Viv Albertine of The Slits: A Not-So-Typical Rebellion

Posted April 14, 2015 in
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Viv Albertine's memoir recounts her experiences in the early days of punk rock in Britain.
Viv Albertine’s memoir recounts her experiences in the early days of punk rock in Britain. Photo: Carolina Ambida
Viv Albertine—the former guitarist for the post punk band, The Slits—has just had her memoir, Clothes, Clothes Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. released through Thomas Dunne Books. It is a uniquely humble and provocative story that covers her perspective on a revolutionary era of punk rock music and culture that is usually dominated by a largely male narrative.  “I didn’t intentionally write it as a female perspective—I just wrote it because it was a part of my story,” says Albertine. “When I picked up the guitar again in my 50s, I sort of got the same sort of reaction the first time, which was not very supportive. I was sort of going against the grain again … [The reaction] felt so familiar. I thought that this would make an interesting story arc, which started in my late teens/early 20s … being told, ‘Stop playing. You can’t play, you’re rubbish. Girls don’t play,’ and then to do it again in my 50s and be told exactly the same thing. I liked that sort of arc and I thought that’ll make a story.”

In the 1970s, Viv Albertine was a regular at Viviane Westwood and Malcom McLaren’s shop Sex on the King’s Road in London.  There, along with others—like Mick Jones [The Clash]—she got swept up by the idealism and styles that defined an emerging counter culture—what is now considered to be the 1st wave of punk—in 1976–1979. “[I was] very much on a on a mission,” says Albertine. “We were doing something radically different and we were going to change society. We were going to change how it was for young women and young people. People with no voice were getting a voice. You weren’t … stuntified by your gender or disability.” Those who got swept up in the momentum of the times came from largely working class backgrounds. Thus, they were mostly ignored by British society. While this was somewhat demeaning, it also meant that they could get away with more and, in turn, send a much-needed shock into the system.

For one, the vivid style in which one dressed in could come across as a radical and threatening statement to a very patriarchal society. “How you dressed made a huge statement, whether you were in or out of society. Whether you were for or against, left or right … it was so much easier to count yourself in or out then,” says Albertine. “It was completely political … the Slits started experimenting with mixing up signals on what we were told a woman should be or a young girl should be. So we might take childhood signals like a ballet tutu and mix it with S&M studded gear and mix it with men’s clothes.”

Apart from the visual aspects of an emerging radical counter culture, the musical liberation that came with it carried great appeal for Viv Albertine. “When I picked up the guitar, you know it was probably almost the equivalent of how powerful some psychos [feel] when they pick up a gun,” says Albertine. “What I’ve made that guitar do for me is amazing. I’ve painted a whole life for me that I would’ve had. I never mastered it in terms of technical ability, but I did manage to create my own sound.”

Viv Albertine’s way of playing guitar greatly contributed to the Slits’ unique sound and style.  “The Slits moved away from that black leather and S&M vibe … We got much more into dub, reggae and sort of world music and free jazz. We were very interested in the improvised jazz scene and Don Cherry,” says Albertine. “We broadened out. We had such an exciting time touring America and mixing with all sorts of musicians and writing songs that we felt [were like] nothing [that] had been written before. We were very much trying to delve into our own rhythms and our own feelings and not do anything like men did.” This meant The Slits sought to consciously break down social barriers through how they positioned themselves onstage, acted and even dressed.

Unfortunately, this idea eventually began to lose steam for Albertine. Like the “punk” movement, which began to attract people who were enticed by ideas of violence, idealism began to lose its appeal when it clashed against an increasingly dangerous reality. This was particularly vivid during the infamous Damned gig at the 100 Club, where a glass was thrown against a pillar and shattered, causing a girl in the audience to lose an eye. So, while Albertine continued on with the Slits for a number of years, she didn’t sentimentalize their eventual breakup. When The Slits had run their course, it was time to move on. “It was still a painful separation; it was like divorcing three husbands at once,” says Albertine. “It was a huge changing point in my life. I had to go back to basics and completely restructure my whole life and who I was.”

This restructuring also meant that music was largely out of the equation. Albertine found that music had greatly lost its proactive meaning. “The whole music industry had changed in Britain then and had become very capitalist and consumerist. It wasn’t radical and it wasn’t revolutionary anymore. I don’t think it ever has been since that moment,” says Albertine. “In the end I just listened to talk radio all the time. I’m a bit like that now: It’s hard to listen to music and just let myself go and not be very critical about it. It hasn’t got the spirit it had when I was young.”

Decades later, after a fight with cervical cancer, years of healing and in the midst of a turbulent marriage, Viv Albertine surprisingly found herself once again holding a guitar. “I felt absolutely young and misunderstood again. I had to write songs—it seemed like the only outlet for me … Nothing on earth could have stopped me—not my marriage, not my husband, not losing my home and my family,” says Albertine. “I was carried away on this sort of tsunami of passion and feeling. There’s no looking back.”

In conjunction with this reawakening into music, the subject of the Slits was reopened for Viv Albertine when music biographer Zoe Howe sought to do an interview with Albertine for her book Typical Girls? The Story Of The Slits. While it seemed for 20 odd years that the door on that topic had remained closed, it seemed that, with the emergence of the Internet, the Slits were again becoming something of an interest in the music world.  “It took young people and the Internet together to rediscover us,” says Albertine. “Suddenly, in the last five or six years, post-punk and the Slits have been put in their rightful place in the history of contemporary music.”

Despite the interest in that defining era of music, the youthful sense of idealism is noticeably different. “I think young people are idealistic in a different way, a much more global way than we were. We were probably quite small-minded and we didn’t have very large horizons because of the lack of travel and communication,” says Viv Albertine. “Musicians were our teachers back then for us young people. We heard about what was going on in America, or riots, or the Vietnam war … Nowadays, of course, the Internet can teach so much … I think people think much wider than we did—much more globally—and I think their concerns and their idealism is better in a way, because it is more all-encompassing … It’s not so focused, it’s not so aggressive, and it’s not so punchy as punk was, but that’s because it’s a much more international [and] global network now that people can communicate. “

Viv Albertine’s return to the stage has even seen her perform with a new generation of punks at the Rebellion Festival in Blackpool, England, in 2010 and 2012. This festival brings in thousands of punk and oi! lovers from across the globe to hear new and old bands that celebrate the genre. Though Albertine has been playing again, she prefers books, art and conversation as creative mediums. She still plays guitar, but really enjoys readings, as she finds them to be more democratic. “I’m very interested in the message … It doesn’t have to be music. I’m [not going] to deify and glorify music as this wonderful genre—I’m just not into making something so heroic. It doesn’t matter how you get your message across. I don’t think music is cool and I don’t think musicians are cool and I don’t want to be cool anyway.” Albertine’s renewed and passionate enthusiasm for playing music has inspired the release of The Vermilion Border in 2012. Despite, or perhaps even because of, Viv Albertine’s lack of interest in building up a pretense of popularity or heroism, the album received many positive reviews for its honest and evident passion.

Viv Albertine currently has no plans to release another album—at least, not until she feels a passionate burst of creativity similar to that of which inspired The Vermilion Border.  Meanwhile, to any reader of this article who is curious to learn more, I highly recommend checking out Albertine’s memoir Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.

If you click on the link you can read my review of it. If you want to be saved the trouble of reading the review, let me sum it up. Her book is important, and you’ll be glad you picked it up—I guarantee it.