Viv Albertine – Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.

Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys

Viv AlbertineClothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.  (Faber and Faber, 2014)

There have been many memoirs published from surviving punk rock personalities.  These include a recent spate of books from women involved in the scene, and its offshoots, from Patti Smith‘s lauded Just Kids to Kim Gordon‘s Girl in a Band: A Memoir.  Viv Albertine, who was the guitarist for the iconoclastic (even by liberal standards) UK punk band The Slits, contributes her own memoir with Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys.  Albertine is not a trained writer and so, like her music, her book is direct and from the gut.  It is made up of mostly short chapters, arranged chronologically.  Each has a punchy theme and tries to grab the reader with its candidness and revealing, even lurid, tidbits.  It wouldn’t convey as much about the punk ethos if it was written any other way.  It is a book refreshingly light on grandstanding and self-mythologizing — the bane of many memoirs — as well as fake humility and fabricated adversities (at least, taking much of this at face value).

The book is in two parts, named “Sides” (like an LP).  The first covers her childhood up through the early 1980s dissolution of her band The Slits.  Most readers came for this part of the book, with its gossip about the punk scene and first hand account of what it was like to be a part of the now-legendary Slits.  The second part of the book is the rest of her life, one filled with more “typical girl” issues like making a living and having a family.  Much of side two would fit comfortably on a daytime talk show for middle class viewers.  But throughout, Albertine comes across as remarkably candid, and for all the lurid gossip and confessional tracts, she tries to stick with a tone that is questioning and humble.

The book’s title is drawn from what her mother complained were the only things she talked about growing up.  Clothes come first.  Chapters include photos and many descriptions of outfits.  This was clearly a big part of what she spent time thinking about all her life.  Some scenes in the book seem to revolve around how certain clothing was selected, and often the mention of certain brand names stands in for more detailed description of the appearance of that clothing.  What is revealing though, is how these descriptions of clothing labels, cut, color, modification, purchase location and such actually fade in and out of the story.  It is when Albertine sees potential and promise in her life that clothing takes on a prominent role, at least a sufficient enough role to merit mention in the book.  She studied textiles for a time at an art school, so she knew clothing from that perspective.  But fashion was part of how punks set themselves apart and brought out instant confrontation with those around them.  When she is married and struggles with cancer and in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment, and when she is depressed and without a career or child, there is almost no mention of clothing.  It appears barely in passing.  A compendium of eras of her life at the end of the book, with friends, musical interests and key clothing compiled for each era, lists clothing for one time period simply as “boring”.  It would have been a bit daring to relentlessly describe clothing across the entire book, even the boring stuff.  Not doing so has a way of revealing how clothing was a tool for ambitious and aspirational ends in Albertine’s life.  When she omits descriptions of them, it conveys a sense of finality and stasis to those periods of her life.  Some readers may find nothing in the details of the clothing descriptions, though it seems worthwhile to at least take in the context for how Albertine’s nostalgia for fashion frames her whole life’s perspective as one seeking mechanisms not just to be herself freed from intrusion but to actively engage in society in her own way.  Viewed through the lens of the old debate between positive and negative freedoms, her fashion sense stands for positive freedom to shape your social trajectory.  When her trajectory was fixed (or seemed fixed) at times of her life, that positive freedom was missing and so clothing doesn’t play a role worthy of mention in her memoir.  Maybe she had (negative) freedom from demands and impositions as a stay-at-home mother, but for her that wasn’t enough, and the clothing that accompanies such negative freedom doesn’t interest her enough to write about.

Music is the reason people know Viv Albertine’s name.  Her band The Slits are cult legends, and their debut album Cut is considered a lost classic.  It is hard to imagine many later feminist rock bands like Bikini Kill without the historical precedent of The Slits.  Albertine describes her early influences, how she navigated the London punk rock scene, and, eventually, how she returned to music later in life after a long hiatus.  She had no formal musical training.  Mostly, she taught herself to play guitar.  The book is filled with plenty of descriptions of the tribulations of being an autodidact musician, playing concerts, writing songs, and recording music commercially. Yet the book’s treatment of music as often as not is a platform to write about the people involved in her life.  Albertine somewhat takes for granted that readers have heard of some of the bands and other musical personalities she mentions, but, rest assured, those unfamiliar should still be able to navigate those chapters.

“Boys” is the last part of the book’s title.  No doubt, boys and romantic entanglements and exploits with them make up a substantial amount of the book.  Albertine is fairly frank.  It might be tempting to cite these things as just prurient gossip.  Yet, remember, this writer considers herself a feminist.  There seems to be something of a point being made here against “slut shaming”  and an exploration, of sorts, of what the punk ethos has to say about sexuality, both during its heyday and in its aftermath.  Albertine is quick to note how the punk scene could, in actual practice, be misogynistic and more limited for women than its inclusive attitude suggested.  The only way to meaningfully examine these things and move beyond them is for people to openly talk about them.  Kudos to Albertine for that.

“Side One” is a fast-paced read.  The chapters are short.  There is no attempt to comprehensively chronicle the days of The Slits here.  This remains a book about about Albertine, not her one-time band.  Some of the descriptions match almost verbatim things she (and former bandmates) have said in interviews.  The ways in which she saw feminism work for (and against) The Slits (and then in the post-Slits years) remains one of the more unique contributions of this book.  There are plenty of little vignettes and anecdotes about things like starting a band (The Flowers of Romance) with Sid Vicious, navigating the mean streets of London as a young girl, and acting on the do-it-yourself (DIY) mentality of punk against a backdrop of institutions set up to prevent that from happening or succeeding.

She relied on opportunities that haven’t been so plentiful in the years that followed (there are allusions to the Thatcher government withdrawing some opportunities).  Looking back over thirty years later, she writes, “‘Punk’ was the only time I fitted in.  Just one tiny sliver of time where it was acceptable to say what you thought.  Perhaps I was lucky to have that.”  When The Slits disband, she sinks into depression and doesn’t know what to do with herself.  Many musicians start other bands, or move into producing or other ancillary roles.  But for Albertine, there was something singular about the punk scene, and her outsider status as an untrained musician didn’t really equip her to deal with a music industry that is quick to discard bands and genres.  She also came from a poor family, raised much of her childhood by a single mother, and wasn’t exactly made wealthy from her work with The Slits.  She didn’t exactly have a vacation home or ample reserve funds to support new endeavors.  The abruptness of how her musical life fell apart is interesting, because for many listeners it is easy to never give a thought to what band members do after there albums are out and the tours complete.  On top of all this, the militantly confrontational nature of The Slits’ music took a heavy toll.  From Albertine’s description, it seems perfectly natural that someone fighting on the front lines to change the world through music might be a bit worn out by that effort a few years later.

“Side two” of the book begins with the immediate aftermath of The Slits dissolving.  She becomes an aerobics instructor, then goes to film school, tries to date, eventually marries, tries to have a child and eventually does, has cancer and lives through it.  Her husband is identified only as “Husband” or “the Biker”.  Then she divorces and renews a musical career.  The pacing of the book shifts markedly here.

The trying times of life, especially dealing with cancer, are by no means new topics to this memoir.  Albertine treats these as well as she can.  Though much of her writing in those stretches seems to echo Denton Welch‘s brilliant unfinished autobiographical novel A Voice Through a Cloud, concerning his strained recovery and difficult readjustment to life after being hit by a car while riding his bicycle (if you have not read Welch’s book, please do so now!).

Her views of romance and love jump around through her life.  She stands by a rather unsentimental vision of it, which recalls what philosopher Alain Badiou calls the “two scene” (see In Praise of Love).  Yet she also wavers between wanting to see the world from the decentered point of view of two or to reaffirm her own singular identity.  She fights off the worst temptations of identity politics.  She doesn’t simply categorize herself as a feminist or a punk or a mother, and presume that those labels have a force of their own.  For that, she struggles to find meaning and purpose at times.

The themes that emerge from the later half of the book wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if not bracketed by both the entire first half and the final few chapters.  Albertine doesn’t talk much about politics or big agendas, only that she has always considered herself a feminist (which is the radical notion that woman are equal to men).  But everything in her life is political.  Consciously or not, she was always working from ideals that are staples of the political left, mostly involving radical egalitarianism.  She mentions struggling with these things in the second part of the book.  She describes the punk ethos as “‘nobody’s better than anyone else’ — we didn’t encourage fandom and that’s still with me[,]” and so doesn’t want to glorify The Slits or claim to be some sort of punk legend and spokesperson for a generation (though she does rely on that fandom to auction much of her punk memorabilia to pay for expensive IFV treatments; something hardly worth criticizing her for).  Ultimately, she concludes that she doesn’t have the (positive) freedom to do as she wishes in her marriage, so after almost 20 years gets a divorce and commits herself to a renewed music career — spurred on by a strange contact, completely out of the blue, from the actor/director Vincent Gallo.

A long period of Albertine’s life was spent as what people in the States call a “soccer mom”.  But there aren’t many soccer moms who were once in a radical punk band and best friends with Sid Vicious!  How did she adapt to being a wife and mother?  What spurred her to go back to music and arts?  What is it like for a woman “of a certain age” (with a punk legacy on top of that) to start up a music career on the “open mic” circuit?  Lots of questions like “how does a person cope with having cancer?” are commonplace, unfortunately, in melodrama and (auto)biography.  But Albertine’s history as a kind of iconoclast gives those same questions a peculiar import.  She does reveal enough about her material circumstances to give a sense of why she chose to buy a bigger house and let it define who she was for a time, and her time as a guitarist for The Slits forces her to confront those questions in a different way than women who dream from childhood about nothing more than marriage and children and a suburban, consumerist lifestyle.

Most musical memoirs are from people who worked in music continuously their entire lives (Patti Smith semi-retired from music for less than eight years).  Clothes… is somewhat unique in adding the perspective of someone who walked away from it completely (and then came back).  And what do punk stalwarts think of all this?  Albertine’s friend Don Letts made a documentary Punk: Attitude in which Henry Rollins (once of Black Flag) comments about how everyone thought of punks as being open-minded, but it turned out that most were just as closed-minded as everyone else, maybe just close-minded in a slightly different way.  While it is somewhat obvious by this point to ask about how some first-wave punks — and plenty of others who followed — were sexist and didn’t think women/girls could make legitimate music on their own terms, what has been less explored is to ask what people once associated with punk think about “ordinary” domestic life outside that milieu.  Are punks, now at least, open-minded enough to listen to somebody who settled down into suburban life after an underground music career?

Albertine writes about how the punks were “the children of the first wave of divorced parents from the 1950s[.]”  Yet much of “Side Two” is about a long, slow reconciliation with that viewpoint, as she tries, for a time, to succeed with a “domestic dream” that she at one point thought “was impossible to live up to.”  This is completely in the spirit of her description of her leap into performing in the punk scene back in the 1970s: “Time to try, and maybe fail again, but better that than never try at all.”  Go Viv! If only that sort of fearlessness caught on a bit more, what might the world be?

For more on this book, check out the many other reviews and interviews with the author.

