Punk—the music, fashion, and cultural phenomenon that heralded a drastic shift in American and British youth culture—is middle-aged, with 2016 marking the 40th anniversary of the Ramones’ debut album, The Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the U.K, and other movement milestones. Like many approaching middle-age, punk has found itself developing a mainstream appreciation, becoming the focus of museum exhibits, art shows, and film festivals, including the British Library’s Punk 1976-1978 exhibit, highlighting punk’s genesis in London.
Other exhibits such as the Met Costume Institute’s 2013 Punk: Chaos to Couture have faced accusations of lifelessness and commercial appropriation in high-class publications. Now, the Library’s exhibit is facing a decidedly….well, a decidedly more punk rock style of criticism, from none other than one of British punk’s legendary figures.
While taking part in a public talk on punk late last week, punk icon Viv Albertine became incensed at the British Library exhibit’s erasure of female musicians from London’s early punk scene. So after the event ended, Albertine did what any good punk would do—she defaced the exhibit’s introductory sign.
Crossing out the names of bands The Clash, The Sex Pistols, and The Buzzcocks (all comprised entirely of men) Albertine scrawled in women-led groups The Slits, X-Ray Spex, and Siouxsie and the Banshees. To ensure her message was clear, she added, “What about the women!!” and her signature.
Albertine has a real point; as the lead guitarist of the reggae-inflected punk group The Slits, Albertine has first-hand knowledge of her and other women’s integral role in the early London punk scene. The Slits toured with The Clash on their seminal 1977 White Riot tour—a gig they nabbed in part due to Albertine’s friendship with Clash members Joe Strummer and Mick Jones. Some music writers even believe that The Clash’s 1979 hit song “Train in Vain” is a response to The Slits’ song “Typical Girls,” and inspired by Albertine’s break-up with Jones earlier that year.
Aside from the band’s connection with The Clash, Albertine was close friends with The Sex Pistols’ bassist Sid Vicious, and Pistols lead singer John Lydon became Slits leader became Ari Up’s stepfather after he married her mother, Nora Forster, during The Sex Pistols’ short-lived career. The Slits, along with X-Ray Spex and Siouxsie and the Banshees, were featured extensively in the seminal 1977 documentary The Punk Rock Movie as one of the punk bands playing The Roxy music club during the earliest days of London punk.
And these bands didn’t make punk history just because of who they were friends with, or even just because they featured women — the Slits were among the first punk acts to incorporate the sounds and structure of reggae and dub, X-Ray Spex introduced punks to saxophones, and Siouxsie Sioux pretty much invented the goth look and sound.
Albertine chronicled her participation in the burgeoning punk movement in her 2014 autobiography Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. In an interview with Channel 4 News regarding the book, Albertine describes punk’s intersection with feminism, saying, “I think we shook up the English establishment. It was a very, very patriarchal society; you never questioned the doctor, the dentist, the judge, your uncle, your father—you never questioned a male, especially as a young woman.”
Albertine goes on to describe her autobiography as a “self-help manual, in a way, for young girls.”
It’s no wonder, then, that she felt so compelled to make sure the contributions of the women she played alongside in the early days of punk do not go ignored, nor that she chose the most punk way imaginable to do so.
The British Library hasn’t indicated whether they’ll remove Albertine’s additions to the exhibit, but Faber Social, who organized last week’s talk, has made their allegiance clear, tweeting, “Viv Albertine is still more punk rock than you!”