Skin Skunk Anansie It Takes Blood andGuts
Photo: Marco Ovando

How Skunk Anansie Defied Britpop

Read an extract from Skin's forthcoming memoir 'It Takes Blood and Guts', which tells her story from growing up Brixton to becoming one of the most influential figures in British rock.
September 21, 2020, 8:30am

The following is an extract from It Takes Blood and Guts – a forthcoming memoir by Skin, the trailblazing frontwoman of Skunk Anansie and one of the most influential figures in British rock history.

At a time of male-dominated Britpop, Skunk Anansie unapologetically blasted their way onto the rock scene and quickly progressed from sweat-drenched gigs in Kings Cross bars to Glastonbury headliners. As a Black, gay woman singing rock music, Skin was an unmissable force, but she had to fight for her success and she still does today. The book tells her story from a difficult childhood growing up in Brixton, fighting poverty and prejudice, through the band’s early days, huge success and beyond.

It Takes Blood and Guts is co-written with music journalist, biographer and broadcaster Lucy O’Brien, who introduces the extract below.

Skunk Anansie played their first gig at the Splash Club in 1994, the year that Britpop emerged as a media force. The year before, Blur’s lead singer Damon Albarn had declared war on US grunge with the upbeat ’60s pop influences of their album Modern Life Is Rubbish. His girlfriend Justine Frischmann, from punk- pop band Elastica, said that their music was ‘a manifesto for the return of Britishness’, whilst glam rock-styled Brett Anderson from Suede graced the cover of Select magazine, posing in front of a Union Jack flag, over the coverline: ‘Yanks Go Home!’ The scene was to explode later that year, with the release of Oasis’s debut album Definitely Maybe.

Britpop music – guitar-led pop with catchy, insouciant songwriting – was inspired by ’60s mod culture and ’70s glam, and linked in with the emergence of London street fashion and radical YBAs (Young British Artists) like Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas and Damien Hirst. 1994 was also the year that men’s magazine Loaded launched, with the strapline: ‘For men who should know better’. The magazine was devoted to sex, drink, football and the New Lad. The scene celebrated a Britishness that was very white, male-defined and harking back to Swinging London for its reference points. With their diverse, multiracial line-up, Skunk Anansie articulated a different narrative about Britain. And Skin, a Black woman singing rock, independently created a style and sound of her own. – Lucy O’Brien

Front Cover of 'It Takes Blood And Guts' by Skin of Skunk Anansie

The Union Jack meant something different to us. Our first rehearsal space was run by a British Movement guy, and there was a massive British flag positioned just as you walked through the entrance. That’s where, one day, I saw the baby swastika, a small, wobbly version scrawled on the wall only a foot off the ground. It looked like it had been drawn by a four-year-old, so when I got in the studio, I started singing about it. It started off as a whisper, low, over Cass’s bassline, and then I spoke the lines that came into my head: Who put the little baby swastikkka on the wall . . . who put the little baby nigga-head on the wall . . . the eyes were so big couldna been more than baby scrawls. Then I scream: You rope them in young… so delicately done, grown up in your poison.

Cass said he liked the way I attacked things. “Fucking hell,” he said. “You’re singing about that. Go on, babe!” Cass really didn’t realise who I was until we played our first gig with Mama Wild. I wore Dr Marten boots and gauzy scarves and had an alternative look he had never seen before. He thought I was quiet and unassuming, until I turned into a monster onstage. Cass got it; he recognised that anger.

I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and I was gaining confidence as a live performer. I could see which songs were working with the crowd, and I remember feeling secure and finally happy in myself. At the beginning of 1994, I broke up Mama Wild and started a new band. Cass suggested the name Skunk, but I objected because people would assume we just smoked weed all day, and I don’t even smoke cigarettes. He reassured me that even though there was a nice double meaning, it wasn’t to do with ganja. The name came from his time in New Mexico, studying shamanic medicine cards as a source of divination. In Native American culture, the symbolic and spiritual power of animals is understood as a way of connecting mind, body and spirit. Cass interpreted the skunk as a black-and-white animal respected by the whole animal kingdom, without being a predator. No animal will go near a skunk because they don’t want to get sprayed by that smell. Not even a tiger or a leopard will try to kill a skunk. It’s one of the smallest animals, but its power lies in its simple weapon.

