Gaye Advert and the Great Cock ‘n’ Balls Swindle

‘Sexuality in Rock’n’roll is one more area weighed down heavily by its history and language. While none could or should deny the aspects of sexual interest and thrill inherent in live music, the performance space is problematically male-dominated.’ – Ian Penman, NME, 1979

‘I really wish that I’d been born a boy; it’s easy then ’cause you don’t have to keep trying to be one all the time.’ – Gaye Advert, 1977

Women in bands, when under the media spotlight, often find themselves swindled out of due credit by virtue of their gender. If they’re not being accused of clinging to the coattails of their backing boys to disguise their own lack of musical ability, they’re being judged on their aesthetic appeal to the exclusion of anything more relevant. It’s disappointing to observe how ubiquitously this principle applies. Even in the midst of punk, as girls picked up guitars, bass, and drumsticks, taking the stage alongside boys as more than cooing vocalists or backing dancers, they attracted that lethal combination of critical suspicion and prurient interest.

I love punk partly for the number and variety of women it involved and the freedom of expression it offered them. I loved X-Ray Spex – a Somali-British teenage feminist demagogue whose vocal screech swooped like a bird of prey over twisting vistas of saxophone. I loved the Slits and their slippery, shuddering dub-punk hymns to the tedium of sex and the joys of shoplifting. And I loved Gaye Black, bassist for The Adverts and widely regarded as punk’s first female star.

Despite their intelligent, era-defining songs like ‘Bored Teenagers’ and ‘The Great British Mistake’, you have to dig through several layers of punk sediment before the Adverts come to light. They were one of the first punk bands to gain commercial success, and how much of this achievement was down to Gaye is open to depressing debate. A groundbreaking example of the Babe on Bass, her experience prefigured the problems faced by lone women in bands from Blondie to Paramore: scepticism towards their musical ability tied to a disproportionate focus on their looks.

‘She could have the impact of five Runaways, Patti Smith’s armpit, and Blondie’s split ends on Britain’s vacant female scene.’ – Jane Suck, Sounds, 1977

Gaye’s elevation to national sweetheart began as a generic punk fairytale. In 1976, she and her partner TV Smith made an escape in time-honoured fashion from their Devonshire coastal town to London, where they swiftly formed a band. The Adverts became a fixture at pioneering punk venue the Roxy before being snatched up for a tour with the Damned and a contract with Stiff Records.

A devotee of Iggy Pop and the Stranglers’ bassist Jean-Jacques Burnel, Gaye made her musical presence a vital part of the Adverts’ brand of thuggishly intrepid punk. Their breakthrough single ‘Gary Gilmore’s Eyes’ hinges on her instrument’s ascending throb. Most Adverts songs are played as though they’re throwing punches, TV Smith’s vocals advancing in one-two jabs while Gaye’s bass lines bob and weave. On stage, she was a static and self-contained sounding-board for Smith’s livewire showmanship.

But her visual presence hit equally hard: she caught your eye, you caught your breath. Her iconic look – battered black leather and a kohl-rimmed thousand-yard stare – drew on Suzie Quattro and Joan Jett’s effortless rocker fundamentalism rather than the try-hard iconoclasm of Jordan or Siouxsie. Gaye was punk’s terrifyingly blank, stark, dead-eyed minimalism made flesh, the girl nihilist next door.

For Greil Marcus, both Gaye and the Slits were punk’s ‘pretty people who made themselves ugly’ – although clearly not ugly enough. As the reminiscences of her admirers on tribute websites and YouTube comments testify, Gaye was punk’s first female pin-up. Her press and TV appearances stirred hearts and hormones across late-70s Britain, pulling the plug on her wish to be one of the boys.

‘I wasn’t made to feel as conscious of the fact that I was female [at the Roxy], as I was by the rock press.’ – Gaye in Vacant: A Diary Of The Punk Years, Nils & Ray Stevenson

In a 2001 interview with the website Punk77, Gaye recalled that ‘the media would concentrate on irrelevant things like clothes or be extra critical of my playing in the same way that some men are prejudiced against women drivers’. The hackneyed trope of whether girls can play seems especially incongruous in punk, a musical movement studded with gleeful and defiant amateurism. Nevertheless, Gaye’s playing was picked on as ‘plodding’ and her mute ‘fixed sultriness’ unfavourably compared with the vocal talent of other punk women. This latter criticism betrays, among other things, a peculiar disapproval of girls in non-singing positions, as though there were a correct set of requirements for band composition, with musical preoccupation on the part of female members an intrinsically suspicious transgression of their allotted role.

Dismissal of Gaye’s musical credentials went hand-in-hand with an insistence on her value as eye-candy. According to the NME, their bassist’s ‘superb squeakers’ were the best thing about the Adverts and the only conceivable cause of any mainstream notice they might attract. Stiff Records instantly latched onto Gaye’s looks as a marketing tool, giving the Adverts’ debut single a cover bearing a close-up of her face – all eyes and lips, the band’s name an afterthought. This was a stunt pulled without the band’s prior knowledge, which Gaye avenged by refusing to appear in other band photographs for the single.

As the Adverts gained more media attention, Gaye’s image began to dominate the band’s press. Again, the novelty of her status as sole female in a role other than singer seemed to confer as much fascination as her looks. She complained of fending off photographers’ requests for her ‘to pose with my jacket undone’ and sudden ‘leching’ from men she’d considered her friends. After ‘Gary Gilmore’s Eyes’ hit the Top 20 and the band appeared on Top of the Pops, the national response to Gaye was extraordinary. The Sun described her, bafflingly, as ‘one of the saucy girl singers who have taken over pop’, and the Daily Express swooned that she possessed:

‘…[the same] fragile beauty that made the world and Mick Jagger fall in love with Marianne Faithfull. Gaye is beautiful, she is as dark as Marianne was fair, with black hair and Castillian white skin…’

This presentation of Gaye, and its explicit comparison to pliant and angelic pre-punk darling Faithfull, attempted to explain her as a continuation of the past, rather than a messy break with it. As revolutionary a moment as punk was, it operated within a reactionary framework in which its icons were objectified and misunderstood.

The Adverts disbanded in 1979, their split hastened by Gaye’s discomfort with, and other band members’ resentment of, the puddles of critical drool collecting at her feet. Gaye’s enduring reputation as prototypical punkette pin-up tends to overshadow what she actually did – which was, in her own words, ‘[try] to get a good sound and play right. I’m not one of Pan’s People.’ She had the misfortune to attempt this within a context in which women on stage, regardless of their reasons for and intentions in being there, were automatically sexualised, examined and evaluated in a manner wholly absent from attitudes towards their male counterparts. Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?

*

Written for Bad Reputation.

Thanks to tvsmith.com and Punk77 for several of the above quotes.

3 comments

  1. Phil

    Great writing. And I’m (partly) sorry to say, guilty as charged. Yes, she was a girl, yes she was a monster hotty and we the 16 year-old yoof of 1976 UK fell deeply for her. The world is run for the worse by men, sad but true, so bollocks will be written by men old enough to know better, and young fragile girls thrown into the public eye will be shredded, even more so now than then as The Daily Mail allows the twat on the street to say ANYTHING on their pages and it will be published.

    But let’s not forget that Paul McCartney was also quality eye candy, as was Paul Simonon. From an audience perspective, young kids want beauty they can relate to, and Gaye hit the spot. And Simonon was not much better a bassist than Gaye back then – so young men and women barely able to play were equal opportunity ogle targets even in year zero, the year rock’n’roll with its cock posturing was supposed to be dismantled forever. Fat chance.

    But ultimately, what was important – she was a girl, in a band, she was not the singer, she was playing the most macho and visceral of all instruments, and that was awesome and hopefully inspiring to the next generation. And now, 35 years on, I remember her not for being that hot chick on bass in the Adverts, but for being Gaye Advert. She has transcended everything and gone icon, for I would suggest equally weighted reasons of being a) gorgeous b) attitudy and c) capable of playing notes lower than a guitar can manage.

    Good for her.

    • Rhian Jones

      This was a great comment to get, thank you, and you make a good point re. Paul Simonon too.

      Glad you enjoyed the post – it gets a surprising amount of hits, which makes me think there are a lot of Gaye’s former admirers still looking for mentions of her, which are still sadly thin on the ground… I do find her inspirational, both for her musicianship and for being a girl in a band, and hopefully I’m not the only one.

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