Viv Albertine spent her formative years on the frontline of punk, starting up early punk band The Flowers of Romance (band mates included Sid Vicious, Keith Levene and Palmolive) while studying fashion at Chelsea School of Art, dating The Clash’s Mick Jones and joining all-female group The Slits as their guitarist in 1977. Viv’s since been out of the spotlight for near three decades but she returned in 2012 with a solo album, and this year a candid memoir, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys, in which she recounts her experiences at the height of one of music’s most significant movements. On the eve of its publication, Viv talks to i-D about fashion, music and the value of telling her story.
Why was it important to you to write this book?
It was important on so many levels, but mostly I wanted to write it for young women. A book of advice, what not to do in a way, but also a very honest book, one I would have wanted to read at any age. What’s the truth behind a person? What do they really feel? How do they hurt? What went wrong in their life? How did they cope? The book was painful to write, and I felt terrible afterwards, but I don’t think anything is worth doing if you don’t tell the truth. The truth is almost the only taboo we have left.
Did you learn any lessons writing with hindsight?
Yes, I noticed patterns and rhythms in my life. How I kept getting back up after being knocked down, how optimistic I am, that from an early age people have tried to squash me. Not just me – anyone who pokes their head above the parapet, and especially if you’re a girl going against the norm.
The title says a lot about the era in music - music, clothes and boys, intertwined and in excess. Did you find it difficult being a woman in music?
Yes, it was, and still is, difficult, but if you are the sort of musician that I wanted to be and still want to be, someone who pushes boundaries in some way, you’re going to get flack. I’m not a careerist musician. I like to rattle cages.
You've worked with and been a close confidante to some of modern music's greats - Sid Vicious, Ari Up, Mick Jones, Joe Strummer, Palmolive. Were you aware at the time that you were a part of one of music's most influential genres?
God no. We knew we were making a big noise – not musically but socially – and The Slits totally intended to make a classic album that would never date. We would have been appalled if we’d known that people would still be dredging ‘punk’ up 40 years later. We thought we were at the beginning of a tsunami, not a dripping tap. We didn’t think the change that we were trying to initiate would be so slow in coming.
"But I still needed to keep telling myself that ‘it doesn’t matter if you don’t fit in, if you have something you want to say and you are honest, there will be people who want to hear it."
What about your relationship with clothes? You studied fashion in London, always wore DMs with dresses - reputedly to make it easier to run away from fights - and you and your band members developed a unique punk style. Were your sartorial decisions purely for practical reasons or were you working to portray an aesthetic?
The clothes we wore were a statement. We had to cobble together a look out of nothing. There was nowhere except Vivienne Westwood’s shop ‘Sex’ that sold anything we wanted to wear, and anyway, no one had any money. The thought that any of us would own a gadget that cost £440-£800 like a phone or a computer was inconceivable. We couldn’t afford our bus fare, and getting your foot on the housing ladder? Ha. So, we said things with our clothes, we shook up expectations, we laughed at conventions, we had slogans (hand drawn or screen printed). Vivienne was inspiring in the way she showed the underpinnings and construction of garments on the outside, labels, seams, etc. were exposed. It was revolutionary. And we translated that aesthetic into our music and our lives. Showing how things were made. Nothing was expected to be perfect. It would have been risible for anything you produced to be perfect.
Are there any designers you look up to nowadays?
They’re all plundering the past but I love a beautiful dress, shirt or jacket… Balmain, YSL, Christopher Kane.
You embarked on a career in TV and film after The Slits split in the early 80s. How did you find life behind the camera?
It was a relief to be behind the camera and I swore to myself that if there was ever an explosion of creativity again I would absolutely not be the product next time. It is soul destroying to have your work and physical appearance picked to pieces. But I’ve gone and done it again, in my fifties, could it be any worse? I don’t care now. I feel quite relaxed about it.
After a hiatus of 25 years you released a solo album, The Vermillion Border, in 2012 - what drew you back to music?
I’d been cooped up for years due to illness and whatnot. I didn’t realise how oppressed I felt, not just by my circumstances but by how the world is - still full of conventions and rules. But I never conceived that music would be a way out for me again. I thought it was dead in me, and really not a medium that could shake people up any more in the West. But when the volcano in me exploded it was music that was the conduit. It’s so great that you can still sit in your room and write a song if you’re feeling down and it is still a great outlet.
"The book was painful to write, and I felt terrible afterwards, but I don’t think anything is worth doing if you don’t tell the truth. The truth is almost the only taboo we have left."
How did it feel returning to the stage as a solo act?
Crushing – as I wasn’t very competent. Luckily I had the old punk maxims ingrained in me, still. They were like a survival manual that kept me going. The music I make now isn’t at all punk though, though The Slits’ music was never punk either. But I still needed to keep telling myself that ‘it doesn’t matter if you don’t fit in, if you have something you want to say and you are honest, there will be people who want to hear it.’
Was it easy for you to return to songwriting?
I only write when I feel compelled to write. I go and create something else if I don’t feel moved to write a song. But oppression, love, heartbreak are the usual muses get me going.
Do you have any new music in the works at the moment?
I have things buzzing about at the back of my mind, ready to rush forward when I let them, but right now I am concentrating on the book. I have a couple of months set aside to promote it, and I am really proud of it so I'm going to commit myself to doing lots of readings. It’s a great way to meet people. So many people of every age have told me the book resonates strongly with them and I am elated that I managed to communicate clearly and honestly to people. That was my intention, to let other people who have been through or thought similar things know that they are not alone. The truth is the only thing that will move society forwards.