One of my favourite eras of music is 1976-1982, the period that gave us punk and its even more interesting fall-outs. One of the key players in the scene was Viv Albertine. At the point of this interview, she had started recording again after a gap of many years. She had just released an EP, Flesh, which would be followed by an album, The Vermilion Border, and her autobiography Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys. Last year, I even got to meet her at the Edinburgh Book Festival, where she signed my copy of The Slits’ debut album, Cut.
“1979 and 2010 actually seem to have a fair bit in common, thirty or so years apart as they may be. A Labour government struggling to run the country -and as with then, the scary as hell prospect that there could be a Tory Government making it even worse, just around the corner. Yet despite that, healthy DIY music scenes, people taking the ethos of punk and making their own, far more exciting records, people publishing their own written work and setting up their own labels. Oh, and Viv Albertine being behind some of the most amazing recorded work of the year.
In 1979, that work was the seminal album Cut and one of the most wonderful cover versions ever, when the Slits totally transformed Marvin Gaye’s ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine.’ In 2010, it’s her first recorded work in twenty-five years the wonderful ‘Flesh’ EP.
When I call her at her home on the south coast of England, she’s wonderfully warm, and it’s quite clear that I’m not the only man on earth rather in awe of her. I’m in the company of non other than one Thurston Moore, alternative rock icon, Sonic Youth guitarist -and most significantly for our story today, the man behind the Ecstatic Peace record label.
Viv met Thurston when she went to see Sonic Youth with none other than Gina from the Raincoats, the fabulous band who were the Slits’ contemporaries (and made one of 1979?s other phenomenal records with their self-titled debut.) As Viv puts it, she and Thurston ‘hit it off and hung out for the rest of the evening.’ She let him hear some of the songs that she’d been working on. ‘They weren’t ready [for releasing] I thought,’ she says, however ‘he liked them and thought they should be recorded as part of my musical progress.’
For now the EP is the only thing that’s available, but she says ‘I’ve got so many songs I’m desperate to record. Like with the Slits, I’m getting into my head how I want them to sound.’ She’s playing live and adds that ‘when I play live, the people there are often moved. [The songs] resonate for people.’
This EP is nakedly personal. I have to confess that I find myself desperate to ask about some of the lyrics, yet they feel so nakedly personal that it feels rather like quizzing someone on something that you read when you stole their diary, slipped it back and are desperate to ask them. Yet despite this, I can play it on repeat for several listens, several months after it dropped on the doormat.
I also can’t resist myself from asking about the punk-era that the Slits came through. It’s clear that the Slits found the times they were living in difficult. More than thirty years later, even John Lydon (AKA Rotten) has said that he feels it’s been talked up into something it wasn’t. How does Viv feel about it all, looking back?
‘It [the punk movement] was important to us at the time. We lived in London – and still there was nothing going on! It’s amazing how lacklustre things were.’ But when punk started ‘that small punk movement did attract like-minded people.’ Did it change things for people? ‘Everything was picked to pieces – it was like ground zero.’ And Viv found herself in with some of the people who changed the musical shape of Britain in the late seventies, in a way that despite challenges, still reverberates over thirty years later. Amongst those she knew were people like Sid Vicious and John Lydon -’we were all mates or cohorts.’ The Slits’ original drummer Palmolive (born Paloma Romera) would go onto join the Raincoats, being replaced by one Peter Clarke, better known as Budgie, who drummed on Cut and then went onto join Souxsie and the Banshees and marry Siouxsie Sioux. He in turn was replaced by Bruce Smith, who also played with Bristol’s The Pop Group.
Not that this should give an impression of some kind of punk happy family. Because it’s clear that being in the Slits meant being under attack from a lot of sides. ‘People were so antagonistic,’ she recalls. ‘We were smuggled out of hotels. We were attacked physically.’ The clothes they wore -and this at a time when Vivienne Westwood was laying the ground for what would happen- seems to have shocked people to their very core. As Viv describes it ‘We dressed like something out of a porn mag and bovver boys.’ A tough time, then? ‘It was extremely tough for us. The only person who was kind and open to us was John Peel,’ she says referring to the legendary Radio 1 DJ. The Banshees may have been refusing to sign to anyone -or at least giving the impression that they were, but the Slits had recorded two sessions for Peel before they were signed by Island Records in 1979.
The album Cut still sounds ahead of its’ time even now. The cover with the three girls – Viv, singer Ari Up and bassist Tessa Pollitt covered in mud was not designed to titillate but unnerved many. The only question I ask her about the cover, I tell her, is whether she’s heard the rumour that the Rough Trade Record shop had a meeting about whether or not to stock the album because of the cover. [N.B. This is mentioned in the sleeve notes to the Rough Trade Shops Post Punk 01 compilation]. Viv laughs and says she hasn’t heard this rumour but it wouldn’t surprise her. Though the Slits were later signed to the Rough Trade label, then linked with the shop, Viv says that head honcho Geoff Travis ‘didn’t think we were PC enough! We weren’t considered feminists.’
As the seventies became the eighties, so the scenes shifted and times got tougher. ‘ Punk was so wonderful…and then the eighties happened.’ The Slits played a final gig at the Hammersmith Palais and split up in November 1981. Viv’s unquestionably influenced many people over the years -’I’d be flattered if Madonna took influences from us’ – but it’s not all moved her. The 1990s saw the emergence of the Riot Girl movement, but ‘the riot girl movement didn’t grab me.’ She reflects that ‘After the Slits…after a year, I felt the whole music scene was dead. I started to make films and literally downed the guitar.’ She went to film school and proudly states on her website that ‘she didn’t drop out.’
Not involved in the recent Slits reformation for either the ‘Return Of the Killer Slits’ EP or the Trapped Animal album, Viv is still continuing to persue her own path. I hope there’ll be more albums. She’s playing live and tells me that she’s planning to come to Scotland towards the end of the year, and we round off our conversation by discussing venues in Scotland.
Check out the EP – there’s more ideas and better songs there than on some people’s entire careers. Viv Albertine continues to make her presence felt -and it’s great to have her back.”