Arianna Daniele Forster – aka Ari Up, singer with the Slits – wasn’t exactly your typical girl. Nowadays the phrase ‘girl power’ is a much debased term but Ari Up was probably one of the originals.

She certainly wasn’t a shrinking wallflower conditioned to behave like a good little girl. Up mixed in dreadlocks, a love of dub reggae, punk and a willingness to shock. After all the band didn’t dress in matching skirts and hairdos like some Phil Spector girl band.

In Caroline Coon’s ‘1988: The New Wave Punk Rock Explosion, 1977’ she described Up as being “all girl [...] standing with her long bare legs coquettishly akimbo, she exudes the raunchy innocence of a futuristic Medusa-Lolita imitation.” The band, for Coon, represented “a revolutionary shift of female ego from one which is biologically defined to one which is made strong by an assertive, mainstream role in society.” One that attacked traditional notions of women and female domesticity.

At one Slits gig at a Dalston cinema Up came on stage in a mac, opening it up now and again to reveal that underneath she was wearing Union Jack knickers over leggings. And on another occasion on stage at the Music Machine, Up squatted down and pissed on stage. Dadaists like Tristan Tzara would have been proud. Not that it was any great artistic statement: “It wasn’t to shock anyone,” she insisted in Simon Reynolds’ ‘Rip It Up and Start Again’. “I needed to pee, there wasn’t a toilet near, so I pissed onstage – on the side, but everyone in the audience saw it. I just didn’t care.”

Born in Munich to the wealthy German publishing heiress Nora Forster and her German crooner father on 17 January 1962, music was part of Up’s life from the start. Nora was an established musician and promoter on the London music scene – and a friend of Jimi Hendrix - by the time she had split with Up’s father and was now having a relationship with the guitarist Chris Spedding. As such she was around when the Sex Pistols recorded their first demos in May 1976. And Spedding had encouraged Up’s early musical leanings to play the piano. Forster eventually settled down with the Pistols’ singer, making Up’s stepfather one John Lydon.

After Nora left Spedding her home would become a sort of salon to a number of musicians of all different styles from the likes of Jon Anderson from Yes to the Bee Gees. Another was the Clash’s frontman Joe Strummer who Up recollected in 2005 as “being like a brother to me. He never tried to come on to me, but was very protective and natural." And he gave her a few guitar lessons.

Many a sociologist has pontificated on the band as a form of male gang or some tribe like the fellaheen. Kids who would hang around street corners and each others’ houses would become adolescents in groups. The Slits were pretty much the female equivalent. Up, with her dreadlocks, confessed in one interview to being “wild and crazy, like an animal let loose – but an innocent little girl with it, too.”

The Slits' guitarist Viv Albertine would agree, recollecting in 2001 that they “were an aggressive bunch of girls. We were all pretty extreme and we used to egg each other on. We weren’t into girly things. Together we gave each other the confidence to behave like nutters without really worrying about being girls. We used to walk down the street four abreast as a gang and feel very strong and powerful. It was hard to do on your own, but great when you were together. We wore rubber and leather and stockings and ribbons and Doc Martens, and men would be really confused by the signals. We thought we must have been pretty ugly, but I suppose being young and not wearing much we looked quite sexy. But if anyone dared to stare and say anything, we'd let them have it. Dirty wankers!"

Inspired by the likes of the Sex Pistols and the New York Dolls, The Slits formed in 1976 with the 14-year-old Up on vocals, Palmolive (Paloma Romero, later to leave and join The Raincoats) on drums, Kate Korus (real name Kate Corris) on guitar and Suzi Gutsy on bass. Korus soon left to form the Modettes and Gutsy went off to join the Flicks. Up and Palmolive recruited Albertine on guitar and bass player Tessa Pollitt. Pollitt had joined from another band with a name that even trumped the Slits: the Castrators.

