Palmolive Talks The Slits, Punk’s First Female Band

Palmolive Talks The Slits, Punk’s First Female Band

When Paloma Romero came over from Spain to England at age 17 in 1972, she had just £100 in her pocket. “You needed [that money] to go through customs, to prove you had money,” she tells TIDAL. “When I arrived, I sent it to a friend so he could come. [Laughs] So I had no money after I got here.”

Romero’s brash, brave mindset would serve her well over the ensuing years, from forming pioneering punk band, the Slits, to standing against her band members when they made decisions she didn’t approve of. The band released their groundbreaking and genre-bending debut, Cut, in September of 1979, but by the time it hit shelves, Romero was out of the band. She was too confident and headstrong to compromise — and she remains that way to this day.

Born in Spain, she grew up rebelling against General Francisco Franco’s fascist government. Despite her parents’ objections, she was determined to start a new life in London.

The Slits were the world’s first female punk band, started by teenage Romero in 1976 after she met 14-year-old Ari Up wilding out at a Patti Smith concert in London. Suzy Gutsy was the first bass player, later to be replaced by the Castrators bassist Tessa Pollit. The guitarist for the first gigs was Kate Korus, who would be followed by Viv Albertine.

That same year, Paloma’s boyfriend, Joe Strummer, became the lead singer of a new band called the Clash — and it was Clash bassist Paul Simonon who gave Paloma the nickname “Palmolive,” a name that would endure even after she left the Slits and went on to join the Raincoats.

The Slits would embark on tour with the Clash before signing with Island Records to record Cut. The album was produced by UK dub master Dennis Bovell — with beats laid down by a male drummer named Budgie. And the cover showed the band members wearing nothing but loincloths and mud — a decision Palmolive bristled against.

In this candid interview, she speaks about the revolutionary inspiration behind the Slits.

Why did you decide to leave Spain?

I grew up in Spain at the time that Franco was there and the government was fascist. I don’t think people realize what that means when you’re young.

You have no fear and you’re not prepared to live your life by old standards, so you question everything. I was number eight of nine brothers and sisters. So there were a lot of conversations. I was really curious about the world out there and how things went.

I had made up my mind. I felt Spain was not good for girls, so I had to fight with [my family to leave]. My dad was the head of the family. He said, ‘No, you can’t go,’ but he had to sign the passport.

So I said I will just leave the house and I mentioned that I would go to some bad areas in Spain. I was definitely manipulating him, as I had no plans to go there. My mom must have convinced him that it was a lost cause, so he ended up signing the passport and I was able to leave.

Now that you have your own kids, do you ever look back and think about what that was like for your parents? 

For sure! We all tend to look at things like black and white; parents see all the other things. At the time I was thinking ‘Oh, that chauvinistic dad!’ But I was 17. That’s crazy! Of course my father would want to protect me.

What was London like when you arrived? Was it very different from Spain?

Yes, totally different. I’m sure for British girls living with their parents, it might not have been that different, but we landed in the squat scene. We did not accept the rules of the general culture. We were gonna make our own rules. Everything was very experimental, from relationships to how we treated each other.

We set up in a house, like a bunch of young people living together. I remember writing to my mom saying, ‘I live in a commune.’ I was very politicized coming from Spain. To me, England represented us taking charge and saying we are gonna live different.

We started an organic shop, an organic tearoom, and we created our own food. So there was a lot of positive, but there were also a lot of drugs. A lot of people suddenly disappearing and ending up in the nuthouse.

What was happening in music at the time? 

It was the end of the hippie movement. When punk started, it was very much criticizing and pointing a finger to the hippies. Like one degenerate coming against the next one and saying ‘They are just old farts!’

So you gravitated to the punk movement?

Yeah, totally. I was with Joe Strummer and he was called ‘Woody’ at the time. He was the lead singer of the 101s and basically all our friends told him he was just selling out. They were not into it.

Were you doing any music at the time?

I got invited to be in a group the Flowers of Romance with Sid Vicious [of the Sex Pistols]. The thing with punk, it was very revolutionary, but when it comes to guys, it was the same some way of treating girls. They were no different from the guys back in Spain.

How was that?

I basically didn’t want to sleep with Sid and he kicked me out of the group. So I was like, ‘OK, I’m gonna make a girls’ group. That’s it!’

You were not his girlfriend but he just expected you to sleep with him?

We were young people and sex was up in the air. It wasn’t a moral code. I just did not find him attractive and that was that. He was actually a very insecure guy.

We had finished practicing and Sid was prancing around and everybody had left. I think he just expected me to be into him because he was who he was. I was not interested, so next time we meet I’m out of the group.

That’s crazy.

Imagine the turmoil! I’m having problems with Joe; I lost lots of friends because I was tired of the hippies, so I was alone. Out of that turmoil, I started writing songs and out of that came the forming of the Slits in 1976. We were different because women had different problems.

Ari Up was from Germany and you were from Spain, but it sounds like you had similarities in the sense of being revolutionary.

