It’s just been reported that Slits’ frontwoman Ari Up died today following sustained ailing health. I literally gasped upon hearing this news and am tearing up a bit as I type this. For me, Ari Up’s legacy can’t be overstated, nor can the influence of her pioneering all-female punk-reggae band. The first song my college station played in its inaugural broadcast was “FM.” Here’s what she gave me.
The cover for the Slits’ debut record, Cut, which floored me the first time I saw it. I’ve refrained from writing a post on it because of its iconic status. But it always gets reactions when it’s brought up in the Girls Rock Camp Austin music history workshops I co-teach. Incidentally, I’m about to leave for a girls studies conference in New York where I’m co-moderating a panel on GRC, so this news has an additional layer of resonance.
The electricity of politically charged lyrics, cheek, and amateurish musicianship that’s all over her band’s early output. Why not start a band at fourteen even if we can’t play? Why not sing about shoplifting? Why not cover “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”? Why not piss on stage in the middle of a performance? Why not drop some dub in the tracks? British punk and post-punk took itself quite seriously, but the Slits always made rebellion look like fun. When I finally bought this album on vinyl in my early twenties after years of it being in and out of print and listening to other people’s copies and shitty mp3s, it was a damn miracle.
Her band’s cameo in Derek Jarman’s Jubilee shows them destroying a car. Far more interesting and cool than Malcolm McLaren’s idea to feature them as sex slaves in his idea for the female version of The Great Rock N’ Roll Swindle that thankfully wasn’t made.
Let’s not forget Return of the Giant Slits either, as Everett True hasn’t. It featured “In the Beginning There Was Rhythm,” which I think was their best single. It was released as a split single with the Pop Group’s “Where There’s a Will.” I love the Pop Group as much as Lavinia Greenlaw. Up and the Pop Group’s Mark Stewart were later in the New Age Steppers. They were good too. And I certainly don’t think we’d get M.I.A. without them.
Ari Up introduced me to Sister Nancy. While I should probably call Ari on her bullshit as a German-British ex-pat Rastafarian who fetishizes the primitive to offset her publishing heiress roots, I think she believed in reggae and the guiding principles of her adopted ideology. She also never obscured her origins, but reconciled them with her mother’s bohemian tendencies and her need to keep herself open to embrace possibilities and conflicting impulses. Plus, few people could claim John Lydon as their stepfather without it seeming weird.
She was a hell of an interview. She may not have had much use for brevity, but her words were teeming with wit and brilliance. And if she was self-aggrandizing, well, I’d prefer my epic musical personae to acknowledge their own greatness than shrug it off.
Let’s not overlook 2006′s Revenge of the Killer Slits and their follow-up Trapped Animal either. I actually got to see a reunited version of the Slits that fall (sans Viv Albertine, who I’ve since caught as a solo act). I’ll always remember how energetic she was. She was also tremendously available. Even when she admonished a party girl fashionista who rushed the stage during “Typical Girls” for not getting its message, it was just gentle ribbing. And while the band got sharper, particularly bassist Tessa Pollitt and recruited drummer Anna Schultze, Up’s gleeful anarchic spirit remained at the center.
You were a strange, funny, brave, and inspired lady, Ari Up. You’ll be missed.
I don’t know what it’s like where you live, but it’s been cooling off and getting overcast in Austin as we head into the fall. I for one, could not be happier. We’ve had months of three-digit temperatures, the heat forming itself into my nifty foot tan and bleaching the plush Garfield on my car window. I celebrated by frequenting Cheapo Discs after work, adding some key titles from Daft Punk, Ariel Pink, Kate Bush, and Black Dice to my collection, along with snagging Air’s 10,000 Hz Legend, one of the funniest albums by a French pop group that boasts one of the prettiest songs Beck ever recorded (“Vagabond”) and my favorite song by the Gallic duo (“Radio #1″).
The electrically depressive weather and investment in discarding and collecting our culture’s trash recalls the late Derek Jarman’s Jubilee, a movie I watched last night with Kristen and Curran (we missed Susan, who also usually watches movies with us). I credit Curran, a future queer punk PhD, for introducing me to the movie in the first place and can’t wait to read about it in his dissertation. Released in 1977, it was Jarman’s second movie, and my first viewing of his feature work. I had a passing familiarity of Jarman, as he also made music videos for acts like Suede, The Smiths, and The Pet Shop Boys. For example:
So, I kinda can’t get over Jubilee. It was kind of amazing, but I don’t think I have a real handle on its plot. I can tell you these things. Queen Elizabeth I is transported to 1977 England, around the time of Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee and the country’s considerable economic downturn. From there, the movie preoccupies itself with mixed-gender group of punks linked in varying degrees to one another. They’re played by real British punks of the era (Jordan, Adam Ant, Toyah Wilcox), real queer British punks of the era (Linda Spurrier, Ian Charleson), and one quintessential American queer punk icon (the inimitable Wayne/Jayne County). They live in squalor. They steal cars. They play board games. They quote from historical tomes. They attempt to have pop careers, if only to destroy The Top of the Pops. They love each other, sometimes; that is, when they aren’t killing or getting killed by police.
As a document of its era, the movie is pretty significant. Brian Eno composed the score. Siouxsie and The Banshees appear on the telly. Adam and the Ants audition for a record company. While a bunch of kids attend a disco orgy, The Slits smash up a car. And Jayne County sings to herself in one amazing green room.
And yet it had a theatrical release in the UK, which I can’t imagine how that happened but can fully believe people’s non-plussed response to it. I mean, how do you process the scene where Amyl Nitrate (Jordan) performs her pop “hit” “Rule Britannia” for record mogul/madman Borgia Ginz, played by the phenomenal Orlando?
That said, I found the movie constructively, at times rapturously, difficult. How else to feel but to gape at all of the strong female punks, many of whom abide by defiantly non-normative beauty standards who take pride in their pock marks, acne, fleshy thighs, and cellulite dimples? Or Adam Ant’s feminine beauty? Or the sculpted, smoothed, Greco-Roman-bodied men who one imagines Jarman cast with a loving eye? Or the romantic impulses of the mixed-gender queer trio — two of whom identify each other as brothers? Or the upsetting deaths of the movie’s queer characters (including a particularly brutal, seemingly pointless murder of County — talk about killing your idols!)? Or the blinding whiteness, which, by absence, brings to mind England’s issues with nationalist, segregational racial politics? Or the fast-and-loose timeline? Or the preoccupation with classic art and literature amid and outside London’s urban decay? Or queering up the interactions in such a way so as to trigger punk’s oft-obscured homophobia (apparently Sex proprietrix/designer Vivienne Westwood issued a homophobic missive in response to the movie).
But if punk taught us anything, messy can be beautiful, good, and constructive. This is a movie that revels in this idea. Do make time for it. Just presume that you’ll need to see it twice.
As a means to enrich my interest in girl groups, I’ve been looking for literature on the subject. One book my thesis adviser recommended was English writer Charlotte Greig’s Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?: Girl Groups from the 50s on . . ., which covers the girl group era (roughly 1960-1964) from both sides of the Atlantic, as well as girl groups that predated the era and formed (and continue to form) in the wake of its legacy.
I liked this book fine. It’s a good primer for folks just getting into girl groups (I’d certainly assign the chapters on the Brill Building or Motown to an undergrad class on gender and music culture). It’s smart and celebratory yet critical of the gender politics of girl groups without alienating a reader not hip to, say, Judith Butler’s thoughts on gender performativity. Greig also employs her trade skills as a journalist, so there’s lots of neat and valuable first-person accounts from folks like Brill Building songwriter Ellie Greenwich and members of the Marvelettes and the Velvelettes. And there’s lots of fascinating tidbits Greig throws in that could be spun into their own books. For example:
Did you know that American Bandstand started as a radio show on WFIL in Philadelphia, on the outskirts of town? Did you know that it became a television show because bored Italian American teenage girls from the neighboring West Catholic High School would hang out after school and start dancing to the records? Did you also know that existing within this group were class tensions that were easily reflected in girls’ particular clothes and hairdos? I certainly didn’t.
