Once Upon A Time In Brooklyn

typical-girls

The Slits
Live at The Syrup Room, Brooklyn
Revenge of the Killer Slits EP [S•A•F Records, 2006]

There are so many reasons to love the Slits. Part of the first wave of punk, they quickly transcended their origins as bratty but exuberant amateurs to create a wildly original body of work. They weren’t afraid to be complex. They embraced the messiness and contradictions inherent in being a woman. One second they’d be critiquing society’s determination to put women into narrow little boxes of expectation (“Who invented the typical girl?/ Who’s bringing out the new improved model? / There’s another marketing ploy —typical girl meets the typical boy”); the next they’d be signing about the sting of getting fucked over again. Personal + political, and back again. But it all felt organic. That’s the Slits in a nutshell: ORGANIC. From their messy first demos to the infamous cover of their debut album Cut (you know, the one with the mud and the loincloths depicting the ladies going back to nature) to their gradual evolution into a more lyrically holistic, dub-inflected group, everything they did felt like it was part of an exuberant continuum.

That’s why I didn’t know what to think when I heard earlier this year that group founders Ari and Tessa were reuniting for some recording and a subsequent tour. (Other founding members Viv Albertine and Palmolive chose to pass.) As much as the thought of FINALLY getting to see them excited me, I was worried that it was happening for the wrong reasons (I couldn’t imagine the answer was “money,” but it did cross my mind) rather than for the right ones (what they had to say after all this time away from the spotlight).

Now that I’ve seen them, though, the answers almost (almost!) don’t matter. In an era when punk is reflexively equated with mopey testosterone-driven bands, the Slits’ celebration of feminine rhythms and power feels like a necessary tonic. (Yes, even now, in an era when women can and do succeed in music, and are (more importantly) succeeding on their own terms.) The Slits —along with their peers like Poly Styrene— helped pave the way for a more natural, unselfconscious sexuality (it’s not for nothing they’re name-checked in Le Tigre’s feminist roll-call-to-arms “Hot Topic”). Their nurturing radicalism —so ahead of its time in 1977— feels very of-the-moment.

So, too, does their signature blending of dub, dancehall, and punk. Back in the day, Don Letts used to play dub plates in punk clubs because punk records didn’t exist yet. At the time, there was no division between dub and punk. And punk hadn’t yet become the music of pseudo-disenfranchised white boys but music of the disenfranchised, period. Over the years, though, as punk slowly stratified into an aggro white boys’ club, dub got voted off the island. It’s always good to have it back.

The one off note of the show came in the form of Ari’s intermittent reminders that “the Slits invented punky reggae!” or “This is a genre the Slits invented!” etc. Ari’s asides were jarringly self-inflicted reminders that the group’s heyday had long since passed. They snapped me directly out of the moment (and, consequently, my enjoyment of the set) and dropped me into a running meta-commentary in my head comparing the Slits of legend with those of the present. Calling attention to the elephant in the room (namely, the group’s storied history) may have been Ari’s way of deflecting the past, of cutting it down to size so it was no longer such a daunting entity. But it served to diminish the show going on right in front of us. Which is too bad, because on a purely immediate level the performance was hugely enjoyable —sloppy, yes, but fun and brash too. When she wasn’t making boasts, Ari was a fantastic presence wearing day-glo threads, mile-high dreads and a thousand-watt smile. She led us gleefully through the chorus of “Shoplifting” (“Do a runner! Do a runner!”); throughout the show she exhorted us to make bird sounds to add percussive, jungly élan to the proceedings. She pulled boys and girls up onstage during “Typical Girls,” sang a surprise duet with erstwhile Flying Lizard and NYU prof Vivien Goldman on “Revolution” and led us through not one but two rollicking versions of “Vindictive.” Anchored by Tessa’s booming basslines, the band found a stylistic happy medium between punky two-chord stompers and spaced-out, airy dub.

I wish I could say the same about Revenge of the Killer Slits, a 3-song EP of new material recorded over the summer by Paul Cook (Sex Pistols) and Marco Pirroni (Adam & The Ants, Rema-Rema, etc.). It never quite finds its footing, struggling for relevance over its brief 11-minute running time. By the time it settles in comfortably, it’s almost over.

Opening song “Slits Tradition” wants desperately to be a theme song of sorts, but it’s thin and repetitive, a pallid Go! Team retread. (For a more definitive Slits theme song, look no further than the celebratory “In the Beginning There Was Rhythm”, originally a split single with the Pop Group, since re-issued by Soul Jazz.) Second song “Number One Enemy,” a re-recorded early demo, sounds as half-baked as “Slits Tradition,” falling prey to a deeply muddled mix. (If you’re curious about the raucously punk side of the Slits, I’d recommend their Peel sessions.)

“Kill Them With Love” is where the EP catches fire, sounding fully in the present (rather than coyly self-conscious) for the first time. It’s rollicking and fun in an unselfconscious way. Even if it doesn’t make much sense, its jungly, expressionistic exuberance is infectious. There are some nice harmonies here (not sure if that’s Paul Cook’s daughter Holly singing along with Ari or someone else) and Ari’s lightning-fast rap about her own brand of social Darwinism is pretty entertaining. It gives me hope that the group’s next release will be less of a throwaway —let’s hope for a more consistent effort that retains their wicked sense of humor.

On the horizon: Blast First Petite’s reissue of Return of the Giant Slits [early 2007].
The Slits [official site] | Ari Up | S•A•F Records | In the Beginning There Was Rhythm [Soul Jazz post-punk/dub comp] | Blast First Petite [reissue]

MP3The Slits, ”Liebe und Romanze (Slow Version)”

MP3The Slits, ”In The Beginning There Was Rhythm”

MP3The Slits, ”Heard It Through the Grapevine” | Live version from the Femme Fatale box set [year unknown]

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2 Comments

  1. jon

    I saw the Slits in Atlanta, and Ari made similar comments onstage about the band inventing punky reggae. I guess it didn’t bother me as much as it did you. I think she and Tessa have a right to toot their own horn, and if the renewed interest in post-punk and dance punk inspired the two of them to get back on stage and remind us all of how to do it right, so much the better! They made a joyful noise, and I’m so glad I got to see them.

    • Yeah, it really irked me for some reason. I suppose I was comparing to the relatively low-key, humble way the Raincoats re-introduced themselves after years out of the spotlight —that, to me, was a much more appealing way to do it. I hope my comments didn’t make it seem as though I didn’t enjoy the show, though, because I really did!

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