Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys
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)