The biggest bands at that time all had one name – Blur, Oasis, Pulp, Elastica. I wanted our name to have a different flavour, with another layer, a name that reminded me of my heritage. I remembered being a little girl, sitting in front of the TV in Jamaica watching poet and folklorist Miss Lou tell Anansi stories on the kids’ show Ring Ding. Originally Anansi the spiderman from Ghana, in Jamaican culture Anansi is sometimes depicted as a Black man with an afro and six legs. He was my favourite character in the jungle, always playing tricks on the other animals, and always getting away with it. I loved one particular story about three friends who each had a banana and felt sorry for Anansi because he didn’t have one. “Mi hungry, mi hungry, mi don’t have banana… give me half of your banana now,” he said, so they each gave him half a banana. Chuckling to himself, he ran with three halves of banana before they worked out they’d been had. That’s the kind of thing Anansi would do.

The fact that he was the trickster really appealed to me, as anyone that knows me will tell you, I love a naughty little prank. Anansi was a vivid childhood memory that meant something to me at a time when a lot of music felt meaningless, with many bands writing apolitical love songs. I thought: I’m a black kid from Brixton, I’ve had a different life, I experienced the riots outside my front door. I’m not going to write insipid love songs – there is so much I want to express.

I heard bands saying they had simple names because they were easy for people to remember, almost like a marketing ploy. At the time I read a quote from the actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who said he never changed his name because he figured that once you learnt the name Schwarzenegger, you’d never forget it. For me it was, “Yeah, let’s make it difficult. Why should we dumb it down?’” And so Skunk Anansie was born.

I also thought about my own name. As a child I was given many nicknames. “Lippy the Lion” (from the Hanna- Barbera cartoon Lippy the Lion and Hardy Har Har) was a favourite because my head was little but my lips were the same size as they are now. I was called ‘“tree head” for a while, because my mum had an African friend who would twist my hair into long, skinny strands using thread, but they would fray at the top like mini baobab trees – nice! I was called “Kunta Kinte” after the main character in Roots, a drama about slavery that shook the world in 1977 – luckily that didn’t stick. But as I got a little older my friends would call me Skinny, because as some of them filled out and became womanly, I stayed the same stick-thin shape. Way before the 1990s fashion catwalk, “skinny” was not a compliment. Jamaicans like a lot more flesh “arn de bones”, and as a child I was too “marga” (meagre) and everyone was always trying to feed me up. I didn’t feel like a Deborah, and hated its abbreviation Debbie even more, so when Skunk Anansie started I shortened my nickname Skinny to Skin, because I thought it was edgier, and I then used the name with pride.

Our look was British rock meets raver meets punk, which was anti-fashion, in itself a fashion statement. I wasn’t into hairspray metal – too tight and shiny – or New Romantic, too beautiful and expensive. I preferred goth bands like The Cure or dark ska bands like The Specials. When grunge came along in the early 1990s, it felt like Year Zero. American bands like Alice in Chains and Smashing Pumpkins gave us something we could identify with. The bass groove on some of those records had a huge sound with a lot of black music influences, and that’s what sucked us in.

The sound chimed with the way we dressed. We had no money but we would find clothes in charity shops: sturdy boots, oversized jumpers, old T- shirts and jean jackets. We were young, everything looked good!

There was an army surplus shop in Warren Street, known as Laurence Corner – we got a lot of our clothes from there. Anything that looked too slick or smart or too cool we rejected. We’d go to Camden to see what was new and goth. When we started Skunk Anansie, there was no sponsorship from Gucci; everything was home-made, rough, raw and thrown together. It was natural and honest – our own London take on US grunge.

The fat grooves and swaggering guitar riffs of grunge chimed with the image I had in my head, and my recurring dream that I was onstage screaming into a mic, raging to giant riffs. Then “Smells Like Teen Spirit” landed on us all like a mushroom cloud obliterating everything else. Cock rock was dead, and out of the ashes flowered this beautiful wilted thorny rose called Nirvana. It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t safe, but it was profound. I’d finally found the music that suited my nightly visions. Nirvana to me weren’t about groupies and tight, bulging pants; they were honest and real and they looked like us. We recognised the same dark lyrical landscape, the same shy, painful outsider life. That was the music we were playing in London, but with a British style, heavy and riffy. We definitely weren’t Britpop.

It Takes Blood and Guts by Skin and co-author Lucy O’Brien (Simon & Schuster) is published on 24th September in hardback, ebook and audiobook.