[Unedited version of article published in The Quietus, January 2015]
Formed in the north-eastern town of Ferryhill in 1976 in the wake of the Sex Pistols, Penetration were an enthralling burst of punk energy. Led by singer and lyricist Pauline Murray, their songs of military conflict and domestic servitude attacked the dictators and firing squads of polite society, and as they gained momentum they threatened to invade the mainstream.
By their time of their second album Coming Up for Air, however, Murray was finding the rock format intolerable. “I felt I was drowning in some ways, hence the title.” She ended Penetration and began writing new material with bassist Robert Blamire. “The dynamics of the songs had changed since we weren’t writing around guitar riffs.” A new, more abstract studio palette was provided by the decidedly un-macho sounding Invisible Girls, consisting of Murray and Blamire, keyboardist Steve Hopkins and Factory producer Martin Hannett (who had previously played under that name with John Cooper Clarke), with contributions from Vini Reilly and others. The result was a futuristic but highly accessible record which didn’t adhere to the industry conventions of group or solo artist, major or indie, pop or post-punk. It was sublime.
Originally released in September 1980, Pauline Murray and the Invisible Girls is an extraordinary work of art, a treasure not just of its own time but of any era. Yet soon after completing it the singer followed her own backing band and disappeared. Long unavailable, the album has now been reissued and hopefully will be discovered by a new audience. Interviewing Pauline Murray by email, I encountered a unique performer still striking a vital oppositional note in today’s no-alternative culture of commodified rebellion, digital passivity and talent show banality.
What does punk mean to you? Does it mean the same thing now that it did in 1976? Is punk still possible today?
At the time it meant opening your eyes and seeing things as they are. It was about questioning tried and tested methods and doing things in a different way. It was about not caring whether you could do something but more about having a go. It was about contributing rather than passively consuming. It was about having the courage to break away from the stifling confines of a society that bowed down to “superiors”. It was about the youth of the late seventies turning their backs on the middle class hippy generation. It was about thinking for yourself and expressing your individuality. It was outside the system for a very short time and showed what people could achieve with focus and direction of energy. The raw music, anti-fashion, photography, art and design, writing, fanzines, the 7” single and animated audiences. Exciting stuff! It was as if a window had opened and real primal expression could emerge. It felt that you could collectively change the world and it certainly changed the lives of those involved.
Punk now means a certain category where products of a certain type can be marketed. It has turned into a stereotype and has no power to change.
I don’t think it’s possible today to have the black swan that was punk as young people have lived in a different world. They have been distracted and pacified from an early age by video games, mobile phones, computers, the internet, fast food and the American hard sell. They are surrounded by unmotivated people, and there doesn’t seem to be anything that brings them together. The culture of music and art has been hijacked by the clean people and karaoke singing appears on prime time TV.
Despite your achievements you rarely feature in the endless BBC4 documentaries on punk and post-punk, which are usually quite Londoncentric (or at best Manchester). It seems that if you lived outside these places and there’s no stock footage easily available you risk being edited out of history. Have you noticed this, and if so does it surprise or annoy you, because your work might not be getting the recognition it deserves?
Journalism and the media have become very lazy and would rather print a press release than analyse something themselves. The same old story and names have been repeated again and again without any depth of research and it has become stock footage. We weren’t part of the high profile London crowd and didn’t have hit records so it’s easy to get overlooked. We are sometimes more noticeable by our absence. It’s just one of those things - the powers that be, write and re-write history.
How do you view the second Penetration album now? The year after it came out you said it left a lot to be desired but ever since I first heard it in the ‘90s I’ve loved it.
Obviously I was too close in the making of it at the time. I felt that we were rushed into it and could have come up with better songs with more preparation. We worked with the fledgling producer Steve Lillywhite who had a different approach to the producers of the first album. I know we gave it our best shot as we always do. I was becoming uncertain about where the music was going and things were pulling in different directions. Listening to it now brings a tear to my eye, to hear such young kids taking on and generally succeeding in a monumental task. There are some great tracks on there. Come Into the Open, Shout Above the Noise.
From Penetration to the Invisible Girls, from Shout Above the Noise to Screaming in the Darkness - was there a deliberate connection between these two opening tracks?
