Sisters Are Punking It for Themselves
By day, Melissa Bransfield-Waters teaches pre-K tots at the Rise School, a private facility near the Astrodome for kids with disabilities and also those who are developing typically. She's the mother of a toddler daughter and a master's candidate in early childhood/special education. She's also been a youth counselor and an assistant program director for The Kids Exchange Program in Austin.
By night, she becomes Mel Hell -- fierce bassist and feral singer in the trad-punk/psychobilly band Zipperneck. She climbs up on stage at Rudyard's or the Continental Club or the Proletariat and lets down her flaming red hair and cuts loose with a roar that at times barely sounds human, much less demure and female.
But there are a few times when she mixes her two personae, much to the delight of her charges at Rise. "I have to say that this is the thing I am most proud of: I do play guitar for my kids -- every morning we have our little circle time and we sing and stuff," she says. "And the kids I teach are on the verge of being two, and of course they are very defiant and oppositional -- the very definition of punk rock, right? And so Zipperneck does a cover of the Sham 69 song 'No I Don't Wanna' -- it's all about 'I don't wanna go to work' or whatever, all these things you don't wanna do. And so I kinda tweaked it and made a kiddie version of it all about the things kids don't wanna do, and they love it. It was a total hit, and I have kids that are like three, four, five years old now that still love it -- I can hear them going down the halls singing, 'No! I don't wanna!' It's hilarious."
And mixing up roles is kinda what Hell is all about. Punk rock nationally (and probably even more so in Houston) has long been mainly a male affair -- rare local exceptions like Manhole, Stinkerbell and Sybil from Rusted Shut only proving the rule. Hell is trying to change that December 9, with the "Island of the Misfit Boytoys" girl-power Christmas punk show, which will feature Zipperneck, Something Fierce and the Bareknuckle Knockouts, who are led by Alice Sin, formerly of C'Mon C'Mon, Deathkultur BBQ and Manhole.
"We really want to showcase female talent in punk, and what I like about this show is that all of the lead singers of all of these bands like to scream," Hell says. "We are not afraid. We like to emulate our male heroes, and while we are female-fronted bands, we are not anti-male. We really look up to past bands like the Clash, Gun Club, things like that. And when I sing, I'm not really trying to sound like a girl."
It's sad but true, but whenever most white male music critics -- and hell, most white male music fans, too-- come across a band that is not white and male, they assume that all that band's influences have to be white and male. Thus blues legend Bobby Bland could not possibly have been influenced by the painfully white Perry Como, even if Bland himself has said so countless times over the last 50 years. (Look up Bland in Allmusicguide.com, and you'll read that he was influenced exclusively by other black Memphis guys.) And if a band is female, most critics assume that all that band's influences have to be other women -- all female punk bands have to be descended from the Pretenders, Siouxsie and the Banshees and the like.
While Hell does show similarity to some of the punk girls of yore -- Chrissie Hynde especially -- that probably comes from the fact they share primarily male influences, albeit different bands. Hell's favorite bands of today are Louis XIV and Kings of Leon, and her faves from the past are the Ramones, Gun Club, Stiff Little Fingers and the Clash. Save for Gun Club, there's nary a lady in any of those bands; and nor, despite Pete Townshend's semifamous assertion that he was a woman, is there one in the Who, whom Hell calls "probably my biggest influence."
"They were punk before it was punk, and although I can't play anywhere near as well as he does, I was inspired by John Entwistle to start playing bass," Hell says. "The first time I got into the Who I was in high school, and I was like, 'I want to play like him.' "
Hell, whose previous band experience included a vocal-less stint as the bassist in Mustang Lightning, still sees herself as a musician first and a singer second. "I'm a little bummed that I have to be the lead singer because I'm not as focused as I could be on my bass playing," she says. "I don't get to do all my fancy tricks. I try to throw them in every now and then, but it's a challenge for me to play and sing at the same time."
But the fact that she does sing gives her a chance to show off the funny songs she writes and/or sings. Delivered as they are in a series of snarls, growls and hollers, Hell admits that the words are often hard to understand, so she sent me a crib sheet via e-mail giving me the gist of some of her new stuff. (Note: Hell won't likely be playing these songs at circle time at Rise anytime soon): "Time Bomb" is "an L7-esque tune depicting a neurotic chick who's had enough," "Poison Girl" (written by Zipperneck guitarist J.D.) is "not about the infamous Houston bar, but about the girl you love to hate, with daggers in her eyes and venom in her blood." And then there's "Heat Ray," which Hell describes as "an H.G. Wells inspired hip-shaker about alien invasion/female conquest -- the best line is: 'C'mon baby let's procreate before I incinerate you with my heat ray.' "
Not mommy/teacher material, clearly. And that's the point. "There's a lot of emotion involved, a lot of angst and stresses in life that women have, especially being a mom, and having this outlet -- I don't know where it comes from, but when I get up there behind the mike and play my guitar, it all just comes out."
Hell's something of a new face on the scene, but many longtime Houston music fans will remember Alice Sin from the Bareknuckle Knockouts, C'Mon C'Mon, Deathkultur BBQ and Manhole, one of the most prominent female punk bands the Bayou City has ever seen. I haven't heard this band yet, but the lineup and personnel certainly look intriguing -- upright bass, drums, guitar and pedal steel, all playing, as Sin describes it on their MySpace site, "good nasty rock and roll, rockabilly, and punk."
"The pedal steel brings a very unique sound," Sin says. "We didn't know how it was gonna work out, but it really puts the icing on the cake. It's a really cool sound."
I asked Sin, a veteran on the local punk scene, how things had changed since 1994, when former music editor Brad Tyer wrote Manhole up in these pages. "Things are a lot easier now," she says. "Ten or 15 years ago when I started on the scene, there were no women at all. And then it became real kitschy -- a woman band wasn't supposed to be serious. It was like a gimmick. Now I think that's completely blown out of the water. In general, there's just way more women becoming musicians."
Sin is right about the scarcity of women in the early '90s, but if you look further back, to the late '70s and early '80s, there were lots of women on the punk scene. Punk's forerunners teemed with women -- Patti Smith, the Runaways, Moe Tucker of the Velvet Underground, Girlschool and Suzi Quatro, to name a few of the most prominent. And then once punk bloomed, you had bands like the Slits and X-Ray Spex in addition to the Pretenders and Siouxsie Sioux. The earliest new wave was very woman-friendly as well.
What happened? My theory is that the Go Go's and the Bangles ruined it all from the musical standpoint, and Madonna spoiled the fashion. The former watered down the music, and Madonna took the fashion from the streets to suburbia, and MTV gave them each the means. I asked Sin about this theory. "I think that holds true," she said. "Those bands made it where you had to be cute to be a woman in a band. And with MTV, people were seeing you more than hearing you."
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