It was girls directly to the front last night at Brixton Academy where riot grrrl founders Bikini Kill made their first live appearance in 23 years.
The crowd, strikingly, was at least three-quarters women – a breath of fresh air in comparison to say, a recent Guided by Voices gig where men outnumbered women pretty much 10 to one. This, plus the choice of London’s Big Joanie and Child’s Pose to support, plus the unusually long women’s toilet queue, plus the female roadies, set a scene that said punk is female, punk is now, punk is happening all around you and it is still as important as it was in the 90s. And this is even before the band hit the stage.
It was never going to be the same now as it was then. Instead of playing tiny venues in the Pacific Northwest full of hardened hearts and minds to change – a band whose feminism made them targets for abuse and violence in their earliest days – Bikini Kill now possess a different kind of status. One that allows them to evangelise to almost 5000 people at the sold-out Academy. When the band appear, they seem to be enjoying this very different welcome, and after waving to the crowd and doing a few lunges to warm up, launch into five songs in quick succession. The setlist bounces into every corner of their legacy, from super early cuts like This Is Not a Test from very first game-changing demo Revolution Girl Style Now!, to Reject All American from the 1996 album of the same name. Kathleen Hanna and Tobi Vail swap vocal duties several times, switching from Kathleen’s trademark bratty wail to Tobi’s more angsty version, and the whole band switch instruments often, just as they did way back when.
“Punk is female, punk is now, punk is happening all around you”
The songs are brilliant – immediate, vital, and totally, messily timeless – but almost better is the chat between songs which sees Kathleen and Tobi reflect on the band’s past, the state of society now and offer advice for a new generation of feminists. It ranges from the hope-filled and whimsical (Kathleen urges everyone to “feel your psychic powers” because “the world is dying” before launching into Resist Psychic Death) to the practical (Tobi tells us,”You don’t have to be good at an instrument to write a good song… we learned our instruments when we were onstage.”) Kathleen also shouts out her support for sex workers, wishes us a happy gay pride, decries anti-abortion ‘feminism’ and plugs the new Poly Styrene book, saying she’s always incredibly flattered when she’s compared to the X-Ray Spex frontwoman. The crowd hang on every word.
Ending on a double encore of Suck My Left One, which makes the front row descend into full-on tornado madness, and For Tammy Rae, which makes us all tear up a little, Kathleen tells us that it was The Raincoats that prompted their reunion – but surely there is something about today’s volatile political climate that’s made them want to come back and fight again, too. Bikini Kill prove that they’re just as powerful now as they were when they first started out, and we need revolution girl style forever.