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Members include Ari-Up (born Ariane Forster in 1962 in Munich, Germany; daughter of Nora Forster; children: three), vocals; Viv Albertine (born Viviane Albertine in 1955 in France), guitar; Palmolive (born Paloma Romera in 1955 in Spain; daughter of a bullfighter; married Dave McLardy; children: three), drums; Tessa Pollitt (born c. 1959 in England; married Sean Oliver; children: Phoebe Oliver), bass. Addresses: Record company--Jungle Records, Old Dairy Mews, 62 Chalk Farm Rd., Camden, London NW1 8AN, England, phone: +44 (0) 20 7267 0912.
A multicultural, female, punk-rock band, the Slits are an influential group noted for introducing world music---chiefly reggae and Afro-pop---into the genre of punk. Their unique sound and style also has been credited with helping to pave the way for a generation of female musicians. The definitive version of the Slits is comprised of vocalist Ari-Up (born Ariane Forster), guitarist Viviane (Viv) Albertine, bassist Tessa Pollitt, and drummer Palmolive (born Paloma Romero). Part of the first wave of punk rockers, the Slits were the last to secure a record contract with a major label.
Considered the female equivalent of the Sex Pistols and the Clash, the leading male lights of the punk-rock scene, the Slits are less well known than either band. Observers have suggested that this disparity is due to the group's radical approach to music; to the underlying sexism of the record industry; and to the fact that the Slits were ahead of their time. Beginning as a band who played live before they could barely tune their instruments, the Slits developed an aggressive, confrontational performance style that put attitude and emotion above musical virtuosity. Later in their career they tightened their sound, expanding it beyond the parameters of straight-ahead punk by incorporating reggae, dub (a form of reggae that favors heavy bass and drums), and African influences.
The results were demonstrated on the band's two major-label recordings, Cut (1979) and The Return of the Giant Slits (1981) and on singles that they recorded for the independent labels Rough Trade and Human. Cut is considered a classic, both for its punk/reggae mix and its controversial cover, which depicts the topless, mud-caked, loincloth-clad Slits standing in an English garden. The Slits' second record was praised for reflecting the group's maturation as musicians, and for seamlessly weaving African music into punk. The group's early, raucous sound is captured on sessions that they recorded for John Peel's influential BBC radio show, as well as on compilations of demos and live recordings.
Young, Loud, and Snotty
The Slits were formed in 1976 when Palmolive--a Spanish native who got her nickname when Clash bassist Paul Simonon mangled the pronunciation of her first name, Paloma--approached Ari-Up at a Patti Smith concert in London and asked the 14-year-old, the daughter of a German newspaper heiress and concert promoter, to be the lead singer in an all-girl band. Kate Chorus (real name Corris), an ex-pat from New York, was the original guitarist of the Slits; the original bassist was Suzy Gutsy, who had been in a short-lived female punk band called the Castrators. Soon after the formation of the Slits, Chorus left to form another girl group, the Mo-dettes and was replaced by Albertine. When Gutsy left to join the Flicks, Pollitt, an English-born guitarist who was in the Castrators, joined the Slits as its bass player. The Slits had strong connections with the tightly-knit punk community: Palmolive lived with Joe Strummer, the lead vocalist of the Clash, and Albertine dated the band's lead guitarist, Mick Jones; Ari-Up's mother, Nora Forster, dated John Lydon (a.k.a. Johnny Rotten), the lead singer of the Sex Pistols, and later became his wife.
The Slits' first gig was as the opening act for the Clash at the Harlesdan Colosseum in London in March of 1977. Shortly thereafter, the Slits embarked on the White Riot tour with the Clash, the Buzzcocks, and the Subway Sect. During the White Riot tour, an event that is considered the last and best of the British punk tours, the Slits made a name for themselves. Onstage, they were over-amped, sloppy, and out of tune. Ari-Up sang about relationships and alienation in a voice that ranged from a strident bellow to a birdlike trill; she was supported by Albertine's jagged, fuzzed-out guitar, Pollitt's thudding bass, and Palmolive's stuttering drums. Ari-Up wore outrageous outfits like Queen's Jubilee underwear over tight pants, while the other Slits often donned men's leather jackets, trousers, and ties. Offstage, they trashed hotel rooms and behaved so wildly that the tour's bus driver had to be offered a daily bribe to allow them on his coach. Back in London, the Slits were banned from shops and were refused rides by taxi drivers. The group also encountered violent resistance from some music fans, and group members once narrowly escaped being crushed when a large speaker was overturned on them.
