Viv Albertine: Punk’s female pioneer on The Slits, violence, ‘bumbling’ Sid Vicious and why men have become complacent
The musician beyond her memoir's narrative to explain some of her life lessons
The Slits were one of the emerging punk scene’s defining bands.
A group of four defiant women, their objective was to be a group that both men and women wanted to be part of. They smashed gender conventions by becoming one of the first all-female guitar playing bands to break out of the alternative sphere. They were loud, rowdy and completely uncompromising, inspiring women all over the country to pick up their instruments and make serious noise.
Viv Albertine was their guitarist and last month released her autobiography, Clothes Clothes Clothes, Music Music Music, Boys Boys Boys, a tell-all account of what it was like being at the frontline of music’s most rebellious epoch. While she opens up about her ex-boyfriend The Clash musician Mick Jones, the truth about damaged Sid Vicious and divulges a truly embarrassing sex story about Johnny Rotten. She also candidly discusses what happened after The Slits split up, when she moved to the coast, abandoned her past and suffered serious female health issues in admirable and brave detail.
Here she goes beyond the book’s narrative to explain some of her life lessons (white men need to wise up and how to avoid a breakdown); why the Sixties free love movement oppressed women; the problem with today’s ‘popular music’ and why the Nigerian school girls could be punk’s last hope.
Men stifle creativity, in my experience.
“I probably pick men like my father, but I just feel that they slow you down. I got to the point when I was 11 or 12 where I thought that my father was a slow-thinker... He was like this thing on my back and I just thought, ‘Get away, I want to grow; I want to move.’ I still feel that with boyfriends. It’s all ‘Where are you going? Who are you talking to?’ I half crave the emotional comfort. Who doesn’t want an arm around them at night and a comforting presence? Men are great for that, but at the same time it’s hard to be in a relationship. A lot of my creative friends who are in relationships don’t fulfil themselves creatively and my mum said, because I’ve been divorced for five years, ‘You never would have achieved as much as you have done in a relationship.’ I’ve surprised myself. When I was in a committed loving relationship my creativity just died. You compromise and no artist can compromise. You can’t create something that pokes its head above the surface if you’re living a compromised life. You have to be selfish; you have to say things that will have upset the people close to you. It’s a lonely life to be a female artist. But women are interesting.”
The Sixties free love movement was a farce.
“I think the free love thing was a con. I’m not sure it was a conscious con, but it meant girls just got passed around and the pill just meant you had less of an excuse to say no. So much of the sex we had was because we were either bullied into it or there was this terrible thing where if you’d gone into heavy petting and you dared to want to stop it, you were called a prick tease or frigid. And sometimes you’d have sex because you felt that if you tried to stop it, they’d get violent. That happened to all of us a couple of times. It was such a patriarchy then, the men weren’t enlightened.” The Slits in the Seventies
A punk revolution won’t happen again in the developed world.
“But maybe it could in more oppressed worlds. I’d love to see all those Nigerian school girls form a band - that would be rebellious. Can you imagine that? That would be something. Using their music and singing honestly about what they do; expressing their sexuality and throwing it back in the faces of these oppressive men. They would be in danger like The Slits were in danger then. That’s what we did; we threw it back it their faces and stood up where we were oppressed and squashed and thought of as filth. Meanwhile all the Saviles and judges were doing their pervy little things behind closed doors, but squashing the proletariat. It would be great to see that.”
We don’t need to rebel anymore.
“It needs to be different to the way the Pussy Riot girls did it, but something that is honest, true and not taking your clothes off. Maybe in some of those societies, music has a chance. I think there are still many places that if women formed a band it would be shocking and they would be in danger. But maybe there are different ways to do it now, like the school girl Malala Yousafzai or with Angelina Jolie’s work.”
White men have become complacent.
“White men have been at the pinnacle society for so long that they’ve got boring. They need to gather up and try something else. What have white men got to talk about? That’s probably why these bands talk about such boring things now because they’ve got no life experience to write about. So they write about the countryside. England isn’t about the countryside anymore, so there’s no need to write that anymore please.”
Rihanna and Beyoncé are the Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Crawford of this generation.
“I think people have always taken their clothes off for entertainment, haven’t they? All I know is that my teenage daughter who goes to a girls’ school doesn’t dress like that; they wear baggy T-shirts and jeans. Kids aren’t stupid. People are always underestimating them. Obviously, people stumble sometimes, but there’s more communication now - kids are more informed now. I’m not going to knock those women; they’re entertainment. You’re not going to have the world being a right-on feminist. They’re like Elizabeth Taylor or something; intimidating divas; Joan Crawfords and Marilyn Monroes. They’re the big stars; hyper real and exaggerated. I don’t get the impression they’re weak in any way. When Beyoncé and Rihanna are showing their bodies and dancing - and they’re not sticks, either – [I have no doubt] that it’s on anyone’s terms but their own. There’s room for it all.” Albertine on the cover of her new memoir
Music today is obsolete.
“I’m not interested in young musicians really... They’ve got nothing much to say. They’re just looking for something fun to do, which is fine. There’s a place for fun music. It’s not the sort of committed music that I was brought up on so I can’t get my head around it, but I know it fulfils a place for young people but it’s not aimed at me so it doesn’t matter.”
Artists are more inspiring than musicians now and we need to stop elevating those twits in bands.
“If I was young today and I wanted to be really inspired and I wanted to have my mind elevated, looking for role models, would I look to four boys in a band churning out derivative music who haven’t lived a life? No I wouldn’t. I’d be looking to artists like Tracey Emin, Sue Webster and Sarah Lucas, maybe I’d be looking to interesting humanist activist lawyers. We need to stop elevating those boys for f**ks sake, it’s not good for feminism and it’s not good for them.” Mick Jones of The Clash in 1978
Mick Jones is still one of the most important people in my life.
