Formed in 1976, the Slits were one of the earliest all-female punk bands—if not the first. The fantastic, feature-length documentary on the group, Here to Be Heard: The Story of the Slits, was recently released in theatres. It’s about to come out on DVD, and we’re happy to say we have our favorite segment from the doc to share with you.
Here to Be Heard combines archival clips with new interviews of the surviving band members and notable admirers to tell the story of the Slits. The segment that’s getting its web premiere here features exciting early live footage and a spunky band interview excerpt. There’s also a look at how the Slits was covered in the media, and the ways Londoners reacted to a group of females who were smashing societal expectations on how young women presented themselves. As punk journalist Vivien Goldman puts it, “They were provocative, they were outrageous, but also they were having fun,” and doing it all on their own terms.
The clip is NSFW, but what do you care?:
July 6 is the date Here to Be Heard: The Story of the Slits will be released on DVD, which will include 20 minutes of bonus content. Pre-order your copy through MVD or get it on Amazon.
On October 6, 1978, on BBC Radio One, John Peel touted a TV program on which he appeared, to air the next week, on October 12—exactly 39 years ago last Thursday, as it happens. Here’s what Peel said: “The UK Subs are on Omnibus on next Thursday evening on BBC-1 television, along with the Mekons, the Slits, Jim Pursey, Alternative TV, the Desperate Bicycles, and the playlist committee among other things, and my good self, seen heading a football with more skill than I bet you imagined I had.”
Omnibus was a popular arts program that was in existence from 1967 through 2003. Peel’s documentary was titled “The Record Machine.” Recently the BBC Archive Twitter feed dropped a fascinating supercut from the doc featuring prominent punk bands discussing, often with great subtlety and insight, some of the issues bands were facing as to the ethical status of promotion, publicity, and product.
As the punk movement moved past its initial impact, bands had to confront some basic questions about the meaning of touring and releasing albums—in short, adopting punk as a career—when the underpinnings of the movement included a rejection of established modes and a commitment to the community of downtrodden and frustrated youth. As astute in the interviewer’s seat as he is as a DJ, Peel consistently presses the bands to explain where their heads are at in terms of signing contracts, releasing “product,” touring, and generally balancing the conflicting aims of gratifying fans, preserving artistic integrity, and making some goddamned money!
In Leeds, Mekons manager Mick Wixey snarks that “we’re not on the verge of retirement yet” and registers the injustice of having to make an impact in London in order to get signed to a label. Jimmy Pursey of Sham 69 ruminates on the necessity of allying oneself with an established label in order to finance the process of touring before asserting that Sham 69 saved punk. Ari Up of the Slits whips a soccer ball at Peel’s head just when he’s trying to ask whether the Slits feel any political commitment to working with smaller labels (Viv Albertine says “nah”).
Mark Perry of Alternative TV—who earlier had put out one of the first punk zines, Sniffin’ Glue—relates how bummed out he was when the Clash signed with CBS and registers his disgust at the “two pound fifty” the Buzzcocks were charging for tickets at the time. The most epigrammatic of the bunch might be the UK Subs’ Charlie Harper, who reports that “we done a gig for fourteen pound—and we lost two quid.” Ouch.
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.
Girls Bite Back (aka Women in Rock, 1980) is an ahead of its time document acknowledging female rock musicians. Directed by Wolfgang Büld (who also directed Punk in London, British Rock and Lovesick) the movie opens with a photo slideshow of many pioneer musical greats including Bessie Smith, Debbie Harry, Joan Baez, Cher, Dolly Parton, Grace Slick, Janis Joplin, Linda Ronstadt, Cass Elliott, Wendy O Williams and many others while Nina Hagen performs. After this we see a segment of interviews by some of the featured performers (Siouxsie & The Banshees, The Slits, Girlschool, Lilliput, Zaza and Mania D.) and I’m amazed at how relevant their answers still are today. The women are asked what it’s like being female musicians, their overall answer is that they’re just musicians. Being female is not the important thing about what they’re doing. A young Viv Albertine is quoted saying, “We are fucking women making music—that’s all there is to say about it.” Unfortunately even with that badass mentality, 36 years later there is still a need for Viv Albertine to deface a punk exhibit for not acknowledging these important women and their impact on music.
The most relatable thing about the women in this movie (at least for me) is a segment where they discuss their desire to be recognized as musicians and how they don’t want to be categorized as feminists or anti-male. It’s become a strange world where feminism is sometimes taken too far, as if it means hating men and wanting to be the superior gender, when really it’s all about equality. Girls Bite Back really captures this idea.
An indifferent Siouxsie Sioux is interviewed saying that if it was four years earlier she wouldn’t be playing in a band. She says, “It’s too easy. It’s the thing to do if you’re bored. It used to be more of a risk.” Siouxsie actually seems quite depressed in this footage. That’s probably the saddest thing about the film, as she seems entirely over her music career almost as it was beginning. However, she builds up more enthusiasm by their third live song “Jigsaw Feeling.”
Hard rockers Girlschool
Wolfgang Büld did a great job of picking out the bands featured in the film, I mean really his band choices were on point. It’s an awesome range of bands with rare footage of live shows and intimate interviews. There is something nicely raw about it as well, no captions to tell you who each band is, no subtitles when Mania D. is interviewed (they speak German). These imperfections, while a bit frustrating because you want to know what they are saying, make the film feel low budget in a labor of love, intimate kind of way. If you’re a die-hard Nina Hagen fan, you will be disappointed. She’s only in the very beginning and end, no interviews. However, the concert footage of her is pretty rad.
Girls Bite Back is a film female musicians should see. It’s poignant, witty and a great little rockumentary. If nothing else, it’s worth it alone to watch see the live performances by Girlschool and The Slits’ interview segments—they’re so fucking cool.
Disc jockey: “What do you think about President Reagan.”
“I can’t deal with that.”
“He’s full of shit.”
The Slits had driven to college radio station WORT-FM in Madison, Wisconsin directly after a gig in Chicago and were exhausted and obviously rather testy when they arrived. They immediately set about destroying the show and hilariously insulting most of the male listeners. They were slightly nicer to the female callers, even offering to put one of them on the guest list.
Resembling some sort of mythical, technologically-mediated encounter between a coven of witches and a mob of townspeople (most of them men), this “interview” is hilarious, profound, and scary all at the same time.
Okay it’s been nearly 40 years since I heard The Ramones debut album for the first time and that means I’m fucking old. But I ain’t dead. In fact, I’m feeling pretty damned good. And part of the reason I feel so damned good is I’ve been on a steady diet of rock and roll since I was a itty bitty boy. Rock and roll has been the one constant in my life that has given me something that others might call a religion. From the moment I first heard “Alley Oop” by The Hollywood Argyles when I was nine years old (sitting in a tree with a radio in my lap), I was hooked.
I’ve always been a seeker, looking for meaning in life, searching for answers to the essential questions of what are we doing here and where are we going? I’ve read everything from Jung to Chogyam Trungpa to Kerouac and Crowley in my yearning for clarity and spiritual fulfillment. Aside from a few reveries and insights fueled by psychotropics or the momentary flash of cosmic consciousness you get in those special moments when something suddenly opens up your brain - maybe it’s the way a shard of prismatic light bounces off your rear view mirror or a fleet of perfectly white clouds rolling above New Mexico - my “religious” experiences have been seldom and unpredictable. But one thing, other than fucking, that consistently pulls me into the moment where bliss and contentment co-mingle is listening to rock and roll music. It’s the closest thing I have to an artistic calling or spiritual practice and when the music hits me in the right place at the right time it can be divine. And it seems that loud, fast, and hook-filled works best. The music doesn’t need to be about anything spiritual, lofty or significant. It just needs to grab me by the balls and heart, rattle my cage, and move me.
There was a barren period in my rock and roll life in the early ‘70s. Not much I wanted to listen to. I mostly bought blues and jazz albums and later reggae. Then in 1976 I heard The Damned’s “New Rose” and shortly after that I got my hands on The Ramones’ self-titled first album. These were momentous events in my life that drove me back into arms of rock and roll. Talking Heads, Blondie, Mink DeVille, Pere Ubu, Patti Smith, The Clash and Television were the second wave of musical salvation to land on my turntable that changed my life. Punk, or whatever you want to call it, defibrillated my rock and roll heart and inspired me to start my own band. And I wasn’t alone.
