Song of the day – 45: The Slits
Well, duh. I finally purchased the reissue of The Slits’ first album Cut – with a little hesitation, truth be told, as I already own various versions of it several times – and Powers alive, if the eight-track demos on the bonus CD don’t sound even better than the original. (As Jack Endino wryly remarks on Facebook, “The eight-track demos are ALWAYS better than the album”.) But how can that be? The original is, hands down, one of the 10 most influential records of my life, no denying no denying no denying. Wow.
It’s as Au Pairs once sung, “They’re equal but different”.
So yeah. I thought I should shove a song up from the album to celebrate. And repost a review of a show in Brighton I wrote about several years ago for Careless Talk Costs Lives. I’d love it if someone could scan in and upload the Jon Slade illustration that originally accompanied the article.
Video first, then review.
Pressure Point, Brighton
It wasn’t meant to happen like this.
Don’t revisit your childhood. Don’t revisit the past. The Slits were brilliant because they were bratty teenage girls who happened to chance upon a few universal musical truths – spontaneity is at the heart, make others jealous, dub is great for dancing, grasp your opportunities, men are scared, nothing wrong with sexuality, be yourselves, screaming is fun, punk is fun, what matters is the sounds you make from your instruments not how adept you are at playing them, no one can play guitar like a woman, irritation is a weapon too, typical girls make noise and smells… and so on. Their music was revolutionary because they were so naturally irreverent towards accepted (male) rock history: they didn’t give a shit.
Fast forward to 2003: two girls have replaced Tessa and Viv, rolling their eyes and vowels, bouncing up and down exuberantly, screaming and laughing and swigging bottles, and Warrior Princess Ariane is pouring water down her knickers, flashing her butt to the sound of female fans whistling, tall and proud and erect in her dreadlocks and swaddled garb, cajoling and pleading with the soundman to give her more monitor sound – “because for tonight the monitor is my lover and I want to fuck all of you” – rocking steadily back and forth as the punk-reggae Jamaican sound of her backing band (ace ska revivalists The Slackers) pulsates low and heady, a constant flow of audience members climbing on stage to clap and sing along as she pleads to “Kill Them With Love”, mock-grinding with Large Local Dude as he brilliantly freestyle toasts, breathlessly ricocheting her way through old Slits numbers “Love And Romance” and “Shoplifting” (everyone’s favourite London guitarist, Debbie Smith adding extra oomph), stamping and smiling, complaining that she’s being rushed off stage and her “pom-pom” is suffering from the stress, facing off lewd suggestions with counter suggestions that the man in question should get on stage, “but I’m warning you, I haven’t had sex in ages and I feel really horny”, a dervish in white and bare legs, lost within the deep dub groove of “Man Next Door”, a dozen fans video-ing and snapping, Tessa foremost among them, laughingly refusing all exhortations to join Ari on stage until Debbie lifts her bodily up there during “Heard It Through The Grapevine”, lesbians dancing linked shoulder-to-shoulder with the surrogate Slits, all voices equal and lascivious and lusty, screaming and giggling and slipping into patois, Debbie telling us that she worked out what Ari says at the end of “Shoplifting” – “I’ve pissed my knickers”…
It wasn’t meant to happen like this.
There are no revisits of the past but a fluid motion on and upwards, drawing on experience and revelling in songs that are fucking 5,000,000,000,000,000,031 times more classic and challenging and influential than anything The Clash or Sex Pistols managed. Ari teasingly refuses to play “Number One Enemy” (“too complicated”) or “Typical Girls” (“not enough girls here”) and no one asks for “In The Beginning There Was Rhythm” (although one fan starts to cheekily sing its gorgeous “Silence is a rhythm too” refrain over one of Ariane’s newer songs), but the newer numbers…! This, to a generation mostly too young to recall the wild punk dub of 1979 Ladbroke Grove sound systems – and then she splays forward into “FM” (“Frequent mutilation/Transmits over the air/Serving for the purpose/Of those who want you to fear”) and it ain’t possible to resist, feet have been pounding a rhythm to the brain for eons now, staggering back and forth and smiling, Oh my God, smiling, because this is a reaffirmation of everything I ever believed to be true and fun and VITAL to rock/reggae/jazz/party/dub music, and nothing can overcome the shock of seeing Ari strut around in her warrior garb and heels, the countless asides, the water poured over her body and dreads, the righteous mayhem, the playful chants, the surrogate Slits having a fucking ball…
I’m not denying I’m prejudiced. This, after all, is the band that made me want to move up to London – all those salacious squeals and shouts of glee on “Shoplifting”: “Ten quid for the lot and we paid… [altogether now]… FUCK ALL!” This is the band that introduced me to the idea of women and girls as being invested with sexuality – not fashion parade sterility, not male fantasy bondage, not public school “whore or the angel” pedestal shit – but glorious, unafraid, smelly, unpredictable SEXUALITY, not that I ever found Slits sexy cos they were too damn important to me… and I’m not denying that that’s a failing that has stuck with me throughout my life, that I divorce sex from value…
So I rush home – no I don’t, I hang around, entirely star-struck and bewildered, me and 50 other fans, all waiting for The Word, any word, but of course the absolute crushing delight of The Slits and Ariane and all of this spontaneity and ribaldry and LIFE is that they are us and we are them and that there never were any barriers except perhaps they had slightly more famous partners than us – and I send an email to a couple of my closest allies, too shocked to make sense, desperate once more to communicate a love for music and rhythm and fun and joy and air that runs deeper than anything I can name. Back at home, my wife loves the sight of me bubbling over, happiness etched in every pore. Whatever. THIS IS MUSIC, THIS IS RHYTHM… THIS IS ETERNAL LIFE. The email runs somewhat like this…
Oh my God. Ari Up is INCREDIBLE onstage. Such presence! Watch her now, and begin to understand why Everett True was into all the women that followed – Courtney has nothing on her: there’s nothing artificial or faked about Ari, her warmth and craziness and spontaneity. She has such command, so many flights of pure fancy. At any point she had about eight crowd members up on stage, dancing, singing, toasting… She’s dirty – but in a natural way. Dirty isn’t the correct description: like she ain’t aiming to turn us on except that of course she is because it’s implicit in the air she breathes and the music she feels, but she’s dirty only inasmuch as someone trampling all over neatly arranged flower borders is dirty. She’s so inspirational – watch her and understand why Everett True was into all the Riot Grrrls that followed. Half Slits songs, half Jamaican punk/reggae style, my favourite moment was when she bewailed the loss of her old guitarist, “Because no one is able to play guitar like a
Dance? Oh My God! Did we dance!
Of course it wasn’t meant to happen like this. I had the entire review worked out in my head – “This is The Slits,” it was going to run, “This isn’t The Slits…” – all ponderous and secure and measured. In a few swift beats, Ari once more removed the safety balance of convention from beneath my feet. WHO THE FUCK CARES WHAT NAME YOU GIVE THIS! This is rhythm. This is life.