‘A walk in the park can become a bad dream’ – Bananarama, Robert de Niro’s Waiting
Last time, I indulged in some sickening name-droppage when I talked about my private audiences with Ivor Cutler. By way of contrast, I thought I’d write about the time I completely failed to interview Ari Up from the Slits. And indeed completely failed in my first (and to date only) rock journalism ‘assignment’.
A bit of background. I knew very little about the Slits until I was 25. By that age, I’d long lost interest in music, particularly new stuff. I tried hard, but my arms remained goosebump-free. After all, hadn’t everything had been ‘done’ by now? Surely we’d passed peak pop long ago?
The fact that jaded twentysomethings have felt this way ever since The Andrew Sisters split up didn’t shake me out of this mindset. In fact, it used to irritate me when people my age were still breathlessly evangelical about new music, particularly when they rolled out that dismal phrase ‘There’s loads of great bands out there’. I always expected them to add ‘Apparently’ afterwards, because I suspected they were trying to convince themselves more than me.
You see, I used to love pop as a kid because it was an escape hatch. It was a sliver of fun after your maths homework; a chink of light at the end of a dentist appointment; a chocolate rush after your liver and cabbage. It’s no coincidence that one of the most enduring 1980s clichés is that of neon lighting – florescent tubes spelling out the Top of the Pops logo, or perhaps a suitably exotic word like ‘COCKTAILS’. But people forget why such images existed and endured in the first place: it was because normal life in 80s Britain was dusty and battleship-grey. These day-glo flashes were the exception. It was undoubtedly the same for 70s kids – Noddy Holder’s glittery top hat glittered ever brighter in the candlelight of the three-day week.
By the time I reached my 20s, this counterpoint no longer worked. Music now seemed as drab as life itself. Few genres depressed me more than Britpop, which seemed backward-looking in the most joyless way possible; people archly pastiching bands from the past, but without any sense of fun – like the Rutles without the gags. Even the pop stars themselves didn’t look like they were enjoying themselves, and they often looked slightly annoyed to be famous. Why would I want to listen to them? I wanted records which took me away from the hum of the office photocopier – not ones that sounded exactly like it.
Then one night in 1999, during a TV documentary celebrating John Peel’s 60th birthday, I saw this lot:
The grotty 16mm footage – originally from The Record Machine, an October 1978 edition of the BBC arts strand Omnibus – captured singer Ari Up, guitarist Viv Albertine, bass player Tessa Pollitt and drummer Palmolive raising hell in a London squat. To the accompaniment of Shoplifting – the finest song ever written about stealing cheese – the band jump up and down on beds, try on junkshop clothes, dance sarcastically, masturbate sarcastically, take the piss out of each other, gob at posters of Rod Stewart and gleefully rip up ABBA album sleeves.
The latter felt strangely refreshing at a time when we were all meant to throw aside such snobbery and doff our caps to the rock bores and easy-listening giants of the past. By the humourless 90s, there was no such thing as ‘the mainstream’ and ‘the counter culture’ – it was all just ‘great music’, and we were urged to put away our childish tribalism forever. Hey, we can all like everything now – all that matters is whether it’s good, right? I always felt there was something drearily conservative about this phoney open-mindedness, this self-conscious signalling of one’s eclecticism. It was a wag of the finger disguised as a V-sign; a party pooper masquerading as a party popper. In contrast, here was a reminder that pop music used to be…dare I say it, a bit of a laugh.
The goosebumps were suddenly back. And they’d been provoked by a band who split up 17 years earlier. I had discovered the Slits.
But what also made me sit up was Peel’s words following the clip:
If I was to make a list of the ten best sessions of all time, the [first] two Slits sessions would be in that top ten – they were just mesmerising. Their inability to play coupled with their determination to play…the kind of conflict between these things was magnificent.
which I think sums them up brilliantly. That said, the claim that they ‘couldn’t play their instruments’ was always a bit of a myth, and probably one inevitably rooted in sexism. Sid Vicious, after all, wasn’t exactly Julian Bream. Watch early footage of the Slits (eg, in Don Letts’ fascinating but near-unwatchable cinefilm The Punk Rock Movie) and it’s clear they could bash out a tune just as well as the average Rut, Buzzcock or Voidoid.