In this fine documentary directed by Don Letts (who knows a thing or two about punk rock) a bunch of aging punkers talk about the roots of the punk scene and their love of the music they make. There’s not much new here but it’s good to see Steve Jones, Pete Shelley, Howard Devoto, Siouxsie Sioux, Captain Sensible, Mick Jones Jones,David Johansen, Jello Biafra, Wayne Kramer, Thurston Moore, Legs McNeil and Tommy Ramone, among many others, wax poetic about the music explosion that was detonated in the mid-70s. It’s amazing how many survived. And deeply saddening that since this film was made in 2005 we’re down to zero original Ramones.
“Punk is not mohawks and safety pins. It’s an attitude and a spirit, with a lineage and tradition.” Don Letts.
Ari Up and friend sing a little ABBA, with ABBAesque choreography, no less! I love ABBA, and I love The Slits, so watching Ari Up do a little “Knowing Me, Knowing You” here is the height of comfort. Nothing like a little reassurance that the incredibly uncool music I love was also loved by the incredibly cool Slits!
Ari’s admitted ABBA fandom wasn’t even compromised by a chilly introduction at a record party. ABBA have a reputation for basically being crazy rich eccentrics who rarely descend from whatever Nordic palaces or islands they own to mingle with plebs. Rumors like these are not refuted by Ari calling Björn Ulvaeus a “twat.”
Ari Up of The Slits was a punk pioneer, self-described “child star,” reggae and dub-world artist (known as Baby Ari and Madussa), and a mother. She became pregnant with her twin sons, Pedro and Pablo, around the time of the Slits’ break-up when she was barely in her twenties. She and her boyfriend Glenmore “Junior” Williams moved to Belize and Indonesia before more or less settling in Kingston, Jamaica and Brooklyn, New York. She had another son, Wilton, in Jamaica in 1994. Wilton’s father was tragically shot and killed before his birth.
I interviewed Ari in Brooklyn in August 2004 after she had decided to reform The Slits with Tessa, Sex Pistol drummer Paul Cook’s daughter Hollie on keyboards, drummer Anna Schulze and guitarist Adele Wilson. Our conversation drifted to Ariel Gore’s Hip Mama magazine and motherhood. She was packing to go back to Jamaica the next morning. I told her that Hip Mama’s readers would love to hear about her experiences.
That’s a whole fucking book! A natural lifestyle. Natural birth. Empowering women. Breastfeeding and being out there [outside] naked wherever you can.
Below, Ari Up with her son Wilton on ‘Checkerboard Kids’ (2003)
Filmmaker and musician, Don Letts was working as a DJ at the Roxy club in London in 1977 when he filmed most of the punk bands that appeared there with his Super 8 camera. Letts captured a glorious moment of musical history and its ensuing social, political and cultural revolution.
Letts decided he was going to make a film with his footage, and had sold his belongings to ensure he had enough film stock to record the bands that appeared night-after-night over a 3 month period. Eventually, he collated all of the footage into The Punk Rock Movie, which contained performances by the Sex Pistols, The Clash, Wayne County & the Electric Chairs, Generation X, Slaughter and the Dogs, The Slits, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Eater, Subway Sect, X-Ray Spex, Alternative TV and Johnny Thunders and The Heartbreakers. There was also backstage footage of certain bands, and Sid Vicious’ first appearance with the Sex Pistols, at The Screen On The Green cinema, April 3rd, 1977.
England: Thirty-five years on from Punk, and what the fuck has changed? The Queen is still on her throne. Celebrations are underway for another jubilee. The police continue to be a law unto themselves. The tabloid press peddles more smut and fear. The Westminster government is still centered on rewarding self-interest. And Johnny Rotten is a popular entertainer.
The promise of revolution and change was little more than adman’s wet-dream. All that remains is the music - the passion, the energy, the belief in something better - and that at least touched enough to inculcate the possibility for change.
Raw Energy - Punk the Early Years is a documentary made in 1978, which details many of the players who have tended to be overlooked by the usual focus on The Sex Pistols and The Clash. Here you’ll find Jordan (the original not the silicon pin-up and author) telling us, “it’s good females can get up on stage and have as much admiration as the male contingent”; the record execs explaining their dealings with The Pistols, The Clash, The Hot Rods and looking for the “next trend”; a young Danny Baker, who wrote for original punk magazine Sniffin Glue, summing up his frustration with “all you’re trained for is to be in a factory at the end of 20 years, and that’s the biggest insult…”; the comparisons between Punk and Monterey; the politics; the violence against young punks; and what Punk bands were really like - performances from The Slits, The Adverts, Eddie and The Hot Rods, X-Ray Spex, and even Billy Idol and Generation X.
One of the few 45s I still own, The Slit’s wonderful cover of “Man Next Door,” a reggae classic associated with both John Holt (who wrote it) and the “Crown Prince of Reggae,” Dennis Brown (who covered it. So Did Massive Attack). This non-album, 1980 production was mixed by Adrian Sherwood, Adam Kidron and the Slits themselves.
The B-side is a tripped out dub version. 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 here.
In this live clip, The Slits perform an epic, nearly 9-minute-long romp all over “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 short interview with Ari Up, conducted by Jonathan Ross for the BBC, captured some of the singer’s vitality, exuberance, and sheer joy, especially when she told Ross “to follow the poom-poom.” R.I.P. Ari Up
This weekend I read Zoe Street Howe’s newly published biography of The Slits, Typical Girls? (Omnibus Press) and quite enjoyed it. My main criticism of the book is that 95% of it is taken up with the formation of the band and the recording of their debut album, Cut and there is precious little about the recording of their equally amazing second LP, Return of the Giant Slits. Still, if you are a Slits fan, Typical Girls? is a credible history and the author interviewed all of the Slits and key members of their circle including one-time Slit, Budgie (better known as the drummer in Siouxsie and the Banshees), PiL guitarist Keith Levene, journalist/professor Vivien Goldman and producers Dennis Bovell and Adrian Sherwood.
I pulled both Slits albums out this weekend and played each all the way through twice. I’ve owned Cut since came out and 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, but they were 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 14 year-old brain. Reading Typical Girls? brought me back to that time when it seemed like there would be no end to the parade of innovation that was the post punk era. There was so much good music coming out every week that it seemed inexhaustible. It was a terribly exciting time, musically speaking, to come of age. (Simon Reynold’s book Rip It Up and Start Again captures the feeling of the era well, I think).
The Slits were, to my ears, amongst the most sonically “far out” and experimental of the post-punk groups, in the same category as Public Image Ltd. in terms of the astonishing originality of their music. The Slits sound was like no other, a perfectly melded hybrid of punk, dub-drenched reggae and Afro-pop with the riotous, white Rastafarian cum St Trinian’s girl run amok front woman of Ari Up (who was all of 14 when she joined the group) . Truly the unruly, inspired, nearly uncategorizable sound of the Slits deserves a better place in the history of punk than it’s been accorded thus far. Hopefully Zoe Street Howe’s Typical Girls? will go some distance in redressing this grievous oversight.
Here’s the Don Lett’s directed promo for Typical Girls:
This extended clip from the German movie Girls Bite Back includes performances of Animal Space, I Heard It Through the Grapevine and a dubbed out cover of Dennis Brown’s Man Next Door. How I wish there was more of this!
I have loved The Slits, the original female punk band, since I first heard their debut album Cut. I’ve owned it on vinyl, cassette and on two different CD versions. It’s an album I have played—and played often—for over two decades. I used to have a life-sized record store stand-up of the Slits in my bedroom in London that I bought at the Portobello Market and lugged all the way back to Brixton. That’s dedicated fandom as far as I am concerned.
And when I first met my lovely wife, she gifted me with a Japanese issue CD of Return of the Giant Slits, so I knew she was “the one” for me!