Updated: Nov 26, 2020
Music Contributions: Guitar player & lyricist for the Slits, the pioneering all-female punk band of the 1970s.
Biographical Highlights: Born in 1954 in Sydney, Australia but raised in north London. Viv recalls at the age of 9 telling her father she wanted to be a pop singer. He was the only adult she knew that even had a passing interest in music. His response was simply, "You're not chic enough." Well, in the end, Viv will redefine "chic" for all female punk rockers!
Her earliest inspiration was John Lennon & Yoko Ono. She loved Lennon's ever evolving music and lyrics. When Yoko Ono entered the picture, she became even more fascinated with them. Yoko's philosophical musings made Viv think differently about how to live life. The Two Virgins cover was shocking yet inspirational: "It was an especially brave move for Yoko; her body was dissected and derided by the press. But I got it. As last, a girl being interesting and brave."
The music she listened to during those formative years (13 to 18; 1967-1972) was all about revolution: "... I grew up with music that was trying to change the world, that's what I still expect from it." The music from America was thought-provoking and created an interest in politics. Her pin-ups were political activists, Abbie Hoffman & Che Guevara. "Music, politics, literature, art all crossed over and fed into each other." The first time she really noticed guitar playing was with Marc Bolan (T. Rex). Guitar solos and riffs are usually the domain of the boys; girls listen to the lyrics. But Bolan was different. She attended tons of concerts, scanned albums for the names of girlfriends & wives, fantasized about what it would be like to be a girl connected to a musician. "Every cell in my body was steeped in music, but it never occurred to me that I could be in a band, not in a million years--why would it? Who'd done it before me? There was no one I could identify with. No girls played electric guitar. Especially not ordinary girls like me."
After high school, Viv attended a couple of different art schools, trying to find her way. In 1974 at Hammersmith College she had a fateful encounter that would eventually change the whole course of her life. One day she saw "a flash of movement and colour -- a blur of dark hair, high-heeled shoes, fluttering chiffon scarves and the longest, thinnest legs I've ever seen." She knew they were destined to be friends, so she found him and introduced herself. "Hello, I'm Viv." The boy replied simply, "Mick Jones." (As you probably know Mick Jones was the lead guitarist for the Clash and would be Viv's ticket into the inner circle of the Sex Pistols, Malcolm McLaren & Vivienne Westwood).
Another important event happens in 1975. One day New Musical Express had a small story about a new singer, Patti Smith. Her debut album was to be released soon, Horses. The picture of the album cover stirred something deep inside Viv. The picture alone gave Viv a confidence "to express myself in my own way." The album proved to be an inspiration, pioneering a new way to be a woman in music. "Up until now girls have been so controlled and restrained. Patti Smith is abandoned. Her record translates into sound, parts of myself that I could not access, could not verbalize, could not visualize, until this moment."
Her relationship with Mick Jones opened a new world for Viv and enabled her to become part of the inner circle of the UK punk scene along with Sid Vicious, John Lydon (Rotten), Chrissie Hynde, Joe Strummer, Keith Levene and others. He also brought her to her first Sex Pistols show in 1975 perform at the Chelsea School of Art. As she watched them she realized that this was the first time she felt no barrier between the band and the audience. Johnny Rotten was a revolutionary, sending the message that it is OK to simply be yourself. "At last, I see not only that other universe I've always wanted to be a part of, but the bridge to it."
At 22 Viv inherited some money from her grandmother and decided to use it to buy an electric guitar. No problem that she has never had a music lesson much less ever even touched a guitar. I love her description of why she chose electric guitar: "I like the way the guitar weaves and chops through the other instruments. I know that I'm not grounded and steady enough to play bass, not outgoing and confident enough to be a singer. I need an instrument to direct my emotions through. a little distance. The size of the strings and neck suit my fingers and the frequency of the notes is familiar, near to the pitch of my own voice. The guitar resonates with how I talk. It's all and none of these things really. It just feels right. No question. It couldn't be any other instrument." She left the store with a single-cutaway sunburst 1969 Gibson Les Paul Junior.
Over the ensuing year or so Viv played around with her guitar and amp. She learned how to keep time from Joe Strummer (she didn't like the whole stomping your foot thing, too masculine). Keith Levene (Public Image Ltd) proved to be a major influence on her guitar playing. Finding her voice through the guitar proved very difficult. One thing was clear: she didn't want to sound like a man, she wanted to have a different sound. "Slowly I start shaping a guitar style, twisting strands together, layering then undoing and starting again, until I start to sound like me."
Of course, style and clothing were an important part of the early punk aesthetic. Viv was consumed with style and finding a way to shock in a way that was new and challenging. She uses little girls' party dresses, torn & ragged. Ripped armholes. Bleached blonde hair that is matted and wild. Smudged black eyeliner. Fishnet stockings. Shocking pink boots. "I've crossed the line from 'sexy wild girl just fallen out of bed' to 'unpredictable, dangerous, unstable girl'. Not so appealing. Pippi Longstocking meets Barbarella meets juvenile delinquent. Men look at me and they are confused, they don't know whether they want to fuck me or kill me. This sartorial ensemble really messes with their heads. Good."
