Some words open doors just like keys, and I only had to mention “Malaga” to Paloma Romero for her to react as if we were long-lost friends, even though she doesn’t actually know me.
I had phoned ‘Palmolive’, as she is better known in the music world, at her home in Hyannis, Massachusetts (USA), where she has lived for nearly thirty years. She told me she had read that Antonio Hens is making a film called La Residencia, which is inspired by her life and her revolutionary musical legacy. Nor is he the only one to put her on film: in the UK, the final touches are currently being put to a documentary, Here to be heard, which tells the story of The Slits, the first all-girl punk rock band group in musical history, which Paloma created.
She discovered the controversial punk movement with her then partner, Joe Strummer, lead singer of The Clash, and decided to form a band of her own.
“We weren’t trying to be wild... we were wild,” says the woman who became a leading name in the effervescent countercultural scene in London in the 1970s.
But before Palmolive was born, there was Paloma, a girl with pigtails and a winning smile, which still lights up the face of the 62-year-old woman she is today. It is no coincidence that she uses that childhood photo on her social media profiles.
“I was the eighth of nine children,” says Paloma. Her Wikipedia entry is wrong, she says; she was actually born in Melilla in 1954, although her earliest memories are of Malaga - her home in Monte Sancha and her nearby school, the Colegio de las Teresianas - before the family moved to another property in Calle Cordoba. After classes, the teenage Paloma would shut herself in her room and listen to songs by Joan Manuel Serrat and Paco Ibáñez. Nothing to do with punk. Except in their critical spirit.
Those songs fed her libertarian conscience although, without knowing it, so did her father, a businessman in the construction industry. “He used to bring home backpacking hippies that he met in the street, and as I listened to them I realised that there was another part of the world in which freedom existed,” says Palmolive who, after finishing her studies packed her own rucksack and headed for London when she was just 17. “That changed me,” she says.
“I had a sense of justice and I didn’t like the situation for women in Spain at all. Why could my brothers do what they liked, and I couldn’t?” she says. She admits that she was political and rejected everything that Franco represented although, with the perspective of time, she looks back and sees herself as “a girl who had no idea”. But that rebellious spirit took her to the British capital, which is where she met someone called ‘Woody’, who later became known as Joe Strummer.
“We came from two very different worlds and we influenced each other. I shared my social conscience and he shared his search for an interior world and a voice of his own,” she says now. They lived with several dozen friends in a hippie commune, where there was no lack of drugs. “It was part of the atmosphere of personal exploration,” she explains.
All thanks to piglet earrings
Then in 1975, the punk explosion happened. Strummer embraced it immediately. “A lot of our hippie friends rejected it and he thought I would as well, but I liked the punky philosophy,” says Paloma. That was when she changed her name, and it was due to The Clash bass player, Paul Simonon.
“He asked me what my name was, and I said ‘Paloma’. He replied ‘Palmolive?’ like the soap. I said yes, and it stuck,” she explains. She also recalls the day she heard a 14-year-old girl arguing with her mother as they came out after a concert.
“She looked at me and noticed my piglet earrings; we started to talk, and decided between the two of us that we ought to form a group,” she says. That girl was singer Ari Up, and that is how The Slits began.
With no knowledge of music whatsoever, Palmolive decided to be a drummer. “You didn’t have to know anything about music or be able to sing to perform punk,” she admits.
She remembers phoning her father to ask him for 100 pounds to buy a set of drums: ‘una batería’. He thought she meant a set of saucepans, as the word in Spanish is the same. Now, she roars with laughter as she remembers. “He wasn’t at all happy about it, but he did send the money,” she says.
Palmolive and Ari joined forces with bass player Tessa Pollitt and guitarist Viv Albertine, and The Slits exploded onto the scene in 1977. In barely a month they became the supporting act for the Sex Pistols and, what’s more, they were paid to do it.
“It wasn’t much, but for girls who were living in a squat, and on social security, it seemed a lot,” says Paloma. “We were completely revolutionary, because there were no girl bands in those days.”
Their concerts were manic, and one night Palmolive even hurled her drumsticks at Ari when they argued during a concert. “People thought it was all pre-planned, but it wasn’t. It’s just how we were,” she says.
The songs written by this Malaga girl reflect how The Slits evolved, with lyrics such as “number one enemy”, and “everybody goes around sniffing televisena” about the city in which everyone was addicted to the drug of timetables and television.
“English wasn’t my language, so I felt free to invent words,” says Paloma who, in one of her last songs for The Slits, went back to her roots to talk about Don Quixote’s dream and his fight with concrete dragons.
“The song called Adventure close to Home was important because it expressed how tired I was with that atmosphere, and that the relationship with the group was beginning to break down,” she says.
She didn’t want the authoritarian manager of the Sex Pistols, Malcolm McLaren, to represent them.
“We hadn’t liberated ourselves and become punks to have a manager who controlled us,” she says. Soon afterwards they signed a contract with a record label and were asked to pose nude for the cover of their first LP. Paloma refused.
“I’d show whatever I wanted, but I wasn’t going to use it to sell records,” she explains about the incident which led her to leave The Slits.
In 1979 she joined a new group, The Raincoats, and made a record, but realised that her interior search was leading her elsewhere. That was when she met Dave McLardy, with whom she has three children and lives in Hyannis.
It was a long road to the USA, passing through India, Spain and the UK again, in that search for the self in which faith also played a major part. “I have seen great things in the name of Jesus and others which have made me ashamed, but then I also experienced both of those in music,” says Palmolive.
Now, she is a singer who also gives Spanish classes to children. She talks to them about all sorts of things, from the Alhambra to Real Madrid and Barça. And if they misbehave, she tells them: “Careful: just remember, I used to be a punk.”