The Slits – In The Beginning

27th September 2023 · 1980s, 1981, Music, Postpunk, Punk

Here are The Slits, half of them anyway, with ex-members of The Pop Group and Rip Rig + Panic, in session for John Peel from 1981.

I first saw the Slits on the White Riot tour in May 1977. It was at St Alban’s Civic Hall and I seem to remember blagging in by asking to see the guestlist, scanning the names, and telling them I was “Johnny Rotten.” They let me straight in.

The girls had been familiar faces on the punk circuit in the early days but this was one of their first actual gigs. They came on first, followed by Subway Sect, Buzzcocks and headliners The Clash.

It was genuinely one of the most exciting gigs of my life, marred only by the sight of dozens of Teddy Boys gathering on a verge outside the venue, swinging bike chains in anticipation of a recreation of those Mods & Rockers fights of the Sixties.

I remember as soon as The Clash finished with Strummer bellowing out the chorus of the last song – “No Elvis, Beatles or Rolling Stones… in 1977” – feeling a lurching feeling in my belly as I planned my escape, running to where my motorbike, a feeble Honda 70, was parked around the corner.

But back to the Slits. I saw them a few more times – the Music Machine and the Lyceum, both with The Clash, who had taken them under their wing, and sometimes a band I’ve forgotten completely called The Innocents. And one more time, in 1980, at Ally Pally with a lineup of The Pop Group, The Raincoats and The Au Pairs.

By then they had already released their debut album, Cut, with its dubwise production by Dennis Bovell that made them sound like a completely different band from the ragtag outfit who sounded like a bunch of exuberant kids let loose with instruments for the first time. And they were kids; Ari was only 14 at the start.

John Peel was an early fan and understood exactly what they were about, which was largely annoying people who thought punk was rubbish by more or less ramming it back in their faces. “They were the very essence of punk: banging and shouting, unhindered by any discernible musical ability,” he enthused. “We thought the BBC should record them for posterity.”

I wasn’t much taken with their second album, Return Of The Giant Slits, but I had always loved those Peel sessions, which began long before Cut came out: an occasion that involved the BBC’s studio engineer Nick Gomm having to retune their guitars on multiple occasions because they had no idea how to do it.

The other engineer present, Bill Aitken, subsequently described the chaotic session as “a classic if you’re into shit,” adding that they “probably put the cause of women in rock back a century or so.”

He was, of course, what we joyfully referred to at the time as an “old fart,” whereas Peel – a self-confessed old fart – totally got​ punk right from the start, embracing it enthusiastically. This came from the third and final session, with a line-up that’s effectively a hybrid of the Slits and the Pop Group – or, more accurately, Rip Rig + Panic.

Ari Up and Viv Albertine (guitar) represent the former, augmented by Neneh Cherry on vocals, her American husband Bruce Smith on drums, and Andi Oliver’s brother Sean Oliver on bass.

Smith had co-founded The Pop Group in 1977 before replacing Budgie in the Slits in 1979, then teamed up with Adrian Sherwood in New Age Steppers and formed Rip Rig + Panic with Neneh Cherry (and fellow Pop Group member Gareth Sager) and Sean Oliver (who died in 1990 of sickle cell anaemia), before ending up in Public Image Ltd, where he still plays drums.

It’s a shame they made so little music together because they gel perfectly and, even though this is more of a loose funky jam than a song, I prefer it far more than that second Slits album.