The Story of One of Punk’s First (Outrageous) Female Bands Told in New Book

By David Chiu

If you come across any book or documentary on British punk rock music from the ‘70s, you’re likely to encounter some mention of a band called the Slits. Along with the Raincoats, the Slits were one of the first female punk groups of that era. The members– singer Ari Up, bassist Tessa Pollitt, guitarist Viv Albertine and (briefly) drummer Palmolive– were brash and single-minded personalities with an unwillingness to compromise when it came to writing and recording their songs or dealing with their record company. Their debut album Cut has been regarded as the Slits’ best work.

Yet the Slits have been relegated as cult figures while their male peers such as the Clash (whom the Slits open for their White Riot tour) the Sex Pistols and the Buzzcocks have enjoyed greater recognition and popularity.  However, British author Zoe Street Howe puts the Slits’ standing and importance in a larger context in her new band biography “Typical Girls?: The Story of the Slits.” The book traces the group’s history from their wild times to their breakup in the early ‘80s. It features recent interviews with all the original Slits as well with the Raincoats, former Public Image Ltd. guitarist Keith Levene, Cut producer Dennis Bovell, and Siouxie and the Banshees drummer Budgie (who also drummed for the Slits).

Twenty years later after the breakup, Ari Up and Tessa Pollitt reunited as the Slits and in October released a new album, Trapped Animal. Viv Albertine, who opted not to join the reunion, is currently working on her solo album and has recently toured America with the Raincoats. This year also marks the 30th anniversary of Cut. The Slits play the Highline Ballroom on Monday night.

A writer and DJ, Zoe Street Howe recently spoke with MME about writing the book, her perspective about the band members then and now, and their uniqueness in punk history.

Where did the idea of the book come about? Did you listen to the Slits growing up?

I had an intense interest in a lot of music before my time anyway (The Who, Cream, Hendrix, Michel Legrand (!), all from my dad’s record collection) but I came to the Slits quite late. I came upon them when I was broadcasting an alternative radio show and a friend of mine gave me a punk compilation CD, and The Slits’ version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” was the most interesting thing on there. They were fun, oddball, they didn’t sound like women or men, there was something very different about them, and I couldn’t believe no one had taken the time to celebrate them in book form before!

How did you go about finding the band members and were they initially receptive to participating in the book?

They were great.  I was so lucky and honoured that they were into it, but also I think in a way they were pleased to have the recognition. Ari has always complained about the Slits being swept under the carpet and in my way I wanted to try and help fix that. Tessa and I linked up via [DJ/producer] Don Letts, who was my first and very inspiring interviewee. Tessa was really a fantastic support, I will always appreciate that. Then I met Ari at a London gig she was playing with her solo group the True Warriors, and then Viv I was connected with thanks to Tessa putting me in touch with Christine Robertson, their former manager and a fascinating woman in her own right. Christine was in touch with Viv, who famously wasn’t talking to anyone about punk at all after leaving it all behind, but I must have got in at the right time because she agreed to an interview and we got on incredibly well!

There were some really amazing stories in the book: how very much involved the band was in terms of the recording and sound in the studio; the association with Neneh and Don Cherry; and how really controversial that album cover was.

Yes, I think their proactivity in the studio is important, a lot of people assume artists, especially women, just do their thing then walk away when the mixing and producing gets under way. They were very hands on and that’s why their work is very much their own. It would be awful if people presumed otherwise, and many do, so I felt it was important to flag that up.

I love the story about how they mixed their version of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” by themselves and with the tea lady! And it goes on to become one of their best-loved tracks. I enjoyed writing about their time at Ridge Farm studio to make ‘Cut’ too, but I can’t pick out a favourite discovery. Writing about the Slits was a rollercoaster and I think that’s how the book has turned out too!

In hindsight had they played the industry game, do you think they could have gone to become bigger stars rather than cult figures?

Possibly yes, but then they wouldn’t be who they are, we love and respect them for the fact they held out and were true to themselves. But I also think that female bands tend to be marginalised whatever they do, so they may as well have just done what they wanted anyway! There is the belief that if they’d followed Island Records’ advice and made “Grapevine” their debut single they’d have been much more commercially successful, but it meant a lot to them to put out a song they’d written themselves.

As you know, the Slits’ debut Cut turned 30 this year. In your opinion why is that considered a special album?

