I’ve just started reading Viv Albertines’s autobiography Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys and it’s already proving highly addictive. Well, any book that starts off by declaring: ‘Anyone who writes an autobiography is either a twat or broke. I’m a bit of both’ can’t be bad, can it?
Last year I interviewed Viv for the second issue of an e-Fanzine called Total Blam Blam and with the success of her book (which reached #1 in UK Best Seller lists for Non Fiction titles) and her upcoming appearance at the Edinburgh Book Festival, where she’ll be talking to Vic Galloway, I reckoned now would be a good time (with Viv’s permission) to include the interview here on this site.
One of the most pleasing returns to music in recent years has been that of former Slits guitarist Viv Albertine, who, after more than twenty five years away from music, re-emerged in 2010 with an EP called Flesh, released on Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace! label and then, in November 2012, followed up that fine set of four songs with her first ever solo album, The Vermilion Border, which was by turns, spiky, subversive, funny, dreamy, delicate and always intriguing.
And, as you can see from this photo, she also disproves the theory that you can keep the face or keep the body but you can never keep the two.
Viv, if you didn’t know, was part of the embryonic punk scene in the London of the mid 70s, her pal Keith Levene helped teach her the guitar – or as he put it in Zöe Street Howe’s Typical Girls?: The Story of the Slits: ‘If anything, I taught Viv what not to play like.’ She went out with Mick Jones in the early days of The Clash (he later wrote Train in Vain about her, she wrote Ping Pong Affair about him). She shopped at SEX and also squatted in a flat with Sid Vicious, the pair forming a band together that was named by Johnny Rotten as The Flowers of Romance. Here’s a photo from Skum fanzine #1, 1977:
That outfit didn’t survive a series of sackings, including Viv herself, and then Sid leaving to become a Sex Pistol in February ’77; not long after their demise, Viv headed to a show at the Coliseum Cinema in Harlesden, where a new band of four females called The Slits were making their debut supporting The Clash; despite sound problems she definitely liked what she saw and wished she could be in the band. And, as luck would have it, she was soon asked to replace original guitarist Kate Korus just weeks before the band were due to tour the country from Plymouth to Aberdeen as part of the White Riot tour – for a snapshot of the band in this period try to see Don Letts’ Super 8 footage of them in The Punk Rock Movie (Letts briefly managed them at the time).
Revolutionary, raucous and remarkably influential, The Slits only ever released two studio albums in their lifetime but their combination of a visceral sound and irreverent attitude installed them as an absolutely vital part of punk, the first and best female band of that movement in Britain – not that they were ever happy with the punk label.
They played their last show in December 1981 at the Hammersmith Palais and fell apart the following year. Viv found the break-up traumatic and has admitted she was musically in denial for some time afterwards. Feeling the music business in the Thatcher era was becoming increasingly careerist, she packed away her guitar and chose to study film-making at Goldsmiths College in London, which led to her to spending many years working in film & TV, directing a range of dramas including five episodes of ITV’s revival of The Tomorrow People in 1992 and her own short film, Coping with Cupid, which she wrote as well as directed.
Paul Morley interviewed her for Uncut in 2001 and asked if The Slits would ever reform. ‘Perhaps when we’re 60,’ Viv replied. ‘That would be the Slits thing to do. Because even though we were girls and we dressed up, it was never about looks and bodies and sex. It was about what we thought and what we felt and what we cared about… inside.’
Four years later The Slits began planning their reformation and when Tessa Pollitt, their bassist, asked Viv if she would like to give it another go, Viv still had never resumed her guitar playing and was concentrating on being a full time mother. Tessa informed her that she had four months to relearn The Slits’ repertoire before their tour dates kicked off.
A new guitar was acquired and, whenever she had the time, Viv enthusiastically set about teaching herself the instrument in her own very idiosyncratic style. Not only that, she also began writing songs again, an avalanche of searingly honest, raw and confessional new material.
Viv felt more affinity with these songs and although she did make a couple of guest appearances with her former band, she decided that she didn’t want to go back once more and become a Slit as that wouldn’t be true to the way the band were back then. Instead, she made a remarkable decision – to forge a solo career.
The new Slits continued without her but, sadly, Ari died from cancer in October 2010, aged only 48, a huge blow to Albertine and obviously the end of that band.
Every now and again an artist remerges after decades out of the music business and brings out an album that ranks up there with their earlier work, the latest example obviously being yourself. Do you regret not making more music in between or do you think that if you had been making music for the last 25 years that you would just, inevitably, be repeating yourself by now?
I do not regret not making music for 25 years as I just couldn’t do it. Too fucked up. Too busy doing other things. Other work. Other creations (my daughter). Too ill. I know people who kept making music in that time and a lot of them are jaded now. Not enthusiastic. It’s a terribly hard area to be working in. I feel fresh and excited.
