24.5.10

The Slits

The Slits started where Alternative TV and The Pop Group ended up - total chaos. Other punk bands talked about not being able to play, but were secretly competent. Genuinely inept, The Slits really sounded cacophonous, with only the faintest subliminal skank indicating their punky-reggae intentions. Some people reckon the 'true' Slits is this early naïve sound of girls struggling with their instruments and vocal chords, impelled forward by sheer glee and gall. Personally, I think The Slits got better when they, ah, got better - picking up some rudimentary instrumental skills and establishing a firmer rhythmic foundation (something helped when original drummer Palmolive, unable to provide the reggae-inflected groove the rest of the band wanted, moved on and was replaced by a guy who called himself Budgie). The Slits also established a studio relationship with Dennis Bovell, who helped them transform their rampaging racket into a more shapely disorder.

The Slits were a feral girl gang. Aged just fifteen in 1977, singer Ari Up recalls being 'wild and crazy, like an animal let loose - but an innocent little girl with it, too'. From her striking image (tangled dreadlocks, knickers worn on the outside of her clothes) to her seemingly pre-social antics, Ari inspired fear and fascination in equal measure. On one infamous occasion, she urinated onstage. 'It wasn't to shock anyone,' she insists. 'I needed to pee, there wasn't a toilet near, so I pissed onstage - on the side, but everyone in the audience saw it. I just didn't care.'

Ari's background was German and wealthy, but her heiress mother Nora was a bohemian and rock scenester. The family home served as open house for all kinds of stars, from Yes singer Jon Anderson to Joe Strummer. The Slits' guitarist Viv Albertine also came from a genteel background and went to art school, where she met The Clash's Mick Jones. Blonde, charismatic and trailing a host of male punk admirers, Albertine shared a squat with Keith Levene and played in a short-lived band with him and Sid Vicious called Flowers of Romance. Balefully dark haired and laconic, bassist Tessa Pollitt came from another all-girl punk group who trumped The Slits with a name - The Castrators - worthy of radical feminist Valerie Solanas, founder of the Society for Cutting Up Men.

A fan of Solanas's SCUM Manifesto, Malcolm McLaren attempted to manage The Slits, seeing them as the female Pistols. Legend has it his managerial come-on was: 'I want to work with you because you're girls and you play music. I hate music and I hate girls. I thrive on hate.' But instead of thinking up outrageous ideas worthy of Solanas or Sid Vicious, McLaren's masterplan was wildly sexist and degrading. After attacking the rock industry, he wanted to infiltrate the disco movement. At first, he tried to get The Slits to sign to the cheesy German disco label Hansa. Then, when Island moved to sign the band and invited McLaren to make a movie around them, he came up with a screenplay that envisioned The Slits as an all-girl rock band who go to Mexico only to find themselves effectively sold into slavery and ultimately turned into porno-disco stars. The Slits shrewdly extricated themselves from McLaren's grasp, but they did sign to Island and started working on their debut alburn, Cut, with Dennis Bovell in the summer of 1979.

Bovell was an obvious choice. The Slits, especially Ari, were reggae fiends. 'We used to find the blues parties just following the bass,' she says. 'We would be streets away and listen for the vibrations. In 1976-8, there were zero white people. And I was not just the only white girl but the only one with dreads. In fact, I was the first person to have the tree - I had my locks up in a tree-type shape. But I got away with it because I was dancing the hell out of their blues parties. Back then the style of dancing was called "steppers" and I was such a good stepper.' As she developed beyond the basic punk screech into plaintive, reedy singing, her Bavaria-meets-Jamaica accent made her sound like Nico on spliff rather than smack.

Punk diehards sometimes claim that Dennis Bovell dulled The Slits' edges, domesticated them. The band were ambitious, though: they wanted to be pop stars. Island boss Chris Blackwell thought that they had potential in spades and he gave Bovell as much studio time as required. The Slits had so much input that it was more a case of sorting out what should go,' says Bovell, They were just bulging with material and I had the task of sorting it out and saying, "This goes here." it was like an enormous jigsaw puzzle all dumped in your lap.' Cut's songs do often sound like polyrhythmic cogs and jutting mechanical parts cobbled together to form slightly wonky but captivating contraptions. Albertine's itchy-and-scratchy rhythm guitar darts between Pollitt's sinuous basslines and Budgie's clackety clockwork drums. According to Bovell, Albertine 'was no Jimi Hendrixette... She'd do the occasional bit of single-note lead guitar, but mostly she was more like a female Steve Cropper from Booker T and the MGs, doing all these great rhythm things. She was always very conscious of not wanting to play the guitar like a man, but actually trying to create a style of her own.'

Probably the most delightful element in The Slits' sound is the strange geometry of the clashing and overlapping vocals: Albertine and Pollitt weave around Ari's shrill, slightly sour warble. On the opener, 'Instant Hit', the girls form a roundelay of haphazard harmonies that Ari describes as 'a kind of "Frère Jacques" thing'. Albertine's lyrics to 'Instant Hit' depict an unhealthily thin boy who 'don't like himself very much/'cos he has set his self to self-destruct' - a barbed portrait that applied equally to Sid Vicious and Keith Levene, her junkie bandmates in Flowers of Romance. 'So Tough', a frenetic piss-take of macho posturing, gives way to the doleful skank of 'Spend Spend Spend', its sidling bass and brittle-nerved percussion perfectly complementing the lyric's sketch of a shopaholic vainly trying to 'satisfy this empty feeling' with impulse purchases. 'Shoplifting' turns 'Spend Spend Spend' inside out: woman-as-consumerist-dupe becomes petty-thief-as-feminist-rebel. Frantic punk-reggae, the song surges into adrenaline overdrive as Ari, caught red-handed, yells, 'Do a runner!' The song climaxes with a shattering scream that mingles terror, glee and relief at escaping the supermarket detective, a yowl that collapses into the giggled gasp, 'I've pissed in my knickers.'

The fast songs on Cut are exhilarating: 'Shoplifting'; the romance-as-braindeath parody 'Love Und Romance'; and the single, 'Typical Girls', a diatribe against un-Slitty females who 'don't create, don't rebel' and whose heads are addled with women's magazine-induced anxieties about 'spots, fat, unnatural smells'. But the most haunting songs on Cut are the clutch of downtempo, despondent tracks: 'FM', 'Ping Pong Affair', and 'Newtown', which takes its title from the urban centres that sprang up after the Second World War. All these towns started life as an architect's and urban planner's Utopian vision before swiftly degenerating into characterless gridzones of anomie and despair. The song draws a disconcerting parallel between the conformists hooked on cultural tranquillizers such as 'televisiono' and 'footballino', and The Slits' own bohemian peers zonked on illegal narcotics; Albertine's jittery scrape mimics the flesh-crawling ache of cold turkey. Withdrawal of an emotional kind inspired 'Ping Pong Affair' - Ari measuring out the empty post-break-up evenings with masturbation ('Same old thing yeah I know/Everybody does it') and cigarettes. Dub-inflected and desolate, Cut's slow songs impart a sense of atomized individuals numbing their pain with pop culture's illusions; romance junkies and glamourholics adrift in a haze of cheap dreams. Underneath it all you could sense The Slits' yearning for a simpler, natural life. Cut's famous cover photograph of the group as mud-smeared Amazons combined nostalgie de la boue with she-warrior defiance to jab the casual record-shop browser right in the eye. Naked but for loin-cloths and warpaint, The Slits stand proudly bare-breasted, staring out the camera. Behind them you can see the wall of a picturesque cottage, brambles and roses clambering up the side, as if to underline the 'we're no delicate English roses and this is no come-hither look' message. The cottage was Ridge Farm, the studio where Bovell produced Cut. Says Ari, 'We got so into the countryside when we were doing the album, to the point of rolling around in the earth. So we decided to cover ourselves in mud and show that women could be sexy without dressing in a prescribed way. Sexy, in a natural way, and naked, without being pornographic.'

Cut's cover echoes the photo of the Mud People of Papua New Guinea on the front of Y. Like The Slits, The Pop Group pined for a lost wholeness they imagined existed before civilization's debilitating effect. On 'She Is Beyond Good and Evil', Mark Stewart had yowled, 'Western values mean nothing to her.' A tape of African drumming preceded The Pop Group's arrival onstage during the Animal Instincts tour, and via a Melody Maker interview they appealed to their fans to bring drums and whistles, and transform gigs into tribal ceremonies. In an NME feature, Gareth Sager argued that Western civilizations, being 'based on cities', were sick because they were cut off from 'natural cycles', unlike African tribes where repression simply didn't exist. He proposed abolishing conventional education and spending the money helping people to de-indoctrinate themselves. Language itself might be the enemy: 'Words Disobey Me' proposed stripping away layers of conditioning and recovering a pure, naïve speech of the heart. 'Speak the unspoken/First words of a child…/We don't need words/Throw them away', beseeched Stewart.

The Slits shared The Pop Group's naïve idealization of noble savagery and pure instinct, a cult of innocence and intuition that sometimes took on an anti-intellectual tinge. The two groups got 'so close we were like one tribe', says Ari Up. Bruce Smith took over from Budgie as The Slits' drummer, and played both sets when the two groups did a joint tour of Europe. There was even tribal endogamy: Sager went out with Albertine; Sean Oliver (the last of The Pop Group's several bassists) fathered a child with Pollitt; Bruce Smith dated and eventually married Neneh Cherry, a friend of Ari who eventually joined The Slits as stage dancer and backing vocalist. Full merger as a single tribe was formally anointed when the groups founded their own independent label, Y, in 1980, administered by Pop Group manager Dick O'Dell. The Slits had parted company with Island, while The Pop Group severed their links with Radar after learning to their horror about the parent company WEA's links to the Kinney conglomerate, which was involved in arms dealing.

