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.

No comments: