The Slits – by Zoe Howe
As a tribute to the late and amazing Ari Up here is an extract for Zoe Howe’s brilliant book about the band. The book captures the band’s genius and unfettered wildness perfectly and is available from Amazon.
Extract from ”ËTypical Girls?’ by ZoÃÂ« Howe. (Omnibus Press 2009)
This is an extract from the chapter in which The Slits, together with their new drummer, soon-to-be-a-Banshee Budgie (formerly of Liverpool punk group Big In Japan) and producer Dennis Bovell, work on their now classic album Cut, during the early summer of 1979.
Let’s start off by busting a particularly popular Slits myth”Â¦
”Â¦Dennis Bovell has often referred to himself as ”Ëthe lollipop man’ who helped The Slits across the road, but over the years a rumour has persisted that he actually played all of the instruments on Cut, rather than The Slits.
Anyone who knows anything about this group and their attitudes to their work would find it highly unlikely that they would blithely step aside and let that happen. This was long before the era of routine auto-tuning or Pro-Tools, and even if it had have been, The Slits would have had no part in it, and would have gone for the flawed but honest approach. They hadn’t waited all this time for the right moment to make an album only to let a more experienced musician push them out of the way and do it all for them.
Nevertheless, The Slits have had to endure the repeated telling of this frustrating and unfair myth since the release of the album in 1979 ”â and Dennis insists it really is just that ”â a myth. In fact, The Slits deliberately barred him from attempting to shoehorn his own contributions in for the very reason that they knew people would be suspicious when the album was released.
He remembers: “I tried to get in there occasionally and play things but they all said, ”ËPeople will know!’ There was one time, I forget what song it was, but I played something on guitar that I thought was very close to brilliant. Everyone’s going ”ËYeah!’, and then I looked over my shoulder and Viv’s in tears. She said, ”ËRub that off.’ I said, ”ËBut it’s great!’ and she said, ”ËYeah ”â no one’s ever going to believe that I played that. So rub it off.’ I didn’t even take a cassette of it ”â it was an acoustic thing, like Segovia. Off it went.
“The thing is, I had to make the album them ”â because they would then have to go out and play the album live, so I didn’t want to stick too much crap on there and then defeat the object of what they were trying to do in the first place.
“I’d hear that live they weren’t always that together. So rather than see them at their worst, I wanted to have them at their best, and then see how they could make their best better. Give them some motivation and something to aspire to, so they can say, ”ËRight, we’ve done this in the studio and we know it can be done, all we need to do is rehearse a bit more.’ I couldn’t go, ”ËOut the way, I’ll do this’ ”â and then on Top Of The Pops they’d have been like, ”ËEr, we can’t actually play it because the producer did it all”Â¦’
“I was just there to help them get it on that tape and have the patience to sit there and go, ”ËNo, one more time again, yes, you’re getting it’, using the old drop-in technique. Even if it was a patchwork quilt at the beginning, by the end it was a silk sheet.”Â
Some of the newer songs, which featured Viv’s lyrics, were still in the process of being arranged and worked out at Ridge Farm Studio in Surrey. Drummer Budgie remembers watching Ari working out the piano part to ”ËTypical Girls’, and Viv going through the words to ”ËSpend, Spend, Spend’, the darkly witty ode to retail therapy, marrying up her lyrics to Ari’s complex melody.
“Ari had this Teutonic pronunciation,”Â says Budgie, “In ”ËSpend Spend Spend’, the words were so good, ”ËI am trapped in a flat but at least it’s raining”Â¦ it’s not pills and gin stopping me from committing a crime.’
“I always remember Ari going, ”ËImogen myself moving in the kitchen”Â¦’ and Viv going, ”ËAri, it’s not Imogen, it’s ”Ëimagine’!’ I love things like that, Ari’s delivery was very Nico.”Â
While working with Dennis saw The Slits turn their songs on their heads in many ways, they retained some of the elements which had always been so compelling about the way they performed up to now, and one of those is their gang-like backing vocals, harmonising in rounds.
Viv: “We very much tried not to sing all girly like Cerys Matthews does now, we were like a gang, we didn’t pitch our voices all high. We were very careful because they were rigorous times and you did look at everything under a microscope, so we made sure our voices came out at the pitch they are, not heightening them into girly voices like Girls Aloud.”Â
They weren’t trying to sound like boys, nor were they trying to sound overtly feminine, and as a result their backing vocals on the recordings sound unusual, because we are actually hearing what girls sound like when they sing naturally and without affectation. And this is still very rare. But they were feminine in the most honest way, and the way they played reflected this. The intense depth and velvety warmth of Tessa’s bass lines, the light sparkle of Ari’s piano-playing and shivering, quivering vocal idiosyncracies (very much the Bjork of her time), and Viv’s bright, tactful but pointed guitar work and diary entry-style lyrics were all uniquely female.
