A Conversation with Viv Albertine

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From the “Cut” album cover, 1979
From the “Cut” album cover, 1979Photography by Pennie Smith

The Slits guitarist Viv Albertine talks childhood heroes and the lack of female pioneers in music today

In 1979 – smeared in mud and wearing nothing but loincloths fashioned from an old sheet – The Slits burst their way into the punk stratosphere with their debut album Cut. Liberated, loud and subversive, they were determined to succeed where others had failed in making a female-shaped dent in British rock by virtue of their music, not their looks. "Many guys at the time didn't know whether they wanted to kill us or fuck us," guitarist Viv Albertine muses in her acclaimed memoirs Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys. And that was the way they liked it. 

Newly published in paperback form, Albertine's candid book takes readers on a brilliant journey through The Slits' formative years – charting the dreams and aspirations that motivated and connected them – and headfirst into their punk heyday (complete with memories of a "shy" Sid Vicious and the highs and lows of dating Mick Jones and Johnny Thunders.) But equally compelling is Albertine's life post-punk – from her battle with cancer to the break down of her marriage through her career in acting and the triumph of making music again, all documented in her startlingly honest, wonderfully original tone. Here, in celebration of the book, we sit down with Albertine to talk role models, fantasy dinner party guests and the story behind the original "typical girl".

On childhood role models...
"There weren’t many role models for a girl in the early 70s so for a long time it was just my mum. Luckily she was strong, intelligent and opinionated. After that there were girlfriends of the Beatles and the Stones, they had a very high profile – Marianne Faithfull, Anita Pallenberg especially. Then I copied boys; boys I knew, boys I didn’t know. They were doing the interesting stuff, having all the fun. When John Lennon got together with Yoko Ono, that was a game changer. At last a woman who had ideas – an artist, a radical. Me and my friends adored her."

"We were on a mission, not just to show that women had a place in music, but to show alternatives in how to act and dress, speak, walk"

On The Slits' pioneering spirit...
"We were on a mission, not just to show that women had a place in music, but to show alternatives in how to act and dress, speak, walk; everything about us was challenging and new. Amazing to think now, that back then women didn’t exercise, jog, speak up for themselves, own their own bodies. We were there for men. To please and appease men. We were not liberated. The advances women have made were slow coming and hard won."

On "Typical Girls"...
"Typical Girls was aimed at myself. There are lines in the song that very much relate to me and my hang-ups. I was aware that I had been indoctrinated and was body conscious, smell conscious, hung-up on romance. I was a typical girl who broke away, rebelled. I was mired in my conditioning and I could see where I wanted to go."

On her fantasy dinner party guests...
"Viggo Mortensen, Louise Bourgeois, John Lennon, Gillian Slovo 8 and my mum. My favourite parts of the book are the things I wrote about my mum. She died after the book came out and I think, ‘She was alive when I wrote that’ – it makes the things I wrote even more poignant."

On her dream magic power...
"If I could have any magic power it would be to be invisible. I love to observe. I love to disappear at a party or dinner. To walk through any street in any town in the world and be safe. To learn without being seen."

On new female pioneers in music...
"I like a lot of female artists very much as entertainers but they are not pioneers in life in my opinion. People who are pioneers are not attracted to such a shallow and regressive ‘industry’ as music. They will be human rights lawyers, activists, campaigners... women in western culture have options now, they can be things I’d never heard of. I think that a lot of clever women don’t see performing as a way to live a meaningful and interesting life. They’ve seen through the hype. They’ve rejected it. Gone elsewhere."

Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys by Viv Albertine, published by Faber & Faber, is available now.