All hail Ari Up: The rhythmic, primal influence of the Slits' 'Cut.'
Suggesting that one musician or band is “more punk” than another is a fool’s game, but in the world of rebel rock, Ari Up (born Arianna Forster), who died Wednesday at age 48 after a long fight with cancer, was, through her actions and words, punk in the purest definition of the word. She followed her muse without concern for the marketplace, and steadfastly railed against the status quo, be it the testosterone-fueled fury offered by her male counterparts in the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Damned, or the basic expectations of what a rock band is supposed to be.
The music the Slits created was so unlike the guitar-heavy rock made by their male peers that to call it punk somehow diminishes it. It sounded so different, and, as much as "Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols" or "The Clash" opened up new possibilities, those landmark records followed the basic rock and roll template.
On first listen, "Cut," released in 1979, sounded wrong, as though aliens had created the album from a misunderstood translation. Bass and drums drove the songs, not the guitar and vocals. It seemed like a dub record as funneled through punk rock (due in large part to the work of producer Dennis Bovell). The reflex among those who equated punk with aggression was to dismiss "Cut." But its magnetism was so strong that it felt like a betrayal of the punk ethos to do so.
Once your ears adjusted to these alien sounds, the payoff was huge. The structures were kinda sorta rock, but not really. There was rhythm, and it encouraged dancing. The words railed against consumerism, encouraged petty theft and ridiculed snarling, dumb punks. It was pure. It was fearless.
"It came completely out of nowhere, this weird, self-taught organic thing," Slits guitarist Viv Albertine would later recall. "As we became more aware, we didn't want to follow male rhythms and structures."
And then there was the cover of "Cut," which featured the three Slits naked and covered in mud. For those of us of the male persuasion enduring puberty as we were discovering punk rock, the sight of the Slits on the cover prompted confused feelings of both desire and disgust (though mostly the former). Ari Up explained the thought process behind the cover in a fascinating interview with Simon Reynolds recently published in his "Totally Wired: Post-Punk Interviews and Overviews."
"We were in the country together doing the album," she said. "The studio was in a cottage and there was mud all around the place. We just decided, 'Let's cover ourselves in the mud, naked but natural. Ruin that image that females need to be sexy by dressing sexy.' We could be sexy by nature, naked but not pornographic -- not a prescribed way of how you're supposed to be sexy."
Leave it to this male writer to dwell on the naked album cover, but that was the beauty of Ari Up and the Slits. The music as well as the packaging expanded not only the conception of punk, but it also tangled up the hard-wiring of primal desire.
You can hear the thread of the music in everything from Gang of Four to the Cure to Björk to Crystal Castles to Warpaint.
The freedom that Ari proposed was a huge influence on the Riot Grrrl movement. Carrie Brownstein, formerly of Sleater-Kinney and now of Wild Flag, wrote a fantastic remembrance for NPR this morning that captures the essence of what the Slits offered: "Not once did a Slits song cease to amaze me, not after repeat listens, literally hundreds of listens. Not once did they fail to excite or inspire me, to make me a worshipper of rhythm, chaos and of attitude. The Slits were giants and they only grew bigger and more potent over the years."
-- Randall Roberts
Photo of Ari Up by Angel Ceballos