Collaborators on The Vermilion Border include Jack Bruce, Glen Matlock, Tina Weymouth and Mick Jones. An impressive bunch by any standards.
Needs must. I didn’t know anyone any more. Not even Mick. I stumbled across people as I went along. Music is a small world. I just asked people, or asked people who knew people. What amazed me is when someone said yes. Whether it was Jack Bruce or Jenny Lee Lindberg (of Warpaint).
You’ve just about completely moved away from the Slits sound, I suppose after a gap of around thirty years this shouldn’t be surprising. What has survived is the emotional honesty of the lyrics. In fact, while listening to Confessions of a Milf, I was even reminded of some of Tracey Emin’s work.
I met Sarah Lucas the other day and I whispered to her ‘if I were a girl now, I would be you’. Although I do think there are bits of the Slits sound on my new record, some of my guitar playing on the top 2 strings and the chanty, playground backing vocals.
You’ve joked recently (I think) about your voice, calling it a out of tune and rubbish warbling but it fits the music and because it can be fragile on some of your most personal tracks, it seems to have the effect of making the listener focus more intently on the words. (Wouldn’t fancy your chances of lasting long on X-Factor though).
Like David Byrne said, ‘the more in tune a person sings, the less you believe them’. I feel like I am talking rather than singing and no one would ever say to someone, ‘you are talking out of tune’. This is my voice, it is authentically my voice. It can’t be wrong. It is what it is.
The Slits seem to have become like a female version of The Velvet Underground – forgetting that they had a female drummer and a few guys drummed with you – in that they were so musically innovative and hugely influential but didn’t sell all that many records when they were together.
Yes. I hold on to that second time around. I think any artist in any field who is very successful has failed. It’s not the point to reach the mainstream. Or to be feted and well-paid by institutions. The point is to push boundaries, confuse, challenge, unsettle, be misunderstood.
Back in the mid ’70s, role models in the shape of all female bands – as opposed to girl groups – were amazingly rare, in fact, before punk, off the top of my head, I can only remember hearing Fanny and The Runaways, who were both very different from The Slits. Were there any female bands that inspired you?
I had no role models, I would look at Marianne Faithful and Anita Pallenberg, untouchable beauties, girlfriends, drug takers, they were other worldly. Yoko Ono made a huge impression but I couldn’t see how I could be her. I couldn’t make that mental leap. With a role model, you have to be able to see yourself in their place. That’s what spurs you on.
So no, there was no one in the music world I could imagine being, I was too young to make the leap on my own and imagine myself there in a band. On top of that I did not play an instrument or think I could sing. I may as well have imagined being an astronaut.
The Runaways got their own biopic in 2010, would a film on The Slits be a good idea. And if so, who would you like to play the young Viv Albertine?
A film of the Slits would be great. Maybe Carey Mulligan?
You saw one of the very earliest shows by The Sex Pistols at the Chelsea Art School and the performance made you believe that you could be in a band yourself. Do you think eventually that you would have come to this conclusion even if Punk hadn’t have happened?
No I definitely wouldn’t have had the thought without Malcolm McLaren, Vivienne Westwood and seeing John Rotten on stage. The boys, like the Clash and the Pistols and even Sid and the Buzzcocks, all secretly harboured thoughts about being in a band and being famous. No matter how impossible those thoughts seemed to achieve. That’s the big difference with the Slits. Not one of us ever thought the thought. Ever imagined, posed, dreamt of such a thing. We were complete enfants sauvages.
You were crucial in creating the visual image of The Slits, wearing, say a very ‘girly’ dress along with a biker’s jacket and DMs which likely influenced Madonna and others. The punk and post-punk era gave us some great female looks, in addition to The Slits there was Jordan, Gaye Advert, Siouxsie, Fay Fife and even, slightly later, though decades before Lady Gaga, Linder Sterling with her ‘meat dress’. And not a professional stylist in sight I bet.
Jordan was unbelievable. You cannot imagine how radical what she was doing by dressing the way she did travelling up to London on the train every day, the makeup. She looked amazing and was so radical and brave.
You always speak very affectionately when you’re asked to reminisce about your old flatmate Sid Vicious. But I’m guessing not putting down the toilet seat would have been the least of your worries with him even back then before he’d fully embarked on his path of self destruction?
He didn’t use the bog. He pissed in the bed. So no problem with the seat.
The pair of you formed The Flowers of Romance. Were you any good? If you’d stuck together would you have been punk contenders?
Your future plans include making your debut as a film actor (well not including Jubilee) and publishing your autobiography, which sounds pretty damned exciting. What about musically?
Will just do what I feel like when I feel like it.
Good luck with everything.
Viv will be appearing at the Scottish Power Foundation Studio on Sun 10 August, between 8:30pm – 9:30pm as part of the Edinburgh Book Festival as well as taking part, two days later, in the Book Slam event advertised below:
For more on Viv Albertine: