How does one even begin to describe the singular force of nature that is Vivien Goldman?
(photo by Alexesie Pinnock)
According to Pitchfork, “no one’s more punk than Vivien Goldman.” But “punk” hardly encompasses the scope of Goldman’s prodigious talents and contributions to pop culture.
Goldman, who was born in London, played a key role in helping Bob Marley achieve worldwide fame. As Marley’s PR maven, Goldman helped put Marley on the front pages of some of the most widely read music publications at a time when Jamaican music had yet to be embraced by the mainstream. Helping Marley with publicity, however, was just the start. Goldman’s love for Marley’s music and Jamaican culture runs deep. She has authored two books on Marley (including his first biography) and is a well-respected reggae scholar that has lectured on his work at NYU, Rutgers and other universities, earning her the nickname the “Punk Professor.”
Of course, reggae is just one of Goldman’s areas of expertise. The other is punk.
Punk culture has shaped Goldman’s life and worldview in unique ways. When punk broke, Goldman had a front row seat as one of the few female music journalists when the British music weeklies were dominated by men. Goldman documented the extraordinary changes in music that punk ushered in, particularly the newfound starring role that women musicians played.
In the late 70s and early 80s, a time when many U.K. musicians would turn to reggae for inspiration, Goldman shifted from occasional backing vocalist to front-and-center post-punk artist, first as a vocalist for The Flying Lizards, then making solo recordings with a litany of talented friends and artists, including John Lydon and Keith Levene from Public Image Limited, Vicky Spinall from The Raincoats, experimental musician Steve Beresford and legendary percussionist Robert Wyatt.
Her collected works from this period, along with her recordings from her Paris-based collective Chantage, were released in 2016 as part of the widely heralded “Resolutionary” collection on Staubgold.
Goldman has become an unabashed champion of how punk offers a unique form of empowerment for women. Her 2019 book, “Revenge of the She Punks: A Feminist Music History from Poly Styrene to Pussy Riot,” blends interviews, history and Goldman’s personal experience to explore what makes punk so liberating for women. The book has received rave reviews and is a must read for anyone interested in feminism and punk culture.
The success of the “Resolutionary” compilation inspired Goldman to write more songs. In 2021, Vivien Goldman released her first full-length album, “Next Is Now,” produced by Youth of Killing Joke. Following its release, Goldman hit the road in support of the record. Last August, Goldman teamed up with DC duo Dunia & Aram for a special outdoor concert at Rhizome DC. It was an exhilarating experience.
Of course, audiences were left wanting more. And now the “Punk Professor” herself is back in DC for another show – this time at the Marx Cafe in Mt. Pleasant to help celebrate the 18th Anniversary of WE FOUGHT THE BIG ONE, DC’s longest-running monthly underground music party. Usually, artists who perform at WFTBO are asked 5 questions for a blog interview. But Vivian Goldman is anything but usual, and with so much to talk about, we have asked her 6 questions. As you will see, Goldman has a lot to say about what drives her multi-disciplined creativity, what life was a like as one of the few female music journalists and how she became part of the post-punk scene herself as a performer who continues to add to an impressive legacy. Read on!
1) By any measure, your career and life experience is nothing short of extraordinary. You have distinguished yourself as a music journalist, PR maven, author, broadcaster, documentarian, pop cultural commentator, music video director, “punk professor” and of course, musician. What led you to be involved in so many different disciplines and aspects of pop culture?
Vivien: So kind of you to say so! My instinctive answer is that for almost all my working life I have been a freelancer! Trying like all freelancers to use my skill set as actively and productively as possible with whatever medium is happening at the time that coincides with said skill set, to get information through. It was exciting to become a musician in the late 1970s/early 1980s, having been writing about the scene — it was the friends I made as a writer who invited me to sing, really. Then, when I did start doing music as an artist more than as a reggae backup singer, which is how I started, looking back it was as described in my book, Revenge of the She-Punks; when my musical partner Eve Blouin had to change course for personal reasons, the music business was not a massively welcoming industry for someone as weird as myself, entering rather late in my thirties. It felt natural to gravitate to making television when I had the chance; the medium in the UK was starting to make space for indies, rather than just the BBC. And I had always intended to make films, really, when I was a student! Things changed again when I moved to America in the early 1990s, leading me to become a Professor; lecturing large classes gave me the confidence to go in front of an audience, having never performed when I was a post-punk artist back then. SO when my compilation Resolutionary became popular and people asked me to perform, the teaching made me ready!