Perhaps unsurprising, but did you know that Brill Building songwriter/producer Ellie Greenwich worked with her husband Jeff Barry, who elbowed her out of songwriting and production credits because he assumed he’d be the breadwinner while she had the babies? They divorced.
Did you know that almost all of the girl groups Greig discusses (and/or interviews) failed to be compensated for their services? Perhaps unsurprising when you consider the larger context of the early days of rock music and its shady legal dealings with publishing and recording rights, but pretty important when considering the supposed “disposability” of girl groups.
Did you know that Reparata from Reparata and the Delrons (one of the best-named girl groups of the golden era) got her name from a saint? Kinda fascinating. I’d read an entire book on girl groups and Catholicism!
Did you know about that the role the British Invasion had in dismantling the girl group era was largely a myth? Many believe that English rock groups like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and their brethren were responsible for the demise of the girl group era (which is poor history, as you can see American acts like The Beach Boys, The Temptations, and The Supremes right up there with The Fab Four on the pop charts). Greig does well to remind her audience that groups like The Beatles were actually inspired by girl groups and covered many girl group songs. Instead, Greig attributes pre-mature folds of girl group songwriting factories like the Brill Building out of fear that the British Invasion would spell their demise.
Did you know that there were class differences between the girl groups at Motown? I certainly didn’t but, again, it makes sense. According to other groups like The Marvelettes, The Supremes were given unequal treatment at the record label because they were savvy, culturally-aware city girls. Other groups were comprised of country girls who didn’t grow up in Detroit and, thus, were not as hip or poised.
But these gems, which are often dropped without too much comment, speaks to my biggest problem with the book: it is simply too broad. And at just over 200 pages with a scant bibliography, the fact that she covers so much ground without digging deeper really left me wanting.
That said, I think this book does a noble job broadening the definition of what a girl group is. Greig’s principle mission, as she defines from the outset, is to dispense with the myth that girl groups were born in 1960 and died in 1964. She maintains that girl groups started forming post-World War II and are still forming and recording today (“today” meaning the late 1980s at the time of her writing).
She also argues that girl groups are not adherent to a particular genre, which, read alongside the Rhino girl group box set, seems very true. The girl group sound was actually not one singular generic entity but incorporated R&B, pop, soul, folk, and the blues. Thus, after the 1960s, when the girl group legacy endured, groups would revisit it while folding in reggae, disco, punk, funk, electronic music, and many other styles. And, as girl groups evolved, Greig argues that sometimes they became more politically minded. Particularly in the 70s, funk-based girl groups like Honey Cone tended to endorse a “black is beautiful” agenda.
And acts like LaBelle expanded how black could be beautiful by incorporating the (traditionally white, male) glam- and art-rock stylings of David Bowie and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. However, my partner is quick (and right) to point out that Funkadelic adopted a similar performance style at around the same time, so let’s view LaBelle and Funkadelic alongside one another.
Punk bands like Blondie and The Slits became more makeshift in their look and self-reflexive and parodic in their approach to addressing femininity and consumer culture in their songs. But I feel like Greig gives more focus toward Blondie, so lets look at The Slits more closely.
I do find it a little disconcerting that The Runaways, The Bangles, and The Go-Gos are largely broadsided in this discussion. If two of Greig’s principle concerns with girl groups are: 1) they tend not to have female instrumentalists and 2) they tend to be controlled by male managers and producers, it would have been nice to see her discuss girl bands who encountered and had (varying degrees of) success breaking free from male control.
