Women in Polish Punk
From Unearthing The Music
"Women in Polish punk" by Agata Pyzik previously appeared in German on "Warschauer Punk Pakt. Punk im Ostblock 1977-1989" (Ventil Verlag, Mainz, 2018, a Zonic Spezial published by Alexander Pehlemann).
Women in Polish punk
"Fucking Polish patriarchy, this is what it was all about. Girls were in bands, they wanted to play and were around, but it was the men who went on the stage and pushed them over, demonstrating their pitiful pricks. All they could do was backing vocals, but in silence." - Maciej “Magura” Góralski, musician in Kryzys, Brygada Kryzys & many other Polish punk bands
It's difficult to talk about the female presence in Polish punk in a straightforward way, because, not so differently to their Western counterparts, it's been rare and obscured for a long time. When gathering my thoughts to write this text, I realized just like the attitude called 'punk' in female performers can be traced in the Anglosphere from Patti Smith or even certain rock singers, like Grace Slick and Janis Joplin, to paint a more comprehensive image of Polish punk we also need to go a little bit back. I feel that a certain type of rough, primal energy associated with punk was present in several female singers in the 60s and 70s already. A distinct, expressive female presence in rock was for example Mira Kubasińska from prog and blues-rock band Breakout, who also recorded her solo, more experimental, bluesy material. Extremely charismatic, she defined an all-male band as the leader and with her low voice and male hippie demeanor. Her contemporary Maryla Rodowicz a pop singer popular since the late 60s, who nonetheless, with her hoarse voice and extremely varied repertoire, which flirted with new aesthetics, including new wave, new pop and synth-pop, was a strong female presence in the music world of socialist culture. Another important, transitive character was Martyna Jakubowicz, a blues and folk performer in the singer-songwriter tradition, who debuted with Joan Baez repertoire, who was building a bridge between more mainstream and underground music and counterculture. Her biggest hit was called “There's No Free Love In Concrete Houses” and while I'm not sure I agree with that statement, it's hard not to respect her for strong presence in a men-dominated world of rock and blues. She perfected the so-called “author's song” in association with independent underground theatres until the late 70s, which she combined with participation at huge, state-funded pop and rock festivals and tv appearances. She collaborated with nearly every macho rock leader in this country and was regarded as their total equal.
What could be called strictly 'punk' in Poland started from a female fronted punk band gig, The Raincoats, who performed on 1st of April 1978 in a student’s gallery-club called Riviera-Remont in Warsaw. The gallery manager Henryk Gajewski hoped to popularize art via punk music, which he regarded as a type of 'action-art' and performance art, and organizing music gigs at art spaces was much more common and easy than on more strictly controlled “houses of culture', not to mention more official stages. They were also frequently the centers of music culture. The origins of punk in Poland were very artsy, as elsewhere – bands formed directly at schools.
It is true women were rarely at the front of Polish punk bands, but they were also essential to the scene-building and were frequent, if obscured, pioneers. Even if often not in bands as singers or musicians, women in punk were event organizers and promoters, graphic designers, artists and photographers. Such as Anna Dąbrowska-Lyons, one of the best Polish punk photographers and documentarists, who came to punk via art school. Her photography style was incredibly expressive, raw and surreal, but never unfinished or sketch-like. Her pictures were an example of documentary “from within”, as a close associate she could capture the scene as it was booming. Pictures kept rough, intimate spirit of the underground, but despite her success, Lyons migration to London in the 1990s meant her work was criminally under-recognized even until these days. She published her magnum opus Polski punk 1977-1983 (first ever photo album on Polish punk) in 1999 and keeps a website with a small archive, but little more.
Equally interesting were her collages, which featured in various fanzines of the time around Kryzys, by then the biggest underground punk stars in Poland. As their female associate, Lyons felt obliged to satirize their macho behaviour. Her zine “Szmata” (meaning “Slut” in an affirmative way, but also piece of cloth) included her sexy pictures of scene stars like Robert Brylewski, with annotations such as “Kryzys waiting for their female fans”. After all, the need for the female desire and titillation from it could have been used by women as their way of empowerment. The zine also included drawings and comics which were all about reclaiming female sexuality from male gaze.
Like many of her female counterparts, and given breaking through wasn't easy in the all-male and patriarchal circles of punk, Lyons left Poland – in her case, for London, and sealed her art by doing a degree at Central St Martins School of Art in 2000s. Another one who left Poland (for the US) was Pola Mazur aka Ryba (“Fish”) from Białe Wulkany (White Volcanoes), a Warsaw dada-punk band which she formed with her boyfriend Jacek 'Luter', and another female, Malgorzata Dołżkiewicz aka “Pyza” on drums (who also played in Kryzys), creating a pretty Velvet Underground inter-band balance. Extremely charismatic, Pola was a singer in the Siouxsie vein, bringing her own sharpness to the picture, often dressing as a man during gigs. She was also an occasional musician in all-male popular punk bands Kryzys and Tilt.
