The Slits were, in a way, punk’s Frank Zappa; hardly apologetic for their image, raw performances, feminist stance and their zany albeit socially conscious music. We go behind the curtain to find out more about why the band’s bright light went out just a tad bit too soon…
A wild Saturday night out breaking bottles and throwing up in car backseats isn’t complete without The Slits playing in the background because the British punk band, like your drunken stupors, never bothered to play by the rules and that is something that has always appealed to us here at Tomboy Tarts.
If anything, rebellion was encoded into the genes of this band. Not surprising though, because front woman, the German-born, Ari Up’s unbridled, ‘let’s have a lark of a time’ attitude, was the nucleus of the band.
The Slits never made commercial mainstream success but they certainly had a hand in tweaking punk. Are you surprised? Well, don’t be. No one listening to The Slits for the first time would either. In an interview with Clash Music magazine before her death, Ari recalls no one taking them seriously.
“No one could even understand what we were doing. Who are you talking about the world or our people? Our people, musicians loved it. John Peel loved it. Our people, our circle of people liked it and understood it for the most. But that’s just a few people, a handful of people.”
OK, so the kooky, Jamaican-influenced reggae-dub sound of their music was a bit left of centre but the irreverence in their debut album ‘Cut’ has now risen to main attraction status in the museum of punk music and rightly so, because on and offstage, The Slits were the kind of fresh madness that punk was seeking to imbibe.
The quartet was formed in 1976 with Ari on vocals, Palmolive (Paloma Romero), Kate Korus and Suzy Gutsy, who were soon replaced by Viv Albertine and Tessa Pollitt. Palmolive who was on drums, was later replaced by Peter Clarke but this didn’t stop the band from marketing themselves as a female band.
To explain the crazy, in-your-face music and style of The Slits, you have to understand that Ari’s flamboyance translated very easily into the band’s DNA. Her colourful, punk upbringing contributed to her wild and crazy ways.
Guitarist Viv Albertine joined the group and found herself deeply impressed by the young singer. “English was her second language,” Albertine noted in an interview. “It was not easy for her and she had to fight to be taken seriously. Ari was the most dynamic woman I have ever known,” said Albertine. “The way she carried herself was a revolution.”
By the late 1970s, The Slits were touring as the opening act for The Clash. She made a brief cameo in The Clash movie, Rude Boy, with the band backstage.
Ari Up’s love of reggae led The Slits into a “jungly”, dub style. She was the most flamboyant member of the group thanks to her wild hair and crazy stage outfits which became her trademarks.
The music was brash, nutty and in-your-face and along with other female-centric punk bands/acts of the era like The Mo-Dettes, German punk group, Kleenex (later known as LiLiPUT) and the UK’s Au Pairs, The Slits became a part of a very underground movement of rather obscure, yet outspoken female punk bands who were not afraid to just go onstage and let their 3-chords rip.
To accompany the band’s rough-hewn avant-garde musical stylings, fashion sense was pretty much set in the ‘get-out-of-bed’ mode whilst their album covers rattled the cages of controversy. The band’s debut album ‘Cut’ features the band, all muddied and topless, wearing nothing but loincloths – something you can be sure riled up conservatives everywhere.
At their height, The Slits bagged support slots on The Clash’s White Riot tour in 1977 and inspired a generation of women to get involved in music at a time when punk wasn’t very woman-friendly. This was because back then, punk crowds brought in the concept of utter chaotic fandom that normally involved a lot of violence and sheer bar brawling. That kind of rowdy behaviour at club gigs and live performances were not unusual at a Slits show; something the band subtly may have been responsible for, as well, through Ari’s onstage antics and unbridled performances. Despite their borderline antics, the band inspired generations of women to pick up a guitar and scream onstage.
After The Slits disbanded in 1981, Ari moved with her husband and twin children to jungle regions of Indonesia and Belize and lived among indigenous people in those areas. Later, they moved to Jamaica, eventually settling in Kingston.
The band reunited in 2005 and continued to tour and in January 2009, the Los Angeles based Narnack Records announced they had signed the band to a recording contract. A biography – Typical Girls? The Story of the Slits by Zoe Street Howe was published in the UK by Omnibus Press in July 2009 and soon after a full-length album entitled ‘Trapped Animal’ was released.
That last album, with its better production quality squealed its frantic way into fan’s hearts reverberating the nutty frenzy of their earlier works. ‘Reject’ and ‘Trapped Animal’ easily bring you back to the messaging of their earlier songs – that of the unaccepted female punk rocker, who just seemed to have her foot in her mouth and was just too loud for the girls and the boys.
Unfortunately, Ari’s untimely death in October 2010 slammed the brakes on any future projects and the band now remain a wonderful legend in the annals of punk glory.
THE SLITS PERFORMING “TYPICAL GIRLS” IN THE VIDEO BELOW. ENJOY!