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Poison Girls

Not your run-of-the-mill post-punk combo, but an anarcho band led by 40-something singer/guitarist, mother-of-two Vi Subversa (born Frances Sokolov, 20 June 1935, London), POISON GIRLS were hot on the heels of fellow punk-rock revolutionaries CRASS, and even recorded on that band’s self-named imprint. `Persons Unknown’ was a favourite from 1980, and appeared on the flip-side of the CRASS single, `Bloody Revolutions’, a record which helped raise an estimated £20,000 in order to fund the Wapping Autonomy Centre. Vi, herself, was an unlikely but highly articulate and committed hippie-turned-punk frontwoman, guiding the group through more than a decade of anti-establishment, pro-feminist musical activity.
Vi was certainly the most interesting proposition of the outfit, having lived for a few years in Beersheeba, Israel, working in a ceramic pottery plant run by sculptor/artist Nehemia Azaz. Back in Brighton, her inaugural public performance was at Sussex University, in 1975 and, with confidence charged from the punk movement, the not-so shy and retiring Vi subsequently formed POISON GIRLS, initially with guitarist/vocalist Richard Famous, drummer Lance d’Boyle and a succession of bassists from Bella Donna, Scotty Boy Barker, Pete Fender and Bernhardt Rebours. Pete Fender was in fact her young son (born Daniel Sansom, 1964), who branched out with sister Gem Stone (born Gemma Sansom, 1967) for the youngest post-punk act around, FATAL MICROBES. Significantly, both groups would split their debut 12-inch EP for Small Wonder Records; POISON GIRLS offering up `Closed Shop’ and `Piano Lessons’, her offspring (led by HONEY BANE) delivering their profound `Violence Grows’; both Pete and Gem (who’d guest for the “PGs” from time to time), would re-emerge with RUBELLA BALLET.
Produced by Penny Rimbaud of CRASS, a second 12-inch EP/mini-set was commissioned by Walthamstow’s favourite DIY imprint in April ‘79. Unleashed by Small Wonder soon afterwards, `Hex’ (and from it, sonic songs such as `Reality Attack’, `Crisis’ and `Bremen Song’), convinced POISON GIRLS that a flit to a commune/squat in Burleigh House in Essex, near to CRASS’s Dial House residence/squat, would be worth saving on the travel fares – one imagines. Responsible for tape sounds, until he was let loose on the violin, Nil would be added as the 5th member.
Strengthening their position among the staunchly anarchist punks, by way of the aforementioned `Persons Unknown’ (a bludgeoning 7-minute radical rant of class!), POISON GIRLS won over a spreading fanbase sympathetic to their beliefs and lifestyle, while spare time was spent campaigning against racism, fascism and anything the government was throwing at the good people of Britain… and beyond.
Named after the place where U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy drove off leaving behind a drowned female companion and a hornet’s nest of intrigue, CHAPPAQUIDDICK BRIDGE (1980) {*7} was POISON GIRLS’ one-and-only full-set endorsed by Crass Records. Here, Vi was at her most poetic and razor-sharp, while many of the “unplugged” codas (`State Control’ and `Tender Love’ – with Gem – among them), sexual politics, war and peace, and a smorgasbord of sonic workouts propped up their agit-pop manifesto.
Fans enamoured by the budget cost of their previous 7-inch were only too delighted to pay the cover price of 90p for `All Systems Go’, the nom de plume that masked two lengthy tracks inside: `Promenade Immortelle’ (adding vox by Eve Libertine of CRASS) and the anti-war/anti-regime `Dirty Work’. If there was a thousand things they wanted to say to you, the In The City fanzine (issue 15), thereafter, presented a single-sided flexi-disc of POISON GIRLS songs, `Bully Boys’ (live 18/6/80) and `Pretty Polly’.
More or less presenting an Anglo angle to the DEAD KENNEDYS punk pose, their live-in-concert gig at Edinburgh’s Lasswade Centre, TOTAL EXPOSURE (1981) {*7}, was the PG’s first release on their fledgling DIY label, Xntrix. Lyrically stunning, and directing their angst from the people straight to the doors of the establishment, `State Control’, `SS Snoopers’ and best-bits already mentioned, it mattered not that Vi was a little ragged and hoarse.
For 1982’s WHERE’S THE PLEASURE {*7}, POISON GIRLS – Chris Grace in for Rebours and Nil – had begun to widen their musical scope and had moved on from their affiliation with CRASS; note that son Pete Fender turned up on a handful of tracks. Not only did a stocky Vi look like someone more at ease attending the bingo, the shock and awe of her singing, MARIANNE FAITHFULL/Lesley Woods-like, on `Menage Abattoir’, `Cry No More’, `Lovers Are They Worth It’ and the title track, must’ve had audiences gasping for air.
Following a brief indie-pop dalliance with Illuminated Records for singles, `One Good Reason’ (adding Cynth Ethics/Sian Daniels on er… synths) and `Are You Happy Now’, the band found themselves back at Xntrix for part-lifespan collection/part live double, 7 YEAR SCRATCH (1984) {*7}. Disc one: comprising rare recordings from 1977 onwards, and disc two: casting out a live set from Gillys in Manchester (October ’83), it seemed a good place to start if one was not already under the spell of Subversa.
Vi and her POISON GIRLS – bassist Martin Heath (also on harmonica and steel guitar) superseding Mark – reactivated Xntrix again for the sardonic and pro-feminist anthem `I’m Not A Real Woman’, a highlight from their swansong album SONGS OF PRAISE (1985) {*6}; the material, at least lyrically, as uncompromising as ever. Backed by either/both Agent Orange and Max Volume (future alumni) on a couple tracks, sadly, even the low vinyl price of £4.49 couldn’t convince all but die-hard fans to part with money for the engrossing `Desperate Days’, `Feeling The Pinch’, `Voodoo Pappadollar’, etc.
Although they kept on keeping on until the end of the 80s, the POISON GIRLS’ last vinyl issue was 1986’s EP, `The Price Of Grain And The Price Of Blood’, railing against injustice to the last. While Vi’s occasionally cackling vocal style may have been something of an acquired taste to some, one geezer that thought it worth its weight in silver was ex-NIGHTINGALES geezer, Robert Lloyd, who almost immediately invited the luminous lady to sing on the single, `Keep Lying, I Love It’. Retiring from studio hassles, but not entirely from the live circuit, 50-something Vi was content to take on the establishment in other mediums. Turning 80, and still managing to sing on her birthday, sadly, one of the most overlooked entertainers of her era, Frances/Vi Subversa, subsequently passed away on 19 February, 2016 – “flesh and blood is what we are”.
© MC Strong 1999-2003/GA&ID // rev-up MCS Feb2016

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