[5 March 2010]
Someone once told me he didn’t think politics and music worked together. I responded that he should listen more closely to the Clash and the Dead Kennedys. I might’ve added the Slits.
In case you’re a newcomer, possibly lured by the punk group’s provocative name, the Slits were/are a seminal British punk act. Just as importantly, they were one of the female groups of that moment that have, with their contemporaries like Kleenex, the Raincoats, and X-Ray Spex, as well as earlier trailblazers like Suzi Quatro and the Runaways, inspired countless young women to form bands under the observation that rock and roll (least of all, punk) is not the exclusive domain of men.
The Slits conform to a common story of punk beginnings. Two punks-to-be meet at a protopunk concert and decide to form a band. That was singer Ari Up and drummer Palmolive, at a Patti Smith concert in 1976. By early 1977, with the addition of guitarist Kate Korus and bassist Suzi Gutsy, the Slits were a band. Later that year, with no widely distributed recordings (and certainly none of any real production quality), the Slits nevertheless became famous after being invited to tour with the Clash. It wasn’t until 1979 that the Slits made their first album, Cut, which both rode on and helped develop the punk zeitgeist so critical of modern mass culture where TV, sports, gender identity, and consumerism were compared to drugs. They demanded a new kind of kick. Yet stylistically, Cut had already drifted a ways from the choppy guitar-based punk of their pre-recordings period and into reggae-punk made popular by bands like the Clash (and somewhat owed to the well-known reggae producer Dennis Bovell).
The punk-reggae trend continued into their second album, 1981’s Return of the Giant Slits, a curious (though not necessarily offputting to critics) blend of reggae and Afro-pop styles and rhythms, and child-like, sometimes dissonant vocals. Soon after that release, they effectively split up, and only in 2006 did Up manage to revive the band, though with all new members except for bassist Tessa Politt. Nearly 30 years since their last album, could we expect a return to roots?
Alas, there is very little remaining from the screeching guitars and vocals of the Slits’ rare early punk recordings, such as those on the John Peel sessions. Ari Up’s German-British-Jamaican brogue stands out as much as ever, but on some songs it becomes a much more polished and “traditional” female vocal style. The musical accompaniment, on the other hand, is closer to electronic pop (and perhaps rap) than to punk-reggae on the first three tracks, like the opening “Ask Ma”. It’s classic ‘70s reggae on other tracks, while a synth-reggae-world experimentation dominates two or three more tracks. Though the lyrics were occasionally clumsy and blunt from the band’s beginnings, it’s important to remember that Ari Up was, after all, 15 years old when she formed the Slits. Thirty-odd years later, she has not progressed much lyrically from a steadfast, clear left-of-center repertoire of themes. In fact, one could argue that she’s regressed lyrically.
Compare lines from “Typical Girls” (from their first album) with those from almost any track on Trapped Animal:
Typical girls stand by their man
Typical girls are really swell
Typical girls learn how to act shocked
Typical girls don’t rebel
Who invented the typical girl?
Who’s bringing out the new improved model?
And there’s another marketing ploy
Typical girl gets the typical boy
Okay, “typical girls are really swell” is a tad clumsy. But you ain’t heard nothing yet. Fast forward thirty years.
The “lyrics problem” hits the listener immediately on the opening track, “Ask Ma”, where Ari Up sing-songs, “Mothers made some boys” (backup interjects “we love”) “Mothers made some boys” (backup interjects “we hate”). “Why are there so many boys,” Ari asks, “who take away those marital joys”? The song is a meditation on the narrator’s dissatisfaction with apparent hetero-couple life, a kind of window into a mid-life crisis: “But to pick up shit after men, repeatedly time and time again… I refuse ... they’re not helpless, like babies, make a worse mess”.
In 2010, there’s not a new feminist treatise in such lyrics. It sounds more like the author’s own therapy, though it’s quite possible some will identify with the lyrics, precisely because the experience is so well known. Songs like “Partner from Hell” are also about a woman’s midlife crisis, the realization that “I was hypnotized, dehumanized, demonized, taken for a ride, never realized, I tried to abide, to someone who lied… He’s swimming in my head / Miss him in my bed” to a very slow, melodica-soaked reggae beat. In the same thematic vein is “Lazy Slam”, a song about a woman letting her partner have sex with her while she’s sleeping. Across these songs, there’s a sense of anger and disappointment about the male-female couple at midlife.
Tracks like “Issues” are not about couples per se but about living with the trauma of child abuse, while “Pay Rent” is in the fine punk tradition of critiquing modern consumer capitalist ennui, from the Clash to the Dead Kennedys and Against Me!. “Peer Pressure”, “Can’t Relate,” “Cry”, “Reject”, “Had a Day”—these are not rosy-lensed looks on the world (the album title is hardly ironic). And yet the sound, varying from punk reggae to more electronic dancehall, rarely drags.
“Cry” is arguably the most beautiful traditional track, where Ari Up and supporting vocalists tame all punk dissonance for a masterful downright skinhead ska-reggae track reminiscent of the precious soul covers that Trojan Records produced in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, precisely what British subjects like Ari Up (as well as Joe Strummer and John Lydon, the latter incidentally the singer’s stepfather) were listening to in the ‘70s. “Reggae Gypsy” also plays with traditional reggae styles by incorporating a gypsy accordion, clapping, and rhythm shifts—and perhaps the most unforgettable of many unforgettable couplets on the album: “I am a reggae gypsy / make you feel so tipsy”. Like several songs on the album, “Reggae Gypsy” is musically interesting but lyrically embarrassing.
As for hints of the Slits of yesteryear, “Reject” is about as close to their roots as they get. Repetitive, rudimentary guitar and keyboards, vocal chanting, ululating, and native American war whoops.
On all of these themes I find myself saying, “I’m with you, but would Google please invent a lyrics generator?” As far as the sound goes, they do nicely when they are respectful of the reggae tradition, when they mix punchy punk vocals and reggae, and, occasionally, when they mix world music styles with the former. The move into a more electronic dancehall style, however, mostly combines with poor lyrics for a one-two punch that may knock out many listeners from the very first track.