Zoe Street Howe’s new biography of punk’s original bad girls, The Slits, is released in July through Omnibus. Alex Ogg tried to find out more about the motives behind the book and its conclusions.
You’re obviously of a slightly different generation to the Slits – what first attracted you to their legacy? When did you first hear their records?
Why, thank you for noticing (all that Botox has clearly paid off). Yes, I am, I’m almost exactly the same age as their wonderful album Cut – we’re both 30 this autumn – which seems auspicious. But since being a sprog I was always very interested in music from before my time, I used to rifle through my Dad’s prodigious vinyl collection all the time and spent most of my childhood in headphones, plucking out my favourite records here (Pete Townshend ones I loved, I was quite obsessed with him), discarding the Richard Clayderman ones there. So I always listened to records from the generation or so before, and adored the punky ones especially. I remember being about four and looking at a Toy Dolls single with awe – the fluorescent green cover, the chortlesome lyrics, the lairy shouting, I felt very akin to it all.
My love of punk, reggae and experimental music blossomed and continued but it was later that I got into The Slits, although I wished it had been earlier – what better role models could there have been for a teenage girl who didn’t want to play the game? When I first heard The Slits it all fell into place. I was listening to a punk compilation my friend had given me for my birthday, and the stand-out track by far was The Slits’ ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’. I couldn’t believe how cool it sounded, everything about it, all those funny vocal quirks and nuances of Ari’s, the menacing backing vocals and the funk/reggae element; fantastic. I wanted to hear more, bought Cut and then The Peel Sessions, and then my husband managed to procure me a copy of Return Of The Giant Slits (which wasn’t easy to come by at the time). I just fell in love with the creativity, the originality, the humour and just everything about them – including the fact they didn’t feel they had to be rampant militant feminists or ‘man-haters’ to do what they were doing – they just did it, against all odds, which ultimately meant they were feminist but in the most positive way. They didn’t have to say it, they were just girls doing what they wanted to do without feeling they had to worry about what anyone else thought, or feeling like they had to play up to a silly, sexist ideal to get where they needed to go. Which is great!
The Slits – alongside Poly Styrene, Siouxsie, Pauline Murray, the Raincoats, were the torch-bearers for (ahem) ‘women in punk’. To what extent, from your research, do you believe the movement can legitimately be said to have carried a feminist edge? Do you believe their work was a breakthrough from the boys’ club of rock ‘n’ roll?
I think just the fact that they were doing what they wanted to do, creatively and without feeling the need for permission or feeling they had to change, is very feminist, although The Slits were bored of being asked about Women’s Lib all the time just because they were an all-girl group. Were The Clash referred to as an all-boy group? No, they were just a group, and I think, from the Slits’ point of view at least, they would have loved just to have been seen as a group too, without feeling that people were obsessing over the female aspect of it in that political sense. I think there was something a little jarring about the ‘Women in Punk’ thing. Again, no-one talked about ‘Men in Punk’, they were just punks! It’s a shame they had to be seen as separate, and also lumped in with groups they actually didn’t necessarily feel they had anything in common with other than their gender.
Just from the fact they were pushing forward and doing their own thing as girls in 1970s Britain is feminist, but they might not have been thinking about it in that way. However, it would have been hard to ignore the fact that sexism was a big issue, as it still is but in a slightly more subtle way nowadays. I know that Poly Styrene felt she almost dampened her femininity completely by not playing up to certain visual ideals, in a bid to be taken seriously in her own right, I’m sure many people might not agree, but that seems to be how it felt for her. She even threatened to shave her head if she at any point felt she was going to be made into a sexual object (and I think she actually did it!) But I feel that, speaking for The Slits, they celebrated their femininity and expressed it very naturally in an unpretentious way, they were just themselves, so I don’t think they were as statementy as many people assume them to be.
As far as being a breakthrough from the boys’ club, definitely. They might not have gone into it with that sole objective but I think The Slits, just doing what they did and not feeling they had to play it like Suzi Quatro or the Runaways, inspired other acts such as The Raincoats and others, and it naturally broke through that glass ceiling, to a certain extent. Not as much as maybe it should have done – and looking at the music industry now, it sometimes feels like we’ve gone backwards – but it made a difference. And guys respected them as much as girls did. They didn’t just fancy them, they appreciated their music as much as they did the music of The Clash and Buzzcocks etc, so they did achieve something very important in that sense.