Early gigs were apparently lively, raucous affairs as they bashed out half hour sets that mixed up their own songs such as ‘Let’s Do The Split’, ‘Slime’, ‘Vaseline’ and ‘Social Servant’ and covers like the Velvet Underground’s ‘Femme Fatale’ and often saw Up jumping into the crowd. Kris Needs, in a review for ‘ZigZag’ focused on Up, saying: “She’s electrifying to watch, completely uninhibited.” While Vivien Goldman, watching the band play a squat at the end of 1976, for ‘Sounds’, said that even in this early stage, the band had “formidable power and attack”. Paul Morley, in the February 2001 edition of ‘Uncut’, wrote: “Their live shows were a free rock shock of splattered noise, a kind of clownish performance terrorism where avant-garde ballet met armed combat.”

Former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren attempted to bring the band under his wing, apparently with the managerial chat-up line: “I want to work with you because you’re girls and you play music. I hate music and I hate girls. I thrive on hate.” But unable to come up with any great masterplan or publicity stunt McLaren’s great idea initially consisted of trying to sign the band to the German disco label Hansa. Then when Island signed up the band and invited McLaren to come up with an idea for a film featuring the band, the best he could do was a screenplay that had the band as an all-girl rock band travelling to Mexico where they found themselves sold into slavery and turned into hybrid porn-disco stars. The idea didn’t go down too well with the band and they extricated themselves from McLaren’s grasp.

In part to Up’s connections with Strummer and Palmolive was seeing the singer, the Slits found themselves supporting the Clash on their White Riot tour in spring 1977, at the time Up was still attending her Holland Park comprehensive. The band made their proper public debut at the Coliseum, in Harlesden on 11 March 1977. Not that it was simply a case of nepotism that got the band the tour slot. According to Marcus Gray’s biography of The Clash, ‘Last Gang in Town’, the deciding factor was actually the band’s manager Bernie Rhodes’s desire for “collecting Clash associate bands, full stop.” Apparently, he had no desire simply to appease girlfriends and wasn’t interested in their musical ability (or a lack of ability).

The tour, according to Pollitt, was like a cross between “St Trinian’s meets the Bash Street Kids.” But the tour took them all over the UK with the bands playing a gig most nights.

Some of the antics of the tour are detailed in Zoë Street Howe’s biography of the band ‘Typical Girls: The Story of the Slits’ where the girls would attract the most controversy, invariably not of their own doing though. They even got thrown out of one hotel before they could even book in, simply because of having the name the Slits on a guitar case. Similarly the tour bus driver, Norman, taking a dislike to what he perceived as four loud-mouthed, free-spirited and generally scantily-clad women, in particular the 15-year-old Up, tried to band them from travelling on the bus. Don Letts, the band’s manager, had to effectively bribe him on a daily basis to let the girls on. Even so he still made it perfectly clear what he thought of their mini-skirts, slashed tops and fish-nets. To his conservative mind set it wasn’t the way young ladies behaved. Never mind that the likes of the Clash and Subway Sect were on board, being punks they were public enemy number one to the likes of the tabloid press, but it was the women who were the real menace to the likes of Norman.

“Touring with The Slits, that was a trip,” confessed Letts in ‘Typical Girls’. “Punk was a social pariah, wherever you went the spotlight was on you, and it would bring out all the people who were anti-punk but it would also bring out a lot of people who just wanted to jump on the bandwagon, who didn’t really have any ideology.

“It was potential madness. In fact it was guaranteed. Doing anything with the Slits was madness, you didn’t have to be on tour. Just going down the street with them was mayhem. Ari was like a whirlwind, still is.
I remember trying to get them signed in to a hotel and Ari was behind me wrecking the place before we'd actually got signed in, so of course they'd then say, 'We can't have you here,' It was a really hard time. I remember checking out of a hotel and I hear the hotel manager giving us a bill, and it was for like, drinks, food, dinner and then I heard 'one door' – and I was like, 'There's a bill for a door?' and he said, 'Yes, there's a door missing'.”

All too often bands, especially the punks, professed to being musically illiterate and couldn’t play while secretly more than competent. By all accounts though the Slits were truly inept, especially in the early days, creating a cacophony with only the slightest trace of reggae inflections coming over the naïve noise.