“He was just a lovely guy, very intelligent and very funny. He’s different and loyal. He’s a rare find, but when you’re young you think you’ll meet loads of people like that. Looking back on my life, you don’t realise who is going to be important in your life until many, many years later. You might get married or have a child with someone, but that person might not end up being as important as a couple of other people who might have made a huge impression by something they said or thought. Mick has probably been one of the biggest people in my life, but of course I didn’t think that at the time.”
It was a form of duty to tell the Johnny Rotten blow job story.
“I don’t see him anymore, so I did go to check with him. We were playing at the same venue recently and I wanted to ask him then, but he wouldn’t even come down and see me. So he missed out, but it gave me the excuse to think ‘F**k it, I’ll write it.’ It’s not an easy thing to talk to someone face to face about, but I did try. To be told you’re trying too hard as a young girl in England... I mean is there a more crushing thing you can say? Especially in England where everyone hates to see you try at anything. I’ve made light of it, but the reason it’s in there is because it crushed me, although I’m pretty sure that he doesn’t even remember it.” The Sex Pistols in 1976: Steve Jones, Johnny Rotten, Glen Matlock and Paul Cook
If you have a choice between doing the wrong thing or nothing, take nothing.
“It will just go even more wrong as time goes on. But it takes a huge amount of courage to leave a long-term relationship. Or even a short one. We all want to have a companion, people question whether they’ll meet someone again, how to exist on my own, how society will view them or they might not want to divide up all the possessions. If it was more built into society that we should be able to shift and move on then, we’d be more comfortable. You should never stay in anything where someone is undermining you. It’s a crime against God, if there is one.”
The hardest part of being a punk was the violence.
“You were poked and prodded wherever you went, women were there to be consumed. But once I became a punk and the power had been taken away and re-appropriated, then we were under threat from practically all sets of society. Because we dressed the way we did, we weren’t even considered people anymore so we were spat at, some were stabbed. The violence was scary. People told us as The Slits we were scary but we had to be. Women were sneared at whatever they did, so to rise above that you had to be doubly scary.” Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen in 1978
Sid Vicious was a bumbling, shuffling, bashful, sexually immature boy, but also very intelligent.
“Sid had a massive self-destruct button. It came as no surprise when what happened happened. I put a lot of it down to him not having had a stable upbringing. You can overcome a lot of things in life or you have a good chance, and he didn’t. He had an unusual mind. He was fragile although he tried to hide it. He had a lively mind and, like a true artist, he didn’t see the world in the usual prescribed way. Every habit and every bit of learned behaviour that we all had, Sid could see it and was aware it. Anything we discussed, Sid had fresh perspective - he didn’t trot out what we’d been taught and most of us do. That’s why Sid asked me to be in a band with him. No one before Sid had thought, ‘I’ll be in a band with a girl.’ He was the first person to think that in England. Although there were a few boys who had been in folk bands with girls warbling away, there was no equal band of a girl playing guitar with a boy. It was considered uncool and it wasn’t an arena for girls. Often people who go towards smack are the sort of person who see the world too brightly; they don’t have the filters on. They can’t take it, so they need to blunt it down. He was such hard work for himself and hard work for me hanging out with him. He didn’t act normally, he didn’t oil the wheels of conversation; he did what he wanted to do. At the same time, he was taking drug and dulling himself more and more churning out a load of shit that he would have pulled to pieces a few years before. He ended up being everything we despised.”
I still don’t know whether he caused Nancy’s death.
“It was so upsetting to see him embroiled in Nancy’s death. Having seen him at Ashford Remand Centre, I knew how is when incarcerated - very lonely and scared. It was the second time in his life that it had all got too real and he had not got away with that lifestyle. I have no idea whether he was responsible for Nancy’s stabbing or not. I was sad, not surprised. My Sid was lost years before. It was the path he chose.”
It’s a bit sad to elevate him as an idol.
“It’s b****cks and he’d say the same. We were against elevating anybody. The whole idea was that you can do it, too. We’re not more special than any of you. This elevating him was rubbish. He had a good look and he was quite funny but he did end up being a bit s**t.”
Sid used to bribe me with Wimpy and chips so he could come with me to art school.
“He didn’t care that I didn’t want him around. He’d just come anyway and just fart and burp through my classes. He’d buy me a Wimpy and chips for breakfast - it was quite sweet in a way. Complete bribery, but he knew that was my weak point - a Wimpy and chips. It’s like that scene in Les Enfants Terribles where the brother and sister are just a bit too close and she has this crayfish and she won’t let him have it until he starts to go to sleep and she’s just poking it in. It’s a weird power struggle.”
Punk wasn’t that outrageous.
“Maybe there were orgies or blow job parties, but I was never involved in any of them. I took heroin and did a failed blow job on Johnny Rotten, but that was it. I think it’s quite funny that I’ve managed to write a book that’s quite lively and have a first chapter on masturbation, but I didn’t even masturbate. It’s quite an achievement really. “ Albertine playing at O2 Picture House, Edinburgh in 2011
This isn’t an ideas generation.
“I think this generation is very politically aware and humanist which is lovely and working in a different way thanks to the internet (thank God England’s not so small anymore) but I don’t see so many original, creative ideas coming out and that’s because there’s not enough space. Think now the internet’s born, we’ve settled with it, we’ve got to think a way of bringing fallow periods back into our lives and young people will do that once they’ve got the measure of it.”
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