Let me count the ways in which I love Viv Albertine.
First, she was the guitarist in The Slits. An all-girl band at a time when such a thing was virtually unknown, they were a defiantly different and female presence in the maelstrom of punk.
There were other women, of course. Patti Smith. Poly Styrene. Siouxsie Sioux. Pauline Penetration. And a little later, the Raincoats and the Au Pairs and Pauline Black from The Selector. But the Slits felt somehow especially mine, and their anarchic dub version of Marvin Gaye’s ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’ was a key part of the soundtrack to my teens.
Later, when I moved to London, one of my flatmates was in their touring band, so Albertine and Slits singer Ari Up were often around. They breezed in, bringing chaos and fun, energy and inspiration.
By then, I was paying my way through university by writing reviews for New Musical Express. And Viv Albertine was my north star. She showed me the way.
After punk imploded, Albertine went to film school. She made promo videos for indie bands, making the most of the opportunities that opened up with the UK launch of MTV, and ended up freelancing at the BBC for 15 years.
Then there was years of IVF treatment, the birth of her daughter, cancer and the collapse of her marriage. And a creative rebirth that started with sculpture and continued with her return to music.
When her solo album, The Vermillion Border, came out in 2012, it too felt like it was speaking directly to me. This time, she was articulating the frustrations of being middle-aged and invisible, yet still full of ideas she wanted — needed — to express.
In 2014, we met to talk about her brilliant, searingly honest and vivid autobiography, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. Along with Patti Smith’s Just Kids and Tracey Thorn’s Bedsit Disco Queen, it offers a fresh take on what it was like to make music in the mid-70s and 80s — from a female perspective.
As Albertine declared: ‘Let others who were there tell their versions if they want to. This is mine.’
It has since been joined by a second volume, To Throw Away Unopened, in which she tells the story of her mother’s final hours, while unflinchingly dissecting how her family made her who she is, drawing on diaries left by her estranged parents after their deaths.
In 2013, she had also made her acting debut — in Exhibition, a film directed by her friend Joanna Hogg. A claustrophobic, almost entirely improvised work in which Albertine plays D, an artist struggling to create within the confines of a marriage, it seemed a good place to start a discussion about creativity.
Tell me about D, your character in Exhibition.
She is trying to create, and it’s making her seem secretive. At that moment when you’re starting to make something — whether its music, art or whatever — you really are on the verge of complete disaster or maybe a small success, and it can tilt either way. So if you share those first thoughts and someone says, ‘That’s been done before’ or any tiny little thing, it breaks.
You have to guard your creativity, because the slightest thing can blow it off course. The slightest puff of wind, and it’s gone. It’s barely a thought in your mind, barely a concept, when you start badgering away at an idea. It can take weeks, months, years even for something to become anything. And even then, it might be something quite incomplete.
Why were you drawn to film, after punk?
I’m always thinking, ‘What’s the most interesting thing happening at the moment?’ Then I’ll place myself in that. And it wasn’t music, in the 80s. It was film-makers like Scorsese. I took a couple of years, got my first portfolio together, went to film evening classes, life drawing. Then I made a film on Super 8, cut it myself, and went to do a degree in film.”
How was it, working for the BBC?
I grew up, really. I had to run teams, run budgets, get to places on time — nothing I’d done as a punk! It’s funny, I had a real 80s decade. I bought 80s clothes, I earned good money, I bought my flat.
When you’re making TV, you have to do so much of what other people want. And I thrive more when I’m expressing myself. It took me years to realise that. But I learned so much from it.
When did you stop?
When I got pregnant with my daughter, which was in 1998. I moved out of London, became a full-time mum. Then in 2007 I started making ceramics. That’s when I started to get that sort of life come back to me. Your children have to be a certain age, I think.
What inspired you to you write a memoir?
I just want to show my daughter, and young girls in general that you’ve got to fail and fail and fail in order to get the record, the film or the book out. Or even just to live a life.
I wanted to show the workings — which I think punk was all about, anyway. Our clothes were inside out, with the labels showing, the seams showing. Vivienne Westwood was the first person to do that. Our songs were very basic, and you could hear how they were put together. That’s in my DNA now, it’s how I create.
