Paloma Romero - aka Palmolive Punk Musician
by Florence Long
From its inception, the punk movement rebelled against the status quo. Paloma Romero (aka Palmolive, member of the Slits and the Raincoats) found that this anarchical musical genre was the perfect means for criticising injustice. Whether this was the fascist regime of General Franco in her native Spain or the misogyny of London in the 1970s, Palmolive found plenty to criticize.
Born on 26 December 1954 in Melilla, Paloma was the eighth of nine children. Her earliest memories were of Málaga, where she spent most of her childhood. Despite the oppressive nature of Francoist Spain, her family’s household was an open one, with lively debates and disagreements. Paloma’s father would often come across backpacking tourists wandering through the town and bring them home to eat with his family. Through these interactions, Paloma was exposed to alternative points of view and gained a vision of a world outside of Spain, where democracy and individual freedoms existed.
While living in Malaga, Paloma would often retreat to her room and listen to Joan Manuel Serrat and Paco Ibáñez. Although these Spanish musicians might, on the face of it, seem an odd choice for a proto-punk, both artists exhibited a strong libertarian spirit in their work. Take for instance, La Mala Reputacion (The Bad Reputation), where Ibañez sings, ‘Yo no pienso pues hacer ningún daño / Queriendo vivir fuera del rebaño, (I don’t think I’m causing any harm / Wanting to live apart from the flock’). There is little doubt that Paloma took this sentiment to heart.
At 17, Paloma told her father she would run away unless he let her go to London to study. Her father, begrudgingly, agreed. So in 1971, Paloma travelled to London, England where she discovered just different life was outside of Spain. She returned to Madrid three months later to attend university, where she participated in anti-fascist activism, sometimes getting in trouble with the police.
By 1974, Paloma’s sister, Esperanza Romero, had already escaped Spain to live in London. She was dating Richard Dudanski, of the 101ers, a small rockabilly band that was well-established on the London pub rock circuit. Paloma, perhaps aware of the limited options available to her as a woman in Spain, decided to move to London permanently to join her sister. Once there, she met the rest of the 101ers and quickly became the girlfriend of John Mellor (aka Joe Strummer), the guitarist and singer in the band.
About this time Richard, Joe and their girlfriends hitch-hiked to Morocco via Madrid, presumably Granada, and Málaga (staying two weeks at the Romero sisters' family home). At Christmas 1975 the four of them, along with the sisters' mother and friend Julio, travelled to London. Concerned about the quality of their lodgings, Joe called his old friend Paul Buck, who invited them all to stay at his parents' farm.
The 101ers were regulars at the Nashville Rooms, next to West Kensington tube station. While playing at this venue, John Mellor was exposed to punk via The Sex Pistols, who were the 101ers’ support act on 3 April 1976. John quickly became obsessed with this new genre. He decided to leave the 101ers, create The Clash and change his name to Joe Strummer. He broke the news to Paloma, suspecting that his decision to embrace punk would be the end of their relationship. He was surprised when Paloma also fell in love with the new punk scene. Despite this, however, Paloma felt she needed to continue exploring by herself, and she left John to travel to Scotland.
She eventually returned to London, and fell back in with the same crowd. A series of serendipitous events transpired in the formation of Paloma’s own punk band, The Slits. The Clash’s bass player, Paul Simonon, started calling Paloma ‘Palmolive’ as a joke, comparing her Spanish name to a well-known brand of soap. The nickname stuck, and soon became her stage name. Then, one night, she noticed a 14-year-old arguing with her mother after a concert. The two started talking and decided to form a band. The name of this girl was Ari Up, and she became the lead singer of The Slits. With Paloma on drums, it just took Viv Albertine and Tessa Pollitt to complete the line-up.
Paloma had little experience playing the drums, but compared the instrument with the act of dancing. The DIY attitude of punk suited novice musicians and The Slits exploded on the punk scene in 1977. In a male-dominated genre, there were no other bands like them, and they quickly became the supporting act for The Clash, notably on their 1977 White Riot tour. Being paid to perform came as a revelation to the girls, who all lived on social security in a squat. Their concerts were chaotic, heady and manic. Paloma’s drum playing was aggressive and passionate, dominating the early sound of The Slits.
In contrast to their raucous on-stage behaviour, The Slits were very democratic in their music writing and usually worked collaboratively on each song. As a non-native English speaker, Paloma felt no fidelity to the English language. Consequently, she made up her own words and brought an irreverent and whimsical tone to the lyrics. In the song Number One Enemy, for example, Paloma weaves in references to Don Quixote fighting ‘in the land of concrete’, perhaps as a nod to her Spanish heritage.
Divisions within the band began to appear, however, largely caused by the manager of The Sex Pistols, Malcolm McLaren, who began to direct the trajectory of The Slits and to manage their image. Paloma pushed back against his ideas, one of which was a nude cover for their first album, Cut. The shoot went ahead, but by then Paloma had left the band. She felt disillusioned with the punk scene and had become increasingly concerned about the effect of her music on listeners. While the music was wild and liberating, the heavy alcohol consumption and masochism of the crowds could become overwhelming. Paloma was horrified when one fan asked if she could sign her name on his arm with glass.
Disenchanted, but still determined, Paloma joined The Raincoats and helped them release their first album, Rough Trade, in 1979. As with The Slits, their music became a seminal part of the punk genre. Creative differences eventually led Paloma to leave the band. She began a pilgrimage, of sorts, travelling through India, and then circling back to Spain and finally to America. Once there, Paloma’s search turned inward, and she found religion. After dabbling in a controversial Pentecostal Church, Paloma turned her back on organised religion but did not abandon her faith entirely. Today, Paloma McLardy considers herself to be a ‘punk mystic’ and has lived in Hyannis, Cape Cod, Massachusetts, USA for around 30 years, where she sings, plays music and teaches Spanish.
Paloma Romero, the girl from Málaga, helped shape the punk genre. The music she helped create imparted a revolutionary message: women can hold hunger, aggression and ambition. These characteristics, which had traditionally been seen as ‘masculine’, were subsumed by feminist punk and regurgitated into something uncompromising, lethal and glorious.
‘Malaga’s own queen of punk’, Sur in English.com, Francisco Griñán
‘The Pilgrimage of Palmolive’, Tom Tom Mag, Melody Berger
‘Revenge of the She-Punks: a feminist music history from Poly Styrene to Pussy Riot’, Vivien Goldman, University of Texas Press