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ARI UP: A PERSONAL TRIBUTE BY KRIS NEEDS (17 January 1962 – 20 October 2010)
Photo: Shay Rowan
This really is one of the last obituaries I thought I’d be writing in 2010. Also one of the most unbelievably sad. Last summer, I enjoyed several phone conversations with Ari; she sounded on top the world, the same full-on whirlwind of ideas, sweetness and unbridled lust for life I’d first encountered in March, 1977 after Mick Jones introduced us at The Clash’s Harlesden Roxy gig, where The Slits were playing their first high-profile gig. At that time, London’s punk scene was pretty insular, especially after the Bill Grundy furore, but when there was a gig at one of the venues on the circuit [Roxy, various pubs, Music Machine, Rainbow, etc] I would usually run into the same coterie of Clashers, Banshees, Pistols, Heartbreakers, partly in my capacity as Zigzag editor but also because this was all so damn exciting. It felt like a movement where anything was possible, while also coming with a negative side which saw old music business clichés come into play like bandwagon and fly-by-night. With the trouble the Pistols were having by the summer, everything moved up a notch so anyone looking remotely punky could become target for abuse from all quarters. Then came the Slits; the new gang in town, who I would often bump into throughout 1977, Ari at the centre of their mobile hurricane in her huge flasher’s mac.

That Harlesden gig was up front and startling but, by the next time I saw them, the lineup had changed and solidified at Ari, drummer Palmolive, bassist Tessa Pollitt and guitarist Viv Albertine, who I knew as Mick Jones’ girlfriend and from the Flowers Of Romance. It was on the White Riot tour in May, which saw The Clash spring for turning their first headlining tour into a proper package, inviting the Buzzcocks, Subway Sect and Slits to lay waste to the nation’s gig circuit. Just by their mere presence, the Slits caused all sorts of commotion, from gig to hotel foyers. In this age where they try and slum it on the X Factor with exposed underwear, shouting and fake attitude, the impact of the Slits back then is hard to convey. There hadn’t been a Madonna and even the California jail bait strut of the Runaways sparked controversy and bewildered adolescents. The Slits caused outrage and controversy and outrage just for the fact that they were four girls, who looked like nothing anyone had seen before, out-noised any of the male bands and shocked everyone around them. Ari was always in the centre of the mayhem, without fear or an iota of self-consciousness but also, and what often gets overlooked, is she had a unique way with words, which she would coo or shriek in what Dennis Bovell brilliantly described as her Ger-maican accent, and an innate flair for melody and musicality which came from her short lifetime of being continuously surrounded by music.

Ari’s mum Nora, whose father published the Der Spiegel newspaper, was involved in promoting music in her and Ari’s native Munich, which explains why Ari could remember Jimi Hendrix singing her to sleep. When they relocated to London when Ari was 13, Nora effortlessly fitted in to the London scene, seeing ‘Motorbiking’ guitar man Chris Spedding for three years before embarking on the beautifully private relationship she still has with John Lydon. Nora’s terraced house in Bloemfontein Road, just a short walk away, was a 24 hour punk epicentre, along with the Shepherds Bush squat shared by Viv, Keith Levene and Sid Vicious. That’s where I went to call for Nora one Saturday afternoon to embark on what was going to be my first cover story as editor of Zigzag, in June 1977. I’d been talking to Ari at one of those afore-mentioned gigs [no idea now what it was] and explained how the best group I could think of to launch Zigzag’s new era was the Slits.They were playing Cheltenham Art College that night so we drove down in Nora’s car. I remember it struck me then how behind her daughter and the band she was, laughing all the way down. When I got there the Slits were playing pool, very loudly [The gig was in the canteen]. Ari was leaping about, sporting a huge blue hat on the side of her mane, which had yet to solidify into dreads. There was a large pink comb planted in the side too.We did the interview in the library after sound check; they hadn’t done many and were already fed up with the same questions about being girls in a band etc, so Ari pre-empted any of that by declaring, ‘It's rather shitty. They always think of us as girls and we don't want that. We just came together as girls because we're the strongest people we met.’

