Rock music has long been dominated by angry white men. Even in the more progressive Grunge scene men ruled the roost, Courtney Love being both the exception and the rule. A fierce, uncontrollable force often reduced by the press to the role of Kurt Cobain’s wife. Her own musical ability was questioned – did Kurt write all her best tunes? – and she was cast as a villain in the media circus that surrounded his suicide. However women like Love and the all-female band L7 showed that in the post grunge world there was certainly room for strong female voices in rock.
In America adolescent pop-punk filled the void Grunge left behind, and although the songs often placed women on pedestals – unobtainable to the teenage dirtbags singing about them – there was still little room for female voices in the music itself.
In Britain the more open ended and looser scene was still dominated by males but it seemed there was a gap to be filled.
Enter Skunk Anansie. Fronted by Skin, a shaven headed, black, bisexual woman with a spectacular voice and charisma to match any of her peers. It seemed like Skunk Anansie were famous before any one had even heard anything they’d written. Skin was an instantly familiar face peppered with questions from the rock press about her gender, sexuality and race – especially in response to Pantera frontman Phil Anselmo’s racially dubious comments made onstage in America, that coincided with Skunk Anansie’s rise to prominence. Whether she wanted to be or not Skin was a figurehead and spokesperson for her generation. It was lucky then that their debut album lived up to expectations.
Like the Manics it was politically charged, but musically they brought more funk to the mix than any of their peers and Skin’s voice allowed moments of tenderness to cut through riffs that often veered closer to Rage Against the Machine than the mainstream Britpop that they’d find themselves sharing festival bills with.
Wherever you put Skunk Anansie they stood out. Success was almost inevitable and sure enough the breakthrough came when they released the single ‘Weak’ – the standout track from the album – which peaked at #20 in the charts, but earned them valuable radio play and TV appearances and moved them a few more rungs up the ladder of success. Skunk Anansie were now bona fide pop stars too.
They quickly followed up their success with the album Stoosh, capitalising on the momentum of their debut. Avoiding the pitfalls of ‘second album syndrome’, Stoosh continued their upward trajectory and established them firmly within the mainstream without compromising their aggressive sound. In fact their third album Post Orgasmic Chill was probably their heaviest yet. By now they were big enough to headline Glastonbury, it seemed there was no stopping Skunk Anansie, and then in 2001 they stopped. Without fanfare, without any public antagonism and without a noticeable drop off in popularity they called it a day. Unlike many of their peers, theirs was not a career tainted by controversy or sensationalism and despite the early hype they built a career based on consistent, excellent song writing and maybe if they’d stayed together they would’ve have made the step up to the biggest leagues of rock…or maybe they got out at exactly the right time and this way they left an impeccable back catalogue and a legacy untainted.
Right up until the time they reformed of course. Not that subsequent tours and albums have jeopardised their previous work in any way, helped by their staunch refusal to become a nostalgia band, but any return after over a decade out of the business is risky. Skunk Anansie, however, seemed to have negotiated the tricky waters with their usual understated ease, rebuilding a fan base, expanding their musical boundaries and reminding everyone how good they were at their peak.
Skunk Anansie pushed at people’s perceptions and showed that gender, race and sexuality didn’t have to be barriers to success in rock music. They opened doors for anybody to play whatever music they damn well pleased. Let’s just hope those doors haven’t been slammed shut behind them.