Women and politics
Women also didn't shy away from political confrontation. Magda Kalenik was one example - a well-known and outspoken character in Warsaw punk circles, much feared by her male colleagues. She was well read in anarchist literature and praised The Clash, who seemed extremely politicized at the time. For her, punk was a way to express her leftist, politicized feminist views. She dissed the appropriation of reggae culture by Polish punk for its patriarchalism and macho cherishing of – to her, the still authoritarian emperor Haile Selassie. Her spoof band Bexa Lala was primarily a joke at male friends’ expense. Kalenik issued photos of several sexy punk girls to tease them. When they were asked to perform, she came up with the idea of main male punk figures to perform with her dressed as women, but sadly this epic example of early cross dressing in Polish music never came to existence. Apart from those already mentioned, it's also worth speaking of Beata Majcherczyk who performed in the band Transit, Beata Bala, bassist in the band LD50, and the half-Ghanian Vivian Quarcoo, a member of Izrael – the most prominent experimental reggae band in Polish punk and a partner of Robert Brylewski. Konstancja Uniechowska was a graphic designer who owned an important punk “salon”. In Generacja, an oral history of Polish punk written by Robert Jarosz, Kalenik is very vocal about women's roles and stresses how difficult was to form a full-female punk band. Women weren't “allowed” to play or were actively discouraged by male counterparts and if they were employed, they were singers – therefore cast in typically oversexualized role. Sometimes, when men couldn't perform gigs, women from the crew were asked to replace them – oh, the irony. Yet the problem was the conservatism of the audience itself too – when Kalenik performed with Dezerter, despite the band's relative progressivism in politics, raw meat was thrown at her and a cursing crowd demanded that she undress.
One of most distinct female punks was „Gertruda”, ie Maria Beata Szczublinska-Baer, who was the very charismatic leader of the Poznań band Zbombardowana Laleczka (Bombed Doll). The band's most famous songs were those of protest, which oscillated around subjects of war and nuclear destruction. In the end, she had to resign though, for prosaic reasons – she had a two-year old child which she had to take care of.
One of the first punk bands with female vocals was Konwent A from Gdańsk (called after Jozef Pilsudski Konwent Organizacji A no less, which is why communist censorship banned the letter A from the name in print). Żaneta Mikulska dressed very much in the vein of Poly Styrene from X-Ray Spex and had a very Siouxsiesque expression. Which female punk wasn't inspired by her anyway?
You could think that the diversion from the old school first wave of punk towards the New Wave would also include more women. It wasn't always the case, but still quite a few females emerged. For instance, Kasia Kulda from Kontrola W, a band from industrial Zduńska Wola, which functioned between 1981-83, originally named Kontrola Władzy (Control of Power), but probably because the group didn’t want to get in trouble, they decided to shorten it – at some gigs when they were announced, someone from the crowd said: but you can’t control power! But it’s about us being controlled by power– the band allegedly replied (later they claimed that the W stood for Wrażenia (Impressions). The lyrics remained militant and pugnacious, with the music merging retro rockabilly elegance and post-punk erudition, bringing to mind Burroughsesque topics of control from the state, communist newspeak, atomic war, nuclear crisis, hiding in bunkers, imagining the end of the world, fear of pollution and radioactivity, state controlled media brainwashing society, erasure of the self by mass culture, personality crisis. Like in the out-of-tune, sick, broken rock-and-roll, their best song Bossa Nova with angular groans and guitar whines, accompanied with the self-possessed, very capricious screech of Kasia Kulda, in which she’s trying to get rid of an importunate lover: When there’s nothing to talk about / you persecute me at every step / Crawling upon my feet (…)/ and if this doesn’t bring effect / you can only sing this old tune: Bossa Nova! Kulda sings with a sharpness and panache that Siouxsie Sioux would be jealous of, if she had only known about it. Later on, some of the band members including Kulda, formed Kosmetyki Mrs. Pinki (Ms Pinky's Cosmetics).
Later wave of bands and the female role
As punk anywhere always meant a strange negotiation between the mainstream and the underground, in a socialist country it was different, and the proximity between them was smaller, as there was no strict “commercial” culture and both the mainstream and the underground were state-funded. Problem with punk was that as a form of potentially anti-state music it would have to be more subtly controlled than the official culture. Still, most of contemporary claims of punk as a “safety valve” do not exhaust the still possible and viable political power of Polish punk.
