Punk Redux

Two original members of the Slits are hitting the road with some new mates

Ari Up is not happy. As all six members of the newly formed lineup of the Slits and their tour manager are cramming into their small van in order to drive from Brooklyn, N.Y., to their next gig in Washington, D.C., singer Up realizes something is missing: her CDs, most crucially, her-as-yet-unlistened-to Johnny Cash disc. This does not please her, not one bit.

Nor does it please the interviewer on the other end of the phone, who first fell in love with the Slits nearly 25 years ago and has been greatly anticipating a conversation. Not to happen, aside from a brief, heated exchange. Luckily, her bandmates would prove to be far more accommodating.

As lore has it, the original incarnation of the Slits began in 1976, when a then-14-year-old Ari Up bumped into her friend Palmolive at a Patti Smith show in London, and was asked to become the singer for the all-girl punk band that drummer Palmolive was starting, along with guitarist Viv Albertine and bassist Tessa Pollitt.

If punk rock was about a do-it-yourself aesthetic that placed enthusiasm over musical ability, the Slits could have been the movement's poster children: Pollitt had only first picked up a bass two weeks prior to the Slits' first gig, opening for the Clash.

"I've heard this question before, about the musical ability," Pollitt says. "I would say that's true, and we learned to play very quickly, ya know? ... And Ari had played piano as a child, so we weren't totally incapable. I think it gave it a special quality 'cause we didn't have the knowledge that someone else had."

The Slits' early music was fairly typical, sloppily played three-chord punk songs. If they distinguished themselves, it was by virtue of being one of only a handful of female bands in a largely male-dominated scene. But when Palmolive left the band early on (she eventually joined the Raincoats) and was replaced by future Siouxsie and the Banshees drummer Budgie, and the other members' musicianship improved with practice and frequent gigging, the Slits set themselves apart from the pack for an entirely different reason: their unique sound.

Budgie was an unconventional and extraordinary drummer who gave the band a new light, skittery element as well as a boost in their confidence. It was this lineup that embarked on the Clash's legendary 1978 White Riot tour as opening act; and it was this lineup that convened with reggae guitarist and producer Dennis Bovell at Ridge Farm Studios in the spring of 1979 to record the Slits' finest moment, their debut album Cut.

By the time Cut was recorded, the Slits were anything but a typical punk band. The album is full of rhythms poached from dub reggae, alternately chiming and angular guitar, inventively busy drumming, unusual call-and-response vocals that often resemble chants, and Up's voice, which can swoop from a flat delivery to a chilling scream to a distinctive trill within seconds. Lyrically, the album addresses tough-guy posturing and heroin abuse ("So Tough," which was inspired by a conversation Albertine had with Johnny Rotten about Sid Vicious), breaking the mold into which women were supposed to fit ("Typical Girls") and consumerism as therapy ("Spend, Spend, Spend")--all of it offset by a winking humor. While countless bands have been influenced by the Slits over the years, no one to this day sounds like them.

Two years later, in 1981, the Slits released a follow-up. Return of the Giant Slits, which was not distributed in the United States. It was intended to be slightly more commercial, but ended up darker and more experimental, trading Jamaican reggae influences for African rhythms. Shortly after its release, the Slits parted ways.

In the ensuing years, the women have followed divergent paths, sharing one common trait: motherhood. Up remained in music for a while, contributing to Adrian Sherwood's New Age Steppers before turning away from the limelight. She began resurfacing in 1995, when she began making guest appearances on others' albums, before releasing her first solo album, Dread More Dan Dead, last year. Palmolive currently lives in Massachusetts, where she teaches. Albertine has been making films and keeping a low profile. And Pollitt says, "I've been studying martial arts, and I do reflexology at a center for alcoholics and drug addicts. ... I haven't really done much musically--I've just been fiddling about at home on the piano."

But last year, Up and Pollitt began having the same thought, even though Up lives in Jamaica and Pollitt in London, and despite the fact that they had largely fallen out of touch over the years: Let's get the Slits back together. They asked Palmolive and Albertine to join them, but neither was interested, so the pair soldiered on with a revolving lineup to record an EP, Revenge of the Killer Slits, which, despite only consisting of three songs, is rather schizophrenic. "Kill Them With Love" is a reworking of a track that originally appeared on Dread More Dan Dead; "Number One Enemy" is a raucous punk tune that dates from the band's earliest days but was never recorded; and "Slits Tradition," the lone new song, incorporates rumbling electronics to achieve a trip-hop vibe while still managing to sound like the Slits.

Up and Pollitt decided they wanted to start playing live shows again, too, so they recruited four young new members to fill out the lineup. They've already written some new songs and intend to begin recording them next year. "Basically we got together at the beginning of the year and did some small shows in London, Dublin and Berlin," says the new drummer, Anna. "We only played a short set. And then we just met in New York (before the current tour), and we had a week's rehearsals, and we just kind of doubled the set (length). And that was enough. We're sounding good."

Asked if it feels odd to be playing the old songs again after so many years, Pollitt says, "No, it doesn't at all. I don't think they've really dated. They're still relevant today. About half the set is new songs, and half old songs, and I think for the younger generation, it's good for them to hear the old songs. But we want to keep moving forward. We don't want to be a retro band, just playing the old songs."

And how does it feel to be back on stage for the first time in 25 years? "It feels amazing. I can't think why I stopped."

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