Despite the Internet’s alleged ability to allow anyone with access to instantly “know” virtually anything they can think of, there’s still limits to the collective knowledge of the 0s and 1s. As time rolls inexorably on, and current events are more chronicled than past events--I’d wager Steve Bannon’s firing had more total words written on it than exist on World War 1--what actually makes its way into the slipstream of our collective post-consciousness is never guaranteed. And furthermore, while streaming gives us access to “all music ever” there are still albums that never make their way to your Spotify stream.
Which is to say this is a story about the second Slits album, Return of the Giant Slits, which from 1981 until 2007 was out of print in any medium, and until this year, was out of print on vinyl. It does not exist as far as your friendly Swedish streaming service is concerned. The second dispatch from what Trivial Pursuit remembers as the first all-female punk band (assuming you don’t count the Runaways--the Slits certainly didn’t) is a post-punk classic, an album, along with Public Image Ltd.’s Metal Box, that is a melding of the ferocious righteous anger of punk rock, with the deconstructed grooves of dub reggae, and the loose-wire riffage of post-punk. It was the last Slits album for 25 years, before they reunited to record an EP in 2006, and a third album in 2009, shortly before lead singer Ari Up’s death in 2010. It might not stand as tall as Cut in the pantheon, a real “the call is coming from inside the house!” moment in post punk, but it also presents a great “what if?” of post-punk: what would the third Slits album even have sounded like in 1982 if this is the direction they went for album two?
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves a bit. Who were the Slits? They were a group featuring lead singer Ari Up--who was all of 14-years-old when the band formed in 1976--Tessa Pollitt, Viv Albertine--famous at least partially for allegedly being the inspiration for the Clash’s “Train in Vain”--and Palmolive, who was the original drummer of both the Slits and the Raincoats. The band got its start mostly by hanging out at punk shows; like the story told about umpteen bands of men that formed in the wake of the Sex Pistols and the Clash, the young women of the Slits decided they wanted to play instead of being in the crowd.
The formed rather quickly, and within a couple months were out on the road opening for the Clash. The Clash kept to their word about wanting to pay forward their punk success to younger bands just starting out, so they literally paid all the travelling costs for the Slits, and put them onstage for their first shows ever. The experience of the tour is told in Caroline Coon’s 1988 The New Wave Punk Rock Explosion, one of only two substantial pieces (the other is by Carola Dibbell and has been antholgized in Rock She Wrote) specifically on the Slits during their heyday. You can read more about the tour--and how Joe Strummer gave Ari Up her first guitar lesson--over here.
By the time the Slits were finally signed--no label knew what to do with them, partially to sexism, and partially due to them making more of a racket than any “music” for most of their first couple years--the Slits had vaulted over punk rock, and became one of the first truly post-punk bands. Their sound was no longer tethered to two chords and attitude; they were making deconstructed, gnarly, raw music that no longer fit under any previous definition of punk. This is where their debut album, Cut comes in.
Listening to it now, and particularly their cover of Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” they sound very far ahead of most of the post-punk music happening at the time; there’s tribal percussion, guitar lines that sound like they’re being dispatched over a Tesla coil, and rumbling bass you feel inside your cellular structure.
Palmolive left the band sometime around Cut coming out, leaving the Slits sans drummer. When it came time to record their second LP, Return of the Giant Slits, they reached out to Bruce Smith, drummer for fellow post-punk visionaries Pop Group. It’s easy to overestimate the impact a drummer could have on a recording, but it’s hard not to see the contributions Smith’s booming, deconstructive drum sound had on the Slits.
Listen to the drums on “Earthbeat” and tell me you’re not ready to go off and try to become King of the North.
It’s hard to know what CBS, the band’s label, thought of Return of the Giant Slits when it got turned in. The group’s sound had mellowed out, incorporating heavy doses of reggae and African music (check the verses of “Earthbeat”), and where their songs used to be packed with nervous energy, here they sounded calm, cool, and collected.
The album didn’t make much of a dent on the charts--not that that was the point anyway--and the group ended up breaking up a few months after it was released. The album quickly went out of print, and the Slits were mostly kept as a historical footnote, being an early version and inspiration for riot grrrl. They reunited in 2005, which led to the reissue of their catalog, and for the first time in 26 years, Return of the Giant Slits. Their last album, 2009’s Trapped Animal sounds like it was recorded in 2009, with its vocoder, and dancehall riddims.
The band’s comeback was cut short in 2010 when Ari Up died at age 48 after a bout with cancer. Her three kids went to live with their grandma, and her husband, weirdly, Johnny Rotten, who after inspiring Ari to start a band, ended up being her step dad.
While you can’t listen to Return of the Giant Slits on any streaming service, it deserves more than its lost album status; it’s a fantastic record from one of the few bands of women given the opportunity to funnel their punk fury into recorded product in the ‘70s and ‘80s. For that alone, it deserves more than the dustbins of history.
Andrew Winistorfer is Director of Music at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard and The Story of Willie Nelson. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
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