❉ The Slits were punk at its best and Ari Up led the way, writes Paul Matts.
“The Slits do not have to sell their integrity or their principles or be pushed into something we don’t want to do. I mean that is a struggle we all have to deal with all of our lives anyway.” – Ari Up
The most important, beautiful thing about punk was the liberty it provided. Liberty in fashion, culture, lifestyle and of course, music. Not giving a fuck long before ‘not giving a fuck’ became a thing. It was true, with the freedom to be yourself paramount. The freedom to be true to yourself was even more crucial.
With that in mind, why did virtually all punk rock bands basically regurgitate regular chord structures and arrangement in their music? It applies to the pioneers of the movement as much as to latter day copycats. Of course, there were some exceptions. However, most more or less took the riffs and arrangements of The Faces and The Who, muscled them up a bit with plenty of distortion, speed and all-round noise, and left their respective singers to sprawl subject matter over the top. Most subsequent bands never moved on from this format. A similar tactic was implemented to garage rock n’ roll. Do NOT get me wrong – the results were some of the most exciting sounds ever heard. But the sound of genuine liberty and originality? Nah.
And they all started looking the same after a while too. ‘Punk’ developed a uniform.
As for being ‘punk’. What is it really about?
It’s fair to say the whole meaning has been twisted so much over time it can mean anything. And at the same time mean absolutely nothing. The aim here is not to start a debate over who or what has been true to punk’s ideology. Rather to highlight the role of a certain someone who in her role as the fearless vocalist with the most ‘punk’ of all bands, epitomised the whole thing.
Not that this was ever a conscious thing on her part. The Slits were punk at its best and Ari Up led the way. It has now been just over a decade since her death, and this anniversary is one that deserves commemorating.
Arianna Daniella Forster was born in Germany in January 1962, the daughter of Frank and Nora Forster. Her father was frequently away on business leaving plenty of time for Nora to pursue her love of culture, taking the young Arianna with her. Arianna was used to the company of musicians from a young age and was highly musical as a child, taking piano lessons and developing a love for musicals, as Adrian Sherwood (Hitrun Records, Dub Syndicate) has recalled: “Ari’s upbringing had been with Nora. She’d had piano lessons, and Ari was really into musicals. She’d been brought up with ‘the hills are alive with the sound of music’, or whatever, and if you listen to her songs, they’ve got an element of old musicals in them.”
Frank and Nora separated, and Nora took Arianna to London when she was eight years old. To live. When the embryonic London punk scene emerged, Nora and Ari found themselves drawn to it. Their house in London became a frequent hang out. Joe Strummer allegedly taught Arianna to play the guitar. Nora had a relationship with Chris Spedding and she was soon introduced to her future husband John Lydon. By Chris.
Ari, meanwhile, began to find her way in the world. She had a complete lack of self-consciousness which, combined with the freedom Nora entrusted her, enabled her personality to evolve. For example, although she was used to the company of ‘cool as you like’ musicians, she appeared to have no desire to be like them. Viv Albertine: ‘”She still had posters of ponies on her wall. There was no wanting to be David Bowie.”
As Don Letts started introducing London punks to Jamaican grooves, Ari became entranced. The records Letts played at The Roxy, and those played at reggae house parties, spoke to her. Her languid body movements, and her unique dancing style, had their roots right here – “Ari would have a bunch of hardcore dreads standing around her gawping in amazement, kind of gobsmacked, at her fierce warrior moves.” (Vivien Goldman)
She emerged from this environment as a bundle of creativity. A ball of energy, ready to be unleashed. And too much for the education system – she was expelled from two London schools.
In 1976, aged fourteen, she met up with Paloma Romero, aka Palmolive. The Slits were born. Initially from the Flowers of Romance and The Castrators, with Palmolive playing drums. Suzy Gutsy playing bass and Kate Korus on guitar. Plus, of course, the force of nature now known as Ari Up!
“We were four fearless young women who came together and exploded as a cultural bomb, irritating a sensitive societal nerve” Palmolive remembered.
