Penetration - Biography
By Oliver Hall
Penetration has the most audible American (i.e. New York) punk influence of the early English punk bands, unless you count the Only Ones. Penetration formed in Ferryhill, County Durham in northern England in 1976, taking their name from the Iggy and the Stooges song. “Well before I actually saw the Sex Pistols (in Northallerton Yorkshire),” singer Pauline Murray told BBC in 2006, “there was a lot of American stuff making its way here; like the Ramones, Blondie, Jonathan Richman, the Runaways, Television, Patti Smith. Some of which had a very strange sound to it.” The tone of Murray’s voice somewhat resembles that of Poly Styrene’s of X-Ray Spex, with more rasp and less squeak, but overall Penetration’s songs and arrangements sound closer to the 1970s US hard rock of Lou Reed, Alice Cooper and the Stooges than to London punk.
Murray describes the band’s origins in Jon Savage’s definitive history of English punk, England’s Dreaming (St. Martin’s Press 1992): “There was nothing going on in Newcastle, there was nowhere to play. In the 60s, there’d been the Club-A-Go-Go and the Animals, but it was all dead by 1976. . . So we used to go to Manchester and Liverpool. We met people like the Fall, and the Buzzcocks. We’d formed Penetration after seeing the Sex Pistols. I’d never attempted to be in a band or anything before: I’d always gone to see them. [Bassist] Robert Blamire and I met [guitarist] Gary Chaplin in the autumn, we were eighteen, and we started to practice two nights a week.” Penetration played its first show at Middlesbrough Rock Garden in October 1976. At their second show, in Newcastle, they supported the Stranglers, and in spring 1977 Penetration played at London punk club the Roxy.
“Don’t Dictate” (Virgin 1977) was Penetration’s first single; fellow northern punks Joy Division seem to have borrowed some of the chords from “Don’t Dictate” at the end of their “Leaders of Men.” Chaplin left the band in 1978 and was replaced by Neale Floyd, and at Virgin’s suggestion Penetration also added a lead guitarist, Fred Purser. Purser and Floyd contribute distinctly 1970s, Rock N Roll Animal-style hard rock guitar to Penetration’s debut album Moving Targets (Virgin 1978), eight punk-inflected 70s hard rock originals followed by Penetration’s versions of the Buzzcocks’ “Nostalgia” and Patti Smith’s “Free Money.” “I’d never heard a woman singing like, or looking like Patti Smith,” Murray told BBC.
The band recorded the exultant pop album Coming up for Air (Virgin 1979) with Steve Lillywhite, a popular producer of the period who also brought his sought-after drum sound to records by Siouxsie and the Banshees, Johnny Thunders and XTC. Murray told BBC that the second album “was a bit of a rush job compared to Moving Targets. We had half of it written, then went to America for five weeks, and when we came back, we went straight into the studio. The rest of the band were coming up with backing tracks, giving them to me, and I had to put the words and the tune to them; the pressure was just unbearable. It was at that point that Neale said he wanted to leave the band, which sent us into an implosion. I was feeling the pressure. We had a full tour booked. I thought ‘I can’t carry on.’ It was too much. It was a burn-out situation. I’d had enough. It started out as fun and enjoyment – but this was just a hassle. I wanted out. I was 23 at the time.”
Penetration broke up and Murray began a solo career, keeping Blamire. She was backed by Factory Records producer Martin Hannett’s band, the Invisible Girls, on her first two solo records, after which she took a break from music. In the late 1980s she and Blamire began issuing new Pauline Murray records on their own Polestar label, and in 1990 Murray opened a rehearsal space in Newcastle called Polestar Studios, which she continues to operate.
Murray, Blamire and Smallman reunited as Penetration in 2001 with new guitarists Paul Harvey and Steve Wallace. Smallman left the band in 2006 to focus on his business and was replaced by Graham Kay, and Paul Harvey, who is a Stuckist painter in Newcastle, also left the band that year. The band’s guitarists are now Wallace, Billy Gilbert and Brian Atkinson. Penetration re-recorded the entire Moving Targets album at Polestar in 2007, the CD of which is available at shows or from the band’s website, www.loversofoutrage.com. The band released a new single, “Our World” b/w “Sea Song” (Damaged Goods 2008), as both a 7-inch and a digital download.