More information about the Whitley Bay Film Festival can be found HERE.
And more information about the band and their recent release can be found at their WEBSITE.