“I wanted to be able to say, ‘Girls can do it too. We’re on the road, we’re in a band. Of course we drink, of course we take drugs, of course we go with groupies. We can do it too.’ I was always very fierce in that we shouldn’t be excluded because of our gender.”
Picture the scene. It’s 1995, London, Friday night; you’re a sixteen-year-old babydyke dipping your toe in the water of a smoky girl bar, undercut and DMs still in the mail, necking snakebite and blacks like its Um Bongo to steady the nerves, waiting for the buzz to kick in, waiting for the band to start, waiting for life to start. The world beyond these walls isn’t kind to you yet, and you don’t know if it ever will be. And then they strut onto the stage … The Well Oiled Sisters … and you’ve never seen anything like it. Couldn’t-give-a-fuck, unapologetic dykes, all guitars and raised eyebrows. A blonde flat-top on bass, lesbian Animal on the drums, raw violinist, and Thick Eyeliner takes the mic, spitting dangerous lyrics into the crowd with a beautiful growl: “I know my legs will end up behind my neck! It’s not hard being easy!” … and she’s not singing about shagging a man. They’re playing fast, nosebleed fast, a kind of country punk on amphetamines. She smiles and snarls and smiles again, and you’re not just in love, but you suddenly feel a hell of a lot more comfortable in your own skin.
“Bunch of naughty girls we were,” lead singer, Lucy Edwards, enthuses twenty-five years later. “We were so uninhibited, so free.”
The controversial band, who played to hungry audiences around the world throughout the nineties, made numerous TV appearances and shared the stage with Morrissey, Sioxie & the Banshees, Susanne Vega and so many other big names, gained a reputation not only for their unique sound and stage presence but for their heavy drinking and womanising. “When you come from Scottish culture in the eighties,” she says, “it’s just the way it was. It was about having a good time.” And the womanising? “I don’t know,” she says. “I’ve always been a bit of a serial monogamist. I did have the odd dalliance with keen members of the audience. There were always groupies throwing themselves at the feet of various members of the band. It was probably exaggerated, but I wanted to be able to say ‘Girls can do it too. We’re on the road, we’re in a band. Of course we drink, of course we take drugs, of course we go with groupies. We can do it too.’ I was always very fierce in that we shouldn’t be excluded because of our gender.” And, of course, London welcomed them with open arms.
“When I first moved to London in the early nineties,” she recalls, “there was a revolution going on that I don’t think has really been acknowledged or archived properly yet, but suddenly being queer was alright. It went from being dirty or kiddie-fiddling to being something that was cool and a bit brave. People were coming out en masse.” But this revolution rocked and divided the world of gay women and feminists. “You were either a traditional, vanilla dyke with no makeup and more traditional feminist values or this new ballsy breed, like us, that were flaunting our sexuality and being as naughty as we could be. It was the time of the whole Rebel Dyke crowd and everything was changing. We were coming out of the old school, sticking two fingers up at everything that came before – including from our own community. It didn’t always go down well. We were very well received by the younger lesbians – a bit tut-tutty in some cases by older lesbians.”
“Someone once said, quite unkindly that the songs were all about beer and fannies. I just wanted to do fast, wild music that people would dance and have a good time to.”
But these were also challenging times, and their hedonistic anarchy went hand in hand with activism. All of their early gigs were political rallies, marches, ACT UP nights and Gay Prides, back when it was about politics, when it was dangerous and illicit. Central to the fight was simply being visible. “As we used to say about AIDS, invisibility is death. You’ve got to be visible; you’ve got to be out – and that was the mission; to be as out as possible. You could do it in an apologetic, double-life way or be barefaced queer and out there. If we were going to be invisible then Clause 28 or AIDS were going to kill us. It was a question of survival. I’m proud that we were so in-your-face and we weren’t pretending to be something that we weren’t. Apart from putting a cowboy hat on, I was pretty much the same off stage and behaved the same. It made it easier because I didn’t have to act. I wasn’t secretly going home to my husband and kids. Also, I was young, so I had that ‘Come on then!’.
Not bad for a woman who grew up in a tiny, conservative town thirty miles south-west of Glasgow, where she didn’t even hear the word lesbian until she was sixteen. “I don’t remember rumours or mentions of lesbians when I was younger,” she said. “The occasional boy would be picked on for being a poofter. Obviously, I knew inside what was happening to me, but I didn’t have an inkling that it could be a lifestyle, just something to be buried and ashamed of.”
All that changed when she was sixteen, engaged to marry a dry cleaner called Colin, and she was seduced by an older woman in his biker gang who looked like Lauren Bacall, the only woman with her own bike. “It was the best possible way to be introduced to that world,” she smiles.
Lucy remembers telling her mum that she was in gay in a supermarket, and she almost shouted with joy, “Oh my God! My daughter’s a lesbian!” She thought it was great. “I was very lucky. Most people at that time were kicked out. Most of my friends had had run-ins with their parents, sometimes permanent.” That support made it easier to stand up, be herself and fight for what she believed in.