Tessa Pollitt soon replaced Suzy on bass. Kate was replaced by Viv Albertine in 1977. Viv describes in her book, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys, her early perceptions of the young wild child singing with London’s most entrancing band:
“Suddenly, she makes sense. Too big a personality off stage, on stage she rules… She’s completely unselfconscious and like no girl or boy I’ve ever seen live before… Ari stirs up all sorts of feelings in me, visions, aspirations, possibilities – she inspires me.”
The Slits soon got their act together. Their spirit suited the times, and Ari was with the three women who would take on the established order: “We were pretty unaware of our potency, and yet we were certain that we did not want to conform to the roles prescribed to us as women.” (Palmolive)
A series of liberated, bolshy shows further developed The Slits and they soon supported The Clash on their spring tour in 1977, alongside Subway Sect, The Jam, Buzzcocks and The Prefects. Two sessions for Radio One’s John Peel were recorded and broadcast. “The Slits are a very tight knit gang, and we believed a hundred per cent in what we’re doing.” – Viv Albertine
Aggression and brashness aside, the punk revolution was not so revolutionary in musical terms. It was only rock n roll, after all. With a mile-wide snarl, admittedly. With a message at times. With new exciting fashions and plenty of attitude. It had an anti-establishment stance. But it was still male dominated, and little in the way of true, free-spirited, truly original, liberating, sounds. It was merely a loud, ‘fuck you I’m doing what I want’ shout over a 1st/4th/5th chord structure. Nothing. Really. New.
While most of the record industry snapped up their own version of this formulaic sound and vision, The Slits remained unsigned. Eventually, Island Records took the band on. Chris Blackwell’s background was an ideal launching pad, see. An introduction was made to reggae producer Dennis Bovell, a natural foil for their punk-dub reggae crossover or whatever term you’d choose to describe The Slits ‘sound’. One thing was certain – it wasn’t a sound like the rest of the oiks were coming up with.
Cut came out in 1979. It remains the truest punk statement. Punk in its purest sense. The sound of liberty. The sound of a band doing exactly as they wished. Not wishing to copy anyone. Or anything. It is the sound of originality. Of being themselves. Never, ever trying to incorporate the sound or spirit of anyone or anything. It has NO influences. It really is, what it is. It is punk spirit.
Opener Instant Hit has a worldly sonic. World music before it was called ‘world music’. A concoction of rain forest, tribalism, Londonism and musicianship. Or anti-musicianship. It is intelligent. Highly intelligent, musically and lyrically. Its charm is as fresh now as then. Shoplifting is sheer exhilaration, the thrill of pocketing tonight’s dinner and legging it with ‘Babylon’ not losing much. The hit single Typical Girls is about as conventional as things get, but with lyrics deriding the very convention of society’s view of femininity in 1979.
Ari’s vocals were part yodel, part shriek, part scream, part sung, part spoken, part whisper, part shout, part animal. But totally primal. Her distinctive vocal phrasing is on top, in its crevices and pulls the whole thing along indomitably.
Ari leads the way, but she is by no means only what makes Cut so unique. Its strength is a combination of tunes and performance, and its brutally raw personality. The playing is unconventional and dexterous. Viv Albertine’s abrasive guitar playing deserves a hell of a lot of credit. Cut is light on its feet. The tunes kind of trip and skip along, sticking two fingers up as they go.
Midway through the recording sessions Palmolive left, replaced by pre-Siouxsie Budgie. His inspired playing acts as a kind of punctuation, clearly motivated by the vibrancy all around him.
So Tough is a skilfully chaotic cut full of layered vocal gloriousness. Love And Romance has wicked wit working with the playful, flowing rhythms. Again, its textures shine through.
The almost throwaway jam that is I Heard It Through The Grapevine is genius. Palmolive’s bass slips the cut into gear and away goes one of the most exciting cover versions ever committed to tape. Ari’s performance is sheer joy. She sounds so full of life, so full of freedom. No reference given to previous readings of the number. Her vocals are beyond unique, delivering the ‘heard it through the bassline’ line as if it were the natural thing to do.
