They were a band willing and able to transcend their peers’ three-chord pop songs and political sloganeering to create something that really did chip away at the rock ‘n’ roll myth
The Slits’ debut album Cut, which turned 40 on Sept. 7, could simply be lauded as part of the same punky reggae party in the U.K. that brought us The Clash, The Ruts and even The Police, but that’d be a limiting description. It has long served as a beacon of encouragement for independent minded indie-pop acts, riot grrrls and others, but even that conclusion feels like it short-changes an album different from anything to come before or since.
Instead, a band willing and able to transcend their peer’s three-chord pop songs and political sloganeering and create something that really did chip away at the rock ‘n’ roll myth deserves separate billing. As for Cut’s influence, the masterwork of a group that doubled as an inclusive tribe for Rastas and other outcasts deserves closer consideration at a time when underground music scenes are way more accepting of others.
It’s easy to assume that The Slits’ three year wait for a record deal reeks of sexism. While the classic lineup of Ari Up (vocals), Tessa Pollitt (bass), Viv Albertine (guitar) and Palmolive (drums) made men in suits nervous at every turn, the delayed arrival of a debut album can be credited to the group’s insistence on joining its Jamaican music heroes as Island Record signees.
The wait paid off, as constantly playing live since 1976 transformed the band from a ramshackle troupe of non-musicians to a resourceful bunch, able to make the most of its musical limitations and near-boundless imaginations.
Before breaking down the album, it’s worth noting that calling the band non-musicians isn’t meant as a slight. Not being a supposed real bass player allowed Pollitt to recreate the rhythms of rock and reggae in her own, peculiar way. Albertine had to take guitar lessons years after The Slits ended to start her current singer-songwriter career, which just means that her less-is-more picking on Cut really did take the shine off aging rock gods’ self-aggrandizing solos and virtuoso training.
The album, recorded after Palmolive left the fold and featuring future Siouxsie & The Banshees drummer Budgie, teamed the band with reggae musician and producer Dennis Bovell. Some take Bovell’s involvement as an excuse to discredit three women’s work—as if they’d ever give men’s credit for a studio creation to someone like, say, George Martin. Plus, no one was going to take the reigns completely away from teenage Ari Up, who by all accounts was too much of a pain in the ass to just sit there and let someone else do a lion’s share of the work.
More realistically, a great producer identified what made The Slits’ punk and reggae hybrid work and helped the group make something that really did render the boundaries of rock ‘n’ roll’s millionaires’ game obsolete.
As for the album itself, it nullifies punk’s formulaic two-and-a-half minute pop songs with such sprawling soundscapes as the cynical “Spend, Spend, Spend” and “Adventures Close to Home,” declaration of independence “Typical Girls” and even a breakup song in “Ping Pong Affair.” There is one fast, loud and angry punk song titled “Shoplifting” which, despite its own Caribbean feel, teases what it might’ve sounded like if the band stayed closer to the Sex Pistols plan of poisoning rock with its own medicine. Otherwise, The Slits’ treatment of punk’s own expectations calls to mind the name of a Simon Reynolds book: they opted to “rip it up and start again,” much like many young people today challenge the underground’s status quo for much greater causes.