Ari Up


Ari Up from punk trailblazers The Slits tells SINEAD GLEESON about her continuing mission to break down barriers and bring music to the masses

I discovered The Slits in a bizarre mix-tape accident. They weren’t actually meant to be on the C60 my friend’s brother had painstakingly made. My demands were for hardcore/noise and he obliged with Big Black and Fugazi, but there, at the end of the tape were 20 hissy seconds of a woman singing a punk reggae version of I Heard It Through the Grapevine. Pre-Google, the only option was to harangue record shop staff, until a name surfaced. It was The Slits, so I duly scurried off to find their back catalogue. The initial line-up – Ari Up, Palmolive, Suzy Gutsy and Kate Korus – formed in 1976 after meeting at a Clash gig. They landed a support slot on The Clash’s White Riot tour, even though singer Ariana “Ari-Up” Foster was still at school.

“It was crazy,” says Foster. “We got banned from every hotel. Tessa had sprayed ‘The Slits’ on her bass case and hotels would just chuck us out. We had to bribe the bus driver to let us get on the Clash’s tour bus. It was because we were girls.” At the time, they were the flag flyers for girl punk. They toured relentlessly, but only released their debut, Cut, in 1979. Nervous about how they’d be portrayed, the band took their time signing to a label. “We were afraid it would be gimmicky, that they’d try to cash in on some girl-punk thing. With hindsight, maybe we’d have done things differently.”

slits-cutThe album cover has become iconic. The band, standing muddy, bare-breasted and clad in loincloths, stare defiantly into the lens. They saw it as Amazonian. Others didn’t agree. “We got extreme reactions to it. People wanted to sue the record company because theyd crashed their car while looking at the posters. Even though it was empowering, we got a lot of grief from the women’s movement. They hated it. But we were all teenagers and we just went with our feelings. If it offended them – too bad. We were women who changed things for other women in music. We didn’t see ourselves as part as a political movement. Lumping us into punk was something we couldn’t help, but we never wanted to be labelled.”

The homemade sound of Cut has come full circle, especially if you listen to recent albums by tUnEyArDs and The Dum Dum Girls. After 34 years, Cut still has an energetic crackle of its own. How does she think it sounds now? “I think it’s timeless. It could be out now because it sounds like lots of today’s music.”

The Slits weren’t the only female punk band of that era, but they felt they received more criticism than others. Opposition was a daily occurrence, and the band frequently got death threats. “There was sexism, but from the outside world, never from within music, from our peers,” says Foster. But, she feels the influence they had on young women was worth it. “So many girls come up to us after gigs and tell us ‘we play in a band because of you’. It makes us really proud because what we did was meant to be about self-motivation and expressing yourself.”

The band eventually broke up in 1982, and reformed in 2005 after Ari bumped into Pollitt again. There have been multiple line-up changes (the current one features Hollie Cook, daughter of Sex Pistol Paul) but Tessa and Ari are the backbone, and are occasionally joined by Viv Albertine for live shows. Last year, they released their first album, Trapped Animal, in almost 30 years. “I told Tess we had to reform,” says Foster, “Our mission just wasn’t finished. It had never really fully started when we broke up years ago, so we just have to keep going now.”

This article was originally published in The Irish Times on April 30th, 2010

Related: Review of Viv Albertine’s Clothes Clothes Clothes, Music Music Music, Boys Boys Boys (2014)

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