The Slits Go Native
In 1978 the Slits recorded two sessions for John Peel's BBC radio program, sessions that Peel later remarked were among his favorites. These recordings are thought to capture the Slits in all of their punk glory. The bandmates were introduced to Jamaican reggae music by Don Letts, a Rastafarian who worked as a disc jockey in London's popular Roxy Club. Letts, who later managed the Slits and joined Mick Jones in his post-Clash group Big Audio Dynamite, played both reggae tunes and their dub versions, remixes that brought the vocals down and the rhythm section up. The Slits were entranced by this music and began to incorporate it into their songs.
By the time that they were signed by Island Records in 1979, the group had developed a strong punk/reggae sound, and they recorded Cut with noted reggae producer Dennis "Blackbeard" Bovell. However, Palmolive was asked to leave the group because she refused to pose nude on the album's cover and to work with the manager of the Sex Pistols, Malcolm McLaren, who wanted to add the Slits to his roster. Palmolive joined the Raincoats, an all-female, experimental rock band who, like the Slits, have achieved legendary status. She was replaced by a male drummer, Budgie (real name Peter Clarke), from the popular Liverpool group Big in Japan.
Cut was an album filled with witty lyrics, adventurous vocals, and pulsing reggae beats, and is considered one of the most original records of the decade. At the time of its release Cut was noted more for its controversial cover than for its songs, but more contemporary reviewers have called it a groundbreaking work that contains outstanding music and production. Writing in The Mojo Collection: The Ultimate Music Companion, Jim Irvin and Colin McLear noted, "From being the band nobody wanted to sign, the Slits became the sound of the future." Guy Debored, writing on the trakMARX website, stated, "Of the thousands of LPs released worldwide in 1979, Cut sounded like no other then and sounds like nothing else today."
"Return" and Departure
After the release of Cut, Budgie left the Slits to become the drummer for Siouxsie and the Banshees, a Gothic rock band that was led by Siouxsie Sioux (born Susan Dallion), a peer of the Slits from their early punk days; Siouxsie and Budgie later married. Budgie was replaced by Bruce Willie Smith, who also played with the funk/rock outfit the Pop Group. The revamped Slits toured with reggae artist Prince Hammer, veteran jazz trumpeter Don Cherry, and Cherry's daughter Neneh, who added backing vocals and later became a successful solo artist.
After leaving Island in 1980, the Slits were signed by CBS in Britain the next year and went into the studio to record their second LP, The Return of the Giant Slits, with Bovell. The album, which featured Steve Berersford on keyboards, is thought to reflect the band's continued growth with its dark, thick sound, chanting vocals, and African tribal rhythms. Although designed to be more commercial than Cut, Giant Slits was not released in the United States. The album also caused the Slits to lose some of their core audience, who felt that they were not following the "rules" for a proper punk band.
Writing in All Music Guide to Rock, John Dougan commented that this alienation "was a shame, because this music was interesting, daring, and exciting." Dave Thompson of Alternative Rock concluded that Giant Slits was "lauded for its bravery, applauded for its nerve, then lost beneath the apathy of a public whose taste for `World Music' needed to be coaxed into the light... not slammed naked onto the table." In October of 1981 the Slits performed again on Peel's radio show. By the end of the year, they had disbanded after being dropped by CBS.
Not "Typical Girls"
After the breakup of the Slits, Ari-Up and producer Adrian Sherwood formed the New Age Steppers, a "supergroup" of musicians from Britain's avant-garde, jazz, funk, and post-punk scenes that included Albertine, Smith, and Neneh Cherry, among others. After recording two albums with them, Ari-Up went to live in the jungles of Borneo and Belize. She then went to Jamaica, where she lived in a tent off a small island near Kingston, worked as a fashion designer and, as Medusa, became a cable television star by hosting on-air dance parties. She now lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she performs with groups such as the New Crew and Ari-Up and the True Warriors. In 2002 she released Ariane, a six-song EP for Converge Records that combines punk, reggae, and hip-hop. Ari-Up also has collaborated with Justine Frischmann, former guitarist for the English band Elastica, in a revamped version of the Slits.
Albertine went to film school, became an independent filmmaker, and worked with the BBC; she also contributed music to the film Tank Girl (1995). Pollitt overcame a heroin addiction to become a black belt in martial arts and a student of Oriental medicine and human anatomy; she also is an artist and has designed album covers. Palmolive left the Raincoats to explore spiritual pursuits in India; later, she became a born-again Christian, married a Scottish minister, and moved to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where she sings and plays drums with her husband in a cover band called Hi-Fi, who have performed Slits songs with revised lyrics.
