Perfect Sound Forever

Typical Slits

Photo by Chris Woo

By Kurt Gottschalk
(August 2007)

The Slits are not typical girls. Never were. They made it clear some 30 years ago. Typical girls buy magazines, as they sang on their legendary if under-acknowledged debut album Cut. Typical girls worry about spots, fat and natural smells. Typical girls learn how to act shocked. Typical girls don't rebel.

They are, however, typical Slits. And they'll say so.

Singer and force of nature Ari Up sprawled across a small couch in an upstairs apartment somewhere in the East Williamsburg section of Brooklyn when our interview was supposed to take place was probably typical Slits. At least it seemed like it was her – a mass of dreads sticking out from under one side of a big parka and a pair of henna'd feet sticking out the other as I sat in the corner, huddled with bassist Tessa Pollitt, talking about the band's reunion, new record and 30th anniversary. Various younger Slits wandered in and out of the room, watching the television, whispering and giggling.

Tessa was polite, humble, happy to be performing again. Ari stirred and said she thought she heard someone say the police were downstairs.

The second stab at a show that night in November 2006 was in the raw ground floor and basement of a side-street brownstone that booking agent Panache had found to hold their eight-band showcase during (but not as a part of) the College Music Journal annual marathon that takes over New York City every fall. The night had started at another raw space in East Williamsburg, a nebulous and likely non-permitted space in a building that was sold just days before, presumably to typical men who have little use for punk demagogues. A lone fellow stood on the corner the night of the show, redirecting people to a new space about a mile away – no name, go around to the back, try not to draw attention. But eight bands and several hundred fans didn't quite manage to not draw attention. As the police closed the second space, Tessa – who'd been in the basement checking out the duo Shellshag, whose drummer Jennifer was also working as the Slits tour manager – slipped out to an upstairs apartment. It was, they would say repeatedly in the small upstairs living room, all part of the "typical Slits jinx."

The Slits came together in 1976, upsetting the punk explosion within minutes of punk exploding to upset the rock'n'roll status quo. A 14-year-old Ari (born Arianna Forrester, the daughter of a rock promoter and soon-to-be stepdaughter of Johnny Rotten) met Palmolive (Paloma Romero) at a Clash show. Palmolive announced she was starting a band, but it had to be all girls. Ari joined up as singer, and the feminine was born into punk.

The original guitarist and bassist (Kate Korus and Suzi Gutsy) were soon replaced by Tessa and Viv Albertine, and with Ari's boundless energy they began crafting as vital a challenge to punk's guitar-driven 4/4 slam as those posed by the more angular and minimalist Gang of Four and Wire. The first punk bands – The Sex Pistols, The Clash, even The Ramones, The New York Dolls or MC5, depending on how far back you care to count – were essentially just rock bands on overdrive. They brought the attitude, but mostly adhered to rock's songwriting conventions. The Slits applied that fuck-you attitude to a reggae structure – deep, driving bass with guitar ornaments – and were unabashedly feminine without being anything close to demure. Until they broke up in 1981 (losing Palmolive to The Raincoats and hiring on Budgie – later of Siouxsie and the Banshees – and then The Pop Group's Bruce Smith to play drums along the way), they cut a new trail for women in rock, clearing the way for riot grrls a generation later. And 25 years after parting ways, they've returned, or at least Ari and Tessa have, with three new members, a new record, and a quick tour that landed them on a fateful night in Brooklyn.

Of the original Slits, Ari is the only one who has remained in music since the band broke up. With the exception of some time off living in the jungle in Borneo, nude and in the wild, Ari has split her time between New York and Kingston, Jamaica, where she DJs and produces fashions under the name Madussa. Palmolive found religion and recanted her punk days. Viv Albertine (working as a TV director post-Slits) declined an invitation to be a part of the reunion. "We asked her to join but she didn't fancy it, she's got a young child," Tessa explained.

