1976, London, a handful of teenage girls decided to start a band. When I say “teenage”, I mean fourteen to sixteen. A couple had passed through short-lived early punk bands, but none of them really knew how to play their instruments. The only one with any massive natural talent was the lead singer, Ari Up, a German-born spitfire in possession of an amazing voice. The Slits exploded onto the scene, opening for the Clash a year after forming. They were riotous, chaotic and utterly bratty. Drummer Palmolive couldn’t keep a steady beat, so the din pulsed, speeding and slowing according to her irregular patterns. Original guitarist and bassist Kate Korus and Suzy Gutsy were soon replaced by Viv Albertine and Tessa Pollitt. Ari Up had a habit of lifting her dress to show audiences her panties.
There may have been all-girl rock bands before the Slits. The Shaggs were around, but they don’t really count because they were forced to be a band by their father, who had received a message from God or something, and they were never any good. Possibly, some record company scum had put together an all-female group for novelty’s sake, like the Monkees with boobs. Probably there were others that never made it out of the garage. The Slits were, to the best of my knowledge, the first self-starting, all-female band in rock. And they named themselves the Slits. That’s nailing the flag to the mast.
Some live recordings of the early Slits exist, but are hard to come by. They were in The Punk Rock Movie, toured with the Clash again and learned to play. Palmolive left, to be replaced by Budgie, later of Siouxsie and the Banshees, which tightened up the rhythm section. They embraced reggae, landed a record deal and released Cut, which featured the three female members wearing only loincloths and mud on the cover. Neneh Cherry, daughter of jazz great, Don Cherry, added vocals on the album. Budgie would eventually be replaced by Bruce Smith, drummer for the Pop Group, but publicity photos would almost always exclude the boys. (Budgie can be seen far off in the background in one of Cut’s inner photos.) The Slits were willing to have a guy pound skins, but they were female-led and girl-powered. They toured like mad, released a load of singles and another album, Return of the Giant Slits, and broke up in 1982.
Palmolive formed the Raincoats after leaving the Slits. Viv Albertine made films for the BBC and British Film Institute. Ari Up moved to some jungle in Indonesia to live with head-hunters, eventually returning to music with the New Age Steppers. A version of the Slits reappeared in ’05, featuring Ari Up, Tessa Pollitt and Hollie Cook, daughter of Sex Pistol guitarist Steve Cook. Ari Up died of cancer in 2010, aged 48. Her death was announced by John Lydon (aka JohnnyRotten), who was her stepfather, having married her mother back when the Sex Pistols were a going concern.
Everything about the Slits is fucking awesome. They were children when they started, girls, who came out of the gate raucous and defiant, kicking down barriers and not letting anything get in their way, not even their inability to play. They took the sausage-fest of rock by storm, transformed themselves almost overnight into a dancehall/punk assault unit, attacking gender stereotypes and flying in the face of what girls were supposed to be, naked and filthy. They had brass ovaries and when it was time to quit, they quit. They laid the foundation for chicks in punk, creating the look and attitude that would later become Riot Grrrl. Anyone who cares fuckall about feminism should be required to own Cut. Anybody trying to raise up a ferocious little girl should be slipping that one into the player as often as possible.
The Big Drum In The Sky Religion has mostly had male participants. The first performing incarnation featured a couple women, anarchists who were in it more for the opportunity to tell their friends they were in a crazy, noisy improve band than because they actually intended to actually do anything. Italian Ice, my adopted little sister and my daughter’s unofficial goddess-mother, got in pretty early and is still in whenever she’s around. She tends to spend a lot of time in third-world jungles. Puddle Creature played a few shows and was on a couple releases before disappearing into the blighted suburban wasteland that is Northern Virginia. JuJu “Dallas” Sweetlime tore some amazing, fucked up lounge jazz out of a Wurlitzer keyboard and threw down some random vocals until she moved to NYC to mooch cigarettes and blow off hipsters. I managed to coerce C.C. LaLucha into tickling some ivories and reading Revelations in Spanish before we parted ways. Other than those few, and that trannie who was around for a little while at the beginning, it’s been all male.
Guys tend to approach me and ask if they can sit in. Sometimes they stick around for a while. Women don’t seem to be into it. I don’t know why. I’ve tried to recruit females, offered to teach them to play an instrument, usually bass. I’ve pestered and cajoled, but the chicks just don’t wanna. It makes no sense to me. I have always wanted to play music and would have jumped at any chance to be part of a totally free-form, no-need-for-talent, all-improv entity at any point in my life. I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t want to get in BDSR, but I’ve come to accept that some people don’t.
What I really want, of course, is a woman like Ari Up. In the band and in my life. I’m single now and not really looking, but if I could find a single woman, around 40-45, optimally with a decent voice, who wanted to jump into BDSR, take on some of the managerial chores, do some art, make some noise and cuddle up on the sofa to watch The Holy Mountain once in a while, I’d be all over that like ugly on an ape. If she had four-foot dreads, that’d be fine too.
Unfortunately, such a woman is unlikely to show up any time soon. The Slits came out of a specific time, place and social situation. Punk rock blew the structure apart. The dark stars lined up perfectly to create the Slits. If there’s another woman like that anywhere in the universe, she sure as fuck ain’t in Harrisonburg, Virginia. The best I can hope for is to raise up the Spotted Opossum to be that awesome.
Speaking of the Spotted Opossum, she was running full-speed down a hall recently and discovered, the hard way, that her mouth is the exact same distance from the floor as a doorknob. There was some screaming and crying and blood on her jammies, followed by a trip to the E.R. We took her in for oral surgery t’other day, but the doctor was unable to save her big, right front tooth, which was a baby tooth and going to come out in a year or so anyway. So now the grrrl has a big gap in the front which looks pretty cute and tough. As designated Keeper of the Relics, I already have a jar for her teeth. Wasn’t expecting to need it quite this soon. I’m happy to say, she hasn’t slowed down. Knocking out one of her teeth hasn’t dampened her reckless joie de vivre one tiny bit. She continues to be the smart, funny, fearless, pink explosion of wild abandon she’s always been. I’m looking into fiddle lessons, so you can expect her to show up on even more BDSR releases, if she’ll let me record her.
I’m sure the Mommy will expose the girl to smarmy, gutless femmy music. Her friends will doubtlessly get her into whatever godawful boy bands and bubble-gum pop kids are into in a few years. It falls to me to provide my daughter with access to good music. That means Can, the Clash and Acid Mothers Temple, certainly, but she’s a girl and she needs to hear female voices. Elizibeth Cotton is one of her faves right now. She digs the Slits and As Mercenárias. I haven’t played Bikini Kill, Melt Banana, Crass, Babes In Toyland, 7 Year Bitch or AIDS Wolf for her yet – those bands are a little too sonically harsh for her, but I will. I’m looking for some Slant 6, Breeders and Team Dresch, if anybody has it.
I’m also looking for women in the experimental/improve/noise scene. The only band I can think of that was hellishly noisy that had a woman that BDSR has performed with was Blue Sabbath Black Fiji. Guitar As Spacecar had a female shrieker out front, but they played precious little before hanging it up. I’ve heard rumors that there are women in the scene someplace, but I ain’t seen many. If you know of any, please hook me up with contact info.
In the meantime, check out the Slits, support women in rock and under rocks and free Pussy Riot.
Brown Hat the Espresso Shaman
The pun is always intended.