Urban Girlhood on the Rebound

The Slits re-up the ante

For all its trumpeted let's-all-get-together-and-fuck-shit-up egalitarian spirit, a lot of early London punk spewed out in a geyser of misdirected testosterone. Some of the scene's most beloved bands had either some beef with the ladies (see: the Stranglers; Never Mind the Bollocks), or ignored them completely. In that sea of swaggering, suddenly empowered revolutionaries, the Slits, a girl-dominated dub-punk outfit, still stand as one of the most inspiring examples of what the adolescent human spirit is capable of when given a guitar, a supportive scene, and a license to make incompetent rock 'n' roll.

Their 1979 debut LP Cut manages to sound bristling and nurturing at once. The dubby rhythms veer between confrontational and gentle, while head Slit Ari Up sings like a coy banshee with an ax to grind and nothing to lose, backed by lushly lo-fi slumber-party harmonies. Compared to many of their more direct fellow punks, the Slits' lyrics are subtle, spacey, and verbose, and their survey of urban girlhood is still apt now — the gleeful shoplifting, the love/hate of sketchy rock dudes, the pain-in-the-assness of participating in a rock scene made by and for those dudes, the sweet ennui of riding buses and smoking cigarettes. Their dubbed-up cover of "Heard It Through the Grapevine" reinvents and reinforces the primal awesomeness of Motown girl groups, knowingly placing the band in a long line of talented, irritated ladies caught in a man's world.

But it is almost 30 years later, and the Slits are arriving fashionably late to the '70s-punk-reunion-tour party. The band has languished in resounding silence since the 1981 release of their sophomore album, an underwhelming concert bootleg called Return of the Giant Slits — although Ari Up was punk-rock royalty before punk really existed. (The Slits landed the coveted opening spot on the Clash's 1977 tour and legend has it that Up learned her first chords, as a 14-year-old, from Joe Strummer.) The group has long been venerated by punkophiles, and as other long-dormant acts have traded in on their renewed cache with new albums and fancy tours, the Slits kept quiet — until this year, when Up and bassist Tessa Pollitt reformed the band and released their first record of new material in more than 25 years.

The Slits, 2006-style.
The Slits, 2006-style.

The Germans probably have a single word to express the complicated pain of "beloved, defunct band lingers in obscurity, only to suddenly return and release a crappy record that you inadvertently hear and abhor, ruining your cherished fantasy of them as forever young and perfect," but English will have to suffice here: Don't buy the new Slits EP Revenge of the Killer Slits. It's an awkward, middle-aged embrace of tech-y dancehall, old punk, dub, and baseless bravado.

But of course, we can't ask middle-aged parents to be "punk" the way they were as snarly, broke teenagers in the '70s. What are we supposed to do when they reappear and pull into town, as the Buzzcocks, Mission of Burma, Gang of Four, the Undertones, and other lapsed beloveds have done recently, dangling the promise of finally hearing favorite jukebox jams performed live by their creators? We line up like suckers, shell out the cash, hear our mixtape gems, wince through the painful new stuff, and go home wishing we were sentient music fans the first time around.

Pollitt says of the reunion, "It's not a retro-chic thing ... the Slits still have work to do." It's nice to think of these ladies digging down and making something weird and rad of their forthcoming LP. But the work of the old Slits — a playfully aggro feminism slung out across jams that tied London edge to Third World dub sensibility — is already done.

 
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