By 1977 with The Clash, Sex Pistols, Subway Sect, Buzzcocks, The Damned, The Jam were all lighting up the London punk scene. Viv still hadn't found a musical home. She had been approached by The Slits when they first formed but they were looking for a bass player, and as we know, Viv plays guitar exclusively. She was also reluctant to be in all-girl band, saw it as gimmicky. Chrissie Hynde (The Pretenders) finally told her to shut up and get on with it. Then sometime in 1977 she goes to see them perform at the Coliseum. She is mesmerized and inspired. The drummer has a primitive sound, the singer is unselfconscious and pranced around the stage. The next morning Viv calls the singer's house and asks to meet.
Shortly thereafter, Viv auditions with the Slits. Their guitar player as "left" and the band asks Viv if she has any songs. She played the riff for "So Tough" and showed them her lyrics from her lyric book. The totally love it. Here is Viv's original version and then the version that will end up on their debut album.
From the moment they became a band they went everywhere together and did everything together. They were a gang and walked four abreast down every street. "We have no doubt that the Slits are great and are going to change the world. We're on a mission and pity anyone who doesn't get it."
The Slits: Viv Albertine, Ari Up, Tessa Pollitt, and Palmolive (later of The Raincoats)
The Slits put up with a ton of sexiest treatment. They were spit on, verbally harassed, even physically attacked (Ari Up was stabbed twice on the street). Roadies didn't want to help them set up their equipment. Bus drivers didn't want to drive them to gigs.
Their "break" if you want to call it that, came when The Clash decided to have them be the opening band on their White Riot tour. The tour was chaos from beginning to end but it was also groundbreaking, one of the first all punk tours of the UK. Viv's description of the first show is hilarious. She counted in the first song, "One, two, three, four" as fast as she can and the band goes careening through the song. (Viv had no idea that the count was setting the speed of the song, she had just copied it from The Ramones lp. She thought it was just warning the band to start, so do it loud and fast.) Onto the next, and the next. All of them are playing at their own speed, none of them can hear each other. Spit and bottles are being thrown at them. When it is all over, they couldn't wait to do it again the next night.
Meredith Ochs in her Rock and Roll Woman book perfectly describes what the Slits accomplished in terms of sound and performance: "They were aggressive and bold, completely subverting mid-century Western female archetypes, drawing on everything from childhood nursery rhymes to the Sex Pistols to tribal cultures. Their performances were improvisational in the way that they were so new to playing music that anything could happen, but their chemistry made the mayhem sound purposeful."
The group decided they need to record an album. They decide it will be with their favorite label, Island Records. Of course, Island hasn't contacted them or anything, they just know they will convince Island to record them. And sure enough when they meet with Chris Blackwell of Island he easily agrees to sign them. The band was also going through some changes, Palmolive had left and a new drummer search was on, and reggae had become all the rage in England was influencing their sound.
As Viv explains: "I'm moving away from the buzzsaw, industrial whine I was developing with Keith [Levene]. I still don't have any female guitarists to listen to and be inspired by, and I hate the note-bending, flashy solos, posturing and lip pursing of a lot of male rock guitarists, but I've found some I like. I'm influenced by Steve Cropper (of Booker T and the MGs) at the moment, also the guitarist on the Dionne Warwick record and reggae guitar playing, and I love Carlos Alomar, on David Bowie's album Low." The songs Viv and Ari have been writing undergo serious changes as the band enters the studio but the lyrics are all intentional and carefully thought out. "No peddling cliches and lies for us. No lazy escapism. Words have to be true to your life. Write what you know. And make people think."
The album was recorded and finished in 1979 and it is one of the seminal punk albums of all time. They had complete artistic control over the album but production was overseen by Dennis Bovell, who had a strong reggae background. The drummer brought in for the session was none other than Budgie, who will go on to drum for Siouxsie and The Banshees. The album is not just ahead of its time, it sort of exists outside of any time reference. And the cover. Well, nothing like it had been done. Three powerful warrior women, nude, covered in mud. It wasn't titillating it was dangerous, they might just kick your ass for no reason.
Here are some of my favorites from Cut:
The album broke the top 40 in the UK and the band will do a follow up, "The Return of the Giant Slits", that saw the band move into an even more experimental phase incorporating African rhythms, dub, reggae along with earth-conscious lyrics. Shortly thereafter the band disintegrated and the members all went their various ways.
For Viv Albertine she began a rather new life. She studied filmmaking in London and throughout the 80s and 90s she worked mainly as a television director. She also performed on some sporadic albums. She got married, survived cancer, gave birth to a daughter, and divorced (her decision to return to music was too threatening to her husband and doomed the relationship). In 2012 she released a solo album, "The Vermillion Border", which I think is a tremendous album and features many interesting guest musicians. In 2014 she published her first book, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys, which I found to be one of the best (if not the best) musician memoirs ever written (see my review in the Articles & Books section).
Viv Albertine is still active giving interviews (this is a great one with Terry Gross on NPR) and just published her second memoir, To Throw Away Unopened, which largely focuses on her mother and family dysfunction. It is personal and moving. Viv Albertine is truly an inspiring feminist icon and I urge you to seek out articles and interviews, she is one of a kind.
(All unattributed quotes are from her book, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys.)