There’s no conscious connection at all between these two tracks. I had put Penetration behind me and was writing new songs. Shout above the Noise is very external whilst Screaming in the Darkness is internal.
Over what period were the Invisible Girls songs written? Did any ideas date from while Penetration were still going, or was the split the starting point for them? Were some written in the studio?
Penetration finished their tour at the end of 1979. I had nothing planned after the split but somehow Rob and I gravitated towards each other. We bought a Teac four track and set up a recording studio in his parents’ house. By March 1980 we had recorded a John Peel session (with a temporary band) and soon after that teamed up with Martin and Steve to record Dream Sequence as a single. None of the ideas were left over from Penetration. We came up with them all as new. I had also written some on my own - Sympathy, Dream Sequence, Drummer Boy, which I had never done with the band. Most of the album was written before going into the studio. Only Time Slipping was worked on at the time. It was a backing track idea of the Invisible Girls. I took it away and wrote the tune and lyrics and we re-recorded the backing track though none of us can remember doing that!
How would you describe the experience of recording the album?
We were living in Martin Hannett’s house for the duration in Manchester recording at Strawberry studios. I remember Martin playing Atmosphere by Joy Division, which was very poignant at the time. The first week was backing tracks with bass drums and piano moving through the process in the conventional way. As it progressed we were working late into the night then starting later each day. I began to become more withdrawn and couldn’t speak to anyone and had to go home after the second week. When I returned, I felt disconnected from the album and did vocal tracks again and again without guidance. I think Martin did an amazing job with the production but the content and playing by all of the individuals involved should never be overlooked. There’s something magical, deep and intense.
The lyrics on the Invisible Girls album are so strong but rarely appreciated. The album is lyrically very intense - I’d say it’s as poetic as, for example, Joy Division’s Closer - but the depth is deceptive, because rather than announcing their profundity in a rock type way, the words are encased in this kind of blissful pop exterior… What were the chief influences and experiences which inspired them?
I have never made a big deal of my lyrics though I do spend a lot of time working on them! I have to be happy with what I am singing and they have to fit the feel of the music. The lyrics are usually inspired by the structure of the music. An idea has to inspire me in the first place. I can’t really say where they come from as each song is quite different from another. I spend time in quiet contemplation and concentration until I settle upon a subject that can unfold into a song. Something like Thundertunes reflects upon the village where I was born and grew up - a place that no longer exists. I try to look at things from all angles but ultimately the subject matter has to fit the framework of a song and flow with the vocal melody. I think my lyrics are quite deep but the tunes and singing are accessible but perhaps unsettling to the casual listener! Many of the lyrics were written through the night when everyone is asleep and there are no distractions.
The mixing up of dreams and reality is a recurring theme; not just in Dream Sequence, but in Sympathy, “imagination seems to be real, reality is just a dream”, and elsewhere. Was this a ‘conscious’ decision or did it just emerge? Was it a case of real life seeming unreal and the creative rush of the imagination?
This theme of dreams and reality was something that just emerged. Dream Sequence and Sympathy were written before the album. The line “somebody wake me before I go to sleep” just popped up of its own accord but the song was inspired by recurring dreams. Sometimes dreams and reality can come together. Creativity is opening yourself up to bring dreams to reality. Pulling ideas out of the air and arranging them into solid matter for a while.
Another theme is suspicion of fame and celebrity, in Shoot You Down and most obviously in Mr X. Does this reflect a pressure for punk or alternative culture to become part of the showbiz machinery? Was it something you feared happening to you or saw happening to other people? What are your views on fame, then and now?
Punks generally steered away from the showbiz machinery. I’m quite a private person and would struggle with the pressures of fame. We are in a society where people will do anything to be famous. This celebrity culture is driven by the media and to stay famous you have to be in the public eye on a regular basis. Everybody watches everybody else, passes judgement and projects their thoughts onto who they think someone is. I’ve always preferred to be myself than be famous. Fame means everybody looking up to you until you fall from grace and are fed to the lions!
When Will We Learn is interesting: “This restless feeling falls upon the humble/stupid people”, “Mother Nature’s face is scarred to death...” Is this about a general frustration with humanity, or is there a sense of some wider threat - environmental disaster, war, even nuclear annihilation (the track ends with a sound like missiles falling...)?