The Slits – Cut


The SlitsCut Island ILPS 9573 (1979)

The Slits did heroic things. Cut is empowering. Songs on this album celebrate whatever the group loves, brushing past hard times with mere innuendo along the way.  Pushing long bass lines from Tessa Pollitt that are louder than anything else and totally funky, the scratchy, sharp, staccato guitar of Viv Albertine comes laced over the top (with a dissonant, atonal sound Albertine frequently described as “oriental”), The Slits’ sound can’t be mistaken for any other. And that is even without mentioning the Teutonic vocals of Ari Up (at times billed as Ari Upp), who didn’t so much sing melodies as warble slogans along with the rest of the music. The Slits keep things interesting. They even manage that by doing as little as adding piano and shifting the rhythms on “Typical Girls.” All those little things sound so much more spectacular when set apart as they are on Cut. But in the big picture, there is nothing little or ordinary about The Slits.

Cut is pretty radical music.  The band paid a price for it.  Ari Up was stabbed twice!  But they fought on because they believed in what they were doing.  Central to their project was the idea that there should be space in music for every sort of viewpoint.  That meant women should have a voice in rock and punk, forms dominated by men.  In later tours, the band would listen incessantly to Sun Ra‘s Space Is the Place (they even tried to visit him in Philadelphia when on tour, but he happened to be away touring at the same time) and Don Cherry‘s Brown Rice.  They loved Ornette Coleman too.  Albertine liked Yoko Ono as well.  Get the picture?  All these artists shared something in common: a fiercely individualist streak that insisted that society should tolerate a lot more variation than found in its contemporary history.  And they all fought battles to create room for their music.  Ornette was physically assaulted in his early career because people found his music so shocking.  It was the same with The Slits.  Yet they were willing to fight for what they believed in despite these burdens.  They did something to try to change the world.  And didn’t they, in a little way?

The Slits were formed in 1976, when Ari Up was a mere 14 years old.  Kate Korus was their original guitarist, but the Australian-born Viv Albertine took over on guitar early on.  Albertine was already a fixture of the London punk scene, but had only a few months playing guitar before joining the band.  She was available to play after being kicked out of The Flowers of Romance.  Palmolive (born Paloma Romero) was their original drummer, but Albertine forced her out just before the band signed to Island Records to make Cut.  One of Palmolive’s songs, and others with at least her lyrics, makes the album.  She insisted that her close friend Tessa Pollitt sing her “Adventures Close to Home,” rather than Ari.  They temporarily brought in drummer Budgie (born Peter Clarke) for the album and limited touring.  He was under specific instruction to play a little like Palmolive, pounding toms and riding the hi-hat without ever doing big cymbal crashes.

Of the core original band members, only one was born in England, and two (including the singer Ari) spoke English as a second language.  These were kids born after WWII, and most of the bandmembers came from families of divorce, raised by single mothers.  In her memoir Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys, Viv Albertine said about the punks:

“we’re the children of the first wave of divorced parents from the 1950s, we’ve seen the domestic dream break down. It was impossible to live up to. We grew up during the ‘peace and love’ of the 1960s, only to discover that there are wars everywhere and love and romance is a con.”

This puts The Slits’ feminism — more on that in a moment — in a certain light.  The punks were often disillusioned with society.  But coming from families of divorce can give children what scientists called “stress inoculation-induced resilience.”  Anyway, whether it is that or not, these girls chucked out the expectations of what was considered “normal” or “proper” and undertook the difficult task of forging their own meaning.  Like the other punks, they adopted a uniquely urban approach to music, with scratchy, industrial guitar sounds, and electrified instruments.  Unlike the hippies of the prior decade, they struck a more impertinent, shocking pose.  Hunter S. Thompson wrote about “the grim meat-hook realities that were lying in wait” for anyone who took Dr. Timothy Leary’s “turn on, tune in, drop out” consciousness expansion ideals too seriously back in the 60s.  The punks saw those meat-hook realities and confronted them, like a counter-counter-offensive.

The Slits circulated with most of the original wave of London punk bands.  “So Tough” was written about Sid Vicious, and “Instant Hit” about Keith Levene.  Viscous was in the band The Flowers of Romance with Albertine before joining The Sex Pistols.  Levene, later of PiL, was a longtime friend of Albertine’s and helped her learn to play her guitar.  “Ping Pong Affair” was written by Albertine about her on again, off again romantic relationship with Mick Jones of The Clash.  The few songs about the UK punk scene are just part of the story though.

Ari Up was the band’s frontwoman, but she was simply too young to run a band.  It was Viv Albertine who organized things and made the band function.  Ari is still a real presence.  She was heavily into dub and reggae.  The whole band was too, but her even more than the others.  She brought that to the band’s sound in time for Cut — dub and reggae have no bearing on their 1977 session for radio DJ John Peel released as a 1987 EP.  It helps that reggae producer and musician Dennis Bovell produces Cut.  He draws out the best in the band, and perfectly captures their musical vision (he also plays “percussion” with a box of matches, a spoon and a glass on one song, “Newtown”).  Ari sings in a way that swings wildly between styles and registers.  She hisses and screams.  She also had an inimitably sarcastic German drawl that seems incompatible on a basic level with anything stuffy and pretentious (a quality somewhat like Marc Bolan of T. Rex or Bryan Ferry of Roxy Music but even more flamboyant).  Though despite her biting sarcasm she largely avoids the seething rage and harshness of tone of most other (male) punk vocalists.  She sings high trills, then chants in lower registers — something vaguely similar was common in black gospel music, but not in punk rock, or any other kind of rock.  She came across as completely uninhibited.  Her unsettling accent and fearless, childlike attitude are a big part of why The Slits’ irreverent humor works so well.

“Typical Girls” was a single, and a great one (paired with a cover of “Heard It Through the Grapevine” not included on Cut).  Albertine wrote the song for the album just prior to recording.  She got the idea and the title from a sociology book of the same name.  It is laced with feminist concepts.  No doubt, The Slits had a militant feminist stance.  The album cover with them half naked covered in mud (they wanted to recreate an African tribal look, and appear like warriors) is often cited as an anti-feminist stunt, but it only takes a listen to the contents of the album to see that they were indeed feminists.  They weren’t perfect, and their strange, spastic musical vision won’t be everyone’s idea of what they would be listening to in a better world.  But the point was that their music expanded the possibilities, for women in rock and everyone else.  And this was definitely a new configuration of sounds: groovy and oddly catchy while also unpredictable, edgy and discordant.  The song opens with Pollitt laying a thick bass groove and Albertine strumming out sort of a superhero cartoon or spy movie melody, and Ari chants lines like, “Don’t rebel.”  There is a break in the guitar part, and a piano figure pounds out a consonant rising and falling melody.  Then there is a sharp break in rhythm, with the guitar playing Jamaican ska upbeats and a new bass line.  The song manages to convey shifts in perspectives from lolling about in sarcasm to uplifting rising progressions that almost seem to earnestly look at the “typical girl” as having a valid existence too.  The song continues to shift around, never settling down.

The framework of the song “Typical Girls” fits somewhat with the work of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who published his monumental book La distinction the same year Cut was released.  Bourdieu elaborated on his concept of “habitus”, as a set of unconscious predispositions and social orientations that foster the reproduction of social hierarchies across generations.  The Slits’ song asks “who invented the typical girl?”  But this mocking rhetorical question is answered, partially, with the lyric, “Typical girl gets the typical boy.”  Typical girls and typical boys go together, as if neither one exists or has meaning apart from the context of the pairing.  The song portrays the dispositions of the “typical girl” (or typical boy) accumulated over a lifetime, not consciously, exactly, that just seems to go on, uncritically reproducing more typical girls (and boys).  The Slits stood for snipping the Gordian knot of these dispositions.  The song’s abrupt transitions and odd juxtapositions make it difficult to ignore them.  And once they are recognized, it becomes had to justify them as anything more than arbitrary limitations.

“Spend, Spend, Spend” was written about a lottery winner Viv Nicholson (the song title cribbed from newspaper quotes and headlines about the winner).  But it engages consumerist culture on a direct, personal level too.  The song is partially a confession of addiction to consumer fetishism.  The song doesn’t claim the band stands apart.  Singing about it, though, is an effort to get past it.  “Shoplifting” is the flip side to consumerism.  The song accepts that material things are needed, but the guilt of want is simply discarded.

Palmolive’s “Adventures Close to Home” closes the album.  The words are great: “Don’t take it personal, I choose my own fate / I follow love, I follow hate.”  This encapsulates The Slits’ politics quite well.  Yet with Tessa singing and Ari Up playing bass, and without Palmolive to unselfconsciously bang on the drums, the performances don’t have an optimal touch.  Palmolive’s recording of the song with her next band The Raincoats is superior.  But, Palmolive insisted that Tessa sing as a condition for the group to record her song.

For all the edgy, odd, confrontational sounds on Cut, the music also has a softer side woven throughout.  The band was listening to Dionne Warwick‘s Dionne Warwick’s Golden Hits – Part One incessantly around the time of the recording sessions, in addition to things like David Bowie‘s Low.  Smooth pop soul phrasing is present in this music nearly as much as atonal noise, funk and reggae beats, and sudden shifts in rhythm and tone.

There were a handful of other UK punk bands that incorporated elements of reggae and dub and funk into their sound.  Few did so as brashly as The Slits while still keeping a bright sense of humor.  Even more than three decades later this music sounds fresh and original.

Also, here’s a link to an excellent review of the album by Anthony Carew.

The Slits – Return of The Giant Slits

Return of The Giant Slits

The SlitsReturn of The Giant Slits CBS 85269 (1981)

This album — blending African, Asian and other types of folk music into 1980s pop and dub — sounds a bit contrived.  It pales in comparison to the group’s debut and extant radio recording sessions for their original existence.  However, you have to give The Slits credit for being more ambitious than Siouxsie and the Banshees (the closest comparison), Talking Heads, Lizzy Mercier Descloux and a lot of other artists who headed in the same direction in the early 80s, by bringing a larger number of types of folk music into play and combining them in stranger ways.  Still, I don’t think many of these experiments were entirely successful, for The Slits or anyone else except PiL on The Flowers of Romance (not coincidentally, also the name of a band that feed into The Slits), and more often than not these types of albums tend to bore quite quickly.  And yet, this way of looking at the album is also completely wrong.  The band wasn’t really making punk music any longer.  This doesn’t start with punk and add in other flavors.  It starts with world fusion free jazz stuff.  The band was listening to Ornette Coleman‘s Dancing In Your Head and Don Cherry‘s Brown Rice (they toured with Cherry too), plus Sun Ra, and they were also working with the likes of Steve Beresford and Gareth Sager who had interests in experimental music and free jazz.  Those reference points put this album in a whole new light.  If you expect a continuation of the punk/dub hybrid of Cut then this will be a disappointment.  But if you accept that it comes from a very different place — guitarist Viv Albertine described Dancing In Your Head as annoying in a good way — then this won’t make any sense.  This remains somewhat mediocre compared to some of those influences, but it does make more sense with those precedents in mind.

A few notes too about the album and its origins.  The cover is an artist’s rendering of The Slits from a photo taken on tour in Death Valley California (the volcano in the background is a liberal modification of the Death Valley landscape), plus another vacation photo of them in the ocean in the background (possibly the photo originally intended for use as the cover to Cut).  They recorded this album and then shopped it around before CBS agreed to release it.  The record label misprinted the sleeve to say “Giant Return of The Slits” rather than “Return of The Giant Slits” and the band had to fight to get it corrected.  This was actually the band’s third album.  Their second, an untitled release of demos and live recordings on Y Records, tends to be overlooked and is rather had to find — some people forget it existed and mistakenly call Return of the Giant Slits the follow-up to Cut.