Ari Up, Viv Albertine and Tessa Pollit speak about how The Slits proved that young women could be responsible for some of the most influential and innovative music of the punk movement
Ahead of their forthcoming show at Offset festival in September, I spent two weeks on the trail of The Slits. I’m given a number for Tessa Pollit, the bass player of the band, and arrange to meet her at her home in West London. A few days later I meet Viv Albertine, one time guitarist and Slits songwriter, at the book launch of new biography Typical Girls? The Story of The Slits, and just in the nick of time, after much running around and plenty of patient finger drumming, I finally got hold of band mouthpiece Ari Up, on the phone from her home in New York.
Ari splits her time between Brooklyn and Jamaica and is notoriously hard to pin down. Born in Germany she moved to London in the mid-’70s with her mother and speaks in an accent part German, part West London, part Patois.
“All the people who were in that revolution back then in the punk time, it left something in those people,” she says. “The ones who didn’t die or sell out are incredibly untamed and free spirits, they have evolved into incredible people like when you meet Poly Styrene [of X-Ray Spex] now, she has become an amazing person. There are just one or two who felt so pressured they had to buy into society.”
On May 16th 1976, Arianne Forster (Ari Up), aged 14, is at the now legendary Patti Smith gig at Camden’s Roundhouse, having a row with her mother Nora (now Mrs John Lydon). Ari soon attracts the attention of Joe Strummer’s then girlfriend Paloma Romero (Palmolive) and Kate Corris, who approach Ari with the idea of forming a group. They begin rehearsing the very next day as the first incarnation of The Slits. Rehearsing in Joe and Palmolive’s squat, they are soon joined by Tessa Pollit who recalls the moment she joined the band.
“Originally The Slits had another bass player called Suzie Gutsy. I met The Slits through this News of the World article that was written about women in punk right at the beginning. Ari came round to my flat and she really liked all this poetry I had written on the wall. Suzie Gutsy got kicked out and I joined, that was it really. I was playing guitar before and so I had to learn bass in 2 weeks for our first gig and that was at The Roxy in Harlesden.”
In the audience that night was Viv Albertine. “I was in the Flowers of Romance with Sid Vicious and Sid left to join the Sex Pistols,” explains Viv. “I saw The Slits play at the Harlesden Roxy and I thought they were amazing. We met up a few days later and played together, and I backcombed their hair like the New York Dolls and that was it, we just clicked.” Kate Corris was next to be given the elbow as Viv stepped in on guitar. Ari Up, Viv Albertine, Tessa Pollit and Palmolive were now The Slits, and in terms of classic lineups, always will be.
Despite being integral to punk’s evolution from the very beginnings in 1976, the band have never received the same attention The Clash or The Sex Pistols have. Yet The Slits were doing something no other band had done before. You have to remember when The Clash’s Mick Jones picked up his Gibson Les Paul for the first time, there was a long line of boys wielding guitars from Elvis to Johnny Thunders to emulate, but as female musicians there was no her-story, all The Slits had for inspiration was Patti Smith.
They were the first group of female musicians doing it on their own terms. Their sheer inability to compromise or sell themselves on their sex appeal was a major inspiration to the Riot Grrl movement in the 1990s, and today their musical influence can be heard in bands from Sonic Youth to The Horrors. There seems to be no other time in rock’n’roll history where women were fronting bands and playing their own instruments. But was Punk really a time of equal opportunity for women? Sat in her basement flat just off Ladbroke Grove, Tessa remembers the reality of it all. “It was incredibly male orientated then, within the record companies, and it was a real struggle,” she says. “I think people forget how much of a struggle it was. I mean there has always been female singers but not women playing their own instruments”
For Viv, “It was a bit like the Second World War, where the women came to the fore because they were needed to work in the factories. It was such a bleak time, three-day weeks, a heat wave, no youth culture on TV or in the media, rubbish all over the streets. Any little rat that could rise up did. It was quite an equal time but it seemed to shrink away after.”
Despite completely rewriting rock’s masculine rulebook and inspiring a feminist revolution in the ’90s, Tessa believes that The Slits never viewed themselves as feminists. “I just hate labels,” she says. “We never set out to be feminists because then there is a set of rules and I don’t want to be labeled on any level.”
But as Viv pointed out, the female punk revolution was short-lived and when I ask Ari if she thinks there has been a progression in women’s roles in music she says, “I didn’t know it would come to this, where everything is like a factory. You see Lady Gaga and she is dressed all crazy in these space age outfits, but she is totally straight, she isn’t a rebel. I can see straight through her, she is business. Her sexuality is so trashy and cheap and she is just singing about having too much and fucking about and being vulgar. People think that is rebellion. When you look at the philosophy, it is scary. Even Britney is on this really sexual out there thing. All these girls are so groomed and polished and are being put out there as an industry or as a gimmick. It is scary to think that this is how women are meant to look.”
But back in the bleak mid-’70s when The Slits embarked on the legendary White Riot Tour alongside The Clash, The Jam, Buzzcocks, and Subway Sect, Viv recalls the rest of the country weren’t quite prepared for the four girls:
“We were like the massive rebels of the tour. The way we looked was much more unusual or far out than the guys, because by now people were used to rock and roll looking guys, but girls in fetish wear, with their t-shirts slashed, hair standing a mile on end and in Doctor Martin boots? They couldn’t stand it and they would say we will only have them in the hotel if they walk from the door to the lift and we don’t want to see them again till the next day. Everyday the tour manager would threaten to throw us off the tour, Norman the bus driver had to be bribed daily to let us on the bus. It was bloody stressful.”
Tessa: “I can’t really think of anyone like us before. I think because we were women it was even more threatening because of the way we looked. Especially when we were going out of London it seemed to cause even more shock. I think we got thrown out of one hotel because I had The Slits graffiti-ed on the side of my case. I suppose you have to look at what it followed, the whole ’60s apathy thing and the fact that it was a movement, it wasn’t just one group. Something had to break at that period. It was probably the worst style ever in the ’70s as far as I can remember, it was vomit-making, the style was so horrible, the haircuts, the clothes, the house design, the avocado green bathroom suites.”
But it wasn’t just The Slits being female that made them different, it was the style of their music too. When all the other punk bands were shouting “1234”, The Slits were playing to a different beat. They were amongst the first bands on that scene to draw their inspiration from reggae music and at the time of the White Riot tour they were being managed by Roxy DJ Don Letts. For Tessa, reggae was hugely inspiring to the way she played. “There were more reggae artists playing live, like Big Youth and Burning Spear, and the film The Harder They Come, which was really influential, and there were a lot of sound systems and shebeen blues clubs. It was just a real time for reggae in the ’70s. Before punks had ever made any records there was reggae. Thank God, because it was hugely inspiring. Don Letts was djing at the Roxy club playing pure reggae so we got to know all these songs and even to this day I love Jamaican music, just love it.”
I ask her how the Jamaican community took to four punk girls turning up to their clubs. “Maybe it was more acceptable to be a white woman than to be a white man and be there. In the Ballyhigh Club in Streatham, Ari would just start dancing and be surrounded by a crowd of people. But somewhere like the Four Aces in Dalston, which doesn’t exist anymore, it, would be much more of a tense atmosphere, like who do these people think they are, coming into our club. Ari used to go on her own from a really young age, she had quite a nerve, she was 15, but you can’t help but like her.”
The Slits were also the first musicians to point out that women played their instruments in a different way to men, quite a revelation but for Tessa it was the only way she knew. “I like the fact that women do play differently,” she says. “For me I was always playing with other women so I didn’t know any different.”
Viv, though, was making it up as she went along. “We, in a way, tried to fit in with boys and how they played,” she says. “I hadn’t been taught an instrument so I was literally making it up as I went along and with things Keith Levene [later of PiL] was showing me, though he wasn’t showing me straight forward things. He was teaching me more the mentality than the actual chords. He gave me the confidence to do what I wanted and I would make things up and he would say, ‘What time is that in? It works but it shouldn’t.’” At the time Viv was going out with Mick Jones. “Mick didn’t teach me anything. Only the guys you don’t sleep with teach you something.”
Unlike the other punk bands, The Slits didn’t sign to a label straight away in 1977. Viv didn’t think the band were ready. “Mainly we didn’t sign because we knew we didn’t sound like we did in our heads. That and the record companies wanted to market us and package us up as sexy punk girls. There really weren’t any other all girl bands at the time. We had to wait till someone took us for who we where “
Finally, the band signed to Island in 1978. What was particularly unusual is that Island Records agreed to give them full creative control on everything, from the artwork to the choice of single, something that is still rare in the business today. The band’s first single, ‘Typical Girls’, was backed with a cover version of Marvin Gaye’s ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’. It was a song that Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records, thought would give the girls more success, but they were adamant they would go with their own song ‘Typical Girls’ as the A-side. Although the band were able to make their own career decisions, they weren’t always the most financially-viable. I ask Viv if the term ‘bloody-minded’ would be a suitable term to describe The Slits’ attitude to the music business at the time.
“I think every decision we made, made it difficult for us. We kept thinking ‘Why aren’t we commercial? Why aren’t we on TV?’ On the other hand, we were so uncompromising on how we spoke to people, how we did interviews, how we looked, everything was utterly uncompromised. So we led ourselves down this difficult cult route. Which actually, 20 years later, worked out pretty well as it kept The Slits pure and now because we were so uncompromising the band has such a strong identity. But it did mean we made no money and we had no commercial success.”
Their success seems on a par to a band like The Velvet Underground’s in the ’60s. Neither bands sold huge amounts of records on release but their influence has been huge and ongoing. But when I ask Tessa about when she first became aware of their now legendary status, she seems blissfully unaware of quite how influential the band have been.
“I wasn’t aware at all till I hooked up with Ari a few years ago. She kept going on about how we had influenced the whole Riot Grrrl movement. I didn’t get it until we started playing in America and we had an audience out there, a young audience. I was quite shocked.”
But long before Riot Grrrl, a young Madonna had been in the audience and you can see the influence The Slits had on her style on her first appearances on Channel 4’s innovative music programme The Tube. But again, Tessa has a very grounded view to this. “I think she must have been quite influenced by the way Viv dressed as she came to see us before her career took off but I don’t like to go on about things like that. I just think, so what? Everyone is going to get influenced by what they see. I just don’t like to blow my own trumpet. I just want to keep moving forward and try and not get egotistical about anything.”
The Slits released their debut album, ‘Cut’, produced by legendary reggae producer Dennis Bovell, on the 7th September 1979. By this point drummer Palmolive had left the band and had been replaced by Budgie, who later went on to join Siouxsie And The Banshees. On the album’s cover, Ari, Tessa and Viv stare defiantly into the camera lens. Like Amazonian warriors they are caked in mud and naked apart from a loincloth. Pennie Smith shot this now legendary image of The Slits in the summer of 1979, almost 30 years ago to the day. In an era where female role models like Katie Price are most often surgically modified into the cartoon image of a woman, and the teacup-wielding Lady GaGa is considered to be outrageous, that image of The Slits seems more relevant than ever. I ask Tessa if they were aware quite how important that shot of them would become.
“I think we knew it was going to cause a storm. But it was an incredibly liberating feeling splashing around in the mud. I can’t even remember where the idea came from but it was the perfect setting for it. It just had this ambiguity about it, us against a country house with roses growing up the walls. It got very mixed reactions. I think we just liked to push the boundaries. I spoke to Vivien Goldman and she was working for Sounds or Melody Maker at the time and she took it to her editor. They were saying, they are so fat and ugly we aren’t putting that in our paper. They just didn’t want to see women like that.”
At the time the photos caused outrage with one man going so far as to try and sue the record company for crashing his car after seeing the three naked Slits looking down at him from a huge billboard.