The Slits blended together punk and dub reggae with an aggressive and confrontational stance but despite all the attention the band were getting they failed to get a record contract during the initial wave of punk groups. Eventually though Chris Blackwell’s Island label – with its strong reggae connections – stepped in. By the time though the band got round to making their recording debut Palmolive had gone and replaced by Big in Japan drummer Budgie.

Reggae was a huge influence on all the band’s members, but especially Up. “We used to find the blues parties just following the bass,” she recollected. “We would be streets away and listen for the vibrations. In 1976-8 there were zero white people. And I was not just the only white girl but the only one with dreads.”

The band called in reggae producer Dennis Bovell to work on the band’s debut album, the dub-influenced ‘Cut’ in the summer of 1979. What the band lacked in ability they made up for in ambition and fortunately Island boss Blackwell also had belief in them and gave them as much studio time as needed. “They were just bulging with material,” said Bovell. “I had the task of sorting it out and saying, ‘This goes here.’ It was like an enormous jigsaw puzzle all dumped in your lap.” The band certainly approved of Bovell, with Up telling ‘ZigZag’ in April 1979: “He’s a good producer. He gets good sounds, he doesn’t just get reggae sounds, he can do anything. You can’t really label reggae sounds anyway. He’s inventive. You’ve got to be an artist to be a mixer.”

Even before the record was actually played the band even managed to find themselves mired in controversy thanks to the three women posing on the cover almost naked except for loincloths and covered in mud, like Amazonian tribeswomen. The image made the viewer reassess notions of eroticism and titillation. In one respect here were three women with barely anything on, covered in mud although proudly staring out, not in a timid way, but proudly, almost inviting the viewer to look but negating a ‘come hither’ stance. It was sexy without being leering. As Up said of the cover, “We decided to cover ourselves in mud and show that women could be sexy without dressing in a prescribed way. Sexy, in a natural way, and naked, without being pornographic.”

Musically the band were just as confrontational taking on consumerism on songs like ‘Spend Spend Spend’ and ‘Shoplifting’ with its pay-off line of: “Ten pounds the lot – we paid fuck all.” And advocating for people to “Do a runner, do a runner.” Other concerns were male sexual stereotypes in ‘So Tough’ and the social conditions of the new towns that had been springing up around the country in the previous years, in the aptly named ‘New Town’.

Overlaying Albertine’s scratchy, rudimentary guitar parts were Up’s shrill vocals, supported by a sort of harmonising by Pollitt and Albertine. The trio sang together on the opener ‘Instant Hit’, which Up referred to as “a kind of Frère Jacques thing”, and possibly referred to the likes of Albertine’s junkie friends Keith Levene and Sid Vicious. ‘Spend Spend Spend’ and ‘Shoplifting’ succinctly sum up two sides of consumerism. In the first the female shopaholic tries to find gratification with a series of impulse purchases. ‘Shoplifting’ though views the petty thief in a similar way to Jean Genet, as a noble rebel making a stand. But where Genet’s thief invariably ends up in prison, the Slit’s heroine realises that “I’ve pissed in my knickers.”

Romantic idealism is also satirised in ‘Love Und Romance’ seeing the notion of romance as equating to being brain dead (“Oh my darling, who wants to be free?”). ‘Ping Pong Affair’ sketches a post-break-up scenario of evenings in with cigarettes and your hand down your knickers. ‘Typical Girls’, released as a single (which reached the dizzying heights of number 60 in the charts), was perhaps the closest the band got to a manifesto as it attacked the conditioning many ‘ordinary’ girls suffered. Ones who don’t rebel and fill their brains with the anxieties women’s magazines fill their pages with – spots, fat and boyfriends.

‘Cut’ stands up there as one of the great post-punk records, alongside Public Image’s ‘Metal Box’, the Pop Group’s ‘Y’, Gang of Four’s ‘Entertainment’ and the debut album from the Raincoats. ‘Cut’ sees the band polishing that raw ambition and willingness to succeed that drove their early wild gigs into some more competent but still had vitality and playfulness.

