40 Shades of Green, 50 Shades of Grey.
The Q and A session with Viv Albertine and John Robb illustrates why the personal stories and histories have to be recorded. Sometimes we assume that good bands get heard just because they stand out or have something special about then. Yet the real story is how people met, how they got one, how the learnt from each other and how they were organised, or organised themselves. Bands don’t form. They are formed. And that is a crucial difference. It is an incredibly difficult task, which is why I admire people who can get up on stage in the first place.
I learnt so much from the conversation that I am going to put some of it in bullet points. I really hope someone recorded the conversation though. She is an interesting woman: determined, strong, a straight shooter and a survivor with great wisdom to impart. To her punk was about honesty. Could a popular music movement have a better legacy?
That is a long winded way of saying that I learnt more from Viv Albertine than I have from most people I have met in 2012. A few ‘take aways’:
She went out with Mick Jones from the Clash when the band was forming. But she wouldn’t let him hold her hand in public, which really annoyed him, because she was embarrassed by his clothes. John Robb diplomatically tried to defend Jones’ mid-70s rocker look. “He carried it off” he protested. No he didn’t: replied Viv.
She learned from Jones how to run a band. She talked about seeing Jones constantly on the pay phone at Art College. She was a year below him. It was Jones’s energy and commitment that underpinned The Clash. That gave them their gang mentality. In essence he organised them.
Albertine, after witnessing this, became the organising force in the Slits.
That reminds me of the great lesson of punk. Patti Smith told the early London bands that she admired them. She urged them to work harder. They would have to work harder than other bands if they were to succeed.
While going out with Mick, she was close friends with Sid Vicious. She described him as a really smart young man. Not the one-dimensional, cartoon character that his legacy has presented to the world. He could hold two opposing viewpoints at the same time. He took things to extremes. Violence included. He pushed her to leave her comfort zone. To do things she didn’t feel comfortable doing.
One anecdote was particularly poignant. Sid decided that they should spend a day handcuffed together. In those days handcuffs were difficult to find. So off they trooped to some out-of-the-way gay sex shop. ‘They hated us’ because they felt we were invading their private world. Naturally being handcuffed means sharing private moments. Sid had no problem with this. The idea of going to the loo handcuffed to Sid made Valentine uncomfortable so she didn’t eat or drink anything for the day. Human bondage indeed.
She admired both Patti Smith and John Lydon for their androgynous look and vulnerably.
Despite going out with Mick, it was Keith Levine who taught her how to express herself with the guitar. If you sleep with a guy he will never teach you anything; that was her lesson.
Recently when she took up the guitar again she ended up getting divorced. You can play the role and compromise, but if you are true to yourself it can terminate marriages and relationships. She asked Robb if his partner was an uncompromising woman who did what she wanted and expressed herself. Robb replied that she was and that was one of the reasons he admired her. Albertine recounted he she confronted her husband with a truth when he objected to her resuming her musical expression: ‘What did you expect, you married a Slit’. She used a rude word in that last sentence.
The Slits were treated with contempt on the early tour. The bus driver threatened to kick them off the bus. Their manager Don Letts (Robb described managing the Slits as the hardest job in the world) had to bribe the driver every morning to allow them to travel.
She described the early punk audiences were incredibly receptive. Albertine attributed this to the fact that they had never seen anything like this before.
Ari Up was difficult to deal with. She was only fourteen when the band started. Onstage she was one of the true originals. The equal of John Lydon, James Brown or Tina Turner.
In the 70s media images of women were not as damaging as they are now. Robb asked whether things have improved. She replied very strongly that they are worse. There were no manicures in the 70s. Girls in art school had dirty paint-splattered hands and that was OK. Her feet had a hard layer, presumably from walking barefoot, and ‘boys liked my feet’. That would be unthinkable in the age of the pedicure.
The Olympian women are really positive role models. The dedication, the focus, a woman in disciplined pursuit of achievement is very admirable.
The survivors of the punk scene were the ones who had some form of family support. I’ve not come across the early movement being analysed like this before. Especially from the inside. Yet it made a lot of sense. Her mum was a role model and positive influence.
Lydon was her inspiration for getting onstage. He was also from North London and educated in a comprehensive school. She felt empowered by his ability to perform and say something. She described seeing him as a huge factor in making her feel that she could be onstage.
Bernie Rhodes was a ‘pig’. He would just walk past them in the squat while going to the early Clash band meetings. Those meetings took place in the kitchen. Very inconvenient for the other residents.
Paul Simenon moved into the squat. They quickly kicked him out because his feet were too smelly.
Her new album is due out in October.
Her memoirs is due out next Spring.
Both sound like excellent prospects. Expect raw, insightful, uncomfortable and vital material.
I can’t really adequately describe PiL. I had never seen them before. It felt miraculous to be in the same room as songs like Albatross, This is not a Love Song, Memories, Disappointed and Rise. Live he is a compelling character and the music is powerful, compelling, rhythmic and never constrained. In a way it made me think about the twin icons of punk.
To paraphrase John Robb, Strummer seemed to passionately believe in the power of rock and roll. His genius was in combining the best elements of rock, stripping away the excesses and wielding the song for something worthwhile. He used rock to make his point. Lydon seemed to believe in the power of rock and roll and equally in his own determination to pick it apart. To tinker with it, to toy with it and push it to extremes. Lydon seemed to challenge rock to make his point. Tonight the ‘Irishness’ of Lydon was in evidence. From his description of the devoted readers of the Irish Post in Religion to the banjo picking and looping what sounded like an Irish tune he was every bit as much a member of that distinctive ‘London-Irish’ tribe as Leeson from Neck who had them reeling in the ballroom earlier.
Lydon dedicated the next song to Pussy Riot and as it began shouted “We miss you Arianna”. It is funny how both Pussy Riot and the Slits found creative ways of pushing the boundaries. By expressing themselves, the establishment was forced to reveal their hand and to express themselves.
The songs had the intensity on the best of rock. This combined with the way Lydon deploys the elasticity of reggae to stretch them. To coax them into new forms. Add to the mix the experimentation of Kraut Rock and a touch of Irish tendency to want to pick at scabs, to question.
The Ruts DC were a revelation. The new line-up really celebrated the reggae tendencies of the band. The first Ruts album was filled with so many mighty songs. Hearing them played and received with such passion was spine-tingling and life-affirming. I loved those songs at the time. They helped shape my view of the world. It was an epic feeling being in a room with some of the men who crafted those songs. Who carried the songs with them from room to room and then recorded them and shared them with the rest of us. It was a good moment to remember absent friends.
Punk needed infusions and inspirations to innovate. Reggae was the first port of call. Tonight was a good reminder of what reggae brought to the musical table.
Hard Skin – you can only get away with what they do if you are damn good. And they are. I saw a guy with a teardrop tattoo smiling when he realised that band and audience were united in the mighty chant of ‘we are, we are the wankers’. Sean urged one of the security guards to: ‘Get those headphones off, you might get an education. We’re better than the darts and I’m fatter’.
The Wild Hearted Outsider