By the time of the Cut album, they were tight and disciplined musicians, and often inventively avant-garde ones too. On Ping Pong Affair, for example, spoons are struck against ashtrays to create both percussion and a sort of druggy in-joke. Ari Up was an astonishing, octave-straddling vocalist, and I really don’t know why she isn’t as famous and critically acclaimed as Bjork.
I won’t spend this blog wittering on about the history of the Slits. Better writers than me have done so countless times. It’s a story you can read elsewhere, and it’s a very odd one – for example, the fact that Ari Up was John Lydon’s stepdaughter will always be something of a mindfuck in punk’s messy timeline. If you want the full story, Zoe Street Howe’s Typical Girls? The Story of the Slits is the place to go, as is Viv Albertine’s excellent memoir.
All I’ll say is that I immediately loved them, and this was mainly because they didn’t seem to belong to any obvious genre. Unlike the Britpop dullards, I couldn’t spot their influences. It was pop from another planet.
Were they a punk band? Ari Up always dismissed this label. ‘If we’re punk,’ she once asked, ‘why are we always written out of punk history?’ It’s a fair point, and it’s also worth remembering that they never actually made any punk records. Those 1977/78 Peel sessions, made while Palmolive was still on the drums, are the only hi-fi recordings of ‘the Slits Phase 1′ – by the time they made Cut as a three-piece in 1979, both they (and punk itself) had moved on. They took elements from reggae and African music and from the likes of Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart, but there was tons of other stuff going on. Even within the ever-expanding diversity of the post-punk/new wave scene, categorising the Slits’ sound is almost impossible.
They were always visually arresting too – it’s certainly hard to find a photograph of them where they don’t look in some way spellbinding. The famous image on Cut, showing the statuesque trio, bare-breasted and caked in mud, standing outside a picturesque rose-covered farmhouse) remains one of the world’s most extraordinary record covers. Most punk bands were satisfied simply snarling by a brick wall, but the Slits were doing something more complex and ambiguous, fusing sex and violence in unsettling ways. It’s the kind of image Mick Travis in If…. would have hidden under his pillow.
‘Come on then, if you’re hard enough’ was the intended message according to Albertine, but even that war-cry contains a sly double entendre. In the same way that Throbbing Gristle made dance music that was impossible to dance to, the Slits had seemingly made a pin-up you couldn’t pin down.
One afternoon in 2009, when I’d been a Slits obsessive for almost exactly a decade, I was contacted by a bloke from the music website God Is In The TV. A writer of theirs had been taken ill, so would I go down to University College London next week and review the all-new Slits for them? The band had recently reunited, or at least two of them had – Ari and Tessa were back in the saddle alongside three younger protégés, one of whom was Hollie Cook (daughter of Sex Pistol Paul). Sure, I blurted. I’d seen this new line-up several times by now, and the idea of penning a review tickled my ego. Oh, the bloke added, can you interview them as well?
The tickle quickly turned to something else. I think it was blind terror.
You see, I’m not a music writer. In fact, I’ve always been simultaneously envious of rock journalists and glad I don’t have their job. Partly because writing about music – particularly about what music sounds like – is a difficult skill (one that the ego-tickle had made me forget I didn’t possess), but also because I don’t think I could pull the right faces. In the dressing room I’d either be a starstruck loon or an embarrassed uncle. I’ve written before about being blasé meeting celebs when working in London bookshops, but in an interview situation the dynamic’s totally different – you’re not in control.
And apart from anything else, how exactly was a nebbishy bookseller like myself meant to hang out backstage with the a rock band, particularly the bloody Slits? My mind raced back to that Omnibus footage. Maybe I was to suffer the same fate as those ABBA sleeves? Maybe I was to be their Rod Stewart?
When the day came, I was a gibbering bag of nerves. I think I spent most of it in the toilet, which I guess was pretty punk. What on earth was I going to ask them? The sage advice ‘Never meet your heroes’ continually rang in my ears. I cringed at the image of me standing there timidly in my glasses while they cackled and jeered and spat into my notepad, possibly while making satirical remarks about my penis. I mean, I’d seen what Toyah had done to that poor policeman in Jubilee.
At the very least, I imagined they’d stare at me like this:
But somehow I made it to the venue. I gave my name at the desk, and shortly afterwards an ents officer came down to meet me. The one good thing about tonight was that I was doing the interview before the show, which meant I could at least enjoy the gig afterwards. He took me down several corridors and up endless flights of stairs, before we eventually arrived on some kind of scaffolding gangway – it was (and I’m not sure why this popped into my head) a bit like the one I’d viewed the wreck of the Mary Rose from on a school trip.
‘Ari, I’ve got a guy from the press here’ the ents officer said cheerily.
I looked over the gangway into a makeshift dressing-area, and…there she was. Ari Up herself – lying on a chaise longue quietly reading a novel.
‘Hi,’ I said, greeting her in much the same way that I’d greeted the Mary Rose.
‘Hello,’ she said, in much the same way that the Mary Rose had greeted me. ‘Are you from the radio?’
‘No, I’m, um…writing for a website.’
‘A what?‘ She sounded tired.
‘A website. God Is In The TV.’ I grew puce. Somehow I didn’t think Lester Bangs had this sort of trouble.
‘Can we do this afterwards?’ she said to the ents officer, before turning to me again and pointing at her throat. ‘I need to save my voice, you see.’ She took a swig of Evian.
‘Yeah, no worries’ I heard myself say, as if I had any kind of choice, my heart sinking at the realisation that my ordeal would be prolonged. Come on, bring out the rubber sheeting and get it over with.
‘If he comes back after the show, he can talk to me then’ she said. It was like I was on Jim’ll Fix It.
‘Yeah, cool, no worries’ said the ents officer, jangling his keys in a come-on-let’s-go type way. And we left. But as we did so, Ari said goodbye and flashed me one of the sweetest and kindest smiles I think I’ve ever seen.
This was the last I saw of her. The post-gig interview never happened, and I never met the rest of the band. To cut a long story short, the security guard (understandably enough) didn’t believe my ‘I’m here to do an interview’ story and wouldn’t let me backstage. I called the ents officer repeatedly, but all I got was ents voicemail. A better, more punk-rock anecdote would involve me scaling a fence and breaking into the dressing room in defiance – I’m sure that’s what Julie Burchill and Nick Kent would have done. But no, not me. The evening was over.
Had I been snubbed, or was this just bad organisation on everybody’s part? A part of me didn’t really care. As I walked from the venue, I felt warm clouds of relief soothing my veins as the autumn air cooled my sweat; the interview probably would have been a disaster, or at the very least an anti-climax. I’d never been more pleased I wasn’t an actual rock journalist – mainly because, if I had been, I’d probably have been sacked.
I just kept remembering that smile.
Just over a year later, Ari Up was dead. I didn’t know it at the time, but she had terminal breast cancer when I spoke to her. The zen-like dressing room now made slightly more sense – why would she have wasted her precious time talking to someone like me? The gig, of course, was as riotous as ever.
My review is still archived on the God Is On The TV website. Looking at it again now, the puce hue returns to my cheeks. It’s almost impossible to write about music without using all the obvious clichés; in fact, the harder you try to avoid them, the more of them you use. I see I praise Tessa Pollitt’s ‘faultless bass work’ (because obviously I’m an acknowledged expert on how to play the guitar and can spot a stray finger immediately). I also notice I couldn’t resist getting in a little dig about the support acts being ersatz. My jadedness with ‘new stuff’ has never really gone away.
Mortifyingly, I end the review by describing Ari Up as ‘a performer who, literally and figuratively, enjoys stripping to her knickers only to reveal further knickers underneath’. I have absolutely no idea what I meant by this, but please get in touch if you have any theories.
I hope Ari’s at peace now. She was a legend, and I hope this article has – to some extent at least – warmed her ghost.