Viv's guitar is missed, but vocals and bass were always the center of the band anyway, and vocals and bass reunited when Tessa – who had spent her post-Slits years raising a daughter, practicing martial arts, studying reflexology and working at a detox center – went to see Ari play in London a few years ago. It was the first time they'd seen each other in 18 years.

"I just got itchy feet to get on stage again," she said. "Now that I'm doing it, I realize how much I missed it."

The reunion resulted in a new band, including Sex Pistol Paul Cook on drums and his daughter Hollie singing back-up and Marco Pironi of Adam and the Ants on guitar. That lineup recorded the three songs on the new Revenge of the Killer Slits. It's a brief record, clocking in at just over ten minutes and including an early song they'd never recorded ("Number One Enemy"), a song from Ari's 2005 solo record Dread More Dan Dead ("Kill Them With Love") and an unlikely, electronica-sounding piece ("Slits Tradition").

If the disc doesn't befit Slits tradition, Tessa promised a full-length will happen, and then another tour. A couple of songs were recorded during their stay in New York, where they also played at The Knitting Factory and Maxwell's in Hoboken, NJ.

And if past or future Slits records don't get wide acclaim, it's OK with her. "The best music doesn't get listened to," she said. "It doesn't bother me."

Suddenly the parka stirred again. "Did someone tell me about a bed somewhere?" Ari said.

"No, you're dreaming…" Tessa laughed, then adding "Anna said you can use her bed."

"Don't we have to be onstage?" Ari asked, and rolled up under her coat again.

The surprise guest on the new record is the gentlemanly British pianist Steve Beresford, perhaps better known as a part of the British improv community – or for singing Doris Day songs – than he is for backing rastapunk priestesses. On "Slits Tradition," he plays a close-miked ironing board, creating electroacousticlash rhythms. But it wasn't the first time he'd played with the group. "He played these little toys," Tessa recalled. "He added a really different flavor to The Slits."

Beresford was with The Slits for about a year and a half, as they moved from their first record to the more tribal, rhythm-centric sounds of the 1981 Return of the Giant Slits. After 1979's Cut, the band was interested in continuing to free up their sounds, following the looseness of reggae and dub into more open improvisation. Viv started showing up at Derek Bailey's Company sessions to learn about Britain's free-improv movement.

"They wanted a sort of anarchistic thing to go against the songs," Beresford said. "Ari would come over to me and yell 'improvise, improvise,' and I'd say, 'well, I am improvising.' Now she's not so bossy because she's not a teenager anymore."

The distance between punk and improv wasn't so far at the time, according to Beresford, at least not in London. Both were about freedom during a time of rampant unemployment and economic crisis in the UK.

"It was all based around that Ladbroke Grove area, the West Indian area," Beresford said. "The Clash were living there and Aswad were living there. I remember going to see The Slits and I was absolutely crying with laughter because they were so angry and not about anything."

But if the music was about freedom, there was still a gender power structure at play.

"I think punk was a very macho movement," Beresford said. "I couldn't stand The Clash and all the stupid military uniforms. Viv's guitar playing freed you from this idea that you have to play every bar chord on every beat."

That sexism also led to a long-held assumption about The Slits, that the men in the band were the ones with the musical talent.

"They could definitely play," Beresford said. "The fact was they didn't think in conventional musical terms, but they absolutely could play. There was always somebody telling them they couldn't play."

Vivien Goldman is the "punk professor" at New York University and a contributor to BBC news. In the late '70s she was writing for NME, Melody Maker and Sounds, and pushing them to cover the developing punk scene. For her, The Slits were revolutionary visually as well as sonically. Appearing wearing only loincloths and covered in mud on their first album cover was shocking in a scene that was supposed to be unshockable. Even the band's name suggested something women weren't supposed to say (although men certainly could).

