In Viv Albertine’s excellent book “To Throw Away Unopened”, we were interested to read that the Slits would often take time out of rehearsals to discuss, what to some might seem like minor details. Not minor to any girl picking up a guitar in the late 1970s though, and the one that really got us going was the raging debate of “How Should we Stand”??
Up until the late 1970s, girls and guitars were a rare pairing, boys and guitars yes, but girls…not so much. Certainly part of the debate is that boys and girls are built differently; boys have broader shoulders while girls tend to have wider hips. The guitar hangs or sits differently somehow, and then there’s the strap/breast alignment issue, which was another new one…. but the nub of the matter according to the Slits was about whether girls should devise a new way of standing, holding, playing a guitar, that was not based on the images we already had of men’s playing habits?
As Punk unfolded, and bar Suzi Quatro, there were few role models for teen guitar playing girls, and so flooded by images in the music press and without wanting to seem amateurish and unworldly, classic boy playing stances, naturally became the templates. Oh to have been in those Slits rehearsal discussions, the whole “standing” question was definitely in our minds too. Standing with a guitar can even feel like one thing and maybe convey another. I’d already decided that for maximum “we mean it maaan” effect, surely it was better to adopt a warrior stance? Also in the interests of stability it was definitely useful to stand with your feet apart, but still there in our minds were the years of training to be “ladylike”, so instead of feeling like an Amazonian game changer, you could feel more like an out-of-place teen scaffolder.
During these formative guitar years, I had formed a sort of chart in my mind. Composed of images of guitarists standing, it worked like one of those evolution charts, but instead of levels of development, the axis was simply one of leg positions and their relation to volume.
It worked something like this.
Chart positioning far left – For their fantastic, if not slightly whining lists of complaints at the rest of the human race, The Buzzcocks generally chose a narrow, legs together kind of stance. In my mind this meant that they probably concentrating on what they were doing and weren’t playing simply to deafen you. Buzzcocks – narrow stance, putting songs above volume. See also, Banshees.
Chart positioning middle – The Clash. Legs medium distance apart, faces sweaty with determination. The wider stance suggested more volume, and more volume somehow equated with a higher degree of action. This was an in your face stance, and one to be duly logged and copied.
This same, classic stance was also employed by many other bands including The Stranglers, especially JJ Burnel.
Chart position far right and final mental image – Johnny Ramone – who’s extra wide stance suggested both extreme volume, and possibly the use of fewer chords. Nobody played a guitar from that position quietly. Johnny was the leg split king, and if you needed to know how loud a band were just from a photo, then The Ramones were undoubtedly the loudest band on the page.
So what about The Slits then? Where did those discussions take them? Using our specially devised, questionably accurate, forensic “stand positioning” method, what we can deduce…?
Bass playing Tessa is employing the medium (Clash) to wide (Ramones) leg stance giving her stability, a wider stance lowers the centre of gravity, and with this, there also comes an air of determination. From this photo, we can see that she has good leverage on her fret board, adding to both note clarity and volume, keen eye contact with her guitar, and her diagonal positioning gives her an excellent view of both the audience and her fellow band members. With a mid hip level rise on her strap, Viv also takes advantage of the medium leg position. An excellent example of the mid riff chord strike, Viv can shift the weight easily between her feet showing a true mastery of the mid-point stance.
To you, it might just look like two girls with guitars, standing up, but to everyone who ever had those thoughts and discussions about it, this all looks a lot more purposeful. What we have here is two girls with guitars standing like they belong….and that’s the difference!