Dennis agrees, “Viv is a very female guitar player, very accomplished too. Even the way she held the plectrum was very feminine. Very talented, great lyricist. Tessa came up with some wicked bass lines. And Budgie was a good foundation for Tessa to rest her basslines against, a solid confident drummer.”Â
However, both Dennis and Slits manager Dick O’Dell were coming to the realisation that Budgie was getting itchy feet with The Slits, and Dennis knew there was another punk group that Budgie was very keen to work with. “In my mind he always wanted to be in the Banshees,”Â he says. “In The Slits he obviously gave his all, but he’d always seen himself as Siouxsie’s drummer, and when, later, he got the call he was in there like a shot.”Â
Despite this potential clash of loyalties, Budgie’s musical contribution to Cut is substantial and a key element in what makes it so impressive. Dennis managed to utilise his sensitivity and imagination, as well as his skill, to make their album exactly as the group wanted it to be, beyond what they’d hoped for even. And Dennis had the laid-back humour to ease the way.
The dub super-producer drew on his inexhaustible imagination and encyclopaedic reference points to turn the songs of The Slits around, and the results were inspired and all of this, by the way, was happening while he was also producing Linton Kwesi Johnson’s album Forces Of Victory for Island: “I’d leave The Slits in the evening and go to London to work with Linton and be back with The Slits in the morning. I’d sleep on the train ”â Dorking to London. I think there was about three or four days that happened. Being expected to be in two places at once. So Linton was the nocturnal one and The Slits were in the day. I had to be there at 10am to work with them, work until 7, then be in London by 9, start working with Linton at 10 and work thru until about 5 or 6am. And then get the train back to Dorking. For that time I slept like four hours a day. But I was young then!”Â
Miraculously, his energy didn’t seem to be diminished, and he still managed to work his magic for both parties; in the case of The Slits, cutting out anything messy or unnecessary, and paring back to a sound which reflected them at their best. In this respect, Cut was an appropriate name for the album.
“The songs were transformed by Dennis,”Â says Viv. “He just took things out, made space in them. And we were ready for that as well, we’d been listening to a lot of dub and reggae and really appreciating the fact that you take things out, and the spaces you leave are vital.”Â
The space in the album ”â what wasn’t there ”â was every bit as important as what was there. Keith Levene, for one, can point to the musical decisions made between Ari and Dennis in particular which dictated Cut’s sound. “The producer stepped in, cut all the shit out,”Â he says. “The producer definitely bonded with Ari, no bad thing.
“You know Ari, she’s like a big fucking St Bernard, she’s got the strength to do anything, so she’s dealing with Dennis Bovell, and he’s saying, ”ËI think this, I think that, don’t do this anymore, do this, I want to get this many mics on the drums because we’re going to do that with it’, and so on, and Ari bounced off that.”Â
But as the alternative choice of producer, how different would Cut have been had Keith been at the controls? “I think they’re better off coming out with a focused album like they did with Dennis, than doing some kind of possibly experimental thing with me which might have got mixed up with PiL,”Â admits Keith. “People would be thinking it was some kind of extension to Metal Box even though it wouldn’t have been. So they were much better off with the single identity. It doesn’t matter what I was miffed about when I was a kid.”Â
The Slits were keen to incorporate their love of sound-system music into their album ”â and while the dub aspect is never overplayed, it is there and it lends a spatial ambience and a hypnotic echoing element to tracks such as ”ËSpend, Spend, Spend’ and ”ËPing Pong Affair’.
“We were up for that,”Â continues Viv. “And I think it made things beautiful. He’s got a massively eclectic musical taste. You could say to him, ”ËOh, that song in Mary Poppins’, or Jimi Hendrix, you could say anything, and he’d like it and know it and appreciate it. He was the most eclectic guy in that way, and so naturally musical. He heightened things, if we wanted a tinny sound he’d make it tinnier, there was still a beauty, there was a real finesse, a delicate touch ”â and he made me love our music, he made it magical. A guy!”Â
One of The Slits’ fondest memories of Dennis was his imaginative treatment of ”ËNew Town’, and while Viv admits she went through considerable anguish getting her guitar parts just right, the track ended up being the group’s favourite ”â it was worth the blood, sweat and tears. She explains, “We totally re-arranged the structure of the song, we made certain changes and tightened it up and made more sense of it.
