I’ve just taken another look at the list of albums from 1979, and while it’s genuinely representative of what I was listening to at the time, it doesn’t cover all of what I was listening to – not by a long shot. Around this time, the whole Two Tone / Specials thing was going on, and I was consumed by that for a while; I was still listening to Prog, to some of the classic rock I’ve included in the list, to all the various flavours of synthesised electronica, even to some classical music.
On top of all of that (and several I’ve no doubt forgotten), there was the whole punk / post-punk / new wave scene going on, and I remained fascinated and absorbed by all of that. I’ll be covering people like Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson in due course, and I sadly couldn’t find room for Ian Dury or any of the other bands – some of whom even made it to Aberdeen in person. I remember being enthralled by The Ruts and a whole slew of singles which seemed to be