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The Return of the Slits

Punk's first frontwoman Ari Up on reissues, reunion

February 1, 2005 12:00 AM ET

Nearly three decades after its release, Cut, the 1979 record from pioneering female punk band the Slits, is finally available on CD in the States. The reissue just may usher in a revival, as new material by a re-formed Slits, a series of "lost" recordings and the solo debut from singer Ari Up are all set for spring.

"I think we did a lot to set the pace," says Up in her half-British, half-Jamaican accent. "We helped change music for women. And because the Slits didn't get credit at the time, we've become like Greek mythology. The fans are not even fans -- they're more like members of a tribe."

The Slits were formed when fourteen-year-old Up (born Arianne Forster) ran into Spanish-born drummer Palmolive (Paloma Romero) at a Patti Smith show in London in 1976. The two were joined by bassist Tessa Pollitt and guitarist Viv Albertine, who had played with Palmolive in the short-lived Sid Vicious side project the Flowers of Romance. (Palmolive would later join another influential early female punk act, the Raincoats, and then be replaced by future Siouxsie and the Banshees member Budgie.)

"Palmolive had a girl vision," says Up. "She wanted that female energy."

The first song the Slits played in practice was the Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop." "Sure, we couldn't play," says Up, "but we learned quick. Palmolive used to say, 'Being in a band is like being in an army: We have to be militant and disciplined.' It was a balance between that dedication and never taking ourselves too seriously."

With their Flowers of Romance association, the Slits' very first gig was a blowout. "We played a gig with the Clash and the Buzzcocks, to this huge audience in a movie theater," Up remembers. "And we had such a big impact!"

The band members, their dirty hair knotted up into hornet's nests, raged and sneered onstage. Up, her voice alternating between a hot scream and a weird vibrato, had a penchant for flashing her breasts at the audience. "We got our attention," she says, laughing.

Their first full-length album -- and, as of last week, the only one available beyond dusty vintage vinyl bins -- Cut features a cover photo that perfectly captured the band's ferocity. The members stood glaring at the camera from underneath their teased-out hair, wearing only loin clothes and face paint and slathered in mud. The image became notorious overnight.

"Before that, you know, a girl band was about singing with a tambourine and a piano," says Up. "Punk was free expression -- no categories, no heroes, and anyone who has something to say should be able to take the stage and do their shit, no big deal. We were wild and carefree girls, like animals escaping from the zoo!"

That attitude, however, took its toll: The band found itself attacked, both in print and on the street. "The amount of negative press, oh my God!" Up gasps. Being punk then, she says, "was hard enough for the boys, but for the girls it was a witch hunt. People saw us walking down the street, and if they could have put us on the stake they would have done it. I got stabbed in '76: This disco guy walked up behind me and said, 'Here's a slit for you!' My huge, dirty old coat saved my life."

However, the Slits' did get plenty of support from their punk peers. "The boys were so open to women," Up says. "They were like brothers to us. The Clash were like secret Slits members. Without them, I don't know how we would have gotten through."

Those same boys were also an influence on the Slits' sound, with teen dropout Up taking guitar lessons from the Clash's Joe Strummer and picking up a taste for reggae from future stepfather Johnny Rotten. "There was this generation of hippies none of us could stand, so most of us listened only to reggae at that point," she says. "That's how our sound came. We had that really heavy bass from the beginning." Their innovative punk-reggae sound -- shrieks and jangling guitar contrasted with mellow riddims -- was crystallized on Cut, recorded with veteran reggae producer Dennis Bovell.

Other Slits releases are also slated for reissue in March: a 1978 live album of a string of Malcom McLaren-organized gigs in Paris, featuring the Velvet Underground's Nico; and two 1980 EPs, Man Next Door and Animal Space. "They're digging these things up, like a mummy from some pyramid in Egypt!" says Up.

After the Slits split more than twenty years ago, in 1981, Up went on to become the singer for producer Adrian Sherwood's dub-funk project, the New Age Steppers. But the collaboration was short-lived, with Up growing disenchanted with the Eighties scene and haunted by her former band. "People were really intimidated by the Slits," she admits. "So I was followed by this eerie reputation, like 'Oh, don't go near her.'" Only nineteen, and in search of a surrogate tribe, she fled London to stay on a series of Indian reservations in the U.S., eventually making her way to the jungles of Borneo. "I was living with the tribal peoples," she says. "Naked."

Eventually, Up resurfaced in Jamaica, settling in Kingston where she continues to perform a hip-hop-inflected dancehall act under the pseudonym Medusa. For years now, she has shuttled between two homes, in Kingston and on Brooklyn's Flatbush Avenue. Her half-Medusa, half-Slits-influenced solo album, Dread More Than Dead -- named for the hair she's refused to cut since her punk days -- is due in March, with a U.K. tour to follow.

But this fall brought a return to England, to record new Slits material with former bassist Pollitt, with back-up from a chorus of second-generation punk women: daughters of Pollitt, the Clash's Mick Jones and the Pistols' Paul Cook. The record, due this summer, also includes a version of the never-released Seventies live song "Number One Enemy," with Cook on drums and Adam and the Ants' Mark Gaumont on guitar. The re-formed Slits will support the album with a tour, with Princess Superstar on guitar and London DJ (and former Boy George collaborator) MC Kinky on drums.

"It's the real-shit Slits!" Up gushes. "There's always been a lot of humor, a lot of lightness, to us. We sound insane. The girls now, you know, they take themselves too seriously."

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