We don’t use the word “icon” lightly around here. But if there ever was one, for us, Soo Catwoman is the epitome. She is the face of British punk rock. It’s impossible to look at her image and not think of the music of the time, bands that would change the face of music forever. But this image was also one that was often used without her permission. She tells us her thoughts about it and how with the help of her daughter, she is reclaiming what is rightfully hers again. We feel honored for the chance to speak with her, because not only is she legendary and experienced a place in time that most of us can only dream of, but she is very private and has given very few interviews. Top that all off with the fact she’s one of the loveliest people I’ve ever had the pleasure to get to know, and you have a true icon.
How did you get involved with the punk scene, and at what age?
I had always been aware that I was an ‘odd one out’ due to my dress sense and hairstyles and it was apparently my appearance that prompted an invite from a girl who approached me one Saturday during the Summer of 1976 when I was out shopping with Marco Pirroni (Adam and the Ants). She invited me to Club Louise that night in Poland Street, London. It was there that I met Sid and John for the first time. I was 21.
Who did you really enjoy hanging out with back then?
Sid and John in the early days, before they were famous. I hung out a lot with Sid on his own too but he was always happier when John was around. They were like a comedy double act and both had a great sense of humour. They seemed to know what each other were thinking. Despite the seriousness that comes across in the old pictures and footage of that time – it was also very light hearted and a lot of fun.
And who was your favorite band?
It would be hard to pin down just one band. The band I saw gig most was The Clash who were always excellent live. I saw a lot of the Jam gigs too – I liked the sheer energy and it wasn’t hard to see even then that Paul Weller would go on to do so well. I was very lucky to see many different bands around that time, so I was spoilt for choice. I liked the Cortinas who were from Bristol. The Stranglers were always good to see live and had a huge following. I also got along well with the American bands when they arrived in London – Blondie, Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, Wayne (Jayne) County etc.
Tell us how your iconic haircut came about…
By that time I’d had a few unusual haircuts, I’d had the back cropped off very short with a pointed fringe, which had a pink stripe in the middle for instance – that was in 1972. Marc Bolan and David Bowie also influenced me to a degree. I always used to go to barber shops to get a haircut, rather than to hairdressers, I just felt more comfortable there. My hair was growing out of a short style and I was very fond of the old Hammer Horror films with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in them. I began to grease my hair and comb the sides up to imitate ‘the Bride of Frankenstein’. After a while I decided it was taking too long to get ready so I walked into a local barbers and got my comb out and parted my hair on both sides, I asked the barber to part the back for me and then shave off the entire middle of my hair. He was very shocked and I think he thought I was kidding at first. After I assured him that I wasn’t he did what I asked, looking rather perplexed about it. I think he felt bad about what he’d done to my hair but I was really pleased with it. Once I’d had my hair cut I became much more creative with the outfits I made and wore too, it was like finding a missing piece of a puzzle. The whole look came together at that point.
Any feeling at the time that the punk movement would become as legendary as it did?
Someone once asked me how it felt to be part of a revolution, and I replied that I didn’t know anything about any revolution, that I was just doing what I felt – and that’s the truth. It still amazes me how many changes were brought about as a direct result of that time, but I don’t think anyone could have predicted or hoped that they would be so far-reaching. Those kind of claims are easy to make in retrospect, it’s easy to put a gloss on something that isn’t that well documented and write a whole new script for it, indeed it’s been done more than once. I did feel that I was part of something though, for me it was a kinship that I hadn’t found before. I never seemed to fit in anywhere – and then suddenly things all fell into place. I began to meet people that I really had something in common with. People who actually cared – some of those people I will remember all my life.
What was it like being a female member of the scene? I look back at photos of you and it seems like you could handle and conquer anything, including punk boys! Were they respectful of you?
People often assume that punk boys were rude and obnoxious but that just wasn’t my experience at all, I think that came later when people began to emulate what the papers had said the scene was about. All the boys I knew were very respectful and it wasn’t unusual for my friends to wait with me at the bus stop until the night bus came along to take me home.
I remember on many occasions previously when talking to men socially that certain conversations were ‘off limits’, for instance talking about things like art, poetry or literature would make their eyes glaze over. It was as if as a woman, you still had to ‘know your place’ despite any ground that had been gained in the Sixties. One of the things that was so very different about meeting and spending time with Sid and John (and many of the other people who were, or later became involved with that scene) was that there was no order of importance relating to gender as there had been in my experience previously. I made many male friends and enjoyed their friendship and even protection without them expecting anything in return. I felt respected for the first time, and that of course gave me extra confidence. It was a time when I felt that I had found like minds and kinship and for me that was the most important part of living through that time. I ‘fitted in’ somewhere and that counted for a lot with me. I had never had a gang mentality and am comfortable with my own company, but many of the people I met in those early days became as close as family. I think with love and support behind them that anyone can take on the world.
Bob Gruen has taken some amazing photos of you, how did you meet?
I first met Bob at Louise’s club. As you probably notice from his photographs, they are not posed as such and from that point of view you didn’t really take much notice of him walking around with his camera – he captured what was happening rather than trying to influence it, I think that’s why his pictures are so good. He’s also a lovely person too – perhaps that helps?
Do you have favorite photos of yourself, and why do you like them?
I have a couple of favourites, one by Bob and another by Jill Furmanovsky (We were lucky enough to use Jill’s for this post~Stef) I think the reason I love Bob’s pictures of me so much is that I really never thought of myself as glamorous – I was more of a ‘tom boy’ so he captured a part of me that I previously hadn’t really acknowledged. The picture that Jill took, I like that because she’s captured a fun moment – one when I was actually smiling and happy. I smiled a lot but it wasn’t often captured on film.
I love the cover of “Backstabbbers” you did with Derwood and Rat. How did it come about? Think you’ll sing again?
I had recorded songs before on a couple of occasions and come from quite a musical family but it wasn’t something I’d really pursued much, although of course it’s a great form of expression. I hadn’t known Derwood very well when he was in Generation X but he was a long time friend of Rat Scabies, and Rat and his wife Viv lived nearby so I was in touch with them. Rat asked me if I’d like to record ‘Backstabbers’ as it was one of the tracks that Derwood was interested in covering and I jumped at the chance. Not only is Derwood a great guitarist but he’s a wonderful human being too (I’ll say! ~Stef) and working with him was a great pleasure. The song (originally by The O’Jays) was a long time favourite of mine too, although I had to slightly alter the lyrics. I’m sure I’d sing again at some point – maybe sooner if Derwood has any ideas he’d like to run by me.
Please check back tomorrow for part 2 of our interview…