I do indeed, that’s why I was so keen for the book to come out this year! (I’m 30 too – four days older than “Typical Girls” the single in fact!) I think it still sounds ahead of its time, there’s still nothing like it, and the ideas of the Slits’ and Dennis Bovell are very free, and often quite witty. They’d transcended punk in its rawest form, which was vital and an organic development that made perfect sense, and that’s what makes this album interesting. It is full of heart and warmth and honesty, the ideas are just so eccentric and inspiring. I love everything about it, and I never get bored of it!

What has been Ari, Tessa and Viv’s reaction to the book?

Well, Tessa says she loves it and both she and Viv said they are very grateful for it, which is nice, such a relief! I can’t tell you how stressed out I was about trying to get it right, the responsibility is huge. They were both great, very accessible and supportive and positive. Obviously when you interview a lot of people they all have different perspectives and different memories, but I guess that’s inevitable. Ari seems to have more mixed feelings. They wanted recognition but the reality of someone actually coming along and paying tribute to them like this seems to have caused a bit of anxiety, they’ve been exploited a lot in the past by people and I guess that leaves a lot of scar tissue. I’m sure I’d feel similar because you’re not in control, but I also hope I’d recognise when someone is simply trying to pay me a massive compliment.

It’s very much a celebration of them, everyone I spoke to was positive and generous and I made sure it was shaped in that way – my intention was to celebrate, not simply tell a story – I think most people can see that! I can hold my head up and say I wrote it with the utmost love and good intentions and beyond that I can’t control how people take it. That’s up to them, and they’ll see it through their own filter regardless of what I do or don’t do. That’s been an important lesson.

You certainly evoked the very brash and free-spirited nature of the Slits from that era. When you interviewed them, how did they look back at their past? Has time mellowed them a bit?

I think there is a certain amount of mellowness there, that’s natural as other priorities come into play in our lives as we get older, especially for women, having children etc. But they are all still very energetic and impassioned about what they believe in, creative and eccentric! Those elements are still very much in evidence.

From your perspective what is the current relationship between Viv and her former bandmates Tessa and Ari? When I interviewed Viv, her explanation about why she didn’t join the reunion was that she didn’t want to rehash the past.

Yes, that’s fair enough really, they’re all very different people and being in a band like that, or any band, for five years, is quite an achievement for all of them I think! Strong characters with different ideas, that just shows their commitment to what they were doing though, but I gather it was incredibly intense. It’s not really my place to comment on their current relationship, Viv’s just doing her thing, Tessa and Ari are doing theirs in the current Slits incarnation.

Have you listened to the new Slits album ‘Trapped Animal’ and if so, what are your thoughts? And how does this version of the Slits stack up with the original line-up?

I’ve heard some tracks, and really enjoyed them. Quite different from the original but that’s a good thing, you don’t want to become a tribute band of yourself, so it’s right. The dance-hall and reggae influences are more undiluted and direct in the new work. It’s quite different, you have to change and evolve.

If I read correctly, you have been involved in some of Viv’s recent recordings? How is it like working with her?

Yes, in fact I also played live with her numerous times throughout this year, sometimes with Steve Beresford. Her ideas and playing is as quirky and interesting as it ever was. It was really fun working with her new material and developing funny little ideas and arrangements together for voice and percussion, bits of xylophone and drums, I was multi-tasking like never before! Great fun, and very flattering that she’s said our meeting inspired her to pick up her guitar again, to in any way have been a part of that is just lovely.

Are you working on any other literary projects?

I’m writing a book about the children of rock-stars and how they are perceived, in contrast, often, with the reality! It’s called ‘How’s Your Dad?’ The Sons and Daughters of Rock Royalty’ and will be out on Omnibus Press next summer. I’m also writing a short story based on an image by the fantastic Mancunian photographer Kevin Cummins for an anthology of his work coming out next year. I’ve also written another short story for a music-based anthology of work called ‘Hyperkinetic Fiction – High Velocity Tales from the Inner City’ My one for that is a bit dark but (hopefully) funny!… it’s about a record store owner with delusions of grandeur, a spiraling cocaine problem and a near homo-erotic obsession with a has-been electro star…

What do you hope people will get out of reading ‘Typical Girls?’?

I hope they’ll be inspired anew by the Slits and their joyous, wild spirit! I certainly was working on the book. I’m like a different person to the one who started working on it a couple of years ago. They, and the people around them, particularly Keith Levene, spurred me into action in many different ways, and shone a light on a lot of issues I thought I understood.

‘Typical Girls?: The Story of the Slits’ is in bookstores now. For more information about the book visit the MySpace page or Zoe Street Howe’s Web site.

“Ask Ma” from the new Slits album, “Trapped Animal.”