February 14–21, 2002
Great Day for Up
The Slits’ Ari Up returns, on a mission.
On The Clash’s 1977 White Riot tour, it wasn’t the fiery rhetoric of the headliners, the hopped-up ambisexual pop of the Buzzcocks or the rock ’n’ roll misbehavior of the Subway Sect that caused the most fuss. For all those bands’ punk provocations, it was a quartet of teenage girls who’d been together barely three months that got folks all shook up. The Slits — drummer Palmolive, guitarist Viv Albertine, bassist Tessa Pollitt and 14-year-old singer Ari Up — were, it’s safe to say, unlike anything anyone had ever heard, or for that matter seen, before. As evidenced by the authorized bootleg Retrospective or the early half of the recent live anthology In the Beginning, The Slits were, in those days, an unstoppable ball of energy, the aural equivalent of rolling down a hill inside a barrel. But more than their music or their outlandish appearance — Up would clothe herself in a flasher’s raincoat, or Queen’s Jubilee underwear worn over skintight jeans — the mere fact of the band’s existence seemed to provoke hostility. With a bus full of misbehaving punk rockers, it was The Slits who raised the drivers’ hackles to the extent that he had to be bribed each morning to let them aboard, not because of any specific transgressions, but because the sight of four independent, aggressive, self-determined girls was simply more than he could bear.
"It was OK for the Pistols, for The Clash, for the boys to be bad," Up recalls by phone from her Brooklyn pad, her voice a unique amalgam of her native German, British and a dash of patois from her long years living in Jamaica. "Or at least it was barely acceptable. With us, I mean, it was just unthinkable. They were spitting on me when I walked down the street. One guy stabbed me on the street. I just walked on the street and this guy tried to kill me! I was lucky it was winter and I had a really thick coat on. He was a disco type of guy, very slick looking — exactly one of those harmless-looking people that never got a bad reputation as being violent, unlike the punks. He stabbed me from top to bottom, but then it only caught my coat and then my butt. I still have the scar."
The other Slits have largely given up music: Albertine, who recorded with Up in The New Age Steppers after The Slits broke up in 1981, is a producer with the BBC; Paloma McLardy (Palmolive’s real name) is a born-again who lives in Rhode Island and occasionally performs Slits songs with newly Christian lyrics. But Up has never really stopped performing, though her Jamaican stint kept her out of the eye of the American music press. (You could say music is in her blood; her stepfather is Johnny Rotten.) And in 2000, she began wowing New York audiences with full-band performances of new material and a few old classics (notably The Slits’ "New Town"). Up’s new material is in many ways an extension of The Slits’ final album, the desperately hard-to-find Return of the Giant Slits. (Not even Up has a copy.) On songs like "Baby Mother" and "True Warrior" (which features Up’s ululating howl in all its glory), the reggae influence has emerged full-blown, not just in the music’s bass-heavy grooves, but in the lyrical tension between portraits of street life and mythic anthems. (Video clips of a recent performance are available at www.punk-cast.com). For her Sugar Town performance at the Balcony, Up will probably leave the band behind (due to noise conflicts with the jazz mandolin show in the Troc the same night), but bring backing tapes and backing singers for an event that she says "is not just a performing show; it’s like a party. It’s all freestyling, basically. People sort of jump up [onstage], like guest artists. Sometimes it’s people who I see and know, sometimes it’s spontaneous and I have no idea what the hell they’re gonna do."
It’s not only musically that Up is picking up where she left off. She’s consumed, even obsessed, with the idea that The Slits never got their due, and that the "Slits mission" was never accomplished. Even their vaunted Cut album has never been reissued in the U.S. In the course of a 90-minute conversation, a dozen ideas for re-establishing the band’s beachhead spill out of the phone, from staging a convention of the band’s fans to recording an updated version of the early "Number One Enemy" (no studio version exists, though two live takes can be heard on In the Beginning ), all the way up to re-forming the band with three new women. A new album is due out on Converge Records in the spring, but mostly, Up wants to hit the stage and spread the message. "We made a new style of music that, until this day, I haven’t found or heard anyone [play]," she says. "For real! It’s tragic. We gotta bring it out again. I’m on a mission here! We gotta bring back The Slits!"
Oddly enough, Up admits that she herself didn’t really become a Slits fan until several years ago, when she had to re-learn several old songs to teach them to her new band. Listening to her old music, she says, "My reaction is a mixture of really impressed and really outraged. Impressed because I realize that, even though we jumped on the stage not knowing nothing much, I realize we really learned to play really well after the first year. I’m outraged because I realize that, at the time, we were already playing really good stuff, and people were like, Boo! They can’t play so well!’ We were left with that stigma all throughout The Slits years that we couldn’t play, and that’s bullshit. I want to see some of the guys play some of that complex stuff that we played!" As she finishes the thought, her voice grows higher and raspier until it’s almost musical in its anger.
Though The Slits shied away from being labeled feminists (or, for that matter, punks), Up’s mission is clear: to have female bands "talked about like The Who were, or the Pistols, or the Rolling Stones — fuck it, The Beatles! That hasn’t happened yet. And the reason it hasn’t happened is because something went really politically wrong. Where it’s supposed to have begun is with us, with The Slits, and something went really radically wrong. Because we couldn’t take it to the level that we were supposed to have gotten it to, the new girl bands are suffering from it now." Her inspiration, not surprisingly, comes from the music she made 20-odd years ago. "The more I hear it, the more it makes me be on a mission of trying to get out there as much as I can. And with me being out there, to get The Slits out there. And then not just me and The Slits, but the other girls and the other girl bands. It’s not old-fashioned. If [The Slits’ recordings] were released now, in a really big mega way, the way a real release would be, they could go platinum."
Sugar Town, with Ari Up, Fursaxa, and Pocahontas and the Ribs, Fri., Feb. 15, $10, The Balcony, 10th and Arch sts., 215-922-LIVE, www.thetroc.com.