The Mighty Slits

“People didn’t know whether to fuck us or kill us, because we looked like we’d come out of a porn magazine.”

Becoming a parent raises a whole load of issues. There is no right or wrong for most of us, just shades of grey. Do you allow your children to be self-expressive and free or do you set firm boundaries for example? Both approaches have their pros and cons, the more liberal among us but be inclined for towards the former approach, I certainly was until I had children of my own. On the other hand children who are brought up with strict and clear rules far from being the uptight little Hitler’s we might imagine are often well adjusted. Having been reared in an environment where rules were understood and everyone knew their place often engendered a sense of self confidence.

In the 70’s there were a lot of children around suffering the aftershock of the liberal 60’s. Their parents might have the attitude that anyone could do what they wanted, they had experienced freedom and didn’t always want to be tied down to the needs of their children who were encouraged to run wild and express themselves. When that works it works, there are no rights and wrongs remember but sometimes it could go horribly wrong.

Take the case of Ariane Daniela Forster, her mother Nora was an original rock chick, involved in the music business, friend of Jimi Hendrix and, in the mid 70’s girlfriend of guitarist Chris Spedding which had led to her locating from Germany to England. Nora’s home became a refuge for various musical waif and strays including members of the Clash and the Pistols. 14 year old Ariane was drawn towards the lifestyle and in was soon trying to form a band herself.

She connected with Joe Strummers Spanish girlfriend known as Palmolive because her Spanish name proved too challenging for Joe’s liberal hippie mates. There was a drum kit in Joes squat and Palmolive taught herself to play in a style all of her own. Ariane became Ari Up the vocalist and they were eventually joined by two other barely competent musicians Tessa Pollitt on Bass and Viv Albertine on guitar.

And The Slits were born.

The Slits always seemed to me to be comic like characters. They were as tight as could be with each other. Ari Up was a force of nature but also probably a real pain in the arse. She was 14 remember and had little experience in social conformity, if she wanted to piss on stage she would piss on stage she knew no boundaries. The Slits were a gang, if they were not in the Slits they probably would not have been in bands at all but amazingly they had all discovered, almost by accident that were in the best band ever for their talents.

There had never been a band before remotely like the Slits.

On one hand this made things easy, they were supporting The Clash on tour (Albertine was now in a relationship with Mick Jones) before they could even master starting and stopping at the same time. In fact they gave an interview to national paper ‘The News of the World’ (which described their name as unprintable in a family paper) before they had even appeared live. On one level they had it handed to them on a plate, the band were impossible to ignore, John Peel loved them and they recorded an iconic session with him, the band were at the eye of the hurricane that was punk in 1977.

On the other hand being a bunch of young women who couldn’t really play very well and clearly didn’t really care about tat fact, a band which had a singer who refused to censor her words or actions, a band who were as thick as thieves and had little regard for the opinions of others, were very vulnerable.

Just walking down the street was likely to produce, at the very least, verbal abuse. The more high profile they were the more likely they would be verbally or physically attacked. By mid-1977 it was open season on the punks from the tabloid media down to the Teddy Boys who still walked the streets of London.

As the band gained some control over their instruments they began gravitating towards reggae which led to Palmolive being ousted from the band. Like Ari Up Palmolive was feisty to say the least. As a personality rather than a musician she would be missed.

The only significant recording by the Slits was to be their LP Cut which was famous for featuring the remaining three members naked covered in mud on the cover. It wasn’t really titillating but it was very bold. The LP was produced by reggae producer Dennis Bovell who did a fantastic job of combining dub and punk, with the aid of male drummer Budgie (soon to join Siouxsie and the Banshees) the band had made a seminal and album which was impossible to categorise.

I saw the Slits on two occasions. The first time was in Derby in 1978 when they supported the Clash on yet another tour. Times had moved on, I was one of only two people in the audience with really long hair. I remember the band being subjected to a barrage of saliva and either Ari Up or Viv Albertine suggested the male members of the audience should try ejaculating rather than spitting.

That made me chuckle.

My second encounter with the band was at the Glastonbury Festival in 1979. At this point the band were hanging around with Bristol based Avant Guardists The Pop Group. During the latter’s challenging set three small bizarre looking women danced onto the stage and added to the general chaos by prancing about and hitting things. It was, of course, The Slits having a day out in the country.

They made another record ‘Return of the Giant Slits’ but Cut was good enough for me I didn’t want to hear anymore. Then the band disbanded.

As might be predicted none of the Slits lived an unconventional life for too long. Viv Albertine, after a spell making films and surviving cancer married and settle on the south coast. That didn’t last forever, her autobiography ‘Clothes Clothes Clothes,Music Music Music, Boys Boys Boys’ is certainly the most brutally honest and uncompromising rock story ever written in the first person.

Tessa Pollitt survived a period of heroin addiction and the death of her partner, Sean Oliver from the Pop Group, from sickle cell anaemia. Palmolive, unexpectedly became a born again Christian and relocated to the States.

But it would always be Ari Up who you would be most fearful for. Without a liberal background she wouldn’t have been Ari Up the crazy front woman who obeyed no rules. But then she wouldn’t have been stabbed twice and raped because she probably wouldn’t have been in a situation where these things could have happened to a girl in her mid-teens. Her free spirit led her to live in Indonesia and Belize before settling, in a manner, in Jamaica. Unfortunately her values had meant that her twin sons had been raised almost feral, they were actually adopted by Nora and her long term partner John Lydon who set about teaching them to read and even to speak properly. Ari Up’s values also lead to her refusing any ‘western’ treatment’ for breast cancer.

She died at the age of 48 and Lydon and Nora also assumed care of her youngest child.

For a band with such a thin back catalogue the bands legacy is huge. Rather like the with the Fall having some reference to their work would mark you out as being made of the right stuff throughout the eighties. Like the Fall the Slits were huge John Peel favourites but the difference between them and the Manchester band just highlights the differences between men and women in rock music. The the Fall’s Mark E Smith this was all he knew, if he had to go on stage in a wheelchair as happened at his final gig then that was the price to pay. In contrast the Slits had better things to do, three of them did appear on stage together again briefly but it was no big deal and didn’t last long, for the likes of Viv Albertine and Ari Up the band was just one chapter in extraordinary lives.

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