(photo by David Corio)
2) You started your writing career in 1975 – a time when there were very few female music journalists. What was it like for you as a woman to carve out a space for yourself in the industry at that time, especially as a woman with an interest in black music and Jamaican culture?
Vivien: I didn’t have much competition in the music press in terms of wanting to cover the “black music” scene, as it was then called in the UK. Most of the lads were interested in rock’n’roll, or maybe punk, more than reggae. Actually, there was a lot of gender-based conflict working on the paper where I wound up as Features Editor. Several of the lads really didn’t like having a female colleague pushing a somewhat different agenda, and were firmly convinced and invested in the idea that rock was a boystown and so it should remain. But the punk scene changed a lot of things, giving somewhat more of an opening than had been previously enjoyed by women in pop. The musicians in general were much more welcoming.
3) During the twin pop cultural tides of punk and post-punk, you lived in a flat in the neighborhood of Ladbroke Grove – a nexus for a lot of exciting activity. What was it like to be surrounded by so many creative friends and neighbors – from The Slits and John Lydon to Joe Strummer and Brian Eno – and to not only see the merging of punk and reggae, but document what was happening for the influential British music weeklies?
Vivien: It was West London’s Ladbroke Grove, around the famous Portobello Road, and it was a daily buzz to be part of such a creative community. That first punk/reggae axis was a small community. London was much more navigable then! There were squats and cheap housing available which is a big part of making a creative community.
(cover of Vivien Goldman’s “Dirty Washing” EP, released in 1981 by 99 Records)
4) It wasn’t long before you started making music yourself – first with The Flying Lizards, then your own solo recordings. How did the “Dirty Washing” EP come about? And how did you manage to involve so many talented friends from John Lydon and Keith Levene to George Oban from Aswad, Vicky Aspinall from The Raincoats and even Robert Wyatt?
Vivien: The first singing I did was as a reggae backup singer with people like Neneh Cherry and the Slits’ Arri Up, for producer Adrian Sherwood. I was invited to join the Flying Lizards, who were really an avant-garde collective that collided with New Wave and early synth-pop, by the man I call King Lizard, David Cunningham. I can’t really remember how, but he heard me singing, and Deborah, who sang on the “Money” classic hit, had no interest in doing any more recording, so off we went. All the people on Launderette were my pals. George and I had made a cassette of the songs and I played them to the musicians, and they liked them, starting out with John Lydon who really helped me make the Dirty Washing 12″ on a practical level as well as co-producing..
5) In the early 80s, you moved to Paris and formed Chantage with Eve Blouin. What led you to leave London for Paris and what was it like to make music as Chantage during this time?
Vivien: Human reasons took me to Paris at the time, and it was a thrilling period, with Jack Lang as Minister of Culture there was a much-missed sese of artistic renaissance. Having been working with reggae in London and Jamaica, it was Paris that opened the world of African music to me, as it was all around. I was writing for the magazine Actual, and our editor/publisher was a champion of soukous and other sounds, steered by my partner in our duo Chantage, Eve Blouin. It was such a glorious optimistic moment with a sense of new beginnings. Every time I hear Many Dibango’s guitarist, Jerry Malekani, play on our Chantage record, it transports me back there.
(cover of Vivien Goldman’s “Next Is Now” LP, released in 2021)
6) Fast forward to 2021, and you released your first full-length album “Next Is Now,” which was produced by Youth. What led you to make the album and what was it like working with Youth? Also, what was it like to go on tour and share your songs with live audiences after covering live shows as a music journalist for so many years?
Vivien: The popularity of my 2016 compilation Resolutionary led to my being asked to do shows. I had never done shows before. I didn’t have enough music to cover the length of the shows, and Youth, an old friend, suggested we record a couple more tunes which went so well, they led to the LP! It might have been much more challenging had I not been teaching for quite a few years now. Some of my classes were vast, bigger than a full club (not NYU, but other institutions.) That got me used to interacting with actual live people rather than a microphone in a studio.Going out on tour, or on stage, is still a fairly new experience for me and I am loving the engagement. Just to perform with my dear friends Dunia and Aram and sing the songs I love, turns out to be a joy.
Listen to and purchase Vivien Goldman’s Resolutionary compilation and Next Is Now album on Bandcamp. And check out Vivien Goldman’s website for more information about her amazing contributions as a writer, educator, broadcaster and musician. Be sure to listen to and purchase Dunia & Aram’s music on Bandcamp. Be on the lookout for their soon-to-be-released debut album. The WE FOUGHT THE BIG ONE 18-Year Anniversary show is at the Marx Cafe (3203 Mt. Pleasant St. NW) on Friday, April 1st at 10pm.