A few years later, and the conception of The Well Oiled Sisters was a drunken accident rather than a carefully planned birth. “The first gig we did was in a lesbian bar in Edinburgh call Key West. We were all horrendously drunk and decided to do it as a laugh. We’d played together drunkenly in bedrooms, but never out. It was supposed to be a one-off gig. I suppose the rest is history.”
The decision to play ‘cowpunk’ was a bit of a pisstake to start with. “Country is very much boy’s music with a token girly lead singer, so we wanted to pervert that a bit and write songs that weren’t about God, America and your little woman. Someone once said, quite unkindly that the songs were all about beer and fannies. I just wanted to do fast, wild music that people would dance to and have a good time to.”
“One guy took me aside and said we would have to change everything to go further – the lyrical content, the whole lesbian thing, the way we looked. If you want to make money in this business, you’re going to have to abandon your principles. I mean, fuck that! Imagine leading that kind of life. I couldn’t have done it and I didn’t want to. These A&R guys were all public schoolboys in the big club together. They didn’t want to see a bunch of gobby, Scottish lesbians with cowboy hats on.“
Doors opened after moving to London when Joe Strummer spotted them busking on the Portobello Road and they became faces on the thriving London scene, signed to a small label. And then an unexpected punter at a gig in a bar in Islington resulted in the band playing in front of thousands. “A guy was there in a beret and raincoat, trying to look invisible. Turned out to be Morrissey. He wanted us to support him on his next European tour. Our manager’s first question was ‘How much?’. He said, ‘No, you have to pay me.’”
After negotiating a slightly better deal, they embarked on what would be an eye-opening tour, exposing them to both the thrills and burden of being adored by thousands, who were obsessive and almost cultish about Morrissey. They were renowned for terrorising the support bands – the lead singer of the previous support band got bottled one night – but they were actually kind to the Well-Oileds. The man himself was constantly hiding, miserable, trapped, and it was difficult to see his life as any kind of success. “I knew I never wanted to get to that stage. It just wasn’t very nice. It was a real eyeopener about the cost of fame, but it was an incredible experience and we were taken on by WOMAD on the back of it. They were fantastic; they took us to Australia, New Zealand, Europe. Our days of eating Ginsters pies and Quavers in the back of the van were over.” The highlight of what was an incredible period in the band’s history was a four-day train tour from Perth to Adelaide, across the desert, with incredible international acts playing gigs in the carriages every night.
By now they were playing more mainstream venues, although they were always loyal to their lesbian fans. The results were positive. “Some fear from the men, which was good,” Lucy recalls. “Some self-doubting looks from the women. But we were good natural musicians, so we got respect.” The only real homophobia that they ever experienced was from record executives. With the breaks they had, they should have had more albums out and made more progress within the industry. “One guy took me aside and said we would have to change everything to go further – the lyrical content, the whole lesbian thing, the way we looked. If you want to make money in this business, you’re going to have to abandon your principles. I mean, fuck that! Imagine leading that kind of life. I couldn’t have done it and I didn’t want to. These A&R guys were all public schoolboys in the big club together. They didn’t want to see a bunch of gobby, Scottish lesbians with cowboy hats on. I’ve never been fame hungry. If anything, I used to get quite private and embarrassed when I was interviewed and had to be a representative for gay women everywhere. After seeing how fucked up the Morrissey thing was, I certainly wasn’t going to change to get it.”
The band gradually went their separate ways after two of its members fell in love with women on the other side of the world. These days, Lucy says that she’s a little better behaved. She’s learnt a lot but hasn’t changed much. She would still lay down her life for the things she believes in and happily write a song to offend the right people – the homophobes, sexists, racists. But generally her musical talent is now put to therapeutic uses, bringing music to people with dementia, and the results have been a revelation to her. “The music awakens something in people, especially when they’re old,” she says. “An old lady always sticks in my mind with her head on one side, tongue lolling out. She couldn’t respond to anything, but when we started playing it was like the movie Awakenings; she came to and started mouthing the words. It just touches something from your memory, your childhood, early years. But, of course, sometimes, old people being old people, they’re ridiculously rude and shout, ‘Shut that bloody music up!’ but generally it’s a positive reaction.” Sadly, since Lockdown, with the quarantine particularly affecting those in care homes, the physical work has had to stop, but she is now involved in promoting the online app, The Smiling Sessions, that aims to do the same vital work with the elderly.
After fifteen years together, the book closed naturally on the incredible tale of a band of unapologetic dykes who smashed the world in the face with their fierce honesty and refusal to conform, leaving a ballsy legacy, encouraging queer women to stand up and be visible. “Lots of women would come up to us and say, ‘I feel braver now. Seeing you guys gives me strength.’ It was accidental, that part of it. I was just being myself. Our true legacy,” she said, “was putting the cunt in country.”
More information about the incredible work of The Smiling Sessions can be found at http://www.smilingsessions.com
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