Conversely, is there a danger that too much critical theory gets in the way of what the band achieved musically? The (occasionally) great live shows, the wonderful Peel sessions, etc?
I think so, definitely! There are certain books out there on punk etc which are like dusty academic theses, which seems to not be quite in the right spirit from where I’m standing at least. These groups’ appeal in the first place was their immediacy, urgency and fire, so to pontificate too much about Situationism, feminism etc can dampen what was and still is exhilarating about those groups and their legacies, in my humble opinion.
I think The Slits achieved a heck of a lot musically, they went into some very interesting areas, and to listen to a lot of what they did now is still so exciting and a bit mind-bending. It would be a shame to theorise the arse out of it for the sake of obvious and often albeit perfectly relevant arguments about feminism and so on. I think some balance is necessary I suppose, and I hope the book reflects that. To pigeon-hole The Slits in any way would be a terrible shame, it would mean missing out on the magic. And no pigeon-hole exists that they could fit into anyway! There is so much more to them, and that is one of the reasons I felt so strongly that I wanted to write about them.
There was a fair degree of ambivalence that the band faced both from musicians and audiences – I’m thinking of the attempted knifing of Ari at the Screen on the Green gig, etc. Like Siouxsie, too, it took a long time for them to sign a recording contract. Why do you think they produced such hostility? And how far to you feel that was a function of their gender?
Yes, there was a lot of ambivalence, Don Letts said they were like the ‘Witches of West London’! People spat at them, assaulted them, just felt totally threatened by them. They turned a lot of things upside down, they wore togs from sex shops but toughened up the style so they looked scary and hard as opposed to submissive and dolly-bird-ish, which was intended to freak blokes out. Viv Albertine said that they ‘took what men liked and fucked it up for them.’
So they came in for it a lot because simply the way they looked, before you even got to the way they acted, could be extremely confusing for men. And needless to say they didn’t feel they should have to flirt and smile all the time to get what they wanted. I think they had to be quite tough in all their dealings because they were so often patronised by the men they worked with, engineers and sound guys etc. The world is still like that in many ways for women unfortunately, of course, even if it’s not an intentional sexism, it’s there, and they came up against it all the time, which was hard for them even though they mostly stayed very positive throughout.
According to Ari, the deal with the record contract was more that they were very determined to sign with the right label – I think there were quite a lot of labels interested in them, because lots of those groups were snapped up quite quickly, but they were really keen not to jump when the first one came along. Ari mentioned that Joe Strummer approached her in a club before they signed to Island and said, ‘Respect, The Slits, you’re the only ones who didn’t sell out,’ but she was totally bemused because she said The Slits really wanted to sign a record contract, they were just waiting for the right one!
Ari’s mum Nora was a bit of a mover and a shaker in the music industry so I imagine she must have been a good person to advise them on issues like this, which is why I think they were so careful despite being so incredibly young.
What do you think are the qualities of the individual members and their collective strengths?
Ari was and still is quite a dazzling performer, just one of the most exciting people you could see on stage – there is no one like her in any way! Plus her musicality cannot be underestimated; she has very original ideas and seems to be able to pick up any instrument and play it very well in a scarily short space of time! She also always had a real sense of freedom which meant she didn’t need to be coaxed into trying things out, she just did it – very inspiring.
Viv is also musical in the most original way; her composing is still very unpretentious and eccentric, very individual, and her songwriting is much more about story-telling. Budgie rightly observed that her lyrics are like diary entries, so every song she writes is very personal and quite emotionally exposed, which is brave. She was also very much a driving force behind the group, very grown-up and determined – she pulled things together a lot.
Tessa was the ‘quiet one’ – every band has to have a quiet one, and it’s usually the bass player! But she has a real strength and grittiness about her, and on stage she still exudes a real toughness. It works to have this more enigmatic character on stage alongside all the madness! And she became a really great reggae bass-player, really strong grooves. I know everybody went on about how ‘they couldn’t play’ but if you go beyond the early live gigs, there are some great live recordings of them, and the bass just sounds perfect on them, as does Viv’s twisted spaghetti-western guitar – they could play! And the people who wrote them off and ignored them after their chaotic early gigs really missed out on hearing some fabulous music.
