Saturday, July 25, 2009

Typical Girls? The Story of the Slits

Typical Girls author Zoë Street Howe at book launch in London; photo by Val PhoenixZoë Street Howe
Omnibus Press
Legendary as first-wave punks and pioneering women, yet largely ignored by the myriad punk histories over the decades, The Slits finally get their bio as the 30th anniversary of their debut album, Cut, approaches.

Hanging her book on this peg, Street Howe (see pic) gives a very abridged back story to the album and also pretty much fast-forwards through everything after the band broke up, but the golden years of 1976-81 are given their due, with an array of funny, insightful anecdotes from a range of colourful characters such as Don Letts, Keith Levene and Vivien Goldman about what it was like being around the Slits in that heady time when the world was introduced to what would become known as punk.

This then branched off into the infinitely more interesting post-punk, with its reach into the diaspora of reggae, dub, experimental noise, art rock and all of the "waves". The Slits were there through all of it and were still evolving when they broke up at the end of '81. The book includes interviews with band members Viv Albertine, Ari Up, Tessa Pollitt and Palmolive, and also some of the ones who left early on, such as Kate Corris.

Told in a rather breathless, golly, gee-whiz style, the book lacks a solid social and political context for The Slits' story. It is also peppered with dismissive phrases such as "die-hard Women's Libbers", a phrase I haven't heard in about 25 years.

This anti-feminist thread is backed up by Street Howe's comment in The Quietus: "I loved their strange, funny, experimental sound and look, and was inspired by, from what I'd read in the odd interview, their refusal to label themselves 'feminist', or even 'punk'."

Why is this inspiring? What is wrong with aligning oneself to a group or movement? Surely this is exactly what the Slits did: they called themselves a gang or a tribe and were close-knit. Ari Up has long referred to being part of a "revolution". Surely one cannot have a revolution without acting in tandem.

Strange, really, because, when I met the author recently, she said she identifies as a feminist, but she was at pains to illustrate that The Slits didn't want to be categorised.

Ironic, then, because the memory of The Slits has largely been kept alive by underground women's movements such as Riot Grrrl and Ladyfest (the Manchester event hosted the re-formed band) which are avowedly feminist and see the value of standing together in the face of continuing misogyny.

But if The Slits baulked at being adherents to a movement, their sense of being independent and in control of their work has certainly been picked up by thoughtful and adventurous souls in the intervening years.

It is unfortunate that the book uses the word "seminal", a word whose etymology is linked to semen, to describe The Slits. But the band is extraordinary, their legacy impressive and their story well worth telling.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Gina Birch at Barden's Boudoir

Gina Birch on-stage at Barden's Boudoir; photo by Val Phoenix8 July
Barden's Boudoir

Dalston truly is a lure for west London's punk pioneers, as following on from last month's visit by Viv Albertine, Gina Birch popped in for a gig.

After sets by Helen McCookerybook and Brooklyn weird-rock duo Christy and Emily (how do two people make so much noise??), Birch took to the stage, guitar in hand, backed up by tapes and projections from her decades of films. She has been working on new material since The Hangovers but it's not clear when this will see the light of day.

The set ranged from Raincoats ("Don't Be Mean") to Hangovers ("I'm Glad I'm Me Today") to quite a few I didn't recognise, but were quite intriguing. Bitterness, regret and quite a lot of anger shine through in Birch's delivery, and her slightly unhinged persona is brewing up nicely.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Florence and the Machine

A new album, support set for Blur and a storming set at Glasto (how the heck did she get up the lighting rig in those heels?!). It's all go for Florence and the Machine.

Lungs, the album, is currently streaming for two days ahead of its release on the 6th. And it's quite impressive.

I never liked "Kiss with a Fist". Too open to misinterpretation, even if, musically, it's the rockiest thing in her set. But, "The Dog Days Are Over" is one of my favourite songs of the last few years, a wistful, melancholic, start-stop song with cryptic lyrics. And this woman likes her handclaps. It's definitely time for a handclap revival. Other standouts are "The Girl with One Eye" and "Howl", both of which reference tearing out hearts. So, she has a thing for internal organs.

Part flower child, part goth, with nods to Kate Bush and Stevie Nicks, Florence has an oddball, kooky, slightly hippyish retro style that is intriguing, even if it screams pretentious art student. And, indeed she attended Camberwell. One to watch.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

SO36 Benefit

A landmark of Berlin, SO36 has been called Berlin's CBGBs. The Roxy in London is another comparison, as all three played host to an explosion of counter-culture in the 1970s. But, unlike the latter two, which have disappeared, SO36 is still running, putting on gigs, club nights, and, eh, flea markets and serving as a real community resource, supporting the queer and feminist scenes, among others.

This excerpt from Berlin Super 80 gives a flavour of its heyday.

Having just celebrated its 30th anniversary, SO36 now faces closure because of noise complaints. I wondered if this was another example of the creeping gentrification engulfing the scruffier parts of the city. In response to my query, Henning, who works there, emailed me to say gentrification is a concern but this seems to be an isolated case of one neighbour complaining.

It would be a terrible shame were the SO36 to succumb. Mona Mur, who is playing on a benefit bill tomorrow, recalls many a big night: "I saw some really crucial concerts there, like DAF in 1981 when Gabi Delgado transformed the place into a madhouse. These are indeed memories... As a young punk/wave musician from "westGermany" West-Berlin was the fulfilment of desire. And the SO36 (named after the old postal code of Kreuzberg SüdOst = South East) was the Temple. It is still a cool place although it has seen its Golden Days, I guess."

Berlin Supports SO36 is on 2 July at the Modulorhaus.