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The Slits continue giving wild women a place in punk 

Wednesday, Dec 9 2009
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Music historians position the Slits as British punk pioneers alongside the Sex Pistols and the Clash. In the 30 years since the Slits broke up, they've been recognized as the proto–riot grrrl band that played punk and reggae. But with their reformation and new album, Trapped Animal, the Slits have revived their mission to invent a creative space for wild women in rock.

The Slits began deep inside London's male-dominated punk scene. Munich-born lead singer Ari Up (then 14 and later to become the stepdaughter of Sex Pistol Johnny Rotten) formed the group with Spanish drummer Palmolive at a Clash show in 1976. The lineup solidified with bassist Tessa Pollitt and guitarist Viv Albertine, who emerged from short-lived bands the Castrators and Flowers of Romance. Mentored by the Clash's Joe Strummer and Public Image Limited's Keith Levene, the Slits saw their revolving drummers go on to join the Raincoats, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and the Pop Group.

But the Slits obviously saw punk as a starting point to what Up terms "a true liberation." Although their first album, 1979's Cut, has become a scene classic, it also found them shedding the genre's formula to forge their own subversively female style. Vaunted reggae producer Dennis Bovell helped them turn their initial loud-fast tendencies into a spare, shambolic, dub-based groove with scratchy rhythm guitar and chanted vocals that gave songs like "New Town" and "Instant Hit" a primordial edge. Punctuated by the occasional animal whoop and operatic shriek, Up's barely-in-tune vocals offered a wry twist to the group's satirical lyrics, which added female stereotyping and romance to punk's stock topics of alienation and boredom.

The Slits also cultivated a visual style that Up calls "sexy by nature and on our own terms." Alongside her artfully ragamuffin compatriots, the tall, dreadlocked, and miniskirted Up offered a wildly confrontational foil to punk frontwomen like the gothic Siouxsie Sioux and the precocious Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex. Cut's cover photo famously showed Up, Pollitt, and Albertine standing topless in loincloths and covered in mud in a typical English garden. Although Up insists the idea was spontaneous, she says it was in line with the Slits' mission "to strip out everything that society was telling women they should be. I also think we wanted to show a connection to the Earth without being hippies or into organized religion. So we thought, 'Let's go back to being tribal women.' We wanted to bring that feeling in both our style and sound."

They did just that on their follow-up, 1981's underrated Return of the Giant Slits. Though they steeped the album in dub and avant-funk, they also steered it confidently into proto–world music territory courtesy of Pop Group drummer Bruce Smith's thumping rhythms. With its more polished songwriting and ethnic touches, Return sealed the group's influence before the Slits broke up.

Up and Pollitt have now successfully reformed the Slits with its second all-female lineup, which features local guitarist Michelle Hill and singer and keyboardist Hollie Cook, daughter of Sex Pistol Steve Cook. On its recently released self-produced album, Trapped Animal, the band has maintained its primal dub sound and topical lyrics while delving into intricate songwriting styles that take in dancehall and musicals, all tied together with expert mixing by veteran U.K. reggae producer Adrian Sherwood. For Up, Trapped Animal shows that the Slits' mandate remains unchanged: "As before, we're still imagining a place to be free girls," she says. "It's still in the music now, and it's with us onstage."

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Ron Nachmann

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