When the Slits opened for the Clash on the 1977 "White Riot" Tour, none of the group's all-female lineup knew how to play their instruments. At the time, vocalist Ari Up, bassist Tessa Pollitt, drummer Palmolive and guitarist Viv Albertine hadn't played together for a full year, and relied on Mick Jones to tune their guitars before each show. But to dwell on this trivial beginning undermines the Slits' significance as a female-centric counterpart to the Clash and the Sex Pistols in the 1970s. A thick and thumping reggae/dub influence guided the group's sound just as much as the fiery rebellion of punk's sociopolitical sneer.
The big bang that spurned the initial wave of British punk rock is rooted in a fundamental political backlash. Fans and journalists alike tried to hoist the Slits up as some sort of tribal punk icon for lesbianism and the feminist movement of the era. After all, the artwork of the group's 1979 debut full-length,Cut, featured Up, Pollitt and Palmolive topless and covered in mud. The band's lineup has also been all-female with the exception of a few male drummers. Fans drew their own conclusions, but this was never part of the group's M.O.
"That's just the nature of the beast," Up explains through a cockney British accent that carries strong Jamaican inflections. "People want to put you in a box. It's in the DNA of being part of a revolution, like what was going on in the early days of punk, to be somewhat political. Because the Slits came from that DNA, we were a political band, but it wasn't intentional and it wasn't focused on feminism. We were just being instinctively female and being ourselves as much as we could."
After a 25-year sabbatical, Up and Pollitt have reformed the Slits to raise the rebellious spirit of '76. With an expanded lineup and a new three-song CD/ 7-inch EP, Revenge of the Killer Slits (S.A.F. Records), the group has returned as a focused and aggressive new combo, giving the heavy dub-and-punk throb of its early days a modern spin.
To fill out the group's sound, Up and Pollitt have enlisted a crew of younger musicians, including Anna Schulte (drums), NO (guitar), Adele Wilson (guitar) and Holly Cook (vocals).
Led by Up's vibrato yelps and yowls over droning bass swells and staccato pops, time has done little to temper the Slits' sound and vision. The three new cuts on the EP function as a finely honed narrative voice for the Slits' second coming.
"Slits Tradition" is the group's new anthem that's driven by a gurgling bass line and sinister dub rhythms. The allegiance to dub and reggae music's simplicity and anti-rock 'n' roll design has long alienated fans of the brash, three-chord rock of the group's formative years. This song will, no doubt, leave those fans feeling even further alienated. "Number One Enemy" is a new recording of an old rocker that was pulled from an unreleased 1976 recording session. The straightforward dirge and Sex Pistols-style riff anchors the song firmly in the punk pantheon of the '70s, but doesn't feel out of date amid the newer material. "Kill Them with Love" is a rapid-fire Rasta jam built around reverb-laden club beats and lyrical chatter.
As a three-song teaser to the live shows, Revenge of the Killer Slits does justice to the band's original vision, and offers solid proof that though the Slits are a last vestige of the original punk-rock era, the renewed band is still a viable entity.
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