We talked about the songs…‘The first one is called “Let's do the Split“. It's about a guys who split up with us...if he gives all the shit we will tell him to fuck off because we're not having that shit off guys….It's like a typical guy who wants to have the woman under his thumb like his housewife and all that. We're not having it….“Shoplifting” is about shoplifting, that you usually do.’So it went on for about an hour; not so much an interview, more a chat. The gig was mesmerizingly great as the band overcame sound problems with sheer energy; like a half-hour rush, Ari unleashing her pent-up energy in torrents, at one point poking her head through the curtained windows at the side of the stage to sing to the people outside. They end with 'Shoplifting', Ari and Palmolive finishing up by putting the former’s mac over their heads and jumping in the crowd. Throughout ,the large crowd of students, casuals, footballs and the odd punk has been either staring in disbelief, fascination or simply getting caught up in what is one of the most glorious new noises I‘d heard all year.After the gear was packed away, I went back in the Slits’ Ford Transit [Support band had been Adam and his Ants doing their first gig; he was in the back of the van singing Chelsea songs [the group, not team]. We went to a party somewhere, talked some more and I got home the next day, utterly whacked but deliriously impressed by this totally brand new assault on my seen-it-all senses.

I finished up the feature, ’The Slits are one in the eye for the rock 'n' roll rule makers who judge everything on how fast you can play, how many chords and what sex you are. They're raw and can only get better – they know they've got to and will, but they deserve every chance they can get. The least you can do is leave any preconceived ideas at home and give 'em a fair listen.’

I haven’t mentioned the cover shoot yet either; my first taste of going out in public with the Slits. They wanted to do it in Kew Gardens with their friend Crystal Clear, from More On fanzine, taking the photos. We met at the gates and spent the next hour or so traversing the blooms and foliage, complete with girls falling into bushes and climbing trees. We got the tube back to West London, the girls attracting the most amazing gamut of reactions from other passengers, particularly Ari, who never distinguished between being onstage or off, swinging on the hangers, cavorting through animated conversations with the others and singing current reggae tunes with much gusto. We ended up back at Palmolive’s place, dancing to dub throbbing out of the beat-box. So started a chaotically beautiful relationship, which would carry on for the next few years as I strove to write about the Slits as much as I could. As it was my magazine, that meant quite a lot. When they played one of the first nights at a new club in Wardour Street called the Vortex, where Ari sported union jack knickers under a string-vest skirt to mark the Silver Jubilee, I brought along John Peel’s producer John Walters, who did a monthly column in Zigzag; an amazing gent, totally into punk’s energy while remaining one of the funniest men I’ve ever met in my life. He ended up getting plastered, loved the Slits so much he got their autographs and, most crucially, booked them for their first Peel session the following September. This would be voted one of the best ever, including in my mag. We got Peel down there next time, [which happened to be the night Elvis Presley died] who was also impressed, although possibly not by Palmolive knocking his head together with that of whoever he was talking to as an introduction.

For the radio they had to make the songs stronger, more defined and added touches like backing vocals. These changes were subsequently worked into the live set, necessitating a period of rehearsal, getting better to the point where they could dismiss the radio sessions as out-of-date. Back in Cheltenham, Ari had said they weren’t ready to go in the studio yet; now they were.The next time I saw them live is another of my favourite Slits memories. They were doing Ari’s school in Holland Park on a Thursday afternoon as a way of trying out their new songs and sound away from the scrutiny of London’s hip young things and a press which still didn’t seem to take them that seriously. Plus, they reckoned a load of eleven to sixteen year olds enjoying their Christmas bash could make a great audience.In the corridor on the way to the school hall I passed a scrawled crayon poster simply saying, ‘The Slits, 5pm, adm 5p‘. Outside the hall were a gaggle of excited kids watching The Slits set up, faces squashed up against the glass door. It must have been many of them’s first gig.

