Edinburgh International Book Festival 2014 interview: Zoë Howe on the Slits and the Jesus and Mary Chain
The music journalist and Slits guitarist Viv Albertine are both visiting the EIBF this year
This article is from 2014.
Zoë Howe is the author of Typical Girls?, the authorised biography of punk band the Slits, and Wilko Johnson – Looking Back At Me, a celebration of the Dr Feelgood guitarist. Her latest book is Barbed Wire Kisses: The Jesus and Mary Chain Story, which charts the rise of the Scottish noise-pop legends from their East Kilbride roots to cult stardom. Stewart Smith spoke to Howe ahead of her appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
Slits guitarist Viv Albertine is also speaking at the Book Festival. Your book and her memoir Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys have helped renew interest in the band. What attracted you to telling the Slits' story? Did you think that they had been neglected in punk histories?
Yes, they had been neglected, with the exception of a few mentions here and there and some anecdotes that, in some cases, weren’t entirely fair or accurate. I am aware Ari [Up, Slits singer] very much felt that way too, although when I first was in touch with Viv about it, she seemed bemused that anyone was remotely bothered about the Slits and what they’d done at all.
I had a feeling they were almost certainly one of the most interesting groups of people to come out of the punk / post-punk movements. They seemed like this creative bolt of lightning in musical history … producing some seriously mind-bending music, particularly from 1979 onwards. Anyway, I for one wanted to read a bloody book about them! When it just wasn’t forthcoming, I took it upon myself to get on with it and celebrate them in the way I felt they deserved. Thank goodness it happened when it did too – just over one year later, Ari sadly passed away after a battle with cancer.
For all that punk was supposed to be liberating, in many ways it reproduced the same old sexist power structures – to what extent did bands like the Slits and Raincoats challenge that?
The Slits and Raincoats were vital in changing how many (albeit not enough) people – both male and female – viewed women, women musicians and simply how one can approach music and art. They were, arguably, musically braver than many of the male bands who continue to define the movement, with the exception of Public Image Limited. Was that because they were women? Maybe. By the sheer fact of being female, they had largely been pushed to the sidelines for so long that now rules were out of the window – now they had the stage, they could do whatever they liked, and I know that inspired both male and female fans.
Visually, of course, you have another layer again. The Slits' topless, muddy cover of Cut, was a direct, in-your-face challenge, although of course it titillated as much as it shocked. But personally, whenever I saw that cover, I just saw fierce, strong, challenging warrior women.
For me, nobody did the punky reggae thing better than the Slits and their second album, The Return of the Giant Slits, remains underrated. Do you think their innovations have still been under-acknowledged compared to male punk and post-punk bands?
I agree. I love Return, I think it’s an incredibly creative and far-reaching album, and there are some beautiful songs on there. I just think you can’t even compare the Slits’ output with anyone else’s – the humour in the lyrics, the strange melodic twists and turns and Ari’s elastic voice going to such unexpected places, blended with the kind of deep dubby bass you’d hear booming out of a Ladbroke Grove shebeen in the late 1970s, jagged, broken glass Beefheart guitar chops … innovative is the word but they also had a genuine love and respect for reggae, jazz and what we now call ‘world music’, they were like sponges, they absorbed so much music and transmuted into their own work the only way they knew how. I think people still need waking up to the Slits; they’ll be glad when they do start that Slitsy voyage of discovery!
They were a remarkable group of people, not least Ari Up, a 15-year-old German private schoolgirl who loved reggae. How did you find them in person?
Ari was wild, hilarious and unpredictable, full of fiery affection that could change in an instant, before changing back again – I still have many lengthy emails all written in capital letters from Ari, some bursting with love, others … not so much. Tessa [Pollitt, bassist] was calmer, very warm and generous and strong but really humble, Palmolive [drummer] was similar – very kind, accommodating. Viv was strong, funny and bright and really helpful in lots of ways. Very articulate and clever. No one was sure whether Viv would want to be involved, Tessa and Ari had warned me she might not, but I tried, thanks to the Slits’ dynamic former manager Christine Robertson putting me in touch. Thankfully the stars seemed to have aligned and the wind was blowing in the right direction! When I told Ari, she asked me to pass on that they would love to play with her again – an option Viv had turned down in the past. I relayed the message and Viv said, ‘Should I? Do people really want to see a bunch of old ladies onstage?’ After a good chat about it, Viv became quite keen – she’d already been about to take guitar lessons again after years of not touching it – and I passed on the message to Ari. Viv also came with me to one of Mick Jones’ [of The Clash] Carbon Casino nights in West London, which reconnected her with Tessa – it was very special.
