TYPICAL GIRLS by ZOE STREET HOWE, Omnibus pbk, 2009, £14-95, or £11-49 on Amazon
12 DAYS ON THE ROAD - the Sex Pistols & America by Noel E Monk & Jimmy Guterman. Harper pbk 1990 Amazon £7-99
Its great to see a new name on the punk writing scene, & with this superb history of the Slits, Zoe Street Howe has come out of the starting blocks like the Slits playing live.. I'd say this is the best punk-related book I've read since Nina Antonia's "One & Only - Homme Fatale" Peter Perrett book. If we were in the business of giving out ratings here at Mudkiss, it'd be a definite 5 Mudpack job.
Most punk/post-punk books are written by people who had some involvement in the original scenes, which by definition means they're generally middle-aged or near senile like this reviewer. Zoe Street Howe however is in her late 20's - I think I'm right in saying she was just a babe in arms when the awesome "Cut" album was released in 1980 - and I think this perspective provides one of the book's strongest points. She's very sharp at spotting connections between the Slits & how they relate to contemporary culture. I hadn't fully appreciated just how iconic the Slits look has been for the last 30 years - initially appropriated by Madonna & Cyndi Lauper, carried on by Courtney Love, PJ Harvey & Bjork, & maintained to this day by sharp-eyed vultures like Lily Allen.
Its an important story - the Slits are among the original primordial originators of the UK punk scene, along with the Clash, Pistols & Subway Sect, and there are great tales & insights of those legendary early tours, & the unity of the early days of the scene. Zoe Street Howe shows how the group were determined never to compromise their sound or attitude for the business or anyone else, & is very astute regarding some of their contemporaries - Siouxsie & the Banshees, for example - who made some great music for sure, but who tended to play it a bit safer & were generally more amenable to the demands of the music biz.
Apart from their anti-fashion stance, in true do it/think for you self punk style, the Slits are massively important for the way they stood out as role models for women, who often found "alternative" music scenes could be just as Boys-Only & mysoginistic as the mainstream. Like Janis Joplin in the 60s, who showed you didn't have to be a demure blonde in a long dress to be accepted/respected, they've inspired & validated so much music, from contemporaries like the Raincoats to the present day. Before them, women's roles in music were very clearly defined - Suzi Quatro type tomboy rock-chick/ bright & bubbly Bucks Fizz type groups/ sensitive singer-songwriters. Within a year or two of the Slits coming through, there was a magnificent flowering of diverse female voices in music, through the likes of X-Ray Spex, Lora Logic, the Mo-dettes, Au Pairs, Raincoats, & Delta 5.
Photo: Zoe Street Howe (Left) with Tessa Pollitt & Viv Albertine
Zoe Street Howe's research for this book is really impressive - no cuttings job trawl here - and she's managed to speak at length with nearly all the main players who are still around. Its a shame that Paloma/Palmolive's US born-again Christian commitments seem to preclude her involvement. There are particularly fascinating contributions from Keith Levene - on everything from how he taught Viv Albertine to play guitar, almost produced "Cut" & much more, & from Dennis Bovelle, in an in-depth account of recording & producing "Cut". Listen to "New Town" & hear how he generates a background rhythm from striking matches & spoons - very appropriate to the song's evocation of concrete wasteland drug scenes.
The book shows how punk was only ever a starting point for the Slits. Sure, to begin with they were more about attitude than ability, & were often derided for their sometimes chaotic live shows. But they wouldn't give up, kept on practising & refining their style, so that by the time of "Cut" they were a formidably tight outfit. After that their adventurous spirit took them to their "Earthbeat" phase - where they'd always been fiercely committed to reggae & dub, now they had the confidence to go wherever they wanted - free jazz, tribal rhythms, anything... Collaborations with the Pop Group,Adrian Sherwood, Don & Neneh Cherry showed how free they'd become.
Of course, there's a fair amount of coverage of "That Cover" in the "Cut" chapters - in case anyone doesn't know, the Slits posed topless, assertive & proud, wearing loincloths & daubed in mud - and the reactions to it over the years. Its hard to imagine anyone on a major label risking anything similar now.
Equally, now there's hardly a day in the tabloid press without a picture of Lily Allen or Lady Gaga's (to name but two) latest carefully contrived "wardrobe malfunction". Groups like Girls Aloud, Sugababes & Pussycat Dolls have made a career of trying to look as raunchy & near-nude as mainstream showbiz will permit - but its all a long way from what the Slits had in mind.
At the time, most people I knew understood what it was about - reclaiming, challenging, asserting - although a few women friends weren't comfortable with it, or felt the Slits were rather naive in not realising how the picture would be seen in the mainstream media - and their horror at its later status as prime wank material for spotty youths bears this out. Funnily enough, a couple of trad bloke mates of mine at the time seemed more scared than turned on by it.
Talking of pictures, the photos reproduced in the book are superb - quite a few taken by the author herself. Many of the older pictures are clearly from the Slits' personal collections, and show the trust & bond Zoe Steet Howe developed with them. In fact, she's also been doing some music with Viv Albertine, which adds to the fascination of this book. More about this on her myspace page - Viv Albertine's mySpace page is also essential viewing for anyone interested in the Slits story & beyond.
I've seen an ad recently for a series of Slits' gigs next month, in the group's present incarnation, featuring Ari Up & Tessa Pollitt from the original line-up. Viv Albertine feels that its become too much like Ari + backing group now - plus she's writing & playing her own music now, & quite rightly doesn't want to be defined by what she did 30 years ago. Intriguingly enough, some of Viv Albertine's recent gigs have featured Zoe on keyboards & percussion!