“It took bloody ages to get my guitar part right on ”ËNew Town’, they would be all up in the booth and all you’d hear would be these disembodied voices going ”Ë(Click) No, that was out of time again, Viviane. Do it again.’
“So I’d play it again as tight as I possibly could, ”ËNo, you’re coming in just before the beat. Try it again.’ In the end I just thrashed at the guitar and they went, ”ËThat was fantastic!’ That’s how the guitar part evolved, and it sounds great now, but it came out of absolute hell, I was at my wit’s end.”Â
”ËNew Town’ became infused with a sharp delicacy it didn’t have before. Tessa’s ominous bass-line, such a potent part of the original version of ”ËNew Town’, remained and was pushed to the fore, but the rhythm stayed constant, no longer suddenly accelerating in the middle. It was sprinkled with sawing stabs of guitar and ”â the piece de resistance ”â Dennis’ inspired percussion track, which paid homage to the druggy theme of the track.
“There was something missing going through the track,”Â explains Viv. “Then Dennis said, ”ËI’m going put some rhythms on it. I’m just going to wing it.’
“On the table he laid out a box of matches, a glass, a pen, a spoon, you know it was like one of those games where you have to memorise the things on a tray and they take it away! The engineer pressed play and we were all upstairs thinking, ”ËWhat the hell is he going to do?’
“The song starts and he starts to do these little things like a shake of the matchbox, and then striking one, that’s how he underplays things. Just with four things in front of him, he did a rhythm all the way through, and he was totally in the zone. That was it, one take and it was absolutely brilliant. We were all just goose-pimply, there was absolute silence in the booth, just couldn’t believe it, he brought the track to life.”Â
Tessa adds, “”ËNew Town’ was my favourite. Dennis adds his own flavour by dropping the spoon and shaking this big box of matches, like the tools you would use to cook up your fix. I’ve just never heard a song like ”ËNew Town’.”Â
“They were all going, ”ËHe’s mad!’ says Dennis of his percussion track for ”ËNew Town’, “but it was so right at the time.”Â
”ËShoplifting’ was another old song made new. The tumbling bass-line at the heart of the song would be brought into prominence in the mix, with the peripheral sound heard on earlier live recordings now cut out entirely in the verse, while the chorus remained as chaotic and adrenaline-led as ever, all spiralling screams, escalating, jangling guitar, and, of course, those lairy shouts of ”ËDo a runner’. Indeed, Ari’s screams provide the most memorable moments of this short, sweet, cheeky gem of a track, and she certainly put her all into it”Â¦
“She screamed so loud that she wet herself!”Â laughs Dennis. “And at the end of the scream, she shouts, ”ËI pissed in my knickers!’ She put so much into it, she wet herself. I kept what she said in the mix, it’s audible. If you know what you’re looking for you can hear it. Like satanic messages!”Â
Speaking of hidden messages, Keith Levene is convinced he’s picked up on something in the album version of ”ËInstant Hit’ which no one else will admit to. Keith heard Cut for the first time in 2008 after regaining contact with Viv. He listened to Budgie’s drumming on ”ËInstant Hit’ and, throughout the track, laced with snapping, cracking rim-shots, he heard the unmistakable sound of a ticking time-bomb ”â a musical metaphor for himself at the time.
He says, “With Budgie, it sounds like a time-bomb waiting to self-destruct, it’s like ”Ëtic-tic-tic-tic’ on the hi-hat all the way through. I checked it with Viv, and said, ”ËWas it your idea, the ticking bomb?’ And she said, ”ËWhat ticking bomb?’ Checked with Ari, ”ËBomb? I know no bomb?’ So I thought, ok, I’ll drop the question, but I know what’s going on here.”Â
The song refers directly to his then problem with heroin. But Keith is relaxed about it. “I really liked it, I’m fine with it. Good song. Viv said, ”ËWell, you proved me wrong with this one. The song is saying, ”ËShame he won’t be around for much longer, but nice guy’. Well, here I am. And I knew I’d be around because I knew what I was doing.”Â
Palmolive, now ensconced with The Raincoats, had, as we know, insisted that Tessa sang her song ”ËAdventures Close To Home’ on the album. It has a special quality and is a rare treat for Slits fans to catch the bass player stepping forward to sing as Ari takes over the bass-playing duties. “I’ve always felt really insecure about that song,”Â confesses Tessa. “I’m not really a singer. It was one of the last songs Palmolive wrote before she parted company with the band and then The Raincoats did a version, because it was a Palmolive song. Latterly I had people coming up to me and saying, ”ËOh, I much prefer The Raincoats version!’
“Ari just gave me a tape of us doing that song live and I sound like someone from X
Factor. Not one of the people who gets through either! I like the song, but I think I could have done a lot better.”Â
Much of the song’s charm lies in the sincerity of the vocal, while the overall track creates a welcome shift in energy on the album.”Â It’s really quirky,”Â says Viv. “It changed the vibe. And it worked beautifully with Tessa ”â plus she had the nerve to do it, I wouldn’t have.”Â
Budgie also remembers being struck by how brave Tessa was, not only by singing on the track but also handing her bass over to Ari, who, impressively, picked up how to play it straight away. And as with most Slits songs, the bass would be playing a complex little melody of its own, not just a simple walking bass-line, but Ari nailed it.
Budgie says, “Thinking from my point of view, I’d be put out a bit if someone picked up my instrument and played it very well. It’s taken me a long time to be comfortable with my limitations, and if I see someone who I think is technically good, I can very quickly think that I’m not any good. It can take a long time to feel confident, it took me until about five years after the band (the Banshees) stopped. I knew I felt inventive and creative, but to think of myself as someone who should be a musician? It’s recent.
“Looking back on ”ËAdventures Close To Home’, that was really tough to have the singer, who has, like, a three-octave vocal range and who’s pretty gifted musically, to pick up the bass like that, and you’ve got to sing in front of her as well. It was on the spot in the studio, and Ari was helpful and unhelpful at the same time, she’d be saying, ”ËIt’s good, it’s good!’ one minute and ”ËYou can’t sing at all!’ the next. I’m full of admiration for Tessa because she did it.”Â
Another Palmolive song, the eerie ”ËFM’, seems to pay the closest homage to Palmolive’s urgent drumming; opening and closing with a crescendo and a diminuendo of toms like a heartbeat, and featuring The Slits’ trademark harmonies, hauntingly distant and low in the mix in comparison to Ari’s expressive lead vocals.
It wasn’t just The Slits themselves who struggled at times to get their parts right. ”ËFM’ was a particularly challenging track for Budgie. “That was a really difficult one for me, it was hard to keep playing this beat over and over. Reggae is very critical when it comes to time-keeping, it’s got to lock in and stay there, and my way was to push and pull and push, especially on choruses, or I’d just get totally excited like Palmolive did and go faster and faster and faster, and these guys were like, ”ËNo, you’ve got to sit there in the dance groove’.”Â
Having made the decision to use so many of Palmolive’s songs on the album, The Slits were determined to do things properly and ensure their former drummer was credited. After all, she was the founder and main songwriter for The Slits, and there was no question that they would deal with things fairly. Viv: “We put her name on the other songs so she’d get a quarter. She’d totally been The Slits up to that point because all her work had gone into it, so we felt we were fair.”Â
But it would be a Viv track which would make it as their single. They turned ”ËTypical Girls’ into a reggae-fied merry-go-round, swerving between rhythms and, of course, performed with as much wit as ever. Ari’s vocals bounced off Tessa and Viv’s and the result was full of surprises, oddball changes spontaneously conjured up in the studio and plenty of that irresistible Slits humour.
“A lot of the stuff they used on Cut was pre-prepared but the final touches they put on were in the studio,”Â remembers Dennis, “like on ”ËTypical Girls’, Ari was determined to go, ”ËTypical girls buy ma-a-a-agazines!’”Â
They were rightly proud of ”ËTypical Girls’ and, as we know, were determined it would be their single. But not only did they want ”ËTypical Girls’ as the single ”â they wanted it their way. Mick Jones, by now known as a force to be reckoned with when it came to arranging songs for the ”Ëbiggest band in the world’ The Clash, was convinced the song would zoom up the charts if they changed the rhythm and made it more accessible.
“I remember Mick saying to me, ”ËIf you make that into a 4/4 song, you could have a hit with that’, but we refused yet again!”Â says Viv. “”ËNo, no this is how we hear it!’ skipping and bumping along in this mad way. Some jazz guy once said to me, ”ËAre you using some sort of mad time like 9/13 or something?’ We didn’t know”Â¦
“If we turned it into a proper catchy pop song we could have had some success with it but no, we said no.”Â
To be fair, it would have taken away part of what makes it so much fun to listen to and dance to. The Slits wouldn’t have been true to themselves if they’d changed it solely in the hope of achieving some commercial success. From the outside ”â certainly from the point of view of their contemporaries ”â The Slits appeared to be keener than before to be commercially successful, but the reality was that they simply wanted the opportunity and the means to make the album they wanted to make.