This omission makes Greig’s inclusion of Vanity 6 and Mary Jane Girls a bit of a hard sell for me. Despite being multi-racial and (often celebratory and raunchy) advocates for sexual agency and pleasure, both groups were also formed and almost completely controlled by men (Prince and Rick James, respectively). As Greig points this out, I would have appreciated a broader context that I feel dicussing girl bands could have provided.
That said, I do think the inclusion of Bananarama is interesting, as they had a punkish, thrift-store edge and often linked themselves to the girl group era by covering song like The Velvelettes’ “He Was Really Saying Something.” I suppose this gets us into the dangerous territory of “wearing” and “trying on” race, but I’ll let you decide.
I also appreciate that Greig included hip hop in the discussion of girl groups, vis-à-vis Salt-N-Pepa, though fear that past lesser-known acts like Northern State, hip hop has historically favored solo artists to groups and has provided scarce resources for women, whether on their own or rhyming with friends.
I’d also be curious as to what Greig would say about groups from my youth like TLC, En Vogue, SWV, The Spice Girls and, during my high school years, Destiny’s Child, 3LW, and Dream. And of course, if we’re expanding girl groups to include punkier acts, I wonder what Greig thinks of Vivian Girls and Mika Miko alongside neo-retro acts like The Pipettes, as well as acts like The Pussycat Dolls who are, for better or for worse, one of the few integrated, multi-racial girl groups to achieve mainstream success since The Ronettes.
Again, all worthwhile endeavors; each in need of their own book for further inquiry.
Today you’re 52 and you’re still rockin’, which you’ve been doing since around 1976. That’s roughly 33 years of rockin’ — over half of your lifetime. Born Susan Ballion, you got your start as part of the Bromley Contingent, the famous Sex Pistols fan group. You snarled at icky Bill Grundy on the day the air turned blue.
You created a distinct look for yourself — militaristic, caustic, cold, tough, unimpressed, aggressively sexual, fetishistic. There was nothing light or cute about you. You also created a space for British women in punk — not the only one, as folks like The Slits, The Raincoats, Delta 5, and Poly Styrene and Lora Logic of X-Ray Spex were also forging their own creative territories — but a distinct space. A space made of steel and barbed wire that cautioned anyone who dare fuck with you.
You also played with the boys, which is important. Of course, it’s not necessary to play with the boys, but you spent the majority of your career (including your formative years) with The Banshees, a coterie of goth-punk boys, including long-time friend (and fellow member of the Bromley Contingent) Steve Severin and ex-husband Budgie. Yet, you always seem capable to work with them and not be directed by them. You’ve also worked with guys as disparate as Morrissey, Basement Jaxx, John Cale, and film composer Angelo Badalamenti on interesting projects. In short, you’ve proven yourself a vital collaborative partner.
Oh, and you can totally pulverize a song. Let’s listen to your rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer.”
Now, there are things that are troublesome about your career. While I like the song “Hong Kong Garden,” I do in spite of how racially problematic it is. While I love “Cities in Dust,” I still feel weird about the pseudo-Eastern instrumentation. In fact, you have a thorny relationship with race, consistently toying with Orientalism.
Plus, you know, your original look was pretty fascistic. You certainly weren’t alone among your colleagues to play with Nazi references and imagery. But yeah, it’s problematic.
And some people may have a problem with how you glammed up when you got older in an attempt to make your image and music more accessible. I personally don’t have much of a problem with it, because I still think your songs were beautiful and atmospheric and you were always kind of a pop star (you know, like The Cure). Plus you always wore theatrical make-up — you just broadened your color palette. And it may be easy to say that your look became more normative, but I also think there’s room to consider you as a female drag queen.
And, of course, you’re still with us. After a decade or so making albums with other people, you released your first solo album MantaRay in 2007. I hope you have some more music in you.
Oh, and also, you’re the person who wrote “Suburban Relapse.” So, I’ll always love you for that.
So, in honor of you still being alive and still touring and recording, I refuse to the dishes or the laundry tonight, as I know you’d ask “what for?”