But despite their stance in their songs the band didn’t really have much time for female liberation.

“We’re just not interested in questions about women’s liberation,” said Albertine to Coon. “There’s loads of people who think rock is basically a male idiom, but bollocks. They can say what they want. Who cares about people with that mentality. All that chauvinism stuff doesn’t matter a fuck to us. We get all that stuff from hotel managers – but who cares? You either think chauvinism is shit or you don’t. We think it’s shit.

Girls shouldn't hang around with people who give them aggro about what they want to do. If they do they're idiots.'"

In the same interview, Up, gave her reasons why she thought there weren’t more women playing rock ‘n’ roll: “They just never try. They leave it up to others. Well, the Runaways tried, but they’re just shit. The reason there’s hardly any girl rock ‘n’ roll stars is because most girls are not strong enough in their own minds. They just want regular money so they can get their kids to grow up. They’re not trying anything new.”

The women did want their own freedom though. Talking to Coon, Palmolive said, “If men don’t like us to be free, that’s their problem. If they don’t like it they can fuck off. If you have a boy stuck beside you all the time, asking if you want some tea and opening doors and things – it’s just as boring for him as it is for you. They hate all that too. That’s why they all go off with their mates.”

And the band didn’t have much time for women musicians either. Albertine once stated: “I have never liked any women in rock ‘n’ roll. They never stood up for themselves, and all they’d sing about was ‘meeting you at eight’ and ‘I want to be loved by you’ and stuff like that.

“It wasn’t until I met Chrissie Hynde that I saw myself as a guitarist. She’s still finding it difficult to get a band together but she was the first girl I’d ever met who played the guitar without looking like Joni Mitchell. And it was great.”

As Up recollected in ‘Typical Girls’: “We weren’t political, we weren’t feminists by label, but we were automatically women’s rights by being who we were and making sure we are who we are and remaining who we are. Punk really started with equality of girls. There's a whole culture – the first looks of so-called punk, so many girls contributed to that. And of course Vivienne Westwood, there was a window for female expression in punk when it started. That's why the Slits were even able to survive and live it, and be born into that revolution and have a chance. Windows were opening for them, even like the fanzines, the first punk fanzines were made by girls."

While ‘Cut’ garnered a sizeable amount of press attention that didn’t translate into sales and only reached number 30 in the charts, briefly, in April 1979. Part of the problem, as Letts recently told ‘The Indpendent’: “They were unmanageable and scared the music business, and Ari frightened everybody.”

And this was at a time of a surge in idiosyncratic female self-expression. Invariably taking their cue from the likes of Patti Smith bands like the Slits and the Raincoats, as well as Kleenex, Ludus and Lydia Lunch were showing that female musicians could be much more than just a pretty little girl in a nice dress singing about love and romance – and didn’t need a man’s permission to do so.

Up slowly got more and more wrapped up in a Rasta-based mysticism and with ‘In the Beginning There Was Rhythm’, included on the deluxe version of ‘Cut’ Up was advocating a strange sort of cosmology of rhythm: “God is rhythm, rhythm is roots and roots is rhythm/Silence is a rhythm too.” She told one interviewer, “Every sound that you hear is rhythm. Fucking is rhythm and so is the earth going round and every footstep and every heartbeat.”

To help with this interest Up formed the New Age Steppers with dub producer Adrian Sherwood and the musicians under the moniker Creation Rebel. Both Up and Sherwood moved into a squat with Neneh Cherry in Battersea. The group’s debut single ‘Fade Away’ was released in January 1981 but didn’t make much of an impression with the music-buying public.

The Slits managed to record one more album, ‘Return of the Giant Slits’, for CBS in 1981 and was heavily influenced by African music as well as jazz musicians like Sun Ra and Cherry’s father, Don. Songs like ‘Earthbeat’ mixed up ecological concerns with hippy-style Mother Earth notions.

