In The Beginning
Long before contemporary feminism was able to force its way into the national debate, it existed not as an organized movement, but in the work of chicks who carved niches for themselves, not as a political statement but as a matter of survival. It probably says something about the work still required to effect literal equality between the sexes, as well as my good-hearted complicity in the patriarchal tradition, that I only mention feminism so that I may have an angle by which to approach a Slits review. Not that I’m the first man to exploit feminist theory for personal gain (insert awkward “slits” reference here), but I still feel almost halfway guilty.
Music in the 20th century has been a conduit for all sorts of social change, from Benny Goodman’s first integrated trio and quartet to the remarkable advances in narcotics consumption that occurred in the ’60s (‘70s, ’80s, ’90s… ). The achievements of women in music, which continue to the present, have been disseminated (what a great feminist word!) to great extent in Rolling Stone coffee-table books, so I need not elaborate. Suffice it to say that the Slits fit within a continuum that runs from Anita O’Day to Bikini Kill and beyond.
In The Beginning is a collection of live performances spanning the band’s five-year career. Having never heard their studio recordings (Cut, Return of the Giant Slits), I don’t know how they compare to this, but this is a good record. The knock I’ve always heard on them is that they weren’t very good musicians; but even the first six tracks, recorded in their punkish infancy, exceed the standards of 1977 London. Ariana Forster is surely the best vocalist to come from that scene, and bassist Tessa Pollitt and guitarist Viv Albertine don’t miss any notes, so Slit critics are full of shit. The album’s best moments begin halfway through, after the Slits embraced reggae and merged it with their punk attack – the “Dub Era,” which they pulled off to much greater success than, say, the Clash.
The real value of dub for the Slits was that it allowed them to relax, calm down long enough to tweak the notion of punk as relentlessly aggressive music that must be performed at MACH 2 for maximum effectiveness. There is a surprisingly facile cover of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” and two stretched-out versions of the title song. Version two was recorded at the Slits’ last show (Dec. 1981), and clocks in at 12 freaking minutes. It features lovely interjections by “Flash” Wright on tenor sax, basic free-jazz wailings that must have sounded positively alien to the chaps in attendance.
All told, my only problem with this album is the horrendous front cover picture. It’s one of those photo/painting hybrid things, and it sucks. Objectively speaking, the Slits were pretty hot, as shown in the photo on the CD booklet back. Putting that photo on the cover would attract at least a few shallow males. I mean, that is why girls play music, to attract guys, right? Right? Cleopatra Records, 13428 Maxella #251, Marina Del Rey , CA 90292