Trailblazing ‘70s punk combo, the Slits, paid the cost to be the most revolutionary female band in a male-dominated subculture. Having the innate ability to dress up artless guitar debris with minimalist dub-reggae rhythms, the innovative lasses were initially violently attacked and verbally assaulted because their rudimentary approach leaned towards Jamaican rude boy juvenility, seemingly at odds with the snotty nihilist rebellion the Sex Pistols’ ilk possessed. Undoubtedly, the Slits also upset moshing neo-Nazi Oi! boys hooked on violently chanted three-chord thrashers and therefore unwilling to accept the daring damsels who were distressingly labeled unwelcome meddling interlopers.
Sheer determination kept the Slits alive and the fact they shared the same philosophical values with a few obliging “so-called” punks helped the weirdly detached forward-looking vagrants from becoming flash-in-the-pan enigmas. Instead of fading into obscurity, they set the foundation for a plethora of feministic crews such as South Bronx no wave beacons ESG, Swiss post-punk pilots Liliput, Brit-punk activists Delta 5, avant-funk lesbians Bush Tetras, and commercial pop charmers the Mo-dettes.
At age 14, Munich-born London-raised Ariana Forster became Ari-Up, lead singer of a formative group shaped by drummer Paloma Romero (now known as Palmolive). Though Palmolive left early on to join equally determined female coterie, the Raincoats, bassist Tessa Pollitt (a diehard reggae fanatic like Ari-Up) and guitarist Viv Albertine soon rounded out the impressionable trio. Meanwhile, Ari-Up hustled for money and lived as a squatter away from her bohemian family of dancers and musicians.
Though Ari’s grandfather was a “super-rich” publisher controlling Germany’s mighty Der Spiegel weekly magazine, the “tyrant” suppressed his flamenco-informed belly-dancing wife and blackmailed daughter, Nora (Ari’s mother), who’d soon promote Jimi Hendrix (amongst others), manage ‘70s classical rockers Wishbone Ash and Taste, then marry Sex Pistols vocalist John Lydon. Nora used her humble government-assisted domicile as a retreat for traveling musicians her daughter, Ari, would easily befriend.
The Slits’ first real breakthrough happened during 1977 when they opened for burgeoning punk ambassadors The Clash, Buzzcocks, and Subway Sect. Their provocative vagina lip-informed handle was nearly as audacious as the title of ‘79 debut, Cut (insert the letter N before T for proper repulsiveness). Furthermore, the titillating threesome posed nude for the front cover, coated in mud wearing only loincloths. By now, the Slits had begun to fruitfully articulate the same oppressive cultural deprivation as the Pistols-Clash-Damned triumvirate, but in a less clamorous manner.
With its carefree childlike whimsicality and crudely underdeveloped tunes, Cut bled streetwise do-it-yourself ethos into primitive-sounding tribal manifestos. A desolate Eastern-flavored six-string figure, knock-knock percussion, and tinny cymbals back Ari’s self-destructive anecdote on the otherwise temperate opener, “Instant Hit.” Indirectly, the Roches curiously quirky multi-harmonic playfulness infused the silly “So Tough.” Dub-styled discontentment “Spend, Spend, Spend” and deliriously screamed diatribe “Shoplifting” retained unfinished demo-like splendor. Throughout, Ari’s operatic vibrato reveled in amateurish enthusiasm.
Appearing during the early New Wave uprising, ‘81’s equally raw Return Of The Giant Slits EP may’ve felt out of place amongst the shinier gloss hitting underground airwaves, but its mischievous precision-guided snipes held up better. Haranguing sociopolitical message, “Walk About,” criticizes the treatment of indigenous Australian aborigines and probably gave Ari the motivation to live amongst the naked bow-and-arrow hunters of Borneo’s Dayak tribe before splitting time living in Brooklyn, New York and Kingston, Jamaica.
Ari took on the persona of singer-dancer Medusa thereafter, becoming a Kingston-based ‘80s hip-hop dancehall denizen who’d soon front famed British dub producer Adrain Sherwood’s New Age Steppers. She’d mother twins with a marijuana-dealing spouse and receive plaudits from loyal minions, some of whom thought she might’ve died over the years due to presumed inactivity.
But Ari’s Slits are back and better than ever, boasting a terrific line-up including Hollie Cook (Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook’s daughter). Developing a more universal lyrical appeal less dependent on provincial sloganeering, ‘09’s Trapped Animal (proceeded by a belated ’05 solo debut, Dread More Dan Dead) preserves the past while engaging the future. Busier arrangements and tidier production give each track brighter resonance.
Welfare, social injustice, and food stamp programs still concern Ari, as she deals with grown-up “Issues” and downplays “Peer Pressure” with animalistic jungle yelps atop Latin-tinged piano and ska-influenced horns. Clanking percussion, dotted sax lines, and flittering flute suit reggae-fried call-and-response entreaty “Ask Ma.” And working class rave, “Partner Fom Hell,” benefits from an echoed melodica that intimates reggae great Augustus Pablo.
Onward, reggae toaster “Babylon” never lacks authenticity and “Reggae Gypsy” peculiarly leans towards the contemporary gypsy-folk of Gogol Bordello and Devotchka. Perhaps perky schoolyard howler, “Pay Rent,” best defines the Slits musical and cultural conviction, blurting out “we don’t wanna follow fashion” in all its triumphant subversive glory.
After the Slits broke up, you took on the moniker Medusa and became a dancehall queen. How’d that turn out?
Ari-Up: I had an album, Dread More Dan Dead, which was invigorated by Kingston reggae and dancehall—a hybrid. It was under the Ari-Up name but during the Medusa period. People wondered if I had died because the Slits evacuated this planet after two albums and seemed stuck in Siberian exile. That’s what happened to me, too. I was written off, but continued the revolution in isolation in Jamaica. I had given partial birth to the punk explosion but got more involved in the reggae revolution. The Slits were always a mixture of what we were seeing and feeling. They were 30 years ahead of their time. But I’m still a paranoid artist not making shit financially. (laughter)
The new album title, Trapped Animal, seems to indicate that despite all your rage you’re still feeling like a rat in the cage.
Definitely. That sums it up in one edited snippet. I have empathy for the underdog, whether societal, political, or money-wise. Humans are trapped like animals in many ways. ‘Issues’ is based on a real experience of emotional abuse and ‘Ask Ma’ is a bit tricky. Women created the men that are the ones we love. But mothers are sometimes to blame for how their sons act in a relationship. I’ve never been about segregation. When men are abusive and act like assholes they’re relieving anger on their wives because of a bad relationship with mothers. Anything that triggers that emotion is not good. Single moms are not the ideal situation.
Did you grow up feeling like the ‘Reject’ described on the album?
I never felt like a loser despite the Slits struggling and being sabotaged by some people. We were rejected by society. But that’s why the media labeled us punks—degenerate losers. The media used punk before we could come to grips with the term. I remember Joe Strummer of the Clash at the Roxy club being turned off by the term. We never had low self-esteem.
How’d it feel when the Slits became largely influential for many up and coming indie artists?
People were influenced in a nice way. They gave credit and never ripped us off. They took our inspiration and created their own sound. The Slits have a unique sound anyway that’s hard to label and harder to duplicate. The Raincoats got Palmolive and intertwined our sound with their own. Siouxsie & the Banshees would never admit being affected by us but their tribal rhythms are similar and they took our drummer permanently. Later, bands like Hole were tributary. I heard Courtney Love called her band Hole because of the Slits. The riot girl movement, both apparently and transparently, paid big tribute on the TypicalGirls website. We have to be grateful for them keeping the Slits contemporary. But Madonna should’ve said something. She always rides on people’s coattails. She has admitted to being influenced by Blondie. But I don’t see why she couldn’t say she looked exactly like a tamed-down diluted version of our guitarist, Viv, after she went to one of our gigs. She could’ve worn a t-shirt to advertise us. The lace, torn-up dresses, ripped stockings with boots, hair ribbons…
What about ample-breasted Annabella Lwin of Bow Wow Wow, whose underage naked body found its way into various publicity shots courtesy of Cut’s album cover.
That was a typical Malcolm McLaren stunt. He managed us for a couple disastrous weeks. He was such an abnormal control freak. He was not a nice personality. He wanted to turn us into gimmicky female Sex Pistols. Then, he leeched onto Bow Wow Wow and, later, the hip-hop breakdance bandwagon. That’s cheesy.
The Slits will play Manhattan’s Highline Ballroom on Dec. 14. theslits.co.uk.