In Conversation with Viv Albertine - Leeds International Festival

In Conversation with Viv Albertine

Leeds International Festival 18 7 May 2018

Best known perhaps as the guitarist in infamous 70s English punk girl group The Slits, Viv Albertine’s career has been made up of a hell of a lot more. One of the defining releases of the post-punk era was The Slit’s debut 1979 album Cut, which has been listed in countless ‘top 100’ albums ever, and lives on as a shocking, and era-defining, punk classic.

All-girl rock bands are rare now. They were pretty much unheard of in the 70s. Viv Albertine, alongside lead singer Ari Up and bass guitarist Tessa Pollitt uprooted, ignored and rewrote what it was to be female in the 1970s, and faced a massive range of reactions for their troubles, from outrage to disgust to adoration.

Indeed, Viv Albertine went on to hide her earlier existence from her family – rewriting herself and her history, her daughter didn’t even know of her fame as part of The Slits in the early Punk scene. She maintained radio silence for a long time, and again, rewrote herself and her identity.

This Leeds International Festival In Conversation event explored the amazing breadth of Albertine’s life experiences, from way back in her Punk days through to her life as it is right now. She returned to music as a middle aged woman, again forging an untrodden path, as the middle aged woman has traditionally been refused a role in cultural production. She ignores cultural mores and stands firm in her cultural output, treading new and exciting paths.

Credit: The Slits
The Slits

Viv Albertine’s return to music as a middle aged woman could’ve been met by silence. But her cultural output held sway; Jack Bruce from Cream and Jenny Lee Lindberg from Warpaint immediately came forward to collaborate with her, illustrating just how well her artistic credibility survived a thirty year silence.

As is often the case with female artistry, The Slits are often overlooked by mainstream history narratives of the Punk era – but the immediate support of the names above proved the mettle of their artistic output. They were one of the 70s’ most influential bands, exploring the edges of genre, pushing Punk into post-punk and reggae, whilst brandishing an armoury of feminist, defiant lyrics.

But as well as music, Viv Albertine has since turned to writing as a medium for cultural expression, anarchic sentiment and the forging of new paths. Her memoir Clothes Clothes Clothes. Music Music Music. Boys Boys Boys was critically acclaimed upon publication in in 2014, held up for its brutal and stark honesty. It was Sunday Times’ Music Book of the Year, Rough Trade’s Book of the Year and MOJO Book of the Year. It was also eye-opening and shocking reading, offering insight into the life of The Slits and Albertine’s life since. It is as much a study of intergenerational female relationships as it is a memoir and autobiography.

Albertine spoke about the new routes and possibilities for defiance in today’s society with Chris Madden.

Albertine spent to In Conversation event charting the (frequently rough) waters of her life experience, in advance of the publication of her second memoir, To Throw Away Unopened, which has received similar critical support in the meanwhile, as a “chronicle of outsiderness”, and a “brutal expose of human dysfunctionality”. This intimate memoir touches on the polemics and divisiveness of motherhood, and operates somewhat as a feminist manifesto – with definite touches of domestic noir.

Talking to therapist Chris Madden, Viv let the audience into a world that begins to explain and define her sometimes shocking, and always uncompromising, world views, her difficult and intense relationships with the women in her life (namely her mother and estranged sister) and the power behind her creative drive – a drive which allowed her to channel her supreme feelings of rage and otherness into something cathartic. She is an artist in the true meaning of the word; expressing something painful, excising something burrowing away at her soul. She works across a broad range of mediums, too, from her lyricism and musicianship through sculpture and ceramics to film, and writing. The overarching takeaway was Albertine’s always brutal honesty – with herself, as much as with those around her.

It’s a firm standpoint which has alienated many, as well as impacting on her own sense of self, too –  “it’s hard not to be liked” – as she herself baldly put it. But being liked has never been central to her self-worth, and self-identity. Honesty is truth, and truth is often not shiny, clean and perfect – it can be devastating, hurtful, intimate and shocking. Writing her truth has become a new avenue for that Punk self-expression that Viv has been promulgating since the 1970s. What’s more, she revealed that, for her, the avenues of possibility for anarchic expression are limited in music now, because of the shape of the industry, and what people desire.

“Literature offers an avenue for subversion that pop music no longer can”, she said, and listening to her In Conversation event at The Wardrobe, the audience was left under no illusion – her words are caustically truthful, loyal to herself, clear-sighted – and, because of all of that, an intense, and pure, expression of subversion, dissidence, and, back at the root of it all – punk anarchy.