In the era in question, information was not at our Internet-tapping fingertips. Local weekly newspapers (that came and went), the occasional overseas NME, and college radio were all possible sources of information, along with the mysteries of intuitive shopping and the well-chosen word-of-mouth. That should provide enough clues to infer that this was the era of punk and new wave.
Now imagine that you are a young American living in a college town. Someone who idles in the commercial areas of the city, sometimes for no particular reason other than taking a walk, and as you pass by the local record-selling franchise, that nevertheless employs savvy managers, there in the wide plate glass window is the iconic Slits’ album, Cut, in all it’s in-your-face glory. It’s not pornography by any means, it’s on full display, sending out all the correct intuitive signals as something interesting, but even so, you feel an inexplicable apprehension as if your purchase will be deemed deviant. Still, you cross the threshold, lay down your cash and then one of the two female employees behind the counter asserts, rather loudly, “Another guy is buying this sexist album!” That’s how I found the Slits.
While this heartwarming anecdote might instigate a critique of political correctness (a term then not in common usage), it also clearly speaks to the tumultuous cultural and aesthetic impetus of the Slits. And we haven’t even gotten to the music. To put it another way, in the words of guitarist Viv Albertine, “We knew we were a first, which could be uncomfortable, and we were much more revolutionary than the Pistols and the Clash.” (The Guardian, interview by Caroline Sullivan, 25 June 2013)
In the early performances of the Slits, which include original drummer Palmolive (Paloma Romero), the chaotic, ear-damaging ethos of punk is in full effect. One might deduce a tinge of the Pistols, but Tessa Pollitt’s bass is given full weight. There’s a load of dissonance, the hair is tangled, the volume is loud; it goes beyond music into the realms of performance art. In its anarchic approach to creativity, it could be “free jazz”, or sonically, the American new wave tangent known as “No Wave”.
The Slits seem to be making it up as they go along, but they have the character to pull it off. The obvious distinguishing mark is the all-female line-up, but the group dynamic, the personalities are in sync. Somewhere off to the side of the Svengali-like male management of The Runaways and the icy cold veneer of Siouxsie Sioux, The Slits land hard but playful. That sensibility is encapsulated in the cover of Cut. It’s near impossible to conceive of The Clash projecting such an image.
Without having any idea of what would emerge once I put the needle to the record, and having been let down by more than one record-buying gamble, I was, as a reggae aficionado, immediately engaged. Here was a band, a white band, an all-female “punk” band, that took reggae to heart. This wasn’t a one-off cover version, a thematic song thrown into the repertoire, but an approach that didn’t compromise but incorporated the vibe.
It’s only now that I get to compare, via the Peel Sessions, the same unreleased songs and what happened to them by the time they reached Cut.
The British punks (completely unlike the Americans) were steeped in reggae. Jamaicans (from the existing and then former colony) had been showing up in Britain for quite a while with a record, a guitar, a Nyabinghi drum tucked under their arms. The expatriate African-Caribbean sound penetrated deep, but stealthily, into the Queen’s country. While the ska and rock steady legacies of the British skinheads are well enough known, it says a lot about British listening habits that a song like “Ire Feelings (Skanga)” by Rupie Edwards reached number nine on the 1974 top ten single’s charts, right above Elton John’s “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”.
Even so, the music was marginalized, being of the minority community, especially once it had entered (as a perfect vehicle for punk identification) its Trenchtown phase. As The Slits’ late lead singer, Ari Up, put it: “You’ve gotta remember back then it was a punk-reggae revolution going on. It’s unexplainable. It was life-threatening. It was us against the world. There was just a handful of us against the world.” (The Fader, interview by Peter Macia, 21 October 2010)
Something inexplicable was in the air. The misfits saw an opening and squeezed through the cracks. They made it up as they went along because otherwise, they might die of boredom, get bogged down by the right-way-to-go-about-things. And then, because something fresh (but surely skanky) was happening, because an audience was slowly but surely gathering, the industry, which had previously shrugged its cold shoulder, began to sniff around.
You will note John Peel’s extreme skepticism (on The Slits’ Peel Sessions) that Cut will ever appear. This would seem to indicate The Slits’ industry standing, let alone their cultural status (and admirably, as per usual, John Peel bypasses all that and gets to the heart of the matter). In the meantime, in an amusing parallel to Chris Blackwell’s tinkering with Bob Marley’s sound in order to make it more palatable to white rockers, Blackwell (of Island Records) combined the white punk rockers with reggae producer Dennis Bovell. While the intersection between punk and reggae might seem at times incongruous, seeing as the Rastas hardly returned the favor, it again says a lot about the British zeitgeist that such a towering dubmaster would jump on board. Nevertheless, Bovell has testified, “They weren’t good at reggae, but they were keen to learn.” (The Guardian, interview by Caroline Sullivan, 25 June 2013)
Additionally, on Cut, Budgie (later to play with Siouxie and the Banshees) took over Palmolive’s role as drummer. While not discounting Palmolive’s style, especially apropos The Slits’ mindset, the percussive change made all the difference in grounding the reggae vibe (keeping in mind that we really can’t call this “reggae”!) It’s the drumming and Pollitt’s bass that tips the scales.
That’s not the whole story, the comprehensive sonic round-up of what makes The Slits The Slits, what differentiates their sound and style, or how the lyrics smartly coincide with their harmonic delivery, but we now need to turn our attention back to the fan.
I was the young American who idled in the commercial areas of a northeastern USA college town, looking in record store windows and bins, reading magazines at newsstands without paying for them. I had correctly read the signs and discovered The Slits; this particular gem picked up on a playful visual dare. It meant something specific to me while still seeming a long way off; an all-female quasi-reggae punk band who were willing to smear themselves with mud in an English garden, knowing full well that this would be the image for their first album. I placed Cut in a preferred position next to my cheap Radio Shack turntable/cassette combo, along with Linton Kwesi Johnson’s Forces of Victory (released the same year, on the same label, produced by Dennis Bovell). I never imagined that either one of them would turn up live in my hometown.
The Channel was a cavernous live music barn next to Fort Point Channel in South Boston. It could hold a fair sized crowd, but it was still easy to get close to the stage. It was a dump in the middle of a parking lot in a former industrial area. I and two of my cohorts scraped by in an unrenovated loft in one of those industrial buildings that now house “luxury condos”. We walked across the parking lot to The Channel and saw countless bands, of all shapes and sizes. One of them was The Slits. Can I remember all the details? The setlist? Hardly. What I remember is that as the concert came to a close, it seemed like the entire audience had mounted the stage, had been invited on stage. It appeared that I was the only one not on stage, in the position where the audience used to be (was supposed to be). I had all that room to dance by myself.
In the next installment of Vinyl Archeology: accumulating coincidences and the relative value of rare records: Pearl Reaves and her retro-R&B