What drew you to the Mary Chain?
The Mary Chain was one of the bands that formed part of the soundtrack of my growing up; their music and the image of them was just very present. I tended to love bands that were deemed ‘before my time’ thanks to my former rock DJ dad’s record collection, so I often immersed myself in a world that largely existed a few years previously.
As a result the Mary Chain and I have a lot of shared favourite bands: the Doors, Gene Vincent, the Beatles, Velvet Underground, Stooges … so it was a natural progression to find the Mary Chain. I also loved how Hendrix and the Who used noise and distortion, but to hear a band combining feedback with (sometimes) softly delivered, melodic pop, was a revelation.
I just thought they deserved a book. I was already good friends with former JAMC drummer / guitarist John Moore, who remains close friends with [singer] Jim Reid, so there was an ‘in’ there, so to speak. To be honest, I was amazed Jim was up for it. To me, the JAMC has always been a band that has been veiled in mystery, and there will always be a part of them that remains remote and secrets that will remain kept, and rightly so. Saying that, they have been very frank in the book and I’m thrilled to have been the one to pull it all together.
The Mary Chain were infamously obnoxious interviewees back in the day. How did you find them all these years later?
They were warm and accommodating and very generous with me, I thought. The raison d’être with this project is different – back then they were after column inches, they wanted to shock, they were the new Sex Pistols to [former Creation Records boss, Alan] McGee’s Malcolm McLaren. Now they’re a known quantity, they wouldn’t have to do that, even if they wanted to. Also, with a lot of those interviews there was a sense of sparring, especially with music writers of the day who were, in some cases, kind of stars in their own right, so sometimes you’d end up with a battle of wits, or sometimes you’d end up with a journalist who would just ask really cliched questions and the Reids would pounce on that.
But there’s also the fact that they are simply older now and look back on those days with a certain amount of perspective, not to mention a sense of humour. It’s not about being Paxo [Jeremy Paxman] when you’re working on a biography … you’re dealing with someone’s life story, and that is always something I treat with immense care and an almost neurotic sense of responsibility.
The band never really played by the rules – punk, indie or mainstream – to what extent do you think this has to do with their background as outsiders in East Kilbride?
I would say a great deal. They felt alone, culturally, and so they created their own genre in a way. The Mary Chain are difficult to define, and that’s as it should be, we don’t want people to fit into neat little boxes. They drew on the music and imagery that resonated with them, and they were coming from a very pure place in that nobody was telling them they should like those things – they barely socialised so who would have told them?! They found what they liked themselves and via that, they created something new, and they did it at their own pace. Just the idea of that is so exciting.
Do you think there are any useful comparisons to be drawn between the Reid brothers' early DIY punk approach and that of the Slits? Or is it that outsider thing? Like Dr Feelgood they don't come from the hip centre – does that make them more individual?
Like the punks before them, and indeed like Dr Feelgood, people would be drawn to the Mary Chain because they represented the weirdos, the oddball spirits adrift in a sea of jocks and straights, bursting with ideas and frustration and working out a way of focusing that energy into something creative. Same spirit, different generation.
The Mary Chain, like many of the punk groups they loved, were expressing themselves through music and noise because that was one of the best ways they could express themselves: they were shy, anti-social, awkward. But by doing this for themselves, they were soon doing it, inadvertently, for all of the other people who felt exactly the same. For one strait-jacketed by crippling shyness, those screams of feedback were like breathing out for the first time, and not just for the Mary Chain.
Bobby Gillespie is a really important figure in the book, first as superfan, then their drummer. How important was his contribution to the band, both in terms of support and the music? Do you think his experiences with the Mary Chain inspired his future work with Primal Scream?
