Re:Generation is a new column about yesterday’s heroines today, revisiting some of the women who have helped map out musical history but have since, for one reason or another, fallen into relative obscurity. Over the coming months, Wears The Trousers will be speaking to these influential figures as they make their way back into the public sphere. For our first piece, Val Phoenix speaks to punk legend Viv Albertine – former member of The Slits – about why she’s picked up her guitar again after 25 years and why she won’t be joining her former bandmates for the release of their upcoming album, Trapped Animal.
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Wading through the gloomy headlines of MPs’ expenses, swine flu and global economic meltdown, one wonders: could punk happen now? After all, in the summer of 1976, contributing factors to the Zeitgeist were widespread joblessness, disillusionment with government and hot weather. Save the weather, the conditions are in place for some kind of upheaval, but what will it be? Perhaps it’s already here, and you are using it: some say social media is the new punk.
For original punks such as Viv Albertine, now making the ‘leap of faith’ to a solo career, social media is a cause for optimism. “I thought it’s actually relevant to be doing this again. I like the way the Internet’s opened up music,” she says. “It was like 1976 again, to me, last year – doors were opening that had been closed for so long, music again was no longer a careerist activity, which it had become in the ’80s and carried on being in the ’90s. It was something people did ’cause they loved [it]. You don’t make money out of it anymore, so people just do it ’cause they wanna communicate and they love doing it.”
Viv was one of those disaffected youths in 1976. The daughter of Swiss-French-Corsican parents, she had already been uprooted from Sydney, Australia and deposited in North London when she encountered what became known as punk. Attending art college and meeting Mick Jones and Keith Levene, she picked up guitar and started playing with fellow squatters Palmolive and Sid Vicious as the Flowers Of Romance. As guitarist in The Slits, she helped write punk and post-punk history before the band broke up in 1981.
When we first spoke in 1996 at her home in West London, Viv explained to me what made The Slits stand out: “It’s very hard to imagine now, but no one wore leather. No one wore plastic. No one had their hair sticking out. It’s all so ordinary now. We looked like no one else in Britain at the time. Ari [Up] might sometimes just wear pants over trousers. She didn’t care if she pissed on-stage. It was something that the men around had never, ever seen before. We were four very aggressive young women, and I think that the whole package was just very threatening to blokes. They didn’t know if we were prostitutes or aliens. They didn’t think we were anything else.”
Nowadays, in a more jaded, fashion-conscious world, where Peaches Geldof is held up as a trendsetter, The Slits’ brand of rebellion is hard to imagine. But, they set the template for what a female band could be and served as inspiration to riot grrrl and a whole host of thoughtful, independent women, as well as clued-up men. The Gossip’s recent song, ‘Love Long Distance’ contains a tip to The Slits’ cover of ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’, quoting Ari Up’s revised lyric: “Heard it through the bassline / not much longer would you be my baby”.
It wasn’t easy being a Slit, encountering day-to-day street harassment and intra-band tensions, and after five years, Viv walked away. As recounted in new Slits biography, Typical Girls? The Story Of The Slits, in the early ’80s the guitarist had a shocking moment of realisation: “My face got so hard. I walked past a window in Knightsbridge and I caught sight of this hard blonde woman, and, my god, it was me.”
Returning to her art student roots, Viv forged a career for herself in TV, directing episodes of ‘The Tomorrow People’ and documentaries. When we spoke in 1996, she had an idea for a film about a girl gang. One can easily see why this subject would have resonance for her. You only have to look at the scene featuring The Slits in Derek Jarman’s ‘Jubilee’. Jumping on a car and smashing it up, The Slits have an unbridled joie de vivre that remains incredibly alluring, especially for girls who have been told not to misbehave. Songs like ‘Shoplifting’ and Viv’s composition, ‘Typical Girls’, a critique of feminine norms, remain timely and transgressive.
Now, after decades away from the music industry and 25 years away from her guitar, Viv has returned as a solo artiste, playing small clubs around London as she demos new material. Meeting her ahead of a date at Cafe Oto in Dalston in June, one finds a bright-eyed, startlingly youthful woman, albeit without the teased hair and heavy eyeliner of her punk days.
