by Richard Mason
"The Slits make their stage debut, opening for the Clash at the Roxy in London…(They) will have to bear the double curse of their sex and their style, which takes the concept of enlightened amateurism to an extreme…the Slits will respond to charges of incompetence by inviting members of the audience on stage to play while (they) take to the floor to dance." – Rolling Stone Rock Almanac entry for 11 March 1977,cited in Greil Marcus' Lipstick Traces
People pay to see others believe in themselves. – Kim Gordon, Sonic Youth
It took me three attempts before I finally saw the Slits live. Twice they canceled, with little or no advance warning; I and many others were confronted with an extremely closed Acklam Hall in Portobello, and not much else. The second time a skinhead tried to kick the door in as the rest of us laughed nervously into our coats – it was fucking freezing and even if we had blamed him for his attempt at forced entry, certainly none of us were going to say so.
Trudging home afterwards, I wondered if it was all worth it. But when the ad appeared in the Rough Trade window a fortnight or so later, I didn't think twice. Third time lucky: the doors were open and I was in, just in time to pay to see and hear four girls who, it now seems to me, believed in themselves more than anyone I'd seen or heard before or since. Not to put too fine a point on it, they believed in themselves so much they scared the crap out of me. And I wouldn't mind betting I wasn't the only one either.
A lead singer who looked all of about twelve, wearing Silver Jubilee knickers over trousers, with a flailing head of enormous dreads that threatened to decapitate anyone who got too close howled her contribution over a veritable maelstrom of guitar, bass and drums. They weren't always in total unison, but there was utter conviction and unity of purpose. There was already some evidence of the spaces opening up in the songs that would become more evident later, but for now you got what Greil Marcus called "armed playground chants" stuffed down your throat, with ill-concealed savage delight.
It was exciting and intimidating beyond words. With the accustomed benefit of 20-20 hindsight, I now know how lucky I was to see one of the most vital of all the real UK punk bands. Like many others, I awaited their first record with impatience to see how the excitement transferred to vinyl, having to make do with a shitty tape of their sessions for John Peel's radio show in the meantime. Herein, songs like "Vindictive," "Shoplifting" and "Love And Romance" (deliciously rendered "Love Und Romance" by Ariana's German accent) had developed only in terms of aural clarity from the live performance I'd witnessed; the energy level and feisty glee still made "togetherness" and "technical proficiency" irrelevant as ever. Put it this way: I still bounced all over the place with a huge grin on my face whenever I heard them, secure in being able to enjoy their fury without having the crap scared out of me (in the nicest possible way, you understand).
So, I waited for their "real" records. And waited. And waited.
Like the Subway Sect, the Slits passed into legend in my mind, but, unlike Godard & co., the records were not even forthcoming. They were rumoured to have signed with Real records, who "boasted" the New Wwave act the Pretenders as their major signing. This was not a good omen. Further bad news enschewed; superb drummer Paloma Romero a.k.a. Palmolive had left the group. Other bands, other records, other flavours of the month all came and went; you couldn't walk down a street in most parts of London without seeing "SIGN THE BANSHEES" sprayed on a wall by some enlightened individual, but I never saw "SIGN THE SLITS" sprayed up anywhere.
They had their loyal supporters in the music press, but, in spite of their never-less-than-confrontational attitude, they seemed somehow destined to remain on that section of the punk rock barricades where the action wasn't. Their level of musicianship (what a lovely word!) improved; their manners didn't. From having been a major drawing force and inspiration via their exposure on the Clash's White Riot tour (again, like the Subway Sect) time seemed to have somehow stood still for the Slits, at least in terms of acceptance and awareness.
One of the consequences of punk was that the rate of media turnover accelerated dramatically, almost beyond belief it seemed sometimes, as we all desperately sought the next new group; as a result, those who stayed still and failed to develop in traditional ways (getting records out, front page of the NME, etc.) got left behind. But maybe the Slits had their reasons.
Always socially close to the Sex Pistols, they noted the latter's grisly fate at the hands of the media with well-founded trepidation, even offering advice via the lyrics to "So Tough," a wry observation of the pressure well and truly on. In light of the fate of so many others in the forefront of the punk rock explosion, who's to say they weren't wise to be suspicious of a record deal?
As it turned out, the "real" Slits are now only represented on record by two compilations, one of which, the superb bootleg A Retrospective (referred to by Greil Marcus in Lipstick Traces as Once Upon a Time in a Living Room) was put out by Rough Trade with a minimum of promotion, a minimal cover and minimal information – exactly what the group wanted.
Whether a conscious comment on consumerism or just a desire to ape their beloved reggae pre-release 12", the packaging is strikingly apt; the music is left to speak for itself. Of course, the Slits went on to sign to Island, who finally put out their debut 45 & LP in 1979, which of course goes beyond the remit of this piece.
But they were truly at the vanguard of punk rock and their music has perhaps been unjustly overlooked at the expense of their capacity to shock; for many – even some of those who accepted many of the changes punk rock sought to bring to bear – the biggest shock of all was the fact that such a group as the Slits could exist at all. They totally trashed all previous preconceptions of what women in rock/pop music should be, musically, socially, sexually.
Their youth, intelligence and refusal to compromise may have cost them dear in the sense of impact at the time but in retrospect they have to be seen as one of the key groups of the era. After the Slits, all-female groups who played their own instruments could no longer be dismissed as a gimmick. Their belief in themselves ensured not only their status but also the delicious vitality and the inimitable quality of their music, to say nothing of the inspiration they provided to countless others, male and female alike.
Also see our article on the Slits reunion and their reunion record and our interview with Viv Albertine.
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