When Will We Learn is a comment on the ignorance of the human race and how people never take responsibility for their own actions. It has gone on for forever where the majority don’t question anything and are led into the next drama. People will only notice that something is wrong when it is all too late and wonder how this has happened. We have used and abused nature and it will always have the last say. I see the breakdown of structures that hold everything together.
The album seems to move from a mood of personal or existential anxiety towards a feeling of impending doom, through the warnings and wilderness of Thundertunes, and When Will We Learn where “the end is coming”, to the ominous bassline of Mr X, and finally Judgement Day. It is as if the people making it thought it might be the last record ever made (and what a record!). Is that theme and direction something you were aware of during writing/recording, or am I imagining it?
There was no conscious theme to the album. The songs were written separately and put together at the end. It was a very organic process. Maybe subconsciously I felt all of those things you mentioned, as my life was about to change and we were about to enter Thatcher’s Britain which can never be underestimated. I could maybe sense that I wouldn’t get a chance to make another album. The songs and production came together at a point in time, never to be repeated. There’s lots of intensity in all the records I’ve been involved in. I’ve always felt that every album could be the last.
Listening again to Judgement Day; “You have no possessions, you have no illusions, no arrangements and no future plans…There’s no breathing space inside this place, there’s no escaping…” It is an extraordinary set of images and an astonishing cliffhanger on which to end an album. Can you say anything about where that song came from and what it was pointing towards?
My grandmother had died while I was still with Penetration and Judgement Day was my observations of the final scenario. She was in hospital, had given up her home and had nothing other than the fact that she was leaving this world. It’s very close up. We will all be in this position one day and I have seen the same with parents and friends. It came last on the album as it’s really intense and definitely a final song.
Was there much encouragement from other people in the indie sphere after the album and follow-up single, when RSO went out of business? After such an innovative but still commercial-sounding album, you’d think that some of the established labels would have been keen to get involved. Or did you decide, after this phase of intense activity, to take a step back for a while?
None of the singles were hits, which makes a big difference. There were companies interested but at that time I was going through a massive personal crisis. Everything around me had changed and I couldn’t focus on anything. I was perhaps mentally and physically burned out as I hadn’t had a break for five years. I got half way through a vocal take and just gave up, walked out and turned my back on everything and everyone connected to music.
Later with Robert you set up Polestar Studios, which is still going strong, and the Storm Clouds album came out in 1989. Did you get involved in the technical side of production, and have you been pursuing other interests and doing other things alongside music?
Polestar was originally set up as a record label to release our own material in the early ‘80s. In 1990 I took on the lease of a building and set up music rehearsal studios and a recording studio. Robert is the technical maestro in the recording studio as I have never had any interest or ability in the production side of things. We bought a derelict building almost four years ago, undertook a massive building project and relocated the studios. I have managed bands, promoted gigs, studied reflexology, formed a community choir and brought up two very fine children! I am always busy with one thing or another.
In recent years you have reformed Penetration and also played some solo shows. What has that been like?
I think the band has been better since it reformed as the songs and playing have matured in a good way. It was perhaps unfinished business as we split up very abruptly but people have had the chance to see us over the past few years. We have always been a good live band and have done some great shows. We manage ourselves, operate independently and still play for the enjoyment and connecting with people. We’ve put out a couple of singles but are reaching a point where we need to make an album to challenge ourselves!
I have been doing solo acoustic shows with new material. It’s a whole new thing for me. The songs are written on acoustic guitar and cover topics such as family history, depression, people going missing and being plugged in to technology. This is work in progress as I plan to write more songs, record them acoustically and then experiment with the music. At the moment I am concentrating on Penetration, writing and recording a new album.
What do you think of music today? Are there any performers who still inspire you and are there any current artists who get the Pauline Murray seal of approval?
Music today is very fragmented. There are so many different genres, labels and specific interests and the mainstream is unintelligible. There’s nothing that brings people together in an emotional way. The digital format means that we can access music very easily but it’s more disposable and doesn’t hold your attention. I have to say that there is nothing in particular that excites and inspires me at the moment but there are many creative individuals swimming against the tide. I am lucky to have heard, first hand, the great music of the ‘60s and ‘70s, which was the soundtrack to my youth. Most things have been done before but genuine passion and energy will always have an impact.