The Slits were the original riot-grrrl bands. Guitarist Albetine looks back
Time Out meets former guitarist of British punk group The Slits, Viv Albertine, and gets the lowdown on her new memoir.
When Viv Albertine’s manager said she shouldn’t write her own book, it must have brought back some memories. In 1976, when Viv joined punk band The Slits, the majority of women on the scene were contented themselves with being hangers-on, rather than be trusted to do the job themselves. Inspired by Jenny Fabian’s book, Groupie, Albertine idly considered becoming one herself, before Keith Levene taught her to play guitar. She’d scour the back of album sleeves for the names of girlfriends and wives, and emulate the way they dressed.
London in the 1970s was uninspiring and hostile, and in response, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys is a deliberately unfeminine, unflattering account of Albertine’s life. She and her friends grew up poor, malnourished and practising poor personal hygiene: ‘faces as pale and grey as mushrooms poking out of the dirt’. They threw themselves into following the disaffected punk scene because the bands were fronted by real people – people from the estates of North London, like them.
While at Hornsey School of Art – whose alumni includes Adam Ant and Ray Davies – Albertine spent a spell in the band Flowers of Romance before her friend Sid Vicious fired her. It had surprised her that he’d wanted to form a band in the first place, as men rarely enlisted women.
‘Sid was intelligent and open-minded,’ she reflects. ‘He saw things other people didn’t see. He was an opportunist, always alert for an idea or an adventure; I could see the thought occurring to him almost as he was forming the words. Also, I looked great – spiky peroxide-blonde hair, leather jeans, DM boots, stripy T-shirt, leather jacket… the way I was dressed helped Sid see me as androgynous.’
Albertine floated around for a bit before gravitating toward The Slits – who wondered why she’d taken her time. She hadn’t intended to join an all-girl band, but The Slits weren’t dorky and corny like the girl groups that had gone before.
Albertine, Ari Up, Palmolive and Tessa Pollitt were vastly different in temperaments, but just like the Clash (whose guitarist Mick Jones was in an on-off relationship with Albertine for years), they became a tight gang. Clothes… is peppered with alarming accounts of being cornered by gangs and random men and walking four abreast down the street with the Slits with matching backcombed hair felt liberating.
‘It was all still very 1950s – men actually thought it was their right to behave inappropriately towards you without asking and did so all the time,’ Viv recalls. ‘Together we felt invulnerable – a very new feeling to a girl at that time. We were all so committed to each other that we would have fought to the death if we had to, to protect one another. We felt like our own little tribe. It was very threatening for men, because they could see we were challenging their role in society – and they did everything they could to stop us, from being violent to ridicule.’
The Slits went on tour with the Clash and found some notoriety in the music press, but were too unapologetically loud and confrontational to be on TV much. So was the idea of fame and financial success completely inconceivable?
‘It was to The Slits, but I’m not so sure about the male bands at the time,’ she says. ‘I think they were more careerist about it than we realised. The Slits were on a mission to change the world for girls and therefore change it for boys as well. We were absolutely driven to do something different musically and culturally.’
With the close of the book reflecting on the loss of Ari Up from cancer in 2010, Albertine admits that she was more inspired by the fiery younger woman than she ever let on. And number one on Albertine’s agenda now, one suspects, is to be an inspiration to her teenage daughter. Dhs64, available at www.amazon.co.uk.