The music press of the 1980s often sarcastically (and in a sexist way, you could add) dubbed the increasingly prominent females in alternative music “sad women”. Women were “sad” because they were invited to or formed mostly bands which were cold wave or goth and their expression, not least because the oppression they experienced was either crude or very existential. Such as Kasia Jarosz in Wielkanoc. “Virgin Mary does the splits – the world falls in! / The communion of holy white wafers of snow covers her eyes and face / The world of white altars – cemeteries of paradise.” This comes from a song called Snow Queen by the Polish new wave group Wielkanoc (“Easter”) from the small Polish industrial town of Lubin, in Lower Silesia, who collapsed around 1990 alongside the system. Dziewczyny Karabiny (Girls Carbines) was released only in 2010. Wielkanoc live was a knockdown combination of the moody and the unpolished. What is greatest in Wielkanoc is the real provocation in the lyrics. Kasia Jarosz was a truly charismatic vocalist and lyricist, introducing to the nearly all-male Polish scene a rare, assured yet raw female presence, and giving the censors lots of work. “Regular meals/Warm checked blankets/Speedy sidewalks/Slit-eyed spiders/Rainy alleys/Train station open/public toilets/female male copulate/The promised protein/no man’s protein.” Nobody at that point dared to sing about grim sexuality in communist Poland like this, and there’s definitely no sadder elegy for a spared sperm on the toilet door in any music.
Another element of increasing chauvinism towards the end of the 1980s was the popularity of anti-abortion songs in punk. And given it was people's republic of Poland who gave women equal rights, it was a sad anticipation of things to come with post-communism and confirmations of the sad domination of catholic church.
Punk attitudes within commercial pop
The late 1970s were the most affluent in socialist Poland, and due to the greatest amounts of previously unavailable products for consumption, they created unheard of aspirations and popular culture's response to them. The fake promise of bling and the still grey, concrete reality resulted in a cultural clash and sudden change in more mainstream Polish pop, which embraced and flirted with dreams of commodities that hadn’t exactly turned into reality. The historical, economic and cultural moment was perfect for this: the old cynicism of the Party was replaced by the enthusiasm of Solidarity, and the old truths didn’t matter anymore. Be it the scarcity of the official culture or the hunger for emancipation, Polish popular music in the break between the 1970s and 1980s spawned more interesting female vocalists and music personalities than ever before or after.
Izabela Trojanowska was a one-woman Polish New Wave movement, whose populist songs picked up where punk left off. Drawing on the empowered feminine-but-tough girls of post punk and pop-punk - rapaciousness of Siouxsie Sioux, the girlie charm of Debbie Harry or the boyishness of Chrissie Hynde - she added a completely new air of a mature sexy femininity. She was also very camp. In Poland, she represented a completely new kind of a pop female performer with a quite shocking demeanor of self-confidence, sex and modernity. She wore short, predatory hair, strong make up with compulsory blood-red lipstick, and an aptly garçonne wardrobe. Androgynous suits with a feminine, perverse twist, sequin blouses in dazzling whites and zero degree of sentimentality. Walking on her red stilettos with exaggerated puff shoulders, Trojanowska was rather a communist David Bowie/Klaus Nomi, a Thin White Duke and a Bauhausian doll, and harsher than any male performer ever in the Soviet Bloc - maybe, because she understood and played well with androgyny.
Iza wore both male and female clothes, always with a dominating air: jackets with spiky, “neo-gothic” collars and shoulders in striking, saturated colors, red and amaranth leather dresses and jackets; metallic, futuristic coats, like an elegant cyborg, akin to Sean Young in Blade Runner, and huge, futurist sunglasses. The whole of her person seemed to exude the metallic sheen of a sexy robot. In this she was also predestined by the self-irony with which she smilingly rejected any possible feminine clichés of life in the Bloc. She was a Helmut Newtonesque scary businesswoman, who didn’t have anywhere to go to work, so in her videos she posed by the only ‘modern’ looking shiny skyscrapers she could find in Warsaw. She used men like toys whenever she fancied, but mostly she was self-sufficient, with strong lesbienne undertones a la Dietrich, or flirting with a glam vampirella look. A sharp gal who couldn’t stand the failure of a boyfriend to give her all she wanted, now. No wonder one of the first drag queen shows in early 90s Poland was an Iza T. impersonation. Imagine the shock which this caused any typical Polish man, used to a housewife who’d hand him a hot meal and slippers in their much–awaited two-bedroom flat. In her lyrics, she was shockingly sarcastic towards socialist efficiency, mocking both Socialist Realist Stakhanovites, and the prosaic reality of endless material lacks which was everything but glamorous.