Although the band had broadened their sound, compared to the much more experimental ‘Odyshape’ by the Raincoats, the Slits seemed like they had been left behind. And they had. By 1981 the post-punk zeitgeist had passed and the New Romantics were all the rage. Out was any sort of punk/hippie, new age idealism and in were suits and synths.

The' NME' review in October 1981 had some concerns: “There’s something dissatisfying about three white women riffling through some of the darkest aspects of black music and flaunting their ‘discoveries’ as trappings of a style in saris.” While Richard Cook called Up’s “preposterous vibrato” as much of a “conceit in its way as the grand pretension of [Jim] Kerr and [U2 singer] Bono.”

While ‘Return of the Giant Slits’ might very well be forgettable, ‘Cut’ remains essential listening and you can’t go to wrong with their sessions they recorded for John Peel’s BBC Radio 1 show either. And for all the bum notes and fumbled playing search out some live recordings too, like ‘In the Beginning’. And no article on the band would really be complete without mentioning just how wonderful their take on ‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine’ was. Surely a contender for the best ever cover version? And proved that the band had talent and ability not just attitude and eagerness. Up hit a nerve too by occasionally changing the key refrain in the song to: “I heard it through the bassline...”

After the breakup of the Slits, Up initially left the West behind moving around the likes of rural Jamaica, Belize and Borneo and started her own family. Later she would spend her time raising her three sons between Brooklyn and Jamaica.

The legacy of the Slits nowadays isn’t quite so easy to detect with manufactured girls bands being all the rage with groups like Girls Aloud, the Sugababes and the Saturdays gaining all the column inches in the gossip pages as they swan about in nightclubs in pretty dresses and perfect make-up. Their songs filled with idealised romantic notions of meeting their Prince Charming and finding everlasting love. Exactly the opposite to what the Slits sang about. Even quite loud-mouthed girl bands like the Spice Girls, who paid lip-service to the notion of ‘girl power’, got it so wrong, opting instead for trite songs about idealised love whilst performing a nice little dance routine.

The Slits though did have a huge impact on the likes of Riot Grrrl in the mid 1990s and bands like Huggy Bear, Bratmobile and Bikini Kill with their DIY stance and willingness to avoid gender defined roles for women. And there’s a lot of the Slits’ attitude in Sonic Youth’s bassist Kim Gordon too. And it’s pretty obvious that Courtney Love’s band, Hole, have given ‘Cut’ more than a cursory listen.

Similarly the vocal style of Björk owes a lot to the squeals, growls and yelps of Up.

The Slits also had an unlikely influence on Paul Rutherford, who at the time was in a band called the Spitfire Boys, but who would go on to find fame with Frankie Goes to Hollywood. “I was just in love with every one of them. They were really doing something. To me they were the biggest band in the world, still are.”

And what about Madonna? The pop star may have had more image changes than a schizophrenic chameleon, but the singer, so Albertine has claimed, took note of the Slits.

“Madonna came to see us in New York very early on. Six months later she looked just like me. It might have been a coincidence, but that combination of ribbons, stockings, boots and make-up didn't happen before us. It would be nice if she had acknowledged it. Wore a Slits T-shirt or something.”

But until the untimely death of Up recently from cancer the band had really fallen off the radar. Only Luscious Jackson’s singer Jill Cunniff stated in 'Uncut' in December 1997: “There was a time when the Slits were the epitome, the ultimate, the coolest of the cool. They were everything I wanted from life.”

Up continued making music, releasing her solo album ‘Dread More Dan Dead’ in 2005 and reformed the Slits in 2006 with Pollitt, releasing the EP ‘Revenge of the Killer Slits’ and followed that up with the 2009 album ‘Trapped Animal’.

Up died on 20 October with Lydon making the announcement on his website: “John and Nora have asked us to let everyone know that Nora's daughter Arianna (aka Ari-Up) died today (Wednesday, October 20th) after a serious illness. She will be sadly missed.” She leaves behind three sons, twins Pablo and Pedro and Wilton.

Related Links:

Commenting On: 1962-2010 - Ari Up

ie London, England

tick box before submitting comment

First Previous Next Last