When I found the hall, Ari was talking to her school friends, while Don Letts filmed a boy of about eight wearing a Sex Pistols t-shirt. The Slits took the stage for a sound check around 5.30 with half the audience already in the hall. They launched into 'Let's Do the Split', complete with new backing vocals. Couple more numbers and the whole audience was in the hall. The barrier between sound check and gig got so thin they decided that would have to do and trooped off stage, only to come back straight away and start the proper set with a driving 'Vasoline'. Most of the kids stood or sat at the sides and rear of the hall, some gaping with awe but some obviously pretty terrified/shocked by the four scarily exotic girls thrashing out their angular, driving music on their school stage. Gradually the kids plucked up courage until there was a small crowd gathered in front of the stage, where Ari stomped and skanked in her yellow mini and tights inches. Some of the lads started shouting insults, probably to assert their toughness in the face of this female assault. A few kids dared bring chairs nearer. ‘Put those fucking chairs away, you cunts!’ screamed Ari, prompting concerned looks between teachers. Halfway through the second song Ari leapt from the stage and rampaged through the crowd, which parted in front of her like the Red Sea, inaugurating a weird game of playground tag. She was obviously enjoying herself and does this several more times during the set, often to the expense of her vocals. In my gig report I wrote, ‘She's electrifying to watch, completely uninhibited.‘ Meanwhile, it was like the band had come of age, dynamics and tightness having joined the traditional Slits assault. A highlight was their version of the Velvet Underground’s ‘Femme Fatale’, Ari doing an amazing Nico. By now more and more kids were daring to come and stand in front of the stage. Reactions now the initial impact had worn off varied from gawping disbelief to sheer innocent enjoyment, although, either predictably or maybe even surprisingly, they also encountered an element of playground-style hostility, such smoke bombs, eggs and bread lobbed onto the stage, which set off a mini food fight. I ended the report, ‘One of the things I most want in 1978 is to hear vinyl kissed with a needle scream with Slits-power.’

Next came the shock major step of Palmolive departing [the band said because she didn’t want to sign with a record company and wanted to join the Raincoats], to be replaced by Budgie from the Spitfire Boys up in Liverpool. When the Slits supported The Clash on their 1978 UK tour they were like a different band again. Budgie who, of course, went on to join the Banshees, was a powerhouse of buoyant rhythms and criss-cross dub-funk. Now songs like ‘So Tough’ and ‘Shoplifting’ boasted a reggae undertow while ‘Femme Fatale’ still sounded dreamy. They were singing to Island and were now in a position to make what would become Cut. To celebrate that and Zigzag’s 10th  anniversary, Island’s late, great press officer, Rob Partridge had a big pink cake baked with ‘Happy Birthday Zigzag’ iced on it. I had decided to put them on the cover again so this was for the photo session too. Ari said she wanted the album to be released when the sun was shining, adding, ‘The songs are so you can see a whole film in front of your eyes. Visual pictures; you won’t recognise them! We’ve got six new songs coming up too.’ She was also vociferously enthusiastic about Dennis Bovell being producer. ‘He's a good producer. He gets good sounds; he doesn't just get reggae sounds, he can do anything. You can't really label reggae sounds anyway. He's inventive. You've got to be an artist to be a mixer. Imaginative.’

Then one of those unexpected Ari conversation twists.‘It depends on what company you're with as well. I don't think we could handle it if we were with someone like EMI or CBS...I can't hear, Kris, you must turn up! I'm going deaf. I must go to the ear doctors. It's ear wax, I think, I always keep saying "what", so it must be.’After an hour of surreal incites and chat it was time for the photo session. Obviously much of the cake ended up on my head, Ari getting particularly carried away. I would continue to see the Slits around, after the album was released and at some spectacular gigs, but we kind of touch until, now signed to CBS, they released their second album, Return Of The Giant Slits, which got misunderstood at the time as they’d gone further into the experimental side, creating a dub/world music landmark in the process. Ari then did some stuff with New Age Steppers then flew into the world with then-boyfriend Glenmore ’Junior’ Williams [Indonesia, Belize, Brooklyn, most of all her beloved Kingston, Jamaica] to bring up her two sons, Pablo and Pedro. She settled for a while in Jamaica, where she was known as Madusa and had another son, Wilton, whose father was shot before the baby was born in 1994.

