Formed in London a decade ago, Petrol Girls aren’t just your average paint-by-numbers punk band. The four-piece—Ren Aldridge, Liepa Kuraitė, Joe York, and Zock Astpai—took their name from the Pétroleuses, quasi-mythical lower-class female supporters of France’s revolutionary government the Paris Commune, which seized power in March 1871 and remained there for just over two months. The Pétroleuses were blamed for setting buildings on fire in solidarity with the Paris Commune as it was falling, though there was no evidence to suggest any women had actually committed arson. That didn’t stop a number of them being put on trial, however, with one being executed for her supposed involvement.
It's a perfect representation of patriarchy at work, but it also illustrates the radical politics that inspire Petrol Girls’ vicious songs. And while the band may not set fire to buildings, those songs are nevertheless utterly incendiary. Baby is the band’s third full-length and, sadly, seethes with righteous anger at the state of the world today. Perhaps it’s the title of pre-album single “Baby, I Had An Abortion” that will stand out most, for obvious reasons—not least because of what’s happening with Roe v. Wade in the US right now—but from beginning to end this is a record that doesn’t shy from telling the ugly, sad truth about the mess we’re in. It’s—pun actually not intended—incredibly fiery stuff that walks the walk as much as it talks the talk, marking Petrol Girls out as one of the most important and inspiring political punk acts around today.
Here, vocalist Ren Aldridge talks us through Baby’s 10 tracks. When the revolution comes, you can bet she’ll be right on the front lines.
“Preachers” sets the tone for the direction [Guitarist Joe York] wanted to push the album in musically. It’s based on a very minimal but incessantly repetitive riff, inspired more by electronic genres than rock, eventually building to a more rocking chorus. It also really showcases the more playful approach I wanted to take lyrically on a lot of this record, and kicks back at the holier-than-thou attitude people sometimes give off in radical left communities, which ironically can feel a lot like a church village at times.
2. “Feed My Fire”
This one’s musically pretty unhinged, switching between stressful verses and an almost comical pop-rock chorus. [Drummer Zock] even got his woodblock in there at one point. And, miraculously, a cellist happened to stop by the studio with his cello, meaning Joe could fulfill his idea for a cello line through the verses. Lyrically, I was playing with the imagery of my fire as something I need to keep burning without it getting out of control and reducing me to ash—i.e. burn out—which I was recovering from as we wrote the record. It’s a reflection of the push, push, push collapse cycle I’m stuck in. The outro is one of my favorite bits on the record—the kind of gospel-style harmonies are so over the top and make it even more unhinged, especially after the totally brutal banshee section before!
3. “Baby, I Had an Abortion”
All credit to Joe for coming up with the idea of adding “Baby” to this chorus lyric. It’s the absolute cherry on top of this deliberately taunting and defiantly celebratory pro-abortion banger. The idea for this track came directly from confrontations I’ve had with pro-lifers since having my own abortion in 2018. I bumped into a pro-life demo one morning, and found myself screaming “I had an abortion and I’m not sorry!” at them. I continued doing this at counter-demos but it felt too serious, I didn’t want to dignify them with a serious response.
So the idea for this track pretty much grew from my desire to counter-demo with dance routines and witch costumes! We’ve been using this track and related merch to fundraise for Abortion Without Borders and Brigid Alliance. And the song itself is an attack on the shame and stigma surrounding abortion, which is preyed on when politicians build laws against us.
We built this one up around another one of Joe’s repetitive unhinged riffs. It sounded like a deranged fairground full of clowns to me, so I started messing around with the lyrics to “Stuck in the Middle with You,” but from the perspective of the clowns on the left. It started as a joke but those lyrics actually reworked perfectly to ridicule the political “middle” who act like the left are “just as bad as the right” and denounce any kind of political action as silly or pointless. I also had to think of the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army!
Despite being built up around another playful riff with disco-beat drums, this ended up being one of the most introspective tracks on the record. It’s something about wanting to change the direction that your life is heading, but worrying what you might lose on the way.
6. “Fight for Our Lives”
The idea for this song grew directly from the femicide demonstrations I take part in here in Graz, Austria. I’ve painted the place and date of death of so many victims of femicide onto bed sheets to then carry through the streets as banners. Musically, the heaviness of this track reflects the heaviness of the topic; with a stripped back section to make way for the building gang vocal of “You don’t own us” before hitting the choir-like chorus vocal of “We fight for our lives.”
We were honoured to have feminist musician and activist Janey Starling feature on this track, and specifically wrote lyrics to honour her Dignity for Dead Women campaign and the resulting press guidelines she created to change the way the media reports on fatal domestic abuse. Her strategic and visionary activism against gender-based violence is changing the world, and we’re so grateful to have her on board! Robin [Gatt] made the bass sound really heavy by tuning down to Bb—combined with the guitar sounds, it sounds atonal and gnarly, in contrast to the very melodic bridge and chorus.
7. “Violent by Design”
Thankfully, Janey co-wrote the lyrics to this track with me, as it was both a rhythmical nightmare and politically very challenging in terms of what we wanted to get across. Essentially this track is an attempt to speak from my position as a middle class white woman to other similarly privileged people, and incite us to reject the idea that the police protect us, both in solidarity with communities who are routinely brutalized by the police and in recognition that the police are not part of the solution to violence against women and marginalised genders—they are part of the problem. The trial of PC Wayne Couzens who used his police powers to abduct, rape, and murder Sarah Everard took place during our first week at the studio, and on our last day the news reported that the latest femicide in Austria had been committed by a police officer. Abolitionist feminism now!
8. “One or the Other”
This track is another great distillation of the musical direction Joe was pushing with this record. It’s fun, incessant, and deranged! It features some very weird effects in the end section, including some great robotic backing vocals from Zock. As a feminist band, we’ve always stood against the gender binary, and this track pushes that idea to challenging binary thinking in general.
9. “Sick & Tired”
This song is pure catharsis for me, especially the sung chorus at the end. The riff was actually something Joe already had when we were writing our last album, and is a nod to “Restless” from our first record. The spoken vocal on the verses was inspired by Listener, and is an exploration of all the things I’m sick and tired of that are literally making me sick. I was recovering from a pretty serious bout of depression and burnout when we wrote this record, and I truly believe there are a lot of political reasons why I ended up in that state. Mental health is so often individualized, but who is really coping under capitalism?
Joe sent over the guitar for this chorus during the winter lockdown in early 2021 when we were struggling a lot mentally. I really connected to it emotionally, and wrote the chorus lyrics of “Take away the noise and I am bones / Built the rhythms of my life on all this” over the top, encapsulating a lot of what I was feeling at the time. It ended up being a challenging track to finish, but I love hearing all of our voices belting that chorus, and I think, as a reflection on the ups and downs of being a musician, it works as a perfect album closer.