Budgie was replaced by Bruce Smith before the band’s second untitled long player. It was a loose, elongated jam of a recording. A third and final album was released in 1981, called Return Of The Giant Slits. Both records were entirely uncompromising and earthy, projecting raw soundscapes in primal rhythms and chants. Check Earthbeat. However, it is fair to say the tunes did not have the charm and exhilaration as on Cut. It would have been difficult, to be fair.
The Slits split in 1982. Ari began to travel and spent time living in New York, Jamaica, Indonesia and Belize. She used the alias Medusa, and had three children – Pablo, Pedro and Wilton. She also immersed herself in reggae, particularly dancehall. She was part of the New Age Steppers collective, who issued material and performed regularly at festivals all over the world for the next two decades.
Ari made guest appearances including Prince Far I’s classic Jamaican Heroes and numerous Adrian Sherwood and Dub Syndicate issues.
Ari performed as a solo artist, using the pseudonyms Baby Ari, Medusa as well as her familiar moniker, Ari Up. Her 2006 long player, Dread More Dan Dead fused her punk with her dancehall work, and she toured the record in the UK in the fall that year.
Indeed, I was thrilled and privileged to promote a solo show for Ari in my hometown of Leicester, England in 2006. She delivered a dance hall dominated set, with her angular, animal like movements compelling. You couldn’t take your eyes off her. She charmed the crowd, soundman and staff completely.
However best of all was the time she spent chatting to myself and a handful of punters on the street outside the venue. She appeared to have all the time in the world to talk to us. A great night in my life.
Ari and Tessa revived The Slits in 2006, performing live shows with a multi-generational backing band. An excellent, exciting album of new material followed, Trapped Animal. It was well received. The vocal chants alone showed Ari was in no mood to sanitise The Slits’ uncompromising sound. The title track itself was testament to this.
Tragically, Ari was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after. In typical style, she chose to reject traditional hospital treatments in favour of unconventional remedies. She died in October 2010. In his book, Anger Is An Energy, her stepfather John Lydon recalls her touching final hours:
“I went to see her in the hospital in 2010, the day before the cancer finally got her and she died. What a fantastic, amazing reunion it was – we sang together. The staff were very generous with us, because we’ve both got big mouths, so the songs we were singing we loud. Four Enclosed Walls was the major feature, with the ‘Aaalllaahhh’. I was trying to get to grips with where the notes were, but Ari was a very good singer and a very good musician. She got it bang on, even then.”
Ari’s influence and impact on modern culture and music was huge. She was embodiment of punk, the essence of its liberty and self-actualisation. She was fearless. She was unapologetic. This continued throughout her life and was not confined to the period around Cut.
But all in all, her most important legacy was that she gave to all women in art. In Vivien Goldman’s words: “You cannot be a female artist on the wild side, very passionate and self-expressive, without being formed at least in part by Ari. In her feral 14-year-old way, she did represent a new archetype of womanhood.”
A special woman. One the world owes a great deal to. Show respect, a decade has already gone by.
❉ The Slits’ ‘Cut’ was originally released on 7 September 1979. Ari Up’s first full-length solo album, Dread More Dan Dead, was released in 2005. For full discography refer to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ari_Up#Discography
❉ A regular contributor to We Are Cult, Paul Matts is a writer from Leicester, England. His debut novel ‘Toy Guitars’ is due to be published in 2019, and a further novella, ‘Donny Jackal’ is currently being edited. He previously promoted live shows as 101 Productions and owned The Attik night club from 2001-2007. He was also a songwriter and guitarist in The Incurables. Paul runs a music blog and has recently started a series entitled 101 Significant Figures. This focuses on under-appreciated individuals in the punk and new wave movement. See www.paulmatts.com for more details.
Header image: Copyright: 1980 David Corio. Credit: Redferns.