As The Slits debut album Cut turns 40, Getintothis’ Banjo looks at the story of an incredible and influential band.
The Slits were not a band who were prepared to compromise.
From their formation to their demise, they were determined to be in control of their own destiny and to make their own choices. This they did with a huge amount of both determination and style.
In fact, The Slits were much more than this. Even for the rebellious, shock filled early days of punk, The Slits were fucking wild.
Lead singer Ari Up’s mother Nora was something of a free spirit herself; she was a friend of Jimi Hendrix, dated guitarist Chris Spedding and appointed Jon Anderson from Yes as one of Ari’s godparents.
She would later go on to marry John Lydon.
Nora welcomed the fledgling punk musicians into her home and, as a result, the 14 year old Ari was surrounded by punk influence at a particularly important time in her life. The upshot was that she soon decided to form a band of her own.
This she did, with Palmolive on drums, Kate Korus on guitar and Suzy Gutsy on bass. Even before 1976 was out, the band had shifted into the classic Slits lineup of Ari Up, Palmolive, Viv Albertine and Tessa Pollitt.
The band were still learning their instruments, as was common at the time, and they did this in public. Their early recordings capture what John Peel described as ‘where an inability to play meets a determination to play’.
The sound of the band at this time is perfectly captured in their first two Peel sessions, which are to this writer’s ears, the two finest Peel sessions ever recorded. The noise they made was a little out of time and a little out of tune. It was also some of the most exhilarating and wonderful music to emerge from the whole punk movement.
In her excellent and highly recommended autobiography, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys, Viv Albertine remembered that The Slits were often refused entry to hotels on the tour, as the punk image was barely tolerated for boys at the time, but not for girls.
This is the arena in which The Slits operated.
In the fusty late 70s, merely being an all-female punk group automatically set The Slits in a radical position. The Slits’, and in particular Ari Up’s, behaviour was that of an innate, natural rebellion. They were simply being themselves and not caring if this upset anybody else’s opinions of how young girls should behave.
At one show, Ari Up squatted and pissed on stage, which to her was totally acceptable because a) she was on stage and b) she happened to need a piss.
The Slits quickly became a gang. Looking back at photos of the band from this time, they do not look hugely punky or shocking, but we need to remember that this was the late 70s, when it was still possible to shock people by the width of your trouser leg. It was also a time when women were denied a voice and an equal role in society.
On a personal note, I can remember in the 70s in the Banjo household when my mum was given a tax rebate. Because she was a married woman, the tax rebate was made out to my dad, because women were not allowed to receive them in their own name, as if the money they earned was not actually theirs but their husband’s and that maybe they should be grateful they’re allowed to go out and work at all thank you very much.
That this happened in my lifetime seems ridiculous, but there we are.
The hangovers from these ideals were still prevalent in the late 70s when The Slits were quite rightly and very bravely refusing to abide by this kind of archaic oppression. Not that this helped them get a record deal.
At a time when even the worst, most unimaginative punk bands were being signed, The Slits’ wild reputation and their refusal to compromise frightened away the major labels and independents alike.
However, the fact remains that the band continued as an unsigned act for far too long, which is why we are celebrating the anniversary of their debut album now and not in 2017. As good as Cut is, and it absolutely is, the world missed out on their early sound being properly captured.
But, paradoxically, this is also Cut’s greatest strength; by the time the band were signed to Island and allowed into a proper recording studio, they had grown up a little and the punk of their Peel sessions was replaced with a more considered, intricate approach.
The intervening time had also allowed them to master the more difficult musical disciplines of the reggae that they loved so much. The resulting fusion of post-punk and reggae has never been bettered than on Cut.
The Slits belatedly signed a record deal in 1979, with Island having the vision to take them on. The first fruits of this partnership was the Typical Girls single. It was instantly apparent that The Slits had moved on and the song familiar to us from the Peel session was almost unrecognisable.
Gone was the sound of musicians learning how to play, gone also were the rough edges that seemed so important to their sound. In their place was a new sound that proved that The Slits were now as important to post-punk as their younger selves were to punk.
By this time, drummer Palmolive (so named because this is how a drunk/stoned Sid Vicious pronounced Paloma, her real name) had left the band and Liverpool musician Budgie was drafted in for the album.
Budgie is, of course, one of the best drummers of his generation and with him in the band, The Slits could now expand beyond the use of traditional rock rhythms. From the off, Cut lays out the future vision for The Slits.
First track Instant Hit is a glorious fusion of scratchy post-punk guitars, reggae rhythms and Ari Up’s multi-layered vocals. By delaying the recording of the debut album they may have missed creating a punk classic, but instead, they came up with something much longer-lasting.
There is none of the punk baggage that would have nailed their songs to a specific time. Instead, it would be harder for a new listener to pinpoint exactly when Cut was recorded. It’s influence spread through the 80s and beyond so that Cut is an album well ahead of its time.
The songs that made up The Slits set are mostly still here, but in such altered versions that they are, to all intents and purposes, new songs. The album buzzes with the band’s delight at finally being able to record an album. Much of the credit for this new sound goes to legendary dub producer Dennis Bovell and to The Slits’ canny intuition in getting him to produce their first recordings.
Bovell is a Barbados born multi-instrumentalist who based himself in Britain, where he played in reggae band Matumbi, wrote and produced Silly Games for Janet Kaye and produced classic albums for Linton Kwesi Johnson. Getting him to produce Cut was perhaps a gamble, but one that paid off handsomely.
Slits’ classics Newtown, Shoplifting and Love & Romance are all present and correct and wearing their new clothes proudly. There is a sense of joy that runs through Cut that makes it an irresistible joy, even 40 years down the line.
Ari Up’s lyrics concern the world that she grew up in. Typical Girls is perhaps the best example of how she saw the world, or perhaps more accurately how the world saw her.
Starting off with ‘Don’t create, Don’t rebel’, Ari Up goes on to say ‘Typical girls buy magazines, Typical girls feel like hell, Typical girls worry about spots, fat and natural smells.’
The Slits focus was always more on personal politics than the sloganeering of their peers, which is another reason Cut stands up so well today. Unfortunately and perhaps predictably, The Slits flame burned bright but brief. Second album Return of the Giant Slits came two years later, a long gap in an age where, for example, The Stranglers released their first two albums in six months.
As part of their rejection of the rock rule book, The Slits looked elsewhere for inspiration and Return developed their affection for what would become known as World Music. A few months after its release, The Slits split up.
Unsure what to do in the aftermath of being an integral part of a music revolution that changed the world, Ari Up retreated to Indonesia and Belize with her husband and twin boys, where they lived with the indigenous populations. The Slits reformed in 2005 and toured to great acclaim, the affection for them seeming to have multiplied in their absence.
Sadly, Ari Up developed breast cancer in 2008 and passed away in 2010. Her uncompromising attitude also applied to her battle with cancer as she refused conventional treatment. Stepfather John Lydon said ‘who refuses chemo because they don’t want their Rasta locks cut off? Ariane was just not sensible. She thought she could cure herself with witch doctors. We spent hundreds of thousands trying to save her, but it was too late.’
The legacy of The Slits can be seen writ large in many of the female bands that have come after them, with the Riot Grrl movement partuicularly citing them as a prime influence. Their attitude and their approach to making music are as important a legacy as the music they left behind.
They were trailblazers and the music world is vastly improved as a result of what they left behind.