I totally lost touch as I moved in different, less healthy, circles and went to live in New York for five years, but I’m sure it was Ari who I saw on Newark railway station around 1987, waiting around with her two small boys. Don’t know why I didn’t go up and say hello, but the next time I spoke to her was last year, in connection with the 30th anniversary deluxe Cut reissue and new Slits’ rampant return album, Trapped Animal. I managed to reach her at Nora’s, where she was sunbathing in the garden. Once she twigged who I was, she let fly with an animated torrent of memories, catching up and enthusiasm about the new record, still sounding like the original punk rocket going off. The new Slits featured Tessa, joined by Paul Cook’s daughter Hollie on keyboards, drummer Anna Schulze and guitarist Adele Wilson. I really liked the album, from ‘Reject’’s full-pelt onslaught to ‘Babylon’’s conscious reggae. Ari had phoned a few more times to give me progress reports on new mixing being done by the great Adrian Sherwood. They still sounded utterly relevant, marrying global dance rhythms with characteristic jumping hooks and fantastic words from Ari, who now dealt with child abuse [‘Issues‘], survival [‘Pay Rent‘], dancehall sex [‘Lazy Slam‘] and family issues [‘Ask Ma‘].She explained the return of The Slits; ‘After my solo album, Dread More Dan Dead in 2005, Tessa came to one of my gigs in 2003 and said, ‘Let‘s do The Slits again.’ Next day we had The Slits again, but it took years to build up because we had to find a band. We recorded in LA in a real rush: we rehearsed for barely a week, then only had ten days to nail it in the studio. The files were sent over to England where Adrian mixed it with Tessa. I was in Jamaica so I was producing and mixing over the phone! Adrian really saved the day because he pulled off such a great job.‘So now we’ve got this raw Slitsy sound; dub, reggae and punk, plus more experimental stuff like ‘Reggae Gypsy‘. It doesn’t’t stray from the roots of The Slits; it sticks true to the Slits sound but moves forward like a continuation, like a third album. It’s not a reforming/retro kind of vintage thing. It couldn’t be anyway because we were 30 years ahead of our time. Now we sound normal!’.I remarked about the coincidence the album being reissued at the same time as Cut being reissued.

‘It’s Island’s 50th anniversary so they picked us as one of their most significant artists. What I like about it this time is no-one can say The Slits couldn’t play and it was all Dennis Bovell. The demos are just raw. You can hear it’s us playing without anyone telling us what to do or cleaning it up, which is what they said Dennis did. That kind of myth that we couldn’t play is all crap. ‘Idealistically, I wanted to be back with The Slits in the 90s but it never happened for some reason. We turned into a legend in America because of the riot girls, although Tessa had never heard of it. But that gave The Slits more room to be here in the 2000s: to become relevant the way we’ve become. Now we’re back it can be a revolution all over again!’

Sadly, that wasn’t to be. It still bugs me that Ari must have known she was ill then. It later emerged that the sworn-to-secrecy band did too, but she hadn’t let on the full extent. She phoned several times after the interview, anxious to meet up so we could discuss doing a book of her life together. For various reasons, I couldn’t make the Slits’ London gig and Ari had flown to LA when I tried to reach her. The last time she phoned, we were out and she got a rather startled babysitter! Life’s full of ‘if only’s but, as far as I was concerned, the Slits already had a brilliant book about them in Zoe Street Howe’s immaculate Typical Girls? The Story Of The Slits. But Ari had meant something else, which now I’ll never know about. Her last recording session was earlier this year with wigged-out reggae legend Lee Perry, producing a seven-inch single called ‘Hello, Hell Is Very Low’. Ari’s final wish was that the video for the Slits’ ‘Lazy Slam’ be released posthumously; one last, loud statement to celebrate a remarkable life the best way she knew how.

Kris Needs 29/10/10

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