INTERVIEW: Pauline Murray | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Pauline Murray is a not a fan of promotion, “but it has to be done,” she says, pragmatically. It’s difficult, sometimes, to gauge people’s energy on Zoom (which is how we’re talking), but though she’s polite and forthright, it does feel that she’d rather be almost anywhere else. I’m not sure if I’m imagining it. I know from reading the North East punk icon’s autobiography, Life’s A Gamble: Penetration, The Invisible Girls and Other Stories – the very book we’re here to discuss – that she grew sick of interviews, so perhaps I’m projecting. But when she holds up a copy of her book for me to admire as she enthuses about how beautifully made it is (the cover and page design, the pleasingly thick paper), she drops her guard completely, and I realise I’m not being over-sensitive. Murray just doesn’t like talking about herself.

The writing in the book is incredible too, by the way. It’s lyrical and succinct – a truly amazing life story told unmistakeably in Murray’s own voice. I’m astonished she hasn’t written prose before (no, lyrics only, she confirms). When I say this to her, she looks relieved. The book, she tells me, wasn’t going to be a book – she just wanted to write down her life for her children, and it was friends who suggested it be published. It was difficult, at times, to write it – but as with everything she puts her mind to, she was determined to see it though.

A quiet teenager, Pauline Murray always loved music. She didn’t get much involved with college activities, preferring instead to go to various gigs. She saw early shows by the Sex Pistols and Buzzcocks in the mid-1970s, and was drawn to the energy and ideals of the punk scene. So, when, in March 1976, she was asked by a friend to sing in his band, she said yes. The band became Penetration, and Murray its striking frontwoman and lyricist – and there followed three frenetic years and a meteoric rise.

You thought everything was shit. And you had to go out and prove that you had an alternative to what you said was shit

But that summary doesn’t do justice to the pressure she and her bandmates were under. They were thrust into a relentless cycle of performance and writing, travelling to gigs from their base in Ferryhill (in a van once spat on by Sid Vicious – they circled the splat in felt pen and labelled it ‘Sid’s Gob’), with industry managers constantly nipping at their heels for them to do more, be more, make more money. When the band finally split in 1979, their management company sent them a bill. The first page of it is printed in the book, and it alone amounts to £19,000. Yes, that’s the correct number of zeroes. “It was very, very disillusioning,” Murray says now. “The whole thing. It was very unfair.” Murray was just 21.

Now in her 60s, she unsurprisingly remains sceptical of the music industry. I ask her if she thinks much has changed at all for upcoming musicians – are they armed with more knowledge and so less likely to be ripped off, or does she think the industry has found new ways to shaft artists? “Always, always, always,” she says, vehemently. “Now they’re buying up people’s back catalogues, and it’s just, I don’t know how much more they can exploit things, but they do.” Artists are treated as content providers, she tells me, in every aspect of the arts. She brings up AI, as well: “Creative art is redundant, because they can take all the creative aspects, jumble them up, and rewrite some of those with little bits that are different. They’ve got all the good stuff.” And then there’s the issue of access to music for working-class kids these days: “Everything is about money.”

She would have preferred her own children not get involved in the music industry at all, but they both are – unsurprisingly, given the family lineage set out in Life’s A Gamble. Murray’s family on her mother’s side are musicians and performers, though also burned by the industry in their own ways (“My mother would try and warn me and go, you know, blah, blah it’s a terrible business.”) And despite her own experiences, Murray herself kept being drawn back. When Penetration split, she carried on recording and writing on her own terms as Pauline Murray and the Invisible Girls, working to get critically acclaimed music heard by more than, well, just the critics. At one stage, burnt out, she quit – but was eventually drawn back in. Penetration reformed in 2001.

But before it became a music genre, punk was, Murray reminds me, an ideology: “You thought everything was shit. And you had to go out and prove that you had an alternative to what you said was shit.” So, punk to the core, she started Polestar Studios in 1990 – an independent rehearsal and studio space to support musicians in Newcastle. Polestar has been a creative hub in Newcastle for 30 years now, though, Murray tells me angrily and sadly, as with many creative places, Polestar was badly impacted by the Covid years. The rehearsal rooms have had to be closed, but the recording studio has been updated.

Given all this, if Murray could talk to her young self on the cusp of forming Penetration, what would she say to her? Murray thinks for a moment. “I don’t think my old self would be able to stop my young self from doing exactly what she wanted. I was very headstrong. But I have no regrets, actually. Everything I’ve learned from all of that, I’ve applied to other things in life. Like setting up Polestar – I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I hadn’t done music. So, you know, I’d probably say: ‘yeah, go and do it’.”

Life’s A Gamble: Penetration, The Invisible Girls and Other Stories by Pauline Murray is published on 14th September. She tells stories from her autobiography, accompanied by a Q&A session and acoustic performance at The Common Room, Newcastle on Thursday 21st September.

Hear more about Pauline Murray’s life and work as a writer in Fran Harvey’s My Writing Life podcast, available now via Spotify

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