What a cliché – that writing about what you love can sometimes prove the most impossible. And never has a cliché rung so maddeningly true than on the past occasions that I’ve tried to condense the myriad things I could say about The Slits into one article.
But one cannot be governed by clichés, especially not when they threaten the celebration of one of modern music’s most vibrant and vital forces. It is impossible, however, to distill their riotous oeuvre into the discussion of just one record, and so, as they could arguably be classified as the ultimate Skank Blog outfit, today I’m going to delve into a whole stack of ‘em.
As well as cementing women’s rightful place in that testosterone-saturated pantheon known as rock music, The Slits were of course instrumental in making bedfellows of reggae, dub and punk (though to pigeonhole them as merely a ‘punky reggae’ outfit would be doing them a disservice indeed). From the vulpine squall of their frenetic beginnings to the sophisticated genre-defying hydra they later became, their sound hasn’t lost one iota of the bite it had back then – innovative, illuminating, and totally unique. As dearly departed vocalist Ari Up so succinctly put it when asked in 1977 why they played punk music: ‘We are not punks. We’re The Slits. And we play SLITS music!’
Although their primal pounding was a seminal part of the early live punk scene, The Slits held off releasing a record until they had honed to a fine point the tightly wound dub sound present on 1979’s Dennis Bovell-produced Cut LP, so this seems like the logical place to begin.
Whilst many bondage-trousered purists balked at such a drastic sonic overhaul, it cannot be denied that the lyrical sensibilities of Cut are firmly entrenched in punk. The furtive Shoplifting, consumerist satire Spend, Spend, Spend and the playful yet acerbic Typical Girls, like so many songs in the Slits’ repertoire, are a slap in the face administered with a wry smile.
Embracing reggae with loving arms while hacking it into an entirely new exotic sculpture, Cut is festooned with mosquito-ish guitars, deep, loping basslines and Ari Up’s wildly eclectic vocals, leaping from husky Teutonic purr to glass-shattering trill often in the space of a single line.
And the 12” which preceded Cut plunges even deeper into dub territory with nebulous extended versions of album tracks Typical Girls and Love and Romance, alongside their jaw-dropping cover of I Heard It Through The Grapevine – without a doubt one of greatest spiky skanks of our times.
Following their split with Island Records and drummer Budgie in 1980, the atypical girls teamed up with whiz kid Pop Group skinsman Bruce Smith for the delightfully daft In The Beginning on the latter’s Y Records; a six minute slice of hiccupping funk which also hinted at the African sound which would permeate their subsequent work.
Never to be second-guessed however, the girls at this juncture served up a searingly raw slice of their past before their journey continued, the aptly, if somewhat unimaginatively titled Retrospective LP.
A motley collection of earsplitting early rehearsals, bedroom recordings and live material, including, bafflingly, Subway Sect performing No More Rock’n’Roll For You, Retrospective is a great record, though the world would have to wait until much later for the definitive snapshot of early Slits snottiness, the incomparable Peel Sessions LP.
Upon signing with CBS in 1981, The Slits set about producing some of the most peregrine and distinctly noncommercial music of their career, which also happens to be some of the most striking.
Earthbeat, the group’s first release for the label, throbs with a low, persistent pulse; warrior-like rhythms, chanting and sparse percussion underpin one of pop’s earliest warnings of impending ecological turmoil, and the result is electrifying. The record spawned a number of dub versions, even one sung in Japanese, and was the only single to prepare audiences for the murky majesty of their swan song LP, Return of the Giant Slits.
Compared with the fountain of energy that was Cut, Return of the Giant Slits is a swampland, and bloody marvelous for it. Imbued with the same environmental currents heard on Earthbeat (which is included on the album), RotGS sounds almost as if it were conjured by the land itself, a musical seismic shift that reflects The Slits’ ever-expanding influences of free jazz, funk and tribal music.
Despite the moodier feel of the album, the group’s playfulness is never far removed, as tracks such as Improperly Dressed and the drum machine-led Face Place demonstrate. With Dennis Bovell on board once again, the hallmarks of Cut are present in RotGS’s sparse-yet-warm production, replete with the subtle clinkings and clankings of external objects.
As with so many great innovations in popular music however, the album sold poorly and the group, feeling as though they had come as far they could by this point, finally called it a day in 1982.
In 2005, after many years happily residing in some of the scariest places in Jamaica, the overwhelmingly charismatic Ari Up decided to reform the group, initially backed by a gaggle of what were referred to as ‘boy Slits’, although they were eventually replaced by original bassist Tessa and the daughter of Paul Cook among others.
I had the pleasure of seeing them live on several occasions (during one of which Ari plucked me from the crowd to sing Shoplifting with her – I grinned uncontrollably throughout) and unlike so many reformed versions of their punky peers, they were an unmitigated joy to behold.
I shan’t dwell on the untimely passing of dear Ms. Up last year, partly because it makes me too sad to express, but far more importantly because the larger-than-life legacy of Ari and The Slits remains, continuing to influence, inspire and delight so many of those whom it touches, and that is something that shall never pass, untimely or otherwise.