(Simon Reynolds, Rip it Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 - πρώτη δημοσίευση εδώ)


Είναι λογικό να στέκεται κανείς επιφυλακτικά απέναντι στις επανασυνδέσεις παλιών συγκροτημάτων μετά από δεκαετίες απραξίας. Η περίπτωση των Slits μοιάζει να είναι αρκετά αξιοσημείωτη: πρόκειται για το πρώτο βρετανικό γυναικείο punk group, που σχηματίστηκε από τρεις φίλες σε εφηβική ηλικία, κράτησε για κάτι λιγότερο από πέντε χρόνια και διαλύθηκε μετά από δύο δίσκους. Με τον ήχο τους έντονα επηρεασμένο από το funk και τη reggae, ένα πραγματικά ερασιτεχνικό στυλ «δεν ξέρουμε να παίζουμε καλά και δε μας νοιάζει», απέχθεια για συμβατικές αρμονίες και ποπ ευκολίες, βρέθηκαν μαζί με τις σημαντικότερες μορφές του πανκ κινήματος, ανοίγοντας πολλές από τις συναυλίες των Clash, ενώ διέθεταν ταυτόχρονα πραγματικούς δεσμούς αίματος με γκρουπ όπως οι Sex Pistols και οι Pop Group. H μητέρα της τραγουδίστριας τους, Ari Up, εξάλλου, είναι σύζυγος του John Lydon για κάτι παραπάνω από 30 χρόνια.

Ακολουθώντας τη διάλυση των Slits, η Ari Up αποτελώντας για μερικά χρόνια μέλος του πειραματικού σχήματος των New Age Steppers, αποφάσισε να φύγει από την Αγγλία, για να περάσει το μεγαλύτερο διάστημα της δεκαετίας του ’80 κατά δήλωσή της «γυμνή στη ζούγκλα του Μπελίζε». Στη δεκαετία του ’90, εγκαταστάθηκε στην Τζαμάικα, όπου απέκτησε τη φήμη της ιδιόρρυθμης λευκής dancehall τραγουδίστριας-χορεύτριας, γνωστής με το προσωνύμιο Maddusa, με εμφανίσεις ακόμη και στην τοπική τηλεόραση, μιλώντας και τραγουδώντας με την περίεργη βαριά γερμανο-τζαμαϊκανική της προφορά.

Η ανασύσταση των Slits μετρά ήδη πέντε χρόνια – μπορεί να είναι δύσκολο να μεταφέρουν την ατμόσφαιρα της κλασικής εποχή του πανκ στο σήμερα, ωστόσο η συναυλία τους στην Αθήνα την ερχόμενη Τρίτη είναι μια εξαιρετικά δελεαστική πρόταση (προσωπικά πάντως, δεν είναι ακόμη βέβαιο ότι θα μπορέσω να είμαι παρών).






ΥΓ. Φωτογραφίες από εδώ κι εδώ

7 σχόλια:

silentcrossing είπε...

Σούπερ το αφιέρωμα σου head. Οι Slits μου αρέσουν πολύ και αν δεν έπαιζαν στην άθλια τρύπα θα πήγαινα οπωσδήποτε. Αν πάντως το αποφασίσεις θα έχεις και παρέα να ξέρεις :)

head charge είπε...

Τρύπα το ιστορικό «Ροντέο»; :-) Δεν έχεις άδικο, αλλά ακόμη κι έτσι ταιριάζει στα punk ethics!

Αύριο θα ξέρω οριστικά αν θα πάω, οπότε θα ειδοποιηθείς καταλλήλως. ;-)

silentcrossing είπε...

Ελπίζω στο ιστορικό Ροντέο να έχουν φτιάξει τον εξαερισμό γιατί θα τους πάρει ο διάολος καμιά ώρα..

(Τρεις φορές πήγα την τρέχουσα σχολική χρονιά και κάθε φορά ορκίζομαι στον Mark Gardener να μην ξαναπατήσω, αλλά αν απόψε έχω καλή παρέα θα ενδώσω πάλι...)

head charge είπε...

(λακωνικό review): Ωραία ήτανε, αν και θα μπορούσαν να παίξουν λίγη ώρα παραπάνω. :-)

χαρη είπε...

α, ωραία, να παρηγορηθούμε κι εμείς που δεν πήγαμε δηλαδής :(((

head charge είπε...

χάρη, ιστορικό γκρουπ οι Slits, καλή η συναυλία, δε λέω, αλλά δεν είναι και από αυτές που θα μείνουν και στην ιστορία (λεπτομέρεια: ήμασταν 50-60 άτομα το πολύ, όλοι κι όλοι).

Όταν είναι να ζηλέψεις πάντως θα στο γράψω. :-)

head charge είπε...

Oct 20th 2010: Slits' Ari Up Dead at 48

Speechless... :( :(