Sassy and streetwise: The Slits were everything girls in a band weren’t supposed to be before punk leveled the playing field, and their debut album, Cut, continues to astound.
Admittedly, the feisty London-based quartet was well-placed to surf punk’s first wave. Dreadlocked, live-wire vocalist Arianna Forster (aka Ari Up) was the daughter of Nora Forster, future wife of Sex Pistols’ vocalist Johnny Rotten, while guitarist Viv Albertine dated The Clash’s Mick Jones and hung out with Sid Vicious.
The Slits, though, were no one’s appendages and were determined to make a mark on their own terms. As aggressive and confrontational as any of their punk contemporaries, their musical skills were painfully rudimentary at first, but they tightened up and found their own direction after recruiting bassist Tessa Pollitt and drummer Paloma Romero (aka Palmolive).
This line-up supported The Clash on the latter’s spring ’77 White Riot tour: the UK’s first successful nationwide punk package tour, featuring an imaginative bill also involving slots from Buzzcocks and Subway Sect. This acclaimed month-long jaunt won The Slits widespread attention, but while that was reinforced by two raw, well-received John Peel BBC Radio 1 sessions, punk had long since morphed into New Wave before the band finally inked a deal with Island Records.
Later resurfacing in Rough Trade-sponsored fem-pop DIY stalwarts The Raincoats, Palmolive departed before The Slits recorded their debut LP, Cut. Consequently, future Siouxsie & The Banshees drummer Budgie was drafted in to man the traps for the sessions, which were overseen by Dennis “Blackbeard” Bovell, the Barbados-born producer arguably best known for his work with dub reggae poet Linton Kwesi Johnson.
Released in September 1979, Cut gained instant notoriety due to its controversial cover image depicting the three Slits clad in mud and loincloths. However, the music contained within was every bit as striking. Enhanced by Budgie’s crisp, inventive drumming, the girls’ natural quirkiness came careening to the fore on scratchy but exuberant pop-punk tracks including “So Tough” and the irreverent, anti-consumerist “Shoplifting,” but the album’s spacy surroundings also owed a debt of gratitude to Bovell’s deft studio techniques, with his Channel One-esque subterranean dub wizardry gracing highlights such as “Adventures Close To Home” and the brilliant football- and TV-dissing “Newtown.”
The album yielded a minor hit single when its most infectious track, “Typical Girls,” was released as a spin-off 45, backed with a stripped-down but highly effective cover of Motown staple “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.” Cut also broached the UK Top 40 and has since been enthusiastically championed by trailblazing musicians ranging from trip-hop futurists Massive Attack to feminist punks Sleater-Kinney. It remains The Slits’ artistic pinnacle. Post-Cut, they struck out for pastures new with an expanded line-up including a teenage Neneh Cherry, but split in 1982 after recording the avant-garde-inclined Return Of The Giant Slits for CBS.