Ironically, it was The Slits that got her back into playing guitar. Having moved to Hastings three years ago and raising her daughter, she had no thought of music, until Typical Girls? author Zoë Street Howe entered her life a year ago. Viv’s tone is giddy as she recalls it: “Zoë actually inspired me to get back into The Slits, ’cause she’d talked to the others and she said, ‘Oh, they really want you back in the band’ and I was saying, ‘Oh, no, it’s naff going back.’ And, she said, ‘Yeah, but I think the band is great’, and there she is, this gorgeous girl, really intelligent and I thought, my god, if somebody like that likes The Slits, then maybe we’re not irrelevant after all.”
So, for the first time in 25 years, Viv Albertine picked up her Telecaster. “I’ve played a lot non-stop this last year, in between bringing up a child and that kind of thing, sitting at the kitchen table or sitting, while she was in a swimming lesson, playing my guitar in the car. Honestly, it’s been that desperate,” she says with a chuckle. “I had to sneak those moments where I could practise.”
Viv did join the re-formed Slits for two gigs, one in Barcelona and one at Ladyfest Manchester, before deciding not to continue as she felt they had “morphed into Ari’s backing band”. She retains affection for her work with The Slits but doesn’t feel that’s where she wants to be, hence why she is not on the forthcoming album. “The guitar parts are still fantastic, but they don’t feel relevant to now,” she explains. “I could have gone to LA and recorded with The Slits. I could be touring with The Slits. I would be making a bit of money and I would have audiences but instead I am going back to the beginning, which just seems the right thing to do,” she says with a shrug. “Hard, though.”
From her initial attempts just to get match-fit for the reunion gigs, she reconnected with her musical creativity. “Back came all my feelings for the guitar,” she explains. “And songs just started to come out.” Her new songs are a long way from punk, but still carry a punch – quite gentle in construction, yet acid in lyric. From ‘Love Und Romance’ she has moved on to ‘If Love’ and ‘Don’t Believe/In Love’, though still in her own style. Dubbed by Keith Levene as “an artist who uses the guitar,” Viv describes her guitar parts as “strange little orchestral moments between the words.”
Sometimes she performs solo, but at Café OTO she was accompanied by Zoë Street Howe on keyboard and former Slits sideman Steve Beresford on piano. Watched by The Raincoats at a front table, Viv stood slightly out of the spotlight, running briskly through a range of sour-sweet new material, full of barbed lyrics and nursery rhyme melodies. “When it’s me on my own, it’s much rawer and the songs come through more,” she explains. “It’s more like I’m speaking to people, when it’s just me and the guitar. That’s how I wrote them – just me and the guitar.”
So, would she ever go back to The Slits? “I would play the occasional gig with The Slits but not full time. It feels different because I am now singing directly to the audience whereas before I was kind of part of a gang. It is more direct now; it could be seen as scarier but I am a more confident person.”
The timing of her re-emergence is perfect, as this autumn sees the 30th anniversary of the release of The Slits’ debut album, the much-lauded Cut, an anniversary heralded by the publication of Typical Girls?. Viv appeared at the book’s launch in London, mixing with punk cohorts Dennis Bovell, Don Letts and Vivien Goldman, while hampered by a bout of flu that kept her from performing. When Street Howe read aloud how The Slits refused to allow ‘Grapevine’ to be released as a sure-fire hit first single, Viv and bassist Tessa Pollitt both clenched their fists, cementing their anti-commercial instincts.
Fuelled by the fertile subjects of love and romance, Viv is currently compiling an album, having already recorded five songs. A single is due to be released by LA-based label Manimal Vinyl in 2010. Making use of YouTube, Myspace and her website, she has a new, digital platform for her work, and is ready to write a new chapter in the Viv Albertine story, which did not end in 1981.
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Typical Girls? The Story Of The Slits is out now through Omnibus Press. Top photo left courtesy of Viv Albertine; top right, Val Phoenix.