Making the cut: Viv Albertine, Ari Up and Tessa Pollitt of the Slits in 1981
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Punk survivor: Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys by Viv Albertine

With their backcombed hair, dreads, tutus, ripped tights and Doc Martens, the Slits were the most anarchic and badly behaved band on the “White Riot” tour. 

Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys
Viv Albertine
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £14.99

In 1976, aged 21, Viv Albertine inherited 200 quid from her grandmother and bought an electric guitar. Though she was already a member of punk’s inner circle – the girlfriend of Mick Jones, the best friend of Sid Vicious – this was an audacious act. As she writes in this gripping memoir, “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.”

With that guitar she joined Ari Up, Tessa Pollitt and Palmolive in the Slits. Eschewing the generic garage band sound of their punk contemporaries, they incorporated reggae and soul – Viv says she wanted her guitar to sound like the chops on Dionne Warwick records – and invented post-punk before anyone else had even tired of punk. With their backcombed hair, dreads, tutus, ripped tights and Doc Martens, the Slits were the most anarchic and badly behaved band on the “White Riot” tour with the Clash, Buzzcocks and Subway Sect – and it was they who were thrown out of hotels for making a racket and pissing in people’s shoes in the corridors.

Viv conveys the sheer rebellious glee of being in a band when you don’t really know what you’re doing, the childish pleasure of the onstage fuck-you attitude they embodied. Not knowing that the chant “One, two, three, four!” is supposed to set the speed of the song, she simply assumes it’s “a warning to the band that you’re starting and it’s to be shouted as fast as possible, the quicker, the more exciting”. The passages describing the Slits gigs are the most joyous in the book but sadly the band split up after two albums, with what sounds like the normal amount of acrimony, and from that point on, joy is in much shorter supply.

The title Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys – taken from her mother’s line that this was all the teenage Viv cared about – might suggest a cheerful romp through fashion, pop and romance, yet the book is anything but. The discreet way to describe a memoir like this is to say that it’s very “frank” and, in answer to the question of what to put in and what to leave out, Viv Albertine has decided to leave almost nothing out, certainly nothing gory. I’ve honestly never read a bloodier autobiography. Unsparing in its detail, it charts every ebb and flow of a woman’s life from puberty onwards. Periods and the stains they leave. Miscarriages and the scars they leave. “Here it is haunting me again,” she writes towards the end. “My old enemy, Blood. Bugging me again. Bloody bloody Blood.”

Like most autobiographies (most lives?), the first half is more fun and Viv seems to crawl on all fours through side two of the book, like a wounded animal. But it is hard to look away. The careers that follow music – aerobics teacher, film-maker – don’t quite live up to that first one; men disappoint or simply fail to materialise; and her body turns against her, haemorrhaging its way through abortion, lost pregnancies, IVF treatments and cancer.

But Viv’s a survivor: this much is apparent from the very start, where despite all her seeming wildness and abandon, she reveals a core of sensibleness. As a teenager she sets off for Amsterdam with a friend, even though she’s not sure which country it’s in, hanging out with junkies and returning with crabs. When the friend stays on to indulge in a bit of light drug-smuggling, Viv comes back to England, “to do my exams”. Later, in a car with Ari Up, being driven by two strange men to a “party” in Peckham, Viv gets spooked and bails out, while the fearless Ari stays and is raped.

This instinct for self-preservation only goes so far, though, and along with the blood, tears course through the book, as time after time Viv is reduced to helpless weeping by some new calamity. Driven along by her eye for detail, willingness to reveal all and, let’s be honest, fondness for melodrama, there is much that’s vividly thrilling here. But it is also a desperate, yearning howl of a book, written by an unlikely romantic who longs above all for love. The very last words – and it’s hard to tell whether they’re directed at us or at herself – are, “I still believe in love.”

In 1979, when I was only 16, I too went out and bought an electric guitar and Viv had in part made this possible. In my band the Marine Girls, we thought of the Slits as our scary big sisters but they were inspirational nonetheless. In those few years at the end of the 1970s, Viv, along with Patti and Ari and Siouxsie and Poly and Chrissie, made more progress for women in music than has been made in all the years since. Eight years older than me and light years cooler, she was part of a generation that inspired and that opened doors for those of us who were lucky enough to follow immediately behind them.

Viv is a proud feminist punk survivor. I owe her and I salute her, but at the end of this book what I most wanted to do was make her a cup of tea and hug her.

Tracey Thorn is a singer and writer. Her book “Bedsit Disco Queen” is published by Virago (£16.99)

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Who was Franz Ferdinand?

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How the radio stations reacted to Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize

For its part, Radio 1 was too absorbed by the Duke of Edinburgh’s Awards to mention the proclamation on Newsbeat.

Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize in Literature inspired a bewildering gamut of radio responses. At first, proof of his talent was abundantly forthcoming, Andy Kershaw yelling down the line for World at One from a motorway services on the M6 within ­moments of the announcement. (“I can’t understand why they didn’t give this to him 41 years ago!”)

However, a full six days after Talk Radio excitedly reported the event on its home page (“a pivotal part of the cultural revolution of the 1960s”), the online feature has yet to attract a single comment. That’s zero talk. For its part, Radio 1 was too absorbed by the Duke of Edinburgh’s Awards to mention the proclamation on Newsbeat, though Heart FM firmly quoted the chair of the English faculty at Oxford (“The Tennyson of our time”), and pencil-suckingly dissected lyrics (“Ain’t talkin’, just walkin’/ Up the road . . .”).

Is it poetry? Is it literature? You could tell it was doing everybody’s head in. But when, on Radio 4’s Front Row, Billy Bragg praised Dylan for “bringing a literary and poetic thread into pop music”, the argument sounded terribly old.

The whole battle about Dylan being as great a poet as Tennyson is a hangover from an ancient battle, from a time when it actually had to be pointed out that this pop-music stuff can be brilliant and clever. A time when boring people battled for respect and prestige for an obvious genius. Over on Radio 2, Mark Goodier cheerfully played “Tangled Up in Blue” (“Major, major prize for Bob today. If that isn’t a decent excuse to play a song, I don’t know what is”). But by Sunday, on Radio 4’s Broadcasting House, the gloves were off and guests were declaring that they couldn’t stand Dylan’s voice (cliché, pathetic).

By Monday Simon Armitage was saying that Dylan’s lyrics had no more sophistication than something composed by a child. Is it poetry? Is it literature? Well, it kind of is. But it kind of isn’t. And it doesn’t matter very much, except to the likes of Dylan – and only a long, long time ago. Now he hardly requires the approbation. The Nobel Committee has given the prize to the one writer in the world who doesn’t need it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood