Everyone has something—that ONE THING—from their youth that they wish they had kept and still had today. Mine? The most regrettable thing I’ve ever loved and lost? A nearly lifesize cardboard cutout “standee” advertising the Cut album by the Slits. All three of them, covered in mud and at least 4 1/2 feet tall. In pristine condition, too. Yep, I used to own that. I can psychically feel the envy of several of you reading this. I bought it for eight pounds at the Portobello Market sometime in 1983 and carefully dragged it home via the London underground back to my squat on Coldharbour Lane in Brixton. I loved that thing. It was unquestionably my prized possession at the time. Problem was, when I moved to New York in late 1984, there was no practical way to get it across the Atlantic that wouldn’t have been prohibitively expensive to then 19-year-old me without bending it and fucking it up too much. It was too fragile and unwieldy for anything other than fine art shipping, so I ruefully gave it to a friend who was more than happy to eagerly take it off my hands.
I’m bummed out just thinking of it. It sucked then and it still sucks today, some 33 years later. Don’t think I haven’t scoured eBay for years searching for another! Can you imagine how much such a museum-level artifact of punk would go for today? SHIT!
I bought Cut when it first came out and I saw it filed in the “import” section of the local mall’s Musicland store (the same bin where I’d also discover X-Ray Spex, Henry Cow, Peter Hammill and Tubular Bells). Its punky reggae sound was very, very appealing to me straight off the bat. I’d read about the Slits, in books like Caroline Coon’s 1988 and in the few issues of Melody Maker that made their way to my rust belt hometown, but they were probably the last of the formative punk bands to put a record out. When I did finally hear them, Cut was a bolt from the blue to my teenaged, rock-crazed brain and the Slits more than lived up to the larger-than-life idea that I already I had of them. It sounded exactly like I expected it to, in other words. The Slits were, to my young ears, amongst the most sonically “far out” and experimental of the post-punk groups, in the same category as Public Image Ltd. (who were my #1 favorite band) in terms of the astonishing originality of their music.
For the Slits’ sound was like none other, a perfectly melded hybrid of playfully loopy, almost itchy punk, dub-drenched reggae and Afro-pop with the riotous white-Rastafarian-cum-St. Trinian’s-girl-run-amok front woman in the form of Ari Up (who was all of fourteen when she joined the group). Truly the unruly, inspired, nearly uncategorizable MUSIC of the Slits deserves a better place in the history of modern music than it’s been accorded thus far. Of course, their gender has everything and nothing whatsoever to do with what made the Slits so great.
One reason for this disconnect between their by now historically well-established reputation as formative feminist icons of British punk and how amazing and special their actual music was, is clearly the fact of the relative unobtainability of Cut‘s arguably better follow-up Return of the Giant Slits. That album was never released in America at all. Additionally, for the better part of 26 years it was only ever available from 2004 on as a pricey Japanese import CD until it was finally reissued in 2008 by Blast First. Sadly, to this day few people know the album, including no doubt many, if not most, of the people who profess to love its more roughly-hewn predecessor.
Return of the Giant Slits represented a huge leap forward for the group who were joined on drums and percussion by Bruce Smith of the Pop Group. Aside from Ari’s almost childishly obnoxious vocalizing, there was precious little in common with their first album. The shambolic, off-kilter feel of Cut was replaced by a lighter, more nimble sound. Viv Albertine’s guitar sound went from being (perfectly) plodding to scratchy, skittish, skipping, full of uniquely oblique angles and wonderfully complemented by Smith’s complex Afrobeat-inspired percussion and Tessa Pollitt’s rubbery bass. Much credit is deserved by the noted British multi-instrumentalist Steve Beresford whose tripped-out, atmospheric sound effects, melodica and trombone contributions—he’s all over the album—elevate the proceedings to another level entirely. Once I was able to get my hands on some “real” (Jamaican) dub, I was disappointed that it seldom lived up to the psychedelic standards set for me by Return of the Giant Slits.
Take a moment, won’t you, and LOUDLY play “Earthbeat,” the incredible lead off track from Return of the Giant Slits:
Now check out “Walk About”:
WHO ELSE SOUNDED LIKE THIS AT THE TIME? The fucking Clash?
You already know if you need a copy of this album, don’t you?
Original vinyl copies of Return of the Giant Slits can go for up to $125 or more on Discogs and eBay. For the first time since the original 1981 CBS Records release Real Gone Music is “returning” it to print as both a compact disc (with new liner notes by John Dougan and a fresh remastering by Maria Triana at Battery Studios in New York) and as a fluorescent yellow vinyl edition limited to 1000 copies that includes a recreation of the original printed inner sleeve. I have the yellow vinyl and it sounds very, very nice indeed, although I should warn readers that the seemingly lack of a locked run-off groove saw my Shinola Runwell turntable trying to play the paper label (which nicely recreates the original CBS labels, but doesn’t sound so good…).
In the live clip below, The Slits perform an epic romp all over the Dennis Brown reggae classic “Man Next Door” augmented by Steve Beresford on sound effects, Bruce Smith (The Pop Group, PiL) on drums and a young Neneh Cherry on backing vocals (and great dance moves!) at the Tempodrom in Berlin on June 19,1981. Turn this up LOUD and wish you had been there…
This extended clip from the German movie ‘Girls Bite Back’ includes interviews and performances of “Animal Space,” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and “Man Next Door.”
Excerpts from three BBC music documentaries that featured the Slits: “Girls Will Be Girls,’ ‘Punk Britannia’ and ‘Reggae Britannia’:
An absolutely astounding live audio recording (made for radio broadcast, it sounds AMAZING) of The Slits performing at the Keystone, Berkeley on November 3, 1980 by generous Terry Hammer.
Watch the “Earthbeat” music video here.