Three mud-rubbed, fierce, staring tribal women posing strikingly among English roses and shrubbery wearing nothing but rags around their waists – breasts for all to see. An album cover as unmistakable as the sounds it promises. A girl gang of sonic raggamuffins. The Slits. Purveyors of feminist punky reggae that would bless the ears and souls of both Simone De Beauvoir and Marcus Garvey.
Before the seminal album ‘Cut’ – before Island Records founder Chris Blackwell hooked them up with musician-producer Dennis Bovell – the Slits were a ramshackle, erratic and juvenile four-piece band touring with The Clash. The chaos was so uncontaminated that to control it would be a mean feat, but the results sublime. The transition The Slits made pre-‘Cut’ and post-‘Cut’ is surgically outlined by the difference between their 1979 ‘Peel Session’ and their 1981 session – from dilapidated bedlam to a not-so-dilapidated madness. Was this the girls growing into their sound or being given stabilisers to strengthen their musical gait?
When The Slits released the album in 1979 they had just lost a spiritual core member, Palmolive (who went on to be the drummer in The Raincoats), and so had to bring in a replacement. This would be professional drummer Budgie – previously the drummer for Liverpool punks Big In Japan and later for Souxsie And The Banshees. With Budgie’s rock-steady beat and Dennis Bovell’s dubwise engineering The Slits would channel their mayhem into excellence.
The hectic lives of the group are realised in guitarist Viv Albertine’s book ‘Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys’, describing scenes of Ari Up, the teenage vocalist band leader, being so away with the fairies that she is childlike and impossible to work with. To meet rough peaks in prose that make you wince in pain and admiration for the passion of the artist, Ari was the volcano of all the mania that the rest of the band watched and copied.
Before hitting the studio The Slits had only ever recorded a cover version of ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ and their tumultuous aforementioned ‘Peel Session’. This is almost unfathomable after hearing such perfect ins-and-outs of sonic schisms on ‘Cut’. There are such harmonies of cultures; Notting Hill reggae parties colliding with Soho punk; girlish vocals confusing the entire reggae and punk scenes while paving a way for many post-punk bands to follow.
Littered with timeless anthems such as the satirically anti-feminist double-take of ‘Typical Girls’ – with lyrics such as ‘typical girls get upset too quickly’ and ‘typical girls don’t drive well’ – to more exciting storytelling in ‘Shoplifiting’, using colloquial Rasta wails such as ‘Babylon won’t love much’, ‘Cut’ is swimming in cultural clashes that The Slits must have picked up and lived amid in their squatting community in London in the late 70s.
Listen to ‘Cut’ on Spotify here:
Buy Viv Albertine’s book here.