Achieving some degree of fame or notoriety while barely out of their teens, guitarist Viv Albertine, singer Ari Up, bassist Tessa Pollitt and drummer Palmolive forged in The Slits an uncompromising, all-girl punk sound. Refusing to blindly follow punk's musical memes, debut album 'Cut' was infused with Ari's love of reggae and portrayed the women on the cover as wild, naked and covered in mud – naked defiance towards society and the male-ego-dominated music business.
After six years and two studio albums The Slits split in 1982. Albertine trained in film, made a career for herself as a director, got married, and had a daughter. You know, life stuff.
And then life stuff happened. In interviews Albertine has been fairly candid about how the disintegration of her marriage and re-evaluation of life as a fifty-something fuelled the creative process that produced 2010's 'Flesh' EP and last year's debut album 'The Vermillion Border'. “I buried Viv from The Slits, I absolutely squashed her,” she said last month of her 18-year marriage. But some things cannot be kept down.
Stepping on to great cheers, Albertine is resplendent in a short, sparkly black dress and knee high boots. “Do you like my boots? They're Biba,” she says. “Can you see them at the back? No of course you can't, don't be silly,” she scolds the affirmations from the darkness, to laughs.
Re-learning her skills after twenty-five years, Albertine's songs are disarming, deeply personal, often brutal and frequently funny. She is utterly without pretention and seems quite at ease on stage, despite decades of absence. Her guitarwork is jangly and ringing, atonal chords played right up at the neck. While she admits that she's not the best guitarist or singer, her songs bare a compelling honesty.
On 'Don't Believe', written after the death of her estranged father, she contrasts the indubitable existence of the physical world with the vague promises of love and healing we repeat emptily to ourselves through tired, linguistic clichés: “Time does not heal, time's not on my side/Time will tell you nothing, and time cannot fly/I believe in glass, I believe in heat/I believe in rust, in aluminium sheets/...but I don't believe in love.” The rallying cry 'I Want More' speaks of both women finding fulfilment away from expectations placed upon them, but also as a gasp of realisation from someone waking up to middle age to find the ground has shifted underneath them.
Even when she restarts 'Life's Too Short To Be Shy' twice (because “I can tune my guitar but I can't tune my voice”) the audience egg her on. “It's okay, I don't really care,” she says. “I'm definitely not shy any more.”
She ends on the wonderfully titled 'Confessions Of A MILF', a lyrically acid take on marriage (“A man needs a maid, a maid of his own/A maid needs a muse, and a room of her own”) that winds itself up into a mantra of frustration: “Cleaning, shopping, faking, cleaning, shaking, baking, fucking, faking...”
Quavering voice, music and lyrics that are not always easy listening, Viv Albertine 2.0 will not be to everyone's tastes. But here she is, now 57, responding to life as she knows how, because she wants to, and without giving a fuck what anyone else thinks. Just as she did 35 years ago. And it doesn't get much more punk that.
Words and photos by Michael Parker