"It doesn't have the same impact now," she said. "It was a total recontextualizing of what goes with what. If you wear a nice little frilly dress, what do you pair with it? You put it with combat boots. The whole desexualiztion of fetish clothes – The Slits did all of that. They set the template for the modern rebel girl. Sonically, they did the same thing, insisting on being so bass heavy, and Ari's vocals were exactly the reverse of what was wanted from a girl singer in the '50's and '60's. The yowling and dropping your voice into a growl. Instead of being loud or hard or fast, it was much more free-flowing and personal, not letting the rhythm dictate you but doing the rhythm as you feel it, which you could relate to Ornette Coleman's harmolodics – being plugged into each other. That's why some people said they were bad musicians, but I don't think they were bad. I think they were experimental.

"There was a lot of sexism on the scene, they had a lot of struggles but you have to carry on regardless," she added. "That's the whole punk attitude. It wasn't easy for them. It was only in the punk era that women started to explore a woman's sound. Before that it was much more conventional – everyone just wanted to sing in tune."

At the same time, she said, there was a feeling within the Ladbroke Grove scene of being one big community, where punk, reggae and free-improv musicians were hanging out and playing together, and where there wasn't a line between being a journalist during the day and taking the stage at night. Goldman did a record with reggae producer Adrian Sherwood. The Slits played with Don Cherry (who also played with Ian Dury) and his daughter Neneh, and shared bills with Steel Pulse. John Lydon (then Sex Pistols singer Johnny Rotten) remembered in his autobiography Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs going to reggae clubs because it was the only place he wouldn't be beaten up.

"I'm sure there were people going 'oh, get off,' but there were people doing that to the boys, too. The Slits could handle it. They were on a mission. They had expressed an attitude that had not been around before. They had an attitude toward the life they were living and romance that had not been expressed before. They were cynical, but fun."

Ari stirred under her coat back in the Brooklyn apartment, as Jennifer came in and announced they found a nearby club where they could play. It was 11:40. They could go in 20 minutes. Ari looked up, agreed and wandered off to the promised bed. Viv Goldman showed up to squeals and hugs, and she and Tessa disappeared to the kitchen to catch up. I got directions to The Syrup Room, wondering if the band would really make it, and started walking.

Midnight was a bit of a false promise – typical Slits – but the band took the stage at 1:15. Ari apparently knows how to sleep and get ready for a show at the same time; she had changed into a sort of haute couture Jane Jetson outfit, and didn't just rule the stage but actively led the band, and the audience as well. "Ari was born to be on stage," Goldman told me. "She's a very different kind of person anyway. She's unconventional in her bones, and she wouldn't know how to be a regular chick. She was never called upon to conform and to the best of my knowledge nobody ever tried to knock her into shape."

The band – an all-female touring group having replaced the lineup that made the new record – was solid Slits. If the two new guitarists, Adele and NO, were a little hesitant, the band still had the sound: solid rhythms, fat, wet bass, and guitar with the treble up, distortion up and bass down. Typical Slits. The bass and drum set up one half of the dichotomy they lay claim to ("Who invented punk reggae?" Ari demanded). Sharp snare attacks, thick, dripping bass lines, guitars as accessories – exactly the opposite of guitar-driven boy punk.

Ari pushed the new members (in addition to the guitars, Anna on drums and Hollie on back-up vocals) and the audience. "We like jungle sounds, bird sounds," she yelled repeatedly, holding the mike out to the audience. "Make bird sounds."

After a strong, 70-minute set to a packed room that somehow found them after being shut down twice, they encored with "Let's Do the Splits," one of their earliest songs, unreleased save for a Peel session version. As soon as they finished, Ari, all smiles, yelled "Let's (do) it again, like it's 1976! It's the remix – 1976!" And they played it again.

And 30 years later, with Courtney Love in Us magazine and her late husband the subject of big-name biopics, punk isn't shocking anymore. But maybe The Slits don't need to shock anymore. They're older now, they're mommies, and they have a little piece of rock history to call their own. When I mentioned to Tessa that all The Slits are parents, she pointed to the newer band members, standing in the back of that cramped Brooklyn living room watching a Seinfeld rerun. "Well, I guess some of them will be." All Slits are equal; long live The Slits.

Also see our earlier Slits tribute, our article on their reunion album and our interview with Viv Albertine.

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER