Any half decent bookshelf dedicated to tomes about popular music will be groaning under the weight of volumes about the UK punk explosion.
A lot will be made of the impact the movement had on every facet of life in this country, most obviously on music, but also on fashion, art, literature and politics and there will be plenty written on the supposedly radical contributions made by the likes of the Sex Pistols, The Clash and Buzzcocks.
But how radical were they in reality?
Listen without prejudice to the Pistols and their musical debt to The Who, The Small Faces and The Kinks is obvious, The Clash’s love of traditional rock n roll is there for all to see, while Buzzcocks were so obviously obsessed with writing the perfect love song.
Most pointedly, they were guys who were writing, singing and performing from a male perspective, albeit from a bisexual standpoint in the case of Pete Shelley of Buzzcocks.
If the UK punk scene contributed one truly radical thing to popular culture, it is that it gave a platform to female voices, one that was long overdue in a rock n roll industry that was already over 20 years old but which was built on foundations that marginalised female input, reducing non-male contribution to little more than their voices and their sex appeal.
This lack of female autonomy in the industry was as creatively stifling as it was blatantly unfair, and it was the arrival of The Slits, a quartet of girls who were as much a gang as they were a band, that finally blew up the rock n roll frat house.
It was certainly a change that was needed because prior to 1977, the only all female bands (as opposed to vocal trios and the like) to rise above the radar to any kind of degree were Fanny and The Runaways.
Fanny, a quartet formed around the Millington sisters June and Jean, never really found any kind of commercial traction in the UK despite signing a major deal with the Reprise label and releasing a total of five albums up to 1975, most of which were generally given a thumbs up by the critics.
The Runaways, signed to Mercury, certainly got a lot more press coverage during the long, hot summer of 1976, thanks most particularly to the efforts of Sounds magazine’s US based correspondent Sandy Robertson and in a sense they illustrated everything that was ranged against female musicians within the industry.
They were managed by Kim Fowley, a Lurch-like figure who was known particularly in Los Angeles as a hustler, a scamster and a guy who you wouldn’t be advised to put any kind of faith or trust in and who just happened to be Sandy Robertson’s uncle.
With a route into the mainstream press, Fowley and his nephew built up an image for the Runaways as a bunch of 16 year-old nymphomaniacs with guitars, embellishing the myth with plenty of salacious press from the pen of Robertson and by projecting singer Cherie Currie in particular into the wet dreams of adolescent males via her stage garb of stockings, suspenders and corset.
With the music relegated to an almost incidental status – a pity, given that guitarists Joan Jett and Lita Ford and drummer Sandy West were damn good musicians – the band were a ready-made illustration of the fact that the music industry was nothing more than a glorified Boys Club.
The UK of 1976 – politically static, socially divided, financially bankrupt – was certainly ripe for change and, given that the music scene was equally dull and directionless, it is less than surprising that the earthquake of change was heralded by popular culture.
The initial punk acolytes were strange mix of art school dropouts and disenfranchised working class youth whose common ground was a dissatisfaction with EVERYTHING that they saw around them.
Their reaction to the unbroken greyness that surrounded them was to take a cue from the old Bowie/ Roxy Music crowd and dress in a manner that made them stand out from the crowd and this focus on the way they looked, either by accident or design, meant that the female members of the movement got as much attention as the guys.
However, the girls for the most part were still merely scenesters – the likes of Jordan, Tracey O’Keefe, even Siouxsie Sioux at this point, had developed visual personae that made them natural targets for the cameras and at least cast them as agents provocateurs in the sense that they struck a chord with other disaffected girls around the country, but if they were being looked at, they still weren’t being listened to.
The long hot summer of 1976 was the point at which punk hit critical mass, given its velocity by a series of often unconnected events – its first mentions in the mainstream music press, the fabled Manchester Free Trade Hall gigs, debut performances by the Clash and the Damned, the Notting Hill Carnival riots – that nonetheless coalesced into making punk an unstoppable force.
In the midst of all this, a classically trained singer named Ariane Forster AKA Ari Up and a Spanish-born drummer named Paloma Romero (soon to be rechristened Palmolive) were rehearsing in a basement squat with a bassist and a guitarist named Suzy Gutsy and Kate Korus respectively, although Gutsy was quickly ousted in favour of Tessa Pollitt.
During the same period Viv Albertine, girlfriend of the Clash’s Mick Jones, was learning to play guitar and trying to form a band with one John Simon Ritchie (AKA Sid Vicious of course) under the name of the Flowers Of Romance, though they never got to the point of actually playing a live gig.
As 1977 dawned, Ari, Palmolive, Tessa and Kate had already gained a degree of tabloid notoriety as The Slits that was being amped up for the whole movement in the wake of the furore caused by the Pistols notorious TV appearance on Bill Grundy’s “Today” programme.
By the time the Slits made their live debut at the legendary Roxy club in Harlesden, the Flowers Of Romance had split up, Sid was making his dual deal with the devil as bass player with the Pistols and paramour of Nancy Spungen and Viv was without a band and watching The Slits from the audience.
Guitarist and band were already acquainted though and an invitation to Viv to a rehearsal saw her drafted into the band and Kate out, a situation apparently sealed by Viv backcombing the other girls hair into the crows nest style which became their signature look.
A quick academic appraisal of The Slits career will run along the lines of “Did the White Riot tour with the Clash/ recorded two John Peel radio sessions/ Palmolive quit/ signed to Island Records/ released the seminal “Cut” album/ did a split single on Rough Trade/ Y with the Pop Group/ signed to CBS and released “Return Of The Giant Slits”/ split up.
Although accurate, that appraisal does nothing to illustrate how much of an affect that the Slits – a band who, after all, only had a single #30 chart placing with “Cut” – had or, perhaps more importantly, why.
To understand the “why” it is necessary to look at the Slits in the context of their time, how the music industry worked in that period and how that industry expected females to behave.
Girls in the music industry at that point were, for the most part, passive beings who smiled for the cameras, sang the songs that the men chose for them and who showed absolutely no resistance or protest as the industry fucked them – often literally.
There was the occasional Janis Joplin figure who’d come along and who would try to retain their dignity and humanity but, turning to the bottle and the needle for solace, they tragically became pin ups for fucking up.
The Slits, on the other hand, were no fuck ups – they were feral!!!
Right from the get-go, the industry did not know how to handle them, even though anyone with an ounce of insight could see that their commercial potential was massive and was obviously going to have greater longevity than any number of the Slaughter & the Dogs-type three-chords-and-no-hope boy bands.
Their marker was set on the “White Riot” tour where The Slits supported headliners The Clash alongside Buzzcocks and the Subway Sect.
On the tour the band were literally learning on their feet and trying to grow up in public so sets were constantly teetering on the edge of collapse, often being held together by a combination of sheer will and Palmolive’s powerhouse drumming and the situation was not eased by the volatility of the girls themselves, but it was thrilling stuff.
Things were no less edge-of-the-seat on the tour bus where Ari’s hyperactive behaviour meant that the band had to quite literally bribe the driver to allow them on board.
The result was that The Slits were seen as completely uncontrollable and quite literally became the last of the major punk bands to get signed to a major deal and this proved to be both a blessing and a curse.
On the downside, Palmolive had left to join The Raincoats by the time they signed to Island and even though the drumming duties on “Cut” were executed with great aplomb by soon-to-be Banshee Pete “Budgie” Clarke, her absence was felt nonetheless.
On a much more positive note, Viv and Tessa had moulded their untutored and wholly personal musicianship into something that could really come into its own in a studio setting, while Ari’s battery of whoops and screams enhanced her astonishing natural vocal range – her final note on Newtown still sends shivers down the spine 40 years on.
As a result “Cut” revealed itself as an astonishing achievement, one that still sounds wholly unique today, and one whose influence on subsequent generations of girl bands is constantly embraced by young female musicians and lauded by journalists regardless of gender.
As mentioned earlier in this piece, The Slits were a gang as much as a band and it was this all-for-one mentality that enabled them to blaze a trail through the industry for other females to follow, one that meant doing things on their terms or not at all, hence the long wait for a suitable record deal.
It meant tearing apart the very foundations of how the music industry dealt with and treated female musicians and everybody – record company staff, journalists and fans – either had to get with The Slits programme or get the hell out of the way.
Any deal that the girls did had to be one in which they retained full artistic control, anathema to a record company in that period on any level, but particularly when faced with a gang of four opinionated but musically untutored girls.
However The Slits stood firm and eventually prevailed and, with the release of “Cut”, their stance was absolutely vindicated.
They also refused to become the Barbie dolls of any record company or music press image consultants and their own classic look of crows nest hair, DMs, leather jackets and tutus is still visible on the high street of any sizeable town or city the world over today.
Male fans, raised on a diet of “phwoar-look-at-the-tits-on-that” fodder by the NME and their ilk, suddenly confronted by this ferocious, uncompromising gang would always react in one of two ways: lash out in fear or completely reappraise their attitude to women in the same way that punk generally had forced them to look at their record collection from a fresh standpoint.
It is for this latter reason, arguably more than any other, that The Slits simply HAD to happen and, given the effects they have had on the industry, it would be easy to think of them as extraordinary beings.
However, one point that never seems to get raised in appraisals of The Slits is that they were actually extraordinary ordinary females, in fact just “Typical Girls”.
Like most females they were interested in music, clothes and relationships, but unlike most they demanded more from them, valued them more and were more willing to fight for what they wanted from them.
Their recorded legacy may be relatively spartan compared to that of most of their peers, but have no doubts: their truest legacy is the impact they had on the industry and on the way the majority of men in that period viewed women in the arts in particular.
Typical girls? They were bloody brilliant actually!!!!