By then nobody believed in the system anymore, but here punk nihilism was taken up by commercial pop. As Iza rejected the idea of shacking up with a boy and waiting 10 years for a council flat, she mocked the scarcity of means, most famously in ‘The Song of the Brick’ – in which the chorus line “pass me a brick” is a reference to a 1950s Stalinist slogan of building communist Poland. There she was in 1980, recalling the times everybody wanted to forget: just like Wajda, bringing back the trauma of sozrealism. During a memorable televised performance at the Opole festival in 1980, dressed in the exaggerated red cravat of a communist youth organization member, surrounded by naked musclemen painted gold (!) she parodied the positivist, brightly colored sozrealist boom of growth and prosperity:
“Pass the brick, pass the brick Let’s build a new house! Up to our aspirations – a house! Rain will stop, sun will rise A new harvest will grow Through our hearts and our hands! Our cause is simple, our goal is clear! You can hear our jolly song everywhere In a short moment we’ll even touch the stars! Don’t stay behind, if you don’t want to be left alone!
Spring will come, and immediately Hundreds of Steelworks will grow There will be plenty of everything! There’s no paths or ways we couldn’t reach! We know who’s our friend or foe! Soon we’ll embrace the whole world in our arms And who’s not with us, is against us!”
Her character was yet too disillusioned, too cynical to believe either the authorities or the men’s promises. She looks with pity at the boy, who talks about the bright future:
“You tell me ‘just a bit effort and the world belongs to us’. Well, let´s say – in eight years? A tower block flat and a small Fiat Don’t even think you’re gonna afford it 'Cause you can give me all I need now anyway!”
Iza paved the way for several sharp female performers who appeared soon after, such as the superbly popular Kora and Urszula. A French migrant, Richard Boulez, known for wearing colorful clothes in Poland, became the chief stylist of Kora, the charismatic singer of Maanam. Boulez and Kora were like the Halston and Jerry Hall or Grace Jones and Jean Paul Goude of Polish new wave: the stylist-artiste and the it-girl who has it all. Kora wore Bowie-esque kimonos and excessive heavy jewelry, on synthetic bright-colored vampish sets specially designed by Boulez. Shocking the public at the Opole ’80 festival in dayglo-colored clothes singing Divine Buenos Aires, Kora was all desire: to travel, to meet people, to shag men, to explore, to have everything she wanted. Another ‘hot chick’ was Urszula, a big glossy synth-pop diva, whose productions were close to Trevor Horn’s ZTT or Art of Noise. Her composers dwelled on the earlier synthesized disco of Giorgio Moroder, but gave it the sassiness of Blondie and the sublimity of ‘Blue Monday’. In Urszula’s songs the most mundane neighbored the most fanciful. She also fantasized about luxurious commodities, as in the ultra-synthy The Seasonal Fashion Frenzy, where her character can’t stop thinking about buying new glittery clothes. One could ask, where in the grey 80s could she find any? In her songs there appeared surrealist flights of fancy or tales of journeys to outer space. Unfortunately, in reality, we couldn’t be driving further away from space and the computer world, as Soviet technology had its most modern, forward-thinking years already behind it. Paradoxically, when we caught up with the dominating futurist fashion within pop-culture, time-traveling and computer technology, as in the children’s trilogy of Pan Kleks, we had lost any potential to even overtake the West with our ideas. Post-81 the socialist utopia started to increasingly morph into dystopia.
The end of 1980s and early 1990s and the political change meant a change of attitudes towards more commercial and Western-derivative music, but also acted as a belated, slightly anachronistic “opening” for female expression, which spawned a lot of crossover semi-punk/experimental and semi-pop projects. Especially in later 1980s and early 90s women in Polish music excelled in alternative music though, for instance, in goth (Anja Orthodox in Closterkeller, still active, extremely charismatic, strong figure and, what's ever rarer, very leftist) or hardcore punk - Dominika „Nika” Domczyk in Post Regiment. In so-called Tricity (Gdansk, Gdynia, Sopot by the Baltic Sea) there was the first experimental full-female Oczi Cziorne. Anna Miądowicz i Jowita Cieślikiewicz, Katarzyna Przyjazna and Marta Handschke dialogued with the so-called “yass” scene in the same cities, which was the very-male and macho post-jazz scene since the end of the 80s/early 90s. They disbanded when among other things, a major label tried to turn them into a commercial “girl band”. Some later strong females include Katarzyna Nosowska, since 1992 active in super-successful rock band Hey. Groups such as Bóm Wakacje w Rzymie and Pancerne Rowery from Tricity also had women in their personnel.
Women often chose more mainstream music, because there they could find more managerial and artistic support than in punk, paradoxically. In pop they could stop playing the role of a background, but not in rock or punk, which could be explained by the general moral and economy backwardness of Poland. Women in the socialist culture rarely had a chance of real self-realization as creators or artists, because they had to firstly, fulfill the traditional roles of mothers and homemakers, secondly, even if their suffering in their submissive role was acknowledged, in the highly catholic Poland their suffering was used against them, as something that could level them upwards. Women also feared ostracism if they succeeded. Even in punk community they were mostly valued for their looks, and when they cared about their looks as a response, they were ridiculed. Some women who decided to create, decided to become invisible, so that they weren't judged by their looks.
Special thanks to Xawery Stańczyk