Palmolive really created something new on the drums, and she also had the fire and determination to really go for it and get things happening very quickly within the band in those early years. Her writing could also swing from being rather poetic and contemplative to completely mad and very funny.
What’s your take on the decision to sign up with Talcy Malcy, which obviously saw off Palmolive?
From what I gather they felt at the time that they did need a push. They’d been messed about by so many managers they (apart from Palmolive) felt flattered that someone like Malcolm was so interested in them. So they thought they’d give him a try but the partnership didn’t last very long. His intentions for them were at odds with their own plans, as you can imagine! That wasn’t the only reason for Paloma’s departure but it was one in a long line of catalysts which created tension, but in the end it was more a case of, unfortunately, a pushing as opposed to a jumping.
Cut really divided the critics. On the one hand, some really bought the journey into dub. For others, the spontaneity of their live work and Peel sessions had gone. What’s your take on the group’s musical growth?
I think they really blossomed when they made Cut, apart from anything else, they were given the space, time and support to realise some of the ideas that they previously hadn’t been able to manifest.
I’m sure many people would argue that they were still very spontaneous live, you still never knew what was going to happen at a Slits gig and that their final Peel Sessions, post-Cut, were also really wonderful. They wanted to progress and get better, but many fans did feel betrayed when they felt their idols were moving on. I suppose it went from that feeling of ‘anyone can do this and so can you’ to something more complex which might have made some fans feel a bit separate. I would have thought that the real spirit of punk was doing what you wanted, expressing your individuality and not being held back by anything, but a lot of people who called themselves punks found it hard to cope with the reality of that when their heroes started moving forward and experimenting.
But in my opinion, the wild humour of The Slits is very much intact on Cut – on ‘Shoplifting’, for example, Ari puts so much effort into her screaming that she wet herself, and you can hear her giggling, ‘I pissed in my knickers!’ And it’s been left in the mix, which is very Slits!
Dennis Bovell was a great person to have around in the studio because he got their humour and what they wanted to do, but didn’t stifle them or just take over – The Slits wouldn’t have allowed that! But he worked them hard because he knew that they would want to be able to go out live and perform Cut to the best of their abilities. They had been on their own before this point, so it was good for them as musicians to really be able to develop their ideas with someone who could help them get it right and move forward.
Then they started exploring funk and world music but split in 1981; was that inevitable?
Yes, but I think they had quite a long career together considering how young they were – when they first formed in 1976 Ari was 14, Tessa was 17, Viv was 19, 20-odd (quite a gulf for a 20-year-old to be working with a 14-year-old too, apart from anything). They were growing and changing and becoming women within this close-knit but often fractious group, and they were all different people who were starting to grow up and away from each other and become interested in different things. So yes, I think it was probably inevitable, but I think it’s also fantastic that they had such an eventful and creatively alive five years together, they achieved a lot more than many people realise.
On a pragmatic side, how long did the book take to write, and how arduous was the research cycle?
I wrote the book in about 18 months all in all. I spent ages and ages trawling the internet initially for research but there was a comparatively limited amount of information out there on them, so everything really came from interviews, which was how I wanted it really, from the horses’ mouths. It was a complete adventure and I loved every minute of writing it, although it could be a bit of an emotional rollercoaster at times, I never once regretted doing it and find them all more inspiring as individuals and as a collective than ever.
Where do you see the band’s influence now?
Musically I hear it from time to time in different groups. It’s never quite the same, nor would one want it to be of course, as that would be missing the point of all that originality. If I hear bands that sound like them I get a bit annoyed – The Slits were going their own way and sounded like nobody else, why can’t you do the same? That would be more in the Slits’ spirit, ultimately!
But more importantly I think their influence is greater from the point of view of their attitudes and their spirit as a group. Just on a personal level, I found that after working with them and their compadres, in particular Keith Levene and the Raincoats, a lot of things clicked for me and I became much more confident, as a person and also in a creative sense – I ended up going back to music myself after a long hiatus (and am now working with Viv Albertine and Keith Levene, respectively) which is something I didn’t really know whether I’d ever get back into.
They’ve helped things to really blossom for me, so I hope that their positive, vital stance transmits through the book and has that effect on other people who read it too! I really feel their value as role models can’t be underestimated, you just have to get past the ‘mad girl punks’ thing – no one denies that they undoubtedly were that too, but they are so much more besides, and that’s why their legacy remains so inspiring.