We were young kids oppressed by something, so we just screamed back at the system. Vivian and Tessa had been to college, but Ari Up was different. She was only 14 and still in school. She was very strong and with conviction. She was a remarkable person, but she was so young that she had not been able to experience many things.

She was the singer but you wrote many of the songs?

Those initial songs were very punk-ish and true to how I felt. Some of the songs were just angry: ‘Number One Enemy,’ ‘Newtown,’ ‘Shoplifting.’ But then, as the group progressed, near the end I wrote ‘Adventures Close to Home,’ which was almost like a farewell, where I say, ‘Don’t take it personal.’

Those songs are on the Slits debut album, Cut. But you were not part of that album. Why did you end up leaving the group?

I was very aware this was a movement and there were very strong voices that said ‘This is how you should be’ — from people like Malcolm [McLaren], from Bernie [Rhodes].

So in the Slits I did not want to have a figure like them. We did not want a manager, and because we were women, we were a revolution within a revolution. We were told everyone can do whatever.

‘Oh really? We can’t? We are going to give ourselves permission!’ To me that was part of what punk was. I didn’t want to be in a group where every voice was not counted. We gonna listen to each other, and work collectively.

Did you always listen to each other? Like posing topless on the first album cover?

Although I was not modest at all, when it came to the cover of Cut, to me it was like the pin-up that you see in the mechanic shop. Sorry to offend anyone, but that’s how I saw it.

I want to be known by our music and what we stand for. I thought it was bullshit. We were more than that to me. That was a disagreement we had.

Whose idea was that cover?

Pretty much Vivian. We talked a lot about everything because we were trying to do a consensus. Vivian had this idea — from her perspective, that was freedom. To me, it was like selling ourselves as a commodity. So in my mind it was degrading and in her mind we were more free by doing this.

How did the break-up happen? Who told you?

I think it was more Vivian and Ari went along with it. But Tessa was my friend so they got her to tell me.

She just came over and told you to leave?

Yes, we were living together in the same squat. To be fair, I was as strong-headed as they were. I didn’t want Malcolm McLaren as a manager and I didn’t want to go along with him and I had my reasons. Everything we did we tried to really hear each other out.

Another time, for instance, Nina Hagen wanted to kick Ari out and insert herself. We talked about it and said no. We don’t want to do that to Ari. She’s one of us. That was a no-brainer, but the thing with Malcolm was a struggle because I was not going to go with him.

Why didn’t you like him?

I didn’t like him because I thought he manipulated the boys. He said to me, ‘I hate women and I hate music and thrive in hate.’

Wow.

Exactly! And all of them are going ‘Malcom! Malcom!’ He was like the guru of the scene. [laughs] Everybody looked at him as that. But I feel like my Spanish roots just said, ‘No, I’m not going to do that.’

We had eight managers before I left, and I said we are not going to have Malcolm, which Vivian really wanted. I feel like I managed to persuade them. But when we were talking about the front cover of the album, I didn’t wanna do that. And I was feeling like the dynamic of the group wasn’t how it was in the beginning. We were young totally crazy girls.

Leaving the Slits was hard because they kicked me out. We could have sat down and said, ‘Let’s record what we have and move on. You go this way; I go this way.’ That to me would have been a sensible way.

Punk was very much influenced by reggae. How did that happen?

Ari Up was the one that made the connection with reggae. We had no records of our own. The movement was very young and we were very loud. And you just want to kill when you are so angry; you don’t want to listen to yourself. So we listened to reggae.

What type of stuff?

Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff: The Harder They Come. There were a lot of Jamaicans in London and they were discriminated against by the police. We were discriminated [against, too] so it was like a natural merge.

We were neighbors in the same struggle against a system that said we had no value. That’s what brought us together, but also just that we loved the music. So it was very natural and developed organically.

Ari Up is not with us anymore, but did you guys keep in touch?

Ari Up reformed a group and she came to Cape Cod where I live now. She spent three days here trying to convince me to go back, but I didn’t want to. We talked, she met my kids, she met my friend, she said this is great. She was telling me how wonderful I was and that I was really the heart of the group blah blah blah. She was very nice.

From the beginning I told her I’m not going back. I never really heard from her again, so with Ari it was pretty much all or nothing.

With Tessa it was different. We see each other if I go to London. I’m actually gonna call her soon. We really were friends and we remain friends to this day.

With Vivian I saw her one time in New York. She was going back into music after a while. We met, we exchanged letters, but we didn’t really stay in touch.

But I did what I did and I built a family that I love and had other experiences that I wanted to have.

And you have grandkids now.

Forty years later, I’m still with my husband. I have plans with my 13-year-old grandson today.

Wow. 

Wow is right because I was wild. [Laughs] My husband is a wonderful man from the squat scene. He’s quiet. Very different from Joe Strummer. Not ambitious at all. He is content.

What impact do you think the Slits had on punk rock?

Culturally, we were the first group of girls doing what we were doing, so there should be recognition there. That’s just history. That’s how it happened.

You could not dress the way we dressed. It was offensive to people in the streets. We got assaulted sometimes. I still went out late at night. I didn’t really care. It’s not like it happened all the time, but it could happen. So I think we influenced the next generation.

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