The Slits: Year Zero
The early British punk scene evolved very quickly. Very few of the first punk bands made it to their first full-length without significant line-up changes and, more often than not, a shift to a slightly different music style. The Slits are perhaps the perfect example of that trend, as the Slits that appear on this 1978 recording sound nothing like the ironic dub-punkers who gave the world the classic album Cut. This is an altogether more vicious, more primitive, and more dangerous band. Live at the Gibus Club shows the band during a tumultuous period in music where it was as wild and as ungoverned as the Hobbesian statue of nature, and it is fitting that the album is, to borrow Hobbes’s infamous terms: “nasty, brutish, and short”.
What makes the Slits circa 1978 (featuring original member Palmolive, who was replaced by Budgie by the time of Cut) different from the classic Slits sound is that the Slits started out as a pure punk rock band, the reggae influence only came later. Oddly enough, their songs are still filled with odd syncopation and angular guitars that seemed to be the product of Cut‘s dub mannerisms. However, this isn’t the studied dissonance of dub and reggae, but something closer to the primitive yet compelling rock vision of the Shaggs. Except the Slits know exactly what they’re doing, and if the crowd doesn’t like it, it just gets them geared up to be louder and sloppier.
The difference in tone between the studio renditions of these songs and the live versions on this disc is even more staggering. The Slits tear through their songs, as if they’re trying to get off-stage as quickly as possible, even though the band’s tempo is about half as slow as the typical punk band’s. Ari Up approaches songs like “Love and Romance” and “Shoplifting” entirely differently. Her unmistakable voice is still the same, but the sarcastic tone of the Cut versions is absent, instead these songs ooze rage and violence. The “kiss kiss kiss / lies lies lies” chant from “Love and Romance” isn’t the cheeky kiss off of the Cut version, but an emasculating call to arms. The whole show seems to be a barely contained primal scream, one that Up actually releases on the banshee wail that ends “Newtown”.
The legendary chaotic nature of the Slits’ early live sets is reflected on Live at the Gibus Club, but only in the brief, tense stage banter (Ari Up, at one point, points out a heckler and yells “Go back to Texas, COW-boooy” in a frightening sneer) and the awkward long stretches of nervous audience chatting and yelling (“Une Homme et un Slit”, for example, consists entirely of inaudible mumbling). There is no audio evidence of conflict, violence, or even much heckling, but the long stretches without music are disquieting enough that they unsettle the music listening experience, in a way recapturing just how uncomfortable these young girls could make audiences.
The “treasure trove”, I suppose for collectors would be the songs that never made it to Cut, which are pretty good, although in such rough form that it’s hard to really rate them. Of the originals, only “Split” could have really appeared on an album proper, but I supposed its unrestrained vitrol would not have suited the more esoteric, less angry album. The set’s highlight is the Slits’ romp through “Femme Fatale”, probably the most professional sounding track on the set, where Ari Up finds a perfect vehicle for her voice (was I the only one who didn’t realize her vocals similarities to Nico?). When all is said and done, the Slits successfully remake the Velvets classic into a Slits song, not an easy task.
Overall, the album is less of a piece of music but more of a document of a strange and exciting time. The liner notes paint a picture of a group of women entirely unable and unwilling to follow any sort of rules, both on and off the stage, and Live at the Gibus Club is an attempt to really hammer in just how manic and crazy the Slits were during their beginning. Born-again Palmolive, in the liner notes, mentions “The contrast between this angry girl, Palmolive, and who I am today is the difference between light and darkness”. I thought that this was mere evangelical hyperbole, but after listening to Live at the Gibus Club, I understood now that she was not exaggerating. This album documents pure, unadulterated chaos, reflecting a time when the line between creativity and violence had been entirely effaced.