The Slits, Cut, 1979 (Island Records)
A few weeks ago, a series of fortunate circumstances led me to an introduction with Mark Stewart, founding member of Bristolian post-punk trailblazers, The Pop Group and, later, Mark Stewart + the Maffia. The former’s 1979 debut album, Y and singles, ‘We Are All Prostitutes’ and ‘She is Beyond Good and Evil’, constitute exemplary demonstrations of the development of ‘punk’ attitudes on the value of technical ineptitude to a more sophisticated and complex pinnacle of libertarian funk-dub tribalism. Anyhow, it was the launch night of Stewart’s collaborative exhibition with colleague Rupert Goldsworthy, I am the law, on show at Whitechapel’s Ritter Zamet gallery until 18 February (http://www.ritterzamet.com/new/). During the course of a set from Nick and Becky of the magnificent STASH, the semi-Orwellian phrase, ‘Obedience to the law is freedom’ was painted on the wall. Standing in the exhibition space, you are surrounded by feral wall-to-wall montage works and ramshackle installations set up in the gallery corners. The conflicting imagery in the collages of, say, fascist insignia is placed alongside porn photography and all set against extensive calligraphic panels of manifesto-type sentiments ear-marked by musical time signatures. In short, the merging of sound, performance, collage and installation was a multi-media soup and is certainly worth a visit.
Looking at Stewart’s and Goldsworthy’s images, I was reminded of the cover of Y, which famously featured an image of the Mud People of Papa New Guinea, and, what might considered counterpart to Y, The Slits’ stunning debut of the same year, Cut. This comparison is an obvious one, especially when you consider the close ties between the two groups and the fact that Stewart was to collaborate with The Slits’ singer Ari Up in several other projects, most notably, the New Age Steppers. Simon Reynolds in particular has identified the similarities between The Pop Group ands The Slits in his book, the enviably brilliant Rip it Up and Start Again(see Chapter Five, ‘Tribal Revival’).
However, whereas Stewart and co. selected this image of an oceanic tribe to encapsulate their primal premiere, The Slits actually adopted such a guise for their album, standing assertively against a leafy background, bare-chested and completely caked in mud.
Everything about The Slits, from its very name and album title and the genital connotations of both, screamed of a primitive yet liberating and new feminist stance, which was similarly integral to tracks like ‘Typical Girls’ and ‘FM’, both of which deal with the imaging of women in the media as a ‘marketing ploy’. Indeed, this action of the slice or ‘cut’ has long been canonised as a grand Feminist gesture. Berlin Dadaist Hannah Höch, much The Slits would later do with female imaging in television and the mass media, commented on the role of women in newspapers and magazines of the postwar period in 1920s Germany through her brave and bold collage works . Of course, addressing the position of women in art, music or society naturally infuses any creative output with a heightened sensitivity to gender dynamics. However, I think that there is a discrepancy between this choice of subjectivity and the way that an artist’s gender must be the rubric under which their efforts are heralded, at least when it comes to women and art.
Hannah Höch, The Beautiful Girl, 1920
Indeed, much like Feminist artistic collective-cultural saboteurs, the Guerilla Girls objected to the nature of female representation in the New York Met – namely through the huge number of female nudes and relatively scant ‘catalogue’ of female artists – I was forced to question whether women really have to present themselves as primal, in a sense ‘naked’ or ‘mother earth’- type tribeswomen, in order to, ironically, be considered examples of the ‘modern’ liberated female.
Though I do not question Reynolds’ attestation that The Slits, unlike many outfits claiming to be examples of unrehearsed punk, were ‘genuinely inept’(p. 80), I am not satisfied that its members’ gender must be the foremost means through which this stance is validated. I acknowledge and respect that the adoption of the tribal in both the group’s visual and aural aesthetics was an integral part of its appeal and that the female body was knowingly used by the group to provoke controversy. However, I can’t help but think that it was their gender and its assertion on-stage and on record that has pigeon-holed many, albeit celebratory, interpretations of the band’s influence and legacy.
I don’t mean to over-invest in the technical skill of The Slits since, despite the fact that Cut sounds relatively competent (melodically simple, but competent enough), the sound of The Slits in its early years, especially when Ari Up was still only fourteen or fifteen years old, was often tantamount to a chaotic and raucous, caterwauling cacophony. I adore all of Cut, but would recommend heading straight to final track, ‘Liebe und Romanze’ if you want a stark impression of The Slits’ instrumental origins. At any rate, whilst The Pop Group was undeniably far more musically competent than The Slits, it is their perceived primitivism for which the band is so often heralded and yet the gender of this all-male outfit is rarely if ever cited as being of any significance.
Truth be told if punk was about anti-music, then The Slits, with their heavily reggae-influence stomp, plodding bass-lines and tribal drumming, set against Ari Up’s manic Germanic-Jamaican accented vocals, were a far closer embodiment of such an ethos than either the Sex Pistols or The Clash, in whose music a pub-rock riff and catchy chorus was never really that far away. On-stage, Ari Up was absolutely fearless, and whilst she used her (albeit still developing) femininity to shock and stun punk audiences, I maintain that what might be considered the anti-musical dimensions of The Slits, which, for me at least, was the most wonderful and revolutionary aspect of their sound experiments, need not be a reflection of them being women, or indeed, girls. I don’t feel it is necessary to attach a gender prefix to their contributions to musical history in order for them to be considered valid and pioneering.
Lavin, M. Cut With the Kitchen Knife: The Weimar Photomontages of Hannah Höch, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993
Reynolds, S. Rip it Up and Start Again: Post-punk 1978-84, London: Faber & Faber, 2005
Savage, J. England’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk, London: Faber & Faber, 1991