Totally important. It’s a beautiful bit of serendipity that drew their paths together. The Reids and Douglas [Hart, bassist] had been giving their recycled demo cassettes to everyone in Glasgow, and no one wanted to know. One promoter, who knew Bobby Gillespie, passed the tape onto him because it had a Syd Barrett compilation on the other side, and he knew Bobby would like it. Well, Bobby turned the tape over, heard the Mary Chain and fell in love. He loved what they were doing, and how it made him feel, and an alliance was eventually formed that would bring the Mary Chain together with Bobby’s friend Alan McGee, who had just started Creation and was running a club night in London. McGee gave them their first live show and took them on – he fell in love with them too – but throughout this process, Bobby was urging him to put out a record with the Mary Chain – he didn’t just connect the band with the right people, he then badgered the right people until they agreed to give his new favourite band a chance. So his enthusiasm and determination really changed everything for them. I have no doubt he continues to be inspired by the JAMC in many ways, although musically he was already into the rock’n’roll and psychedelia that seemed to directly inspire his subsequent work. But he still has a real emotional connection to that band, they kind of grew up together and the strength and longevity of that bond cannot be underestimated.
They made a big impact in London very quickly. To what extent was this down to Alan McGee's Malcolm McLaren-esque publicity skills and their own reputation for violent gigs?
Well, the Mary Chain were reliably pissed whenever they played a gig (and often when they weren’t playing a gig) mainly because they needed the dutch courage, and thus antagonism would spill over between the brothers (or just between Jim and any equipment that happened to be lying about) but Alan knew this kind of thing was publicity gold. There were incidents early on where there were hardly any people in the audience, or people were walking out, or the band were just so drunk that it all went horribly wrong and stuff started getting smashed up, but Alan, like any wise music manager, saw this as an opportunity to turn the Jesus and Mary Chain into a kind of public enemy, which was quite brilliant … for a while, at least. But it got people through the doors – including some major tastemakers – and while there were definitely some early gigs during which, as Jim admitted, they ‘weren’t sure whether (we) actually played any musical notes’, they became more confident with every show.
Their albums after Darklands don't tend to get as much love. Do you think they're due for reappraisal?
I think in some senses the Mary Chain peaked rather soon, not creatively necessarily, but for your debut album to be Psychocandy? The pressure to live up to that must have been unbearable. Darklands is a real beauty, but yes, after that, a lot of really strong work seemed to fall through the cracks, at least in terms of the ‘mainstream’ audience. They will always have a hardcore following who will just hoover up and adore everything they do. But I think that’s one of the reasons that JAMC devotees do adore them, not just because of the music and the aura and those performances but because they carried on doing what they wanted to do, for better or worse, no matter what was expected of them. And ultimately that integrity is something few artists – hell, few people – manage to retain.
Where do you think things started to go wrong? The recording of Munki sounds quite grim.
It was always tense, to say the least, on Planet Mary Chain, let’s face it: there appeared to be cracks forming as early as Darklands, when the ‘band’ became a touring group and the Reids took over in the studio. Certainly in some people’s eyes, the moment Douglas left created another fissure in the foundations, and then there’s the simple fact that the Reids were taking different drugs; that always splits a band down the middle … It’s kind of amazing they stayed together as long as they did.
Given the Reid brothers' often fractious relationship, were you surprised that they reformed?
In a way, not really – musically they complete each other and no matter how many times buttons are pushed and anger spills over, no one can take away what they created together – it’s an incredible legacy. They’re hopefully being paid quite well too, so that must have helped the decision-making process along. The last words of my book, finished long before the news of the Psychocandy shows had been announced, are Douglas Hart’s; he observes that, while the Mary Chain lived through years of relative obscurity, ‘things come back round, don’t they’ … And haven’t they just?
Zoë Howe, Linking Up With A Cult Scottish Band, 9 Aug, 8.30pm, £10 (£8);
Viv Albertine, My Life As A Punk, 10 Aug 8.30pm, £10 (£8), both events at Charlotte Square Gardens, 0845 373 5888.
Zoe Howe’s Barbed Wire Kisses: The Jesus and Mary Chain Story is out now from Polygon.
Viv Albertine’s Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys is out now from Faber & Faber.