After the release of ‘Cut’ the band’s sound became increasingly experimental. In the early 1980s, The Slits formed an alliance with Bristol post-punk band The Pop Group, sharing a drummer (Bruce Smith) and releasing a joint single, ‘In The Beginning There was Rhythm’/ ‘Where There’s A Will’ (Y Records). The Slits released their second album, ‘Return Of The Giant Slits’ in 1981 and in the December of that year, the band decided to split. Ari was 14 when she joined the band, Tessa and Viv only a couple of years older. Tessa believes they did the right thing. “It felt like we needed a break,” she says. “We needed to go off and experience our own adventures. We had grown up together and we had worked so hard, everything was about The Slits. We needed to have our own individual experiences in life. I don’t think it was a bad thing and the whole music scene became so squeaky clean in the ’80s and I think that was what put me off. Something really switched in the ’80s.”
Still, the split didn’t come easy. It left a huge hole in each of their lives. Tessa spiralled into heroin addiction and Viv likened the aftermath to being akin to posttraumatic stress disorder. “It meant so much to me,” she explains. “But by the time we split up I was burnt out. I couldn’t bear to listen to music for about two years, it was terrible. I went down the filmmaking path. I thought that was a better option at the time. In the ’80s music got very careerist, it was no longer about expressing yourself.”
Ari had twins shortly after the split and left England to live in the jungles of Belize and then Jamaica.
Ari Up and Tessa Pollitt reformed The Slits with new members in 2005, and in 2006 released the EP ‘Revenge Of The Killer Slits’. The EP featured former Sex Pistol Paul Cook and Marco Pirroni (ex-Adam & the Ants, and Siouxsie & The Banshees) as both musicians and co-producers. In fact, Cook’s daughter Hollie is a member of the current line-up, singing and playing keyboards. Other members of the reformed band are German drummer Anna Schulte, and Adele Wilson on guitar. I asked Tessa what led her and Ari to getting The Slits back together.
“I hooked up with Ari about five years ago, we hadn’t seen each other in years. She had been all over the place in the jungle, in Jamaica and America. I went to see some of her solo gigs and I just got itchy to get on stage again and play some of our old songs. It was like there had been no time gap and we got on like we had just seen each other yesterday. We have led very parallel lives and have been through similar experiences. She had lost her son’s father, he was shot in Jamaica, and I had lost my daughter’s father, Sean Oliver, when she was five, we have both been widowed.”
Viv Albertine joined the group for two gigs in 2008 but decided she didn’t want to reform. “That sealed it for me. I didn’t want to go back,” she says. “I felt awkward singing songs like ‘Shoplifiting’. I am a woman now and still have stuff I want to talk about but I can’t be playing songs from 25 years ago.” Viv will be releasing a single of her own later this year and an album though US label Manimal Records. When I ask her what she thinks of The Slits now, Viv tells me, “You watch Ari on stage even now and she still comes over as something absolutely amazing and different. She has no fear and no body consciousness. She still does something for sexuality and women that I don’t think any other woman does.”
2009 is a big year for The Slits. Not only is it the 30th Anniversary of their cult album ‘Cut’, but this year also sees the release of the first Slits album in 28 years. ‘Trapped Animal’ will be released in October. The band recorded the record in Los Angeles earlier this year. A superb biography on the band written by journalist Zoe Street Howe (Typical Girls? The Story of The Slits) was also released in April.
Ari takes her role as a Slit very seriously and is still hugely conscious about not being pushed into a position she doesn’t feel comfortable with. “I am constantly worried about The Slits and haunted about The Slits, that The Slits do not have to sell their integrity or their principles or about being pushed into something we don’t want to do. I mean that is a struggle we all have to deal with all our lives anyway.”
I remind her how Joe Strummer had praised them for managing to keep hold of their integrity.
“The Slits have become something beyond The Slits, bigger than life, bigger than our personalities,” she says. “They have become very mythical. The responsibility to stay true to ourselves is huge. People need something like The Slits, even if it isn’t us. Every time we play, there is always a girl who says, ‘I am going to start a group’. There is always someone who tells us that we have been an inspiration or life changing.”