Hackney People: Viv Albertine

From punk rocker to writer, the former guitarist with The Slits has always defied convention

"FOR a long time I felt useless and stupid ... a misfit. That’s how lots of poor young people are made to feel,” says Viv Albertine, former guitarist with iconic punk band The Slits. 

Adding: “I failed my eleven plus exams and after that I was basically written off. I wrote myself off too. No young person should be made to feel that way. Whatever happens, you can always claw it back. And sometimes, making mistakes is the making of you.” 

Viv grew up on a council estate in Muswell Hill. Her parents went through what she describes as ‘a terrible separation’, she failed those exams and was feeling aimless when, at a babysitter’s house and in front of a record player, everything changed.

“I heard the B-side of ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’, by The Beatles,” she says. Adding: “It had this urgency, this ordinariness to it that I could absolutely relate to. I’d never heard anything like this before. In that moment, everything was transformed for me. I’ve never really looked back.”

Outlets for her music passion were, however, few and far between. She says: “It was very unusual for a girl to be so mad on music. The music classes at school were all classical. I would scan the backs of records looking for signs that girls had been involved in their making, and see how they’d managed it. But their roles were always clerical, or making the tea.”

The only jobs that seemed possible to the young Viviane, she says, were ‘being a policewoman, or a primary school teacher. That’s what young girls grew up to be’. She didn’t want to be either.

So after school, she went to art school, where two role models changed her life. First, there was Johnny Rotten from the Sex Pistols. Viv recalls: “I saw the Sex Pistols perform and that was the moment I thought: I’m going to buy a guitar. 

“They were boys, but otherwise they were just like me. Johnny was from a North London estate, and everything I was ashamed of, they turned upside down and made a virtue of.”

The second inspiration was fashion designer Vivienne Westwood. Viv says: “I used to go to her shop and was blown away by this strong woman. I’d never met or even seen a woman doing something powerful before. And she’d had no training. I thought: if she can make clothes out of old cast-offs, clothes where the seams show, whose mistakes are celebrated, maybe I can do the same with music.”

Emboldened, Viv joined The Slits in 1977. The band came to be seen as a defining element of the punk movement. At the time, however, their rebellion was not easy. 

Viv recalls: “We were four girls, punks at a time when punk wasn’t cool. We were shocking to the status quo. DJs wouldn’t play our music, it was dangerous for us to get on the tube or walk down the street. 

“But I felt like I’d finally found myself. I finally looked like the person I felt inside. I was wearing my identity like a billboard. And because we had each other, we felt strong. We were like little warriors.”

And then, five years later in 1982, it was over. She says: “We’d had our moment, and Britain had moved on to the next big thing. It was agony, all the friends who’d only been hanging about because I was in a band disappeared. I’d never really been bothered what my medium was, as long as I could express myself. I looked around, and the next exciting medium seemed to be film.”

So Viv spent ‘a very lonely, very hard period’, building up a portfolio, applied to film school and then studied a degree course, during which, she says: “I had to learn to use a completely different part of my brain.”

It was, however, worth it. A successful career as a director followed. Then, in 2009, she began performing again as a solo artist, touring the UK and USA and releasing a solo album, ‘The Vermilian Border’, in 2012. 

Today, living in Hackney with her daughter, it is writing that excites her most. In 2014, her memoir was published to critical acclaim, and she is currently working on a second book.

She says: “I had always felt like I was a bit of a dabbler, but in the process of writing I discovered that all the things I’d done were interconnected and valuable. 

“I think many girls are terrified of failure. Boys are raised to pick themselves up and carry on. It wasn’t till I wrote the book that I realised how important all my failures had been. Even though society had told me over and over again how wrong my choices were, I was right to follow my own wiggly path.”