by John Robb.
It’s hard to believe that Ari Up is dead. Only 49 and at the peak of her creative powers.
The Slits frontwoman was one of those forces of nature that would fill a room like a hurricane of energy. She came out of punk unstoppable and leaves an amazing catalogue of great records and ideas. I interviewed her a few times and would always come away feeling energised and inspired. This went for her music as well.
The Slits (even the name took no prisoners in the cock obsessed world of old school rock n roll) are one of the key bands that came out of punk. One of the great things about the disparate movement was that it was not the usual lads club that music gets bogged down with.
In punk the way that women made music, on their own terms, in their own way was inspirational- not only to woman but to men as well. It could be argued that this was the most revolutionary thing that came out of punk and Ari Up was right in the middle of this with the Slits.
The band was formed in 1976 right at the heart of movement. They were surrounded by members of the Clash and the Sex Pistols and initially took their cues from the greats before re-inventing punk in the purest possible terms.
They were no mere liggers hitching a ride, they were making music that was more revolutionary than their peers and in many ways defined what punk really was.
I loved their punky reggae party, the way they took dub bottom end and combined it with the shrapnel guitar and prose of punk and made something utterly original and if it ironically took a male drummer called Budgie to eventually define those feminine rhythms they talked about- well it worked, it really worked.
Their records never dated, the initial Peel session where they could barely play were a revelation, I still remember being hooked on it when it was first played now. The songs were dislocated cut and paste punk pop, great tunes and in your face attitude played in a new way. The debut album was smoother but no less inventive- that classic take on Marvin Gaye’s ‘Heard It through the Grapevine’ with Ari’s amazing soaring, sweeping vocals- cramming invention into space- total genius- nothing remotely sounded like her…it was all classic stuff- re-writing the rule book in what could be done in music.
The Slits proved that you didn’t have to be a demure dolly bird to make music- this was a revelation in the deathly dull seventies. Ari Up changed what a woman in the public eye could be- the fact that people could wear what the fuck you liked and look out of control and still look amazing changed perceptions. There was Ari Up with her bird’s nest hair and attitude and her wardrobe from hell and she looked fantastic and her fuck you attitude empowered so many people.
They could have had it all but with fantastic attitude they burned brightly and went on their own idiosyncratic paths, Ari deeper into the dub with several side projects- each fascinating and genius. And that’s the crux of the matter, no matter how much they changed attitudes to making music the word genius is still reserved for men. Ari was a true revolutionary and genius and I took as much energy and inspiration from her as any of the blokes in punk.
The reformed Slits a couple of years ago were a revelation, they updated their sound without copying anyone and the shows were packed and thrilling, musically light years ahead and finally getting recognition with a potential Grammy (fuck that- we know how great they were!) and Ari Up still irrepressible- owning the stage and looking cool as fuck with endless dreads and crazy skanking. So full of life, sex and energy.
Inspirational, beautiful and free.