Earlier this year was the 40th anniversary of the White Riot tour, the anarchic, ramshackle series of gigs across the UK that launched the Clash into public consciousness (alongside their iconic first album, which moved the punk movement past the Sex Pistols’ iconoclastic entrance). The Slits were one of the tour’s support acts; if anyone suited the DIY ethos of the way the music was evolving, it was this all-girl band whose take no prisoners approach (read Viv Albertine’s fabulous warts ‘n’ all autobiography) chimed with the times and attitude.
But the Slits had to turn their unstructured noise and chaos into recorded music. Thus, their eponymous debut album emerged in 1979, just as punk was morphing into new wave. Once again, they struck the zeitgeist chord. A bit like the Velvet Underground’s debut in 1967, few people actually purchased the product. However, The Slits is a record whose reputation and influence have steadily grown over the decades. Female empowerment, world music, white reggae, the late ’70s music from the Slits provided early glimpses of these nascent genres. In their left-field attack on Marvin Gaye’s classic “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”, they recorded one of the all-time genius cover versions (matching compatriots the Flying Lizards’ idiosyncratic 1979 assault on the Barret Strong timepiece “Money”, but imbuing their performance with a joie de vivre and freshness that never dates).
Two years later came the Slits’ second album, Return of the Giant Slits, which got a mixed reception on release. The group arguably never recovered from that, disbanding in 1982. Although the record is now getting a reissue and remaster (its avant-garde disposition meant that it never got a US release in the first place), the question is whether or not the past 36 years of fashion and fragmented musical trends have been kind to it.
In truth, the answer is both yes and no. Take track four, “Walkabout”, with a groove that bears a resemblance to the Bees Gees’ skittering “Jive Talkin’”, a guitar sound from Albertine that similarly carries a relationship (closer than you might think) to Nile Rogers’ licks in Chic’s great hits, and a disarming vocal from Ari Up (notwithstanding her frequent tendency to take things well over the top) would have sat well within Cut.
But this is followed by “Difficult Fun”, in which Ari’s wilful mayhem starts to pall (even if their ability to play dub is undiminished). Honestly, that establishes the pattern for the album as a whole. “Animal Space”, with its pitter-pattering drums (courtesy of Bruce Smith, also of the Pop Group, who is just as dextrous and sensitive as Palmolive on the first album, and that’s saying something) and a coda that somehow manages to be a car crash yet also carries a certain magnificence, is chaos that works. Follow-up “Improperly Dressed”, on the other hand, doesn’t: like the bad metro journey that the lyric references, it goes round in circles and never reaches its destination.
For a snapshot into the post-punk experimentation of the early ’80s — as well as a reminder of the cold spartan spaces of London of that time — this album is worth a listen. But, truly, it’s for true aficionados rather than casual listeners. The band deserves its place in history for their innovation, spirit, and bravery; that said, this album, nearly 40 years on, remains a long chalk from the peaks of “Grapevine” and “Typical Girls”.