This is not just a punk journal: it’s a story of femaleness, of feminism and of a fascinating life, which shows Albertine to be a memoirist of great skill and wit, says Sinéad Gleeson

In the mid 1970s, when Viv Albertine frequented gigs looking for role model guitarists, she first encountered T-Rex’s Mark Bolan. His riffs were “catchy and cartoony”, he was pretty, but unthreatening to young girls (unlike Hendrix’s “intimidating” style) – but he was a man. The landscape of rock and punk in the 1970s was initially a testosterone zone, but Albertine and a generation of women set out to challenge that. From a young age, music – and books – taught her about revolution, but breaking into the world of punk was almost a political transgression. Proximity to bands meant being a girlfriend or groupie (The Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones asks for oral sex, Mick Jones of The Clash becomes her boyfriend and when she tells Paul Weller at a party that she plays guitar, he replies: “Great! We could do with some crumpet in our band”), but Albertine wanted to be there on her own terms. As a North London, council-flat girl, she knew that class, geography and gender were against her. But male opposition – this know-your-placeness – started even earlier, when her own father told her she wasn’t “chic enough” after she confessed her musical ambitions.

She describes seeing Horses-era Patti Smith in NME, photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe. It’s a Damascene moment and she has finally found her mentor: “I have never seen a girl who looks like this. She is my soul made visible… an individual. She gives me the confidence to express myself in my own way.” Albertine’s first band, The Flowers of Romance, never released an album, but did yield a close friendship with Sid Vicious, who comes off as a shy, sensitive teen. In 1977 she sees The Slits play live and describes the band the way most of us do upon hearing first them: “a blast of energy, a cacophony of sound… and Palmolive’s insistent drumming, ferocious, wild, a call to arms”. Albertine is asked to join the band, headed by 14-year-old Ari-Up, a precocious, ululating singer as fearless as she was temperamental. Their gigs are chaotic and dub-fuelled with occasional disorder (there is photo in the book of Ari-Up being attacked by a skinhead). Violence was common at punk gigs, but The Slits were spat at, bottled and stabbed, often just because they were women. The band becomes a place of both camaraderie and personality clashes, but there is a fierce protectiveness of each other and a desire to do something different. “I reckon the Slits’ clothes are cool enough, our attitude is rebellious enough and our music is so unusual and powerful that we might be able to change attitudes for good.”

In the midst of trying to assert herself as a person, a woman, a musician, Albertine also evokes the poverty and politics of the time. The book is full of cramped bedsits, and people dabbling in heroin, of poor hygiene and no money. The Slits’ reign is short, but includes a supporting slot on The Clash’s White Riot Tour, a John Peel session and two studio albums, including Cut, with its controversial cover of the trio dressed as mud-smeared Amazons. Albertine is a brilliant chronicler of an era and the book’s title embodies her younger preoccupations, from PVC apparel and obsessive gig going (David Bowie once accidentally knees her in the face) to the struggle to infiltrate a musical world where woman had very specific roles.

The courage required in her punk years stands her in good stead later in life, and the chapters that deal with her cancer, IVF (resulting in a much-longed for baby) and her marriage collapse, are extremely moving. Post-Slits, Albertine studied film and worked as a video director but later withdraws to become a “Hastings Housewife”. Away from creativity she feels the kind of unfulfillment Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique called “The Problem That Has No Name”. In the last five years, she has reengaged with music, creativity and film. The Slits’ single Typical Girls opens with the lines “Don’t create / Don’t rebel”, but Albertine did both passionately, with style and guts.

But this is more than just a punk journal: it’s a story of femaleness, of feminism, and of a fascinating life, which shows Albertine to be a memoirist of great skill, wit and humour. There is brutal honesty about her insecurities, her body issues, and the abortion she has after becoming pregnant by Jones. Albertine is a natural writer, and this story soars in her hands, shaking off rock-biog clichés.

Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys by Viv Albertine is published by Faber & Faber

This review was originally published in The Irish Times on October 11th, 2014

Related: 2010 interview with The Slits Ari-Up before her death that year

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