Monday, 23 March 2015

Clothes Music Boys - Viv Albertine


Viv Albertine's memoir is more fascinating than she might even realise and from the start I would urge any girl (or adult woman, come to that) who has ever had any inclination to be an artist of any sort - not just a musician - to read it because I'm certain they'll love it to bits and be inspired.
Viv was, of course, the lead guitarist of the Slits who as everyone should know were an incredibly important band. As to be expected, a proportion of her book concerns itself with her time in the Slits but I wouldn't say that's the main subject of the book at all. In fact if anything, the running theme throughout it is 'honesty' and Viv is nothing but honest in what she writes. At times, startlingly so.

The past is a foreign country and Viv conveys this in her descriptions of life in London during the early 1970s when horizons were limited, expectations were low, education insufficient and encouragement non-existent. And that was just if you were a boy. For a girl it was much worse. And adding a little spice to everyone's affairs was the constant threat from gangs of skinheads roaming the streets in search of fresh victims, like sharks scenting blood.
For Viv, as for many other young people, music offered a meaning to a life devoid of any. Music was the medium that carried the news, that brought the world to her door and into her bedroom. Politics, culture, protest, art, glamour, ideas, alternatives - all the things that were never taught in school. John Lennon, the Kinks, Captain Beefheart, Marc Bolan, David Bowie, Patti Smith - these were her real teachers.
"Every cell in my body was steeped in music," she writes "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."

Whilst attending Hammersmith College, in London, Viv is one day invited along to a gig by her friend Rory Johnston who's a fellow student and unpaid assistant to a clothes shop owner on the King's Road. The band come on: "They're loud and raucous but not bad musicians. I've seen bands that have this anarchic quality before: the Pink Fairies, the Pretty Things, the Edgar Broughton Band. It's the singer who stands out."
The singer's name is Johnny Rotten.
"He's unapologetic about who he is and where he comes from. Proud of it even. He's not taking the world's lack of interest as confirmation that he's wrong and worthless. I look up at him twisting and yowling and realise it's everyone else who's wrong, not him. How did he make that mental leap from musically untrained, state-school-educated, council estate boy, to standing on stage in front of a band? I think he's brave. A revolutionary. He's sending a very powerful message, the most powerful message anyone can ever transmit. Be yourself.
I've always thought that my particular set of circumstances - poor, North London, comprehensive school, council flat, girl - haven't equipped me for success. As I watch the Sex Pistols I realise that this is the first time I've seen a band and felt there are no barriers between me and them. Ideas that have been in the back of my mind for years rush to the front of my brain...
... This is it. At last I see not only that other universe I've always wanted to be part of, but the bridge to it."

Attending the same college as Viv is a softly spoken, shy but flamboyantly dressed boy by the name of Mick Jones who becomes her boyfriend (and guardian angel), and through him she gets to know his friends and some of his friend's friends. One afternoon whilst walking down the Portobello Road with Mick they bump into John Rotten who's walking along with one of his friends and during the ensuing conversation Viv mentions she wants to start a band. To her amazement John's friend says "I'll be in a band with you."
"This is an extraordinary thing for a guy to say because there are hardly any boys and girls in bands together" writes Viv.
The friend's name is Sid Vicious and they go on to form a band called the Flowers Of Romance but after practising all through the summer of '76 they fail to write a single song let alone play a gig. Sid sacks Viv from the band for 'not being able to play well enough' (and this from Sid!) and she's comforted by a kind and thoughtful Johnny Thunders who shoots her up with heroin. Sid, of course, goes on to join the Sex Pistols and Viv is recruited by the fledgling Slits, and in the process... history is made.

This may all sound as though Viv was always in the right place at the right time but it's not at all as simple as that. The Sex Pistols were the catalyst for an extraordinary chain of events but everyone whom the Pistols effected had to already be receptive to the possibility of such an impact be it from whatever source. They had to have been already looking for something different.
There were a lot of people at that time who would go on to form bands who had already been practising their chosen musical instrument for quite a while and the Pistols were the final boost they needed to just get up and do it. It was those, however, whom the odds were stacked against that the Pistols' 'message' was not only doubly important but vital. Those with no musical training in the slightest. Those to whom there was no outlet for creativity whatsoever. Those who were too poor. Too uneducated. Those who'd been born in the wrong place. Those born the wrong sex. Those like Viv Albertine.

Viv's observations and anecdotes about this specific period offer a completely fresh view of a subject that has been almost written about to death. There are completely new insights into many of the main characters of those early Punk days but more importantly they're from a female perspective. It's apparent in the way that Viv writes honestly, openly and truthfully about her problems, her family, her lack of confidence, and her sexual experiences that what she says about the people and events around Punk must also be similarly truthful. And actually, this is quite important because so many myths and exaggerations have been thrown about by people writing about Punk that it's often hard now to even see the wood for the trees.
Viv is a very good, very witty writer. She has a natural way of complimenting people without overstating things, just as she has a very calm way of sticking the boot into people. What she says about Paul Weller, for example, is devastating to his public persona (and much respect to Mick Jones for wanting to have a go at him for it). And her description of giving John a blow job is almost as hilarious as Sid (having been taught the art of love by Nancy Spungeon) very sweetly and very generously offering to give her an orgasm. Her skill, however, is in the way she can compliment and stick the boot into the same person in equal measures. The person she's least kind about though, is herself, which is a shame really because what she and the Slits did for women in particular is immeasurable. If only she knew.

But as I said, Viv's book isn't just about Punk and the Slits. The second half of it deals with her post-Punk/post-Slits life and this part is quite possibly even better than the first. At times her honesty is almost harrowing as she writes about miscarriage, IVF and divorce before emerging like a butterfly from its chrysalis as an artist reborn. And I'll tell you what, if Viv can do it then we can all do it.
And throughout it all is Viv's much put upon mother, who even more so than Viv is the true hero (or heroine?) of the book. In fact, I reckon she deserves to be honoured in some way for her services not only to Punk Rock (for giving Viv her constant blessing and support) but for her services (through Viv) to creativity, art and womankind. Thank you, Mrs Albertine, for giving the world your daughter. 
We salute you.
John Serpico


  1. Having recently read Viv's memoir, I wholeheartedly agree with much of what you've said here. It's a great read for anyone remotely interested in the music of the late 70's but even better on the *feel* of those times. The second half of the boo is, for me, even stronger and, at times, heartbreaking. It's wonderful the way Viv comes out of it all triumphantly, fighting her way back to a greater sense of herself. Best 'rock' biography I've encountered in along while even if I persist in casting doubts on *anyone* who claims to have only loved the usual 'hip' names in pop and rock when they were growing up. Still, who knows? Perhaps, in Viv's case it's true. Have you seen the film she acting in recently directed by Joanna Hogg? Highly recommended.

    1. Not seen the film Viv acted in yet but I intend to. In fact, I think it's up on You Tube? An interesting (and very funny) 'rock biography' is Mark E Smith's Renegade where (as to be expected with him) he says things that are totally against the grain such as Alvin Stardust being cool and The Glitter Band being better than the Sex Pistols. It's a good book.

  2. I think MES was probably right on both counts! Hang on - scrub that bit about Alvin Stardust. Must read Smith's book.