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From a personal observation I’ve always thought there were four pivotal moments in early punk rock. First was the release of the Ramones debut LP which showed you didn’t actually need a fantastic amount of ability to create great music. Second was the Bill Grundy/Sex Pistols affair on the Today television show that unleashed the filth and the fury of punk on an unsuspecting British public and fired up the imagination of thousands of young and impressionable minds. Third was the Buzzcocks’ self-financed ‘Spiral Scratch’ EP which demystified the mechanics of releasing a record, showing other bands that they could release their stuff on their own record label and completely bypass the music industry. Fourth was the formation of the Slits. Obviously there’s been female artists before punk, but they were mainly singers, so bands composed entirely of girls, playing their own instruments, were pretty much non-existent. Enter Viv Albertine, Ari Up, Tessa Pollitt and Palmolive who collectively created a template for literally thousands of young women to follow.

We met Slits guitarist, and now solo artists in her own right, Viv Albertine before her show at Hebden Bridge Trades Club to hear her views on punk, politics and beauty tips.    

PHIL: What’s it like being a punk icon?

VIV: Am I an icon? I didn’t know because I’ve been in my kitchen washing up and sweeping and things so I had no idea I was a punk icon.

PHIL: There’s actually quite a resurgence of punk…

VIV: Why?

PHIL: I’m not really sure. Have you played at Rebellion?

VIV: Yes but I dreaded it and I dreaded it even more when I saw the people going in with their mohicans and absolute perfect punk outfits. But y’know they were a brilliant audience and even though my stuff is thoughtful and quiet now, it’s not punk, not that the Slits ever were, they listened to the words and they were great. So I really judged them wrongly, I judged the book by the cover, so yes I loved Rebellion.

PHIL: Places like the Night and Day Café in Manchester are hosting a two-day punk festival...

VIV: Yes but what is punk now though, is it still thrashy three chords?

PHIL: What do you think punk is?

VIV: I think it’s dead; I think it died after eighteen months. Anything that came after those first eighteen months is irrelevant I reckon.

PHIL: Why do you think that?

VIV: Because that first eighteen months was a burst of creativity, and as soon as everyone caught on to it, they just aped it and parodied it so it became a cartoon of itself which is what it is now. I can’t stand even listening to most of the original stuff, which was thrashing three chords and all that. But the Slits weren’t that anyway, I think we’d gone into post-punk as our genre.

PHIL: We saw Ari and the Slits a couple of years ago at the Deaf Institute…

VIV: I didn’t consider them to be the Slits. To me the Slits were of a time and place and we were very shocking, not in an ugly way, though we were very pioneering I suppose at the time. I don’t agree with bands reforming anyway, if you come back you should do your own thing. As an artist you’ve moved on hopefully otherwise what are you? You’re just doing a pantomime of all your old stuff.

PHIL: I can’t blame people for making a bit of money from punk, like TV Smith for example…

VIV: TV Smith’s a sweetie but he’s always kept going. He didn’t stop and then reform and he still writes new songs. What TV Smith’s doing is quite a good thing because it’s a tribute to the Adverts and to do it occasionally as a treat, like the ‘Don’t Look Back’ things. I think they’re really cool because you come and you play the whole album. That’s something special. But to go out flogging your stuff, almost like a tribute band, looking thirty years older and playing songs you wrote when you were eighteen night after night, that’s not the spirit it was written in at all.  When I went back and did two gigs with the Slits it felt really strange to be singing my shoplifting song ‘Do a runner, do a runner...’  I’m not that person anymore; I’m still writing what I think are cutting edge songs, but not an eighteen year old’s cutting edge [songs].

PHIL: Instead of thinking about petty pilfering, I think of inflation when I hear ‘Shoplifting’ now because nicking ten quid’s worth of stuff nowadays wouldn’t get you very much.

VIV: Good job I said ten quid and not one quid!

PHIL: What music do you listen to?

VIV: I don’t listen to anything much. Honestly I don’t, I’m so busy all day that I literally have to carve out time every day to play guitar and sing and write songs. And I have other little projects going on now so I have even less time to do my own thing. When I started playing guitar again about three years ago, I had all the time in the world, I sat there and no one was interested in me. I was no punk icon or legend and I sat in my little place in Hastings and I had all day and I wrote loads of songs and got into the guitar. Now, I barely have time and it’s a shame really.

PHIL: So you don’t listen to reggae?

VIV: Well I’ve listened to a lot of reggae in my life so I presume there is an influence of it in many different ways, whether it’s the words or the beat. But I’m not into parodying stuff; everything sinks into what you do and comes out differently.

PHIL: One great thing that did come out of punk was the popularisation of reggae…

VIV: It was great yeah, and the filtering of that into the consciousness of everyone really.

SHAY: Whenever you went to the early punk gigs reggae was always booming out of the sound system and there’d be Dillinger, or someone like that playing in the background while you were waiting to see the Clash…

VIV: That was partly because there were hardly any records from us lot that could be played, y’know after you’d played the odd one or two groups who’s made a record there was nothing left. Don Letts has played a big part in introducing reggae into Britain though obviously in the sixties and seventies Ska was around with the skinheads.

PHIL: I went to a Punk all-dayer a little while back and a skinhead band played there. What I find strange is that Skinheads grew out of football gangs, who, if you saw them coming, you didn’t hang about for long. Now it appears to have lost that link and evolved into almost a fashion statement…

VIV: You see to me anyone who’s harping back and dressing in a vintage way, y’know the teddy boys, mods and rockers or dressing like skinheads, it’s pantomime. If you’re not doing something new, which uses influences from everywhere to make a new statement, to me you’re irrelevant.

PHIL: I understand that, but I also think youth music has lost it’s ability to use clothes as a means of self-expression…

VIV: Music has lost tribes, there are no tribes anymore or at least very few. When the Slits used to play up North, every punk from miles around would come, but now when I go and play up North, I have no tribal followers. People just as much like Leonard Cohen as they like some heavy metal band or Bon Iver. There are no tribes though it may come back because England is so tribal.

PHIL: We’re heading into a similar situation that originally birthed punk…

VIV: Yes I think so. I feel it. It’s almost what brought me back actually. I couldn’t have done it before now; it feels kind of the same. The internet has helped level everything, so once again you don’t have to kowtow to this twat or that twat to be on a label or get a gig. You can do it yourself it’s all DIY again because of the internet, anyone can have a go. At the same time that means everyone is having a go, so there’s a whole sea of stuff out there and it’s gone back to you can’t make money out of it. That’s how it was when we started. None of us started thinking we were going to make money out of punk; I don’t know if Malcolm [McLaren] or Bernie Rhodes did, but certainly the Slits didn’t. It wasn’t about that, it was about having an exciting life and an alternative to the absolute boredom of living in London at the time. I think it’s gone back to that and to me all the planets have lined up and it’s kind of the same as seventy-seven. And the fact that I can go back out there at my age and not be judged for it, kids will come or listen to me on the internet as much as people who know me from the past. I think that’s brilliant.

PHIL: When you say the planets are lining up, I was thinking more politically because we’ve got this shit government in power who’re basically the sons and daughters of Thatcher. Then there’s the recent spate of rioting. Punk music seems to sit well with that kind of turmoil…

VIV: No, I don’t think this government and the rioting is anything like the seventies.  I think kids are very comfortable now and I think they’re all soporific with using electrical entertainment. You can hardly get them out to a gig, and why would they go; they’ve got so much at home that can entertain them anyway. I think the rioting is just playacting and there’s no politics behind it. I don’t think any revolution is coming from that and I don’t think it’s the same as the seventies. You know the whole nu-folk thing; again it’s like a big drug for young people. They would rather listen to what I’d call Sunday morning music, what you’d put on when you’ve got a fragile head, it’s got pretty harmonies and it’s light, young people listen to that all day and night now. I don’t think it’s going to happen the same; I don’t think there’s an anger, I don’t think there’s a drive in youth anymore and there hasn’t been since Thatcher. I don’t think we’ll ever go back to that level of boredom; there was a huge boredom factor that will never be again, not now with DS’ and WIIs and TV. Then there were only three channels and nothing on for young people. There was hardly any electricity, three day week electricity and blackouts. We’ll never go back to that. Kids can’t look out of the window and dream. I was sitting next to a young guy on the train and he had his iPad, and he watching episodes of this and episodes of that, and he never once looked out of the window. I was looking out of the window and writing lyrics. People are plugged into something all the time. I wrote ‘Typical Girls’ bored out of my brain, I was so bored I had to resort to writing a song, the last thing I wanted to do. Young people don’t have to resort to creativity, they have to make themselves. I think actually the folk movement; much as I deride it quite often, at least its people going back to handmade things and handwritten songs and not electronic all the time. Looking at the area around them and writing and singing about that, even though it’s pretty-pretty, it’s something.

PHIL: Musically do you think punk gave women a voice?

VIV: Yes, but where did it go in-between, that voice. I feel that the punk bands, the few that were female; it felt very equal being female amongst our male mates, but as soon as we dealt with the record companies it was so old school and we felt squashed. All the suits who signed us treated us like shit and put us down. We were locked in rooms because they thought we were out of control and sexually wild…  

PHIL: Well you did go on the telly and spit on Rod Stewart’s picture!

VIV: I know and I like Rod Stewart as well! But after that it disappeared again in the eighties. There was the Riot Grrrl movement but it was barely a blip. It wasn’t a movement, it had no weight to it, and young girls now in their twenties say to me, “It’s so hard” and they feel self-conscious. And my pet thing, the rise of porn, means that girls now are very much modelling themselves on shaving themselves and waxing themselves to look like porn girls, and boys are expecting that. Boys and girls are learning about sexuality though porn from a very young age. Whereas when I was young you couldn’t see porn, so we discovered ourselves sexually fumbling away naturally. We didn’t see each other as objects. So I think that’s affected girls badly. There will be a movement and there are girls who stand against it but at the moment they look a bit worthy.

PHIL: I think the problem is that the opposite camp to pornography especially in America, is religion; for example women seem to be either porn stars or poster girls for the Christian Right…

VIV: Straight Edge they call it and I think it’s coming back in America big time. Straight Edge started after punk around the Sonic Youth time with band like Minor Threat, and I think that will come back as a counterpoint.  I sound a bore but I’m not sure that place for women has been taken up and anyone has particularly run with it. I’ve come back and I’m still in the same position, I’m still being told you can’t do it. I don’t feel like anything’s has much changed, I’m in exactly the same position now with my music as I was in the seventies with regards to male reaction I’m afraid.

PHIL: One last question and, it’s from Mudkiss Editor Melanie: how do you keep your youthful looks?

VIV: I’m going to write Viv’s beauty tips in a book! But Melanie you must know first one which is stay out of the sun, and it’s such a bore but I wear sunblock every day. The other thing is be incredible stupid and backward thinking (laughs). Keep a naivety about you so keep out of the sun and keep naïve. I go to the gym and work out and I never touch alcohol because it’s aging. And tell Melanie, sugar’s aging too.

Forthcoming Date:

Wed 28th Sep – Nambucca, London - John Peel Night: Vic Godard & Subway Sect + Viv Albertine + Television Personalities

Note: TV Smith will be playing the first Adverts LP ‘Crossing the Red Sea With The Adverts’ in it’s entirety at the Night and Day Café on Saturday the 17th of December.

Interview by Phil King [Mr Kingpin]
Photographs by Shay Rowan [colour shot by Phil]

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