This book is a really accurate evocation of the years when punk was evolving in all manner of directions - Phil Strongman's excellent PIL biography, ("Metal Box", reviewed here earlier in the year) is a really good companion piece, & features most of the same players. Its also a great story in itself, from how the author first got hooked by a Slits track (their version of "Grapevine") on a compilation, and embarked on the journey of discovery that's resulted in this superb book. As a bonus, there's a great '76-'81 timeline at the start of the book to put things in context - and also contains some great trivia - all that's missing is an index. Come on, publishers! Don't be mean - a book that covers as much ground & involves so many people really needs a way of looking things up.
So, I know I've said it already, but ... this is one of the best books I've read in years & is absolutely essential reading for anyone interested not only in the Slits, but the punk & post-punk scene in general.
The other day I was reading a piece in Times Online (courtesy the excellent Stupefaction site) in which Malcolm Maclaren was doing his usual "I invented punk" song & dance routine, & wringing his hands over Poor Sid. Apparently this is to promote a talk he's giving ("History is Sh*t") at that most hardcore of punk events, the Edinburgh Festival. For anyone who still believes such nonsense, I'd suggest this book is essential reading. Published in 1990, it slipped under my radar until recently.
Its a straightforward account of the Pistols' nightmarish tour , its the story as told by Noel E Monk, chief roadie/tour mgr/US rock tour veteran & future Van Halen manager, & written by veteran rock journo Jimmy Guterman. To begin with the contrast between the UK punk mentality of the Pistols (also wide-eyed 1st timers in the US for all their show of cynicism) & Monk's satin tour jacket vibe (hey man, I've managed tours for REO Speedwagon & the Moody Blues) is quite funny. But as the story develops, it becomes clear that there's only one person who's really looking out for the group, & it sure isn't anyone from the UK end of the Pistols' set up.
One of the major elements of the whole sad story is the spectacle of Sid lurching thru the tour cold turkeying, more & more strung out, drunk with desperation & seriously self-harming. Maclaren's choice of minder to keep Sid straight/amused - Pistols UK road mgr, John "Boogie" Tiberi - proves to be totally out of his depth, though really he was on the proverbial "mission impossible." Given the US perspective of the book there are couple of bits of missing background here - Sid did have a huge bottle of prescribed methadone that was meant to last the tour (but knowing Sid he'd have taken it as quick as poss like anything else) - but he dropped it on the floor at Heathrow. Later, during the tour, Nancy flew out with emergency supplies, like a narco-US cavalry coming to the rescue, but was headed off in Colorado.
The book follows the itinerary of the tour (Atlanta, Memphis, Austin, San Antonio, Baton Rouge, Dallas, Tulsa,LA, San Francisco) & documents the conflicts of a group beginning to really come apart at the seams, & the strange way that at the times the tour brought about a kind of new unity (not that it would last) in the face of adversity.
Once Maclaren had spiked the northern leg of the tour - thus denying the group the opportunity to play in places like New York, Boston or DC, where there were fans & media interest - the group was consigned with a poorly organised slog through the South & Far West, before ending up in LA & San Francisco. Thus the Pistols get to meet some true hardcore fans in very out of the way places, but are generally met by incomprehension or gawping idle curiosity.
"Johnny Rotten", as he then was, is consumed with paranoia throughout, & with good reason, as he gradually realises he's as dispensable as anyone else in Macl's masterplan. He also suspects that funny things are happening with their money as Maclaren gets more caught up in cinematic fantasies. Occasionally he & Sid rediscover their pre Pistols bond, but most of the time he's fed up with all the drama & craziness surrounding Sid's addiction.
Meanwhile, Steve'n'Paul get pissed, chase groupies, swear on the radio - but generally do as they're told & decide their role is to stick with the man who got them out of West London. Thus its next stop Rio & No-one is Innocent/Ronnie Biggs after the end of the tour.
That last gig - of course, every punk fan knows abt that notorious Winterland show, with its timeless "Ever feel like you've been cheated?" quote from John Lydon. But did you know that after all the promoters' & managers' deductions, the group were paid a grand total of $66 for the gig! When Macl had deigned to put in an appearance on the tour, he'd made it clear that he saw himself as being vastly superior to the sweaty world of the US rock tour circuit, & in no time at all made plenty of enemies among promoters/media people through his attitude. There were a lot of people waiting to settle scores with him by the time of the Winterland gig, & it proved to be where he got his comeuppance - with the group as always caught in the middle & losing out most.
REVIEWS XTRA! SONIC YOUTH -THE ETERNAL & YEAH YEAH YEAHS - IT'S BLITZ in brief...
Amazing isn't it - sometimes I can go months without getting excited by anything, & then you get a week when there's almost more fun than I can handle. Apart from the above books, there's been a great first album from Cubical, & a couple of strong albums from two established favourites. I guess is it's inevitable with who/where we are, that Mudkiss' coverage tends towards a UK/Euro bias, but don't forget the US...
Sonic Youth saved me from terminal music boredom in the '80's (especially with "Sister") & they rarely let you down. Sometimes it seems like they've felt they should do something different - maybe import a bit of hip hop, or emphasize the NY lofts/experimental art scene stuff - but this is all about their core values.. No-one really expects Sonic Youth to do an unplugged set or go dubstep. This is all about sharp, fast, interlocking guitars & harmonies - it does in fact remind me of "Sister" a great deal - so if you want an hour of Sonic Youth doing what they're best at, you won't be disappointed by this.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs might not have been around as long as Sonic Youth, but they share the same New York alternative scenes background, & this album is well up to their standard. Like "The Eternal", its about a group confident enough in themselves to do what they know works. Sure, there are some Bloc Party-ish synth/dance sounds on some tracks like "Zero", but generally its Karen O & strong guitar sounds all the way. Maybe there isn't a song with the power of "Y Control" here, but equally there isn't a weak moment.
Reviewed by Den