You didn’t work with a ghost writer?
God no! It’s drawn like blood. It took at least three years, of quite solid working. I’d get up and do three or four hours writing, every day.
But it had no life to it. It was competently written, but then one day that thing happened that people talk about, and I found my voice. I accidentally wrote a chapter in the present tense, and I suddenly felt all fired up as if I was there. I knew how I felt, what things looked like.
So then I went back and rewrote the whole thing.
I knew it couldn’t be ghost-written, because I wanted to be terribly honest. So I wrote everything, but I could tell myself not to panic — because I did panic, sometimes, at night. If I just put everything down, I knew I could go back and take it out. That made it so much fun to write. It was and exciting and scary, but it was never dull!
The Slits were so unique, at the time.
Being girls and having no role models, none of us ever thought we’d be in a band. So we really did come at it fresh. We had no thought about fame — all we wanted to do was make great music.
We never thought like Johnny Rotten or Sid [Vicious] or Mick Jones. They were desperate to be rock stars. We were something new, and you can hear that in the music.
What helped me make that leap was to seeing Johnny [Rotten] up there on stage with the Sex Pistols. If he hadn’t been so androgynous, I wouldn’t have probably got it. It would have been just another band, I’d seen so many thousands of bands, why did that one turn me? It was Johnny, complete revolutionary he was.
Meeting the film-maker/musician Vincent Gallo was a catalyst for your return to music. Why?
Vincent was so influenced by punk, in a way he was a mirror, reflecting back at me all that I wanted to be. I wanted to be out these making those films.
I looked around at men I knew who were functioning in the creative world and I thought, ‘What have they got that I haven’t got? Have they really got more talent? More ideas? No. They’ve just got the bollocks to do it.’
That was the only difference. So I thought if I can fake having the bollocks — because I haven’t got them, physically or emotionally — I reckon I’m every bit as good as Mick Jones, Vincent Gallo, Don Letts, all the successful men I knew.
Where did you begin?
I hadn’t touched a guitar for 25 years, so I had to literally sit down in my late forties, early fifties and learn an instrument. It’s not easy to do. But I was absolutely driven. I couldn’t sit still, stand still. I was absolutely fierce, I’ve never had a feeling like it: I was like a volcano exploding. Whether it was being pent up within my marriage or becoming well after cancer, or release from all the failures with the IVF, I don’t know.
I was just a nobody of a certain age, doing open mic nights. It was humiliating beyond belief. And don’t forget that the person in my home was humiliating me as well: “You’re useless, you’re too old. You’re ridiculous, what the fuck are you doing? You’re mad. You can’t play, you can’t sing.”
But you still did it?
Yes, I’d walk into the pub on my own with a guitar on my back, and get up and sing. This was all country pubs and roadway bars, gastropubs. And I was absolute fucking rubbish. I paid my dues. Eighteen months of that, and I got good. There would always be one person that would come up to me and say, “Your songs are fucking brilliant.” It was just a slow build.
Does that translate into a living?
I remember meeting Jon from The Mekons years ago, when I got back into music. He was really supportive, but he said nowadays you have to think of the multiple trickle income.
You get a tiny bit of royalties from here, you sell a few pictures there, you go and do a panel, a talk or a TV interview there, write a book, and it all literally trickles in.
It all adds up, bit by bit, but I never know from one year to the next.
What’s changed in music, since we were young?
The younger generation go onto the internet and use it like a library. They listen to everything: Leonard Cohen, The Slits, Four Tet, Beyonce. They’re not ageist. They are able to choose from all different eras and be eclectic in their tastes. So they are interested in people of all ages. And that’s pretty amazing. You go to a Neneh Cherry gig, or a Yoko Ono gig, and it’s full of youngsters.
I saw Yoko at the Festival Hall, where hundreds people had come to see a woman in her 80s. That is revolution. And what’s great about Yoko is that she’s consistently challenging and interesting in everything she does. You always feel she’s true to her core, and I want to do that, in my work.
I interviewed Viv Albertine for The Sunday Telegraph. You can read that feature here.