Reviewers, who often pummeled the Slits in print, now generally view them as pioneers who helped to open the doors for female pop musicians like Madonna and the Spice Girls; for "Riot Grrrl" bands such as Hole, Babes in Toyland, and Bikini Kill; and for Anglo artists who utilize ethnic music, such as Sting, Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, and Talking Heads. Ari-Up has been called the best vocalist to come out of the punk era, while the three instrumentalists, especially Palmolive, also have received accolades. Writing in All Music Guide to Rock, Dougan noted, "Though much derided in their short existence, what the Slits achieved and what they mean to succeeding generations of young female rockers cannot be underestimated." A reviewer on the John Harp's Audiophile Reference website declared, "Few female-powered bands have been more influential than the Slits."
Writing in Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century, Greil Marcus stated that "the sound they made communicated more completely and more mysteriously than the most carefully crafted work of anyone who came before or after." Pollitt told Gregory Mario Whitfield of 3 AM Magazine that the Slits "always carved out our own path, strove for something fresh and new."
In an interview with Sam Adams of the Philadelphia Citypaper, Ari-Up commented, "We made a new style of music that, until this day, I haven't found or heard anyone [play]... If [the Slits' recordings] were released now, in a really big mega way, the way a real release would be, they could go platinum!" She confided to Maria Catamero and Marissa Handren of Kitty Magik, "[We were] 20 years ahead, musically, of our time, and revolutionary, spiritually, socially, and clothes-wise.... If we were around now, we would be right in time."
by Gerard J. Senick
The Slits's Career
Group formed in London, England, 1976; made public debut as opening act for the Clash in London, 1977; went on White Riot tour of England with the Clash, the Buzzcocks, and the Subway Sect, 1977; recorded first of three live performance on John Peel's popular radio show for the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), 1977; supported the Clash on their Sort It Out tour, mid-1978; appeared in The Punk Rock Movie, 1978; signed with Island Records, 1979, released Cut, 1979; reached number 60 single in Britain with "Typical Girls," 1979; toured with jazz trumpeter Don Cherry, 1979; hit number ten on British charts with single "Animal Space"; left Island Records and signed to CBS, 1980; released second album, The Return of the Giant Slits, 1981; played final gig at Hammersmith Palais, and disbanded, late 1981.
The Slits's Awards
Zig Zag Magazine, number one, Best Unsigned Band category, 1978.
- Selected discography
- "Typical Girls"/"I Heard It Through the Grapevine," Island, 1979; rereleased with "Liebe und Romanze [Love and Romance]," Island, 1979.
- Cut Island, 1979; rereleased, Island, 1990; reissued with bonus tracks, Universal, 2000.
- "In the Beginning There Was Rhythm"/"Where There's a Will There's a Way" (spilt single with the Pop Group), Rough Trade, 1980.
- Y3LP (also known as Untitled Bootleg Retrospective and Once Upon a Time in a Living Room ), Rough Trade, 1980.
- "Man Next Door"/"Man Next Door (Version)," Rough Trade, 1980.
- "Animal Space"/"Animal Spacier," Human, 1980.
- "Earthbeat"/"Begin Again Rhythm," CBS, 1981.
- The Return of the Giant Slits CBS, 1981.
- The Peel Sessions (EP), Strange Fruit, 1987; rereleased, Strange Fruit, 1999.
- In the Beginning: A Live Anthology, 1977-81 Jungle, 1997.
- Bogdanov, Vladimir, Chris Woodstra, and Stephen Thomas Erlewine, editors, All Music Guide to Rock: The Definitive Guide to Pop, Rock, and Soul, AMG/Backbeat Books, 2002.
- Coon, Caroline, 1988: The New Wave Punk Rock Explosion, Omnibus, 1977.
- Irvin, Jim, and Colin McLear, editors, The Mojo Collection: The Ultimate Music Companion, Canongate, 2003.
- Marcus, Greil, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century, Harvard University Press, 1989.
- Savage, Jon, England's Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond, St. Martin's, 2001.
- Thompson, Dave, Alternative Rock, Miller Freeman, 2000.
- "Ari-Up," Kitty Magik, http://www.kittymagik.com/interviews (April 13, 2004).
- "Earthbeat: In the Beginning There Was Rhythm," 3 AM Magazine, http://www.3ammagazine.com/musicarchives/2003/nov/interview_tessa_pollitt.html (November 14, 2003).
- "Great Day for Up," Philadelphia Citypaper, http://www.citypaper.net/articles/021402/mus.ariup.shtml (February 14, 2004).
- "Noisy Rock Women," John Harp's Audiophile Reference Site, http://www.aurealm.com (April 17, 2004).
- "The Slits-In the Beginning," trakMARX, http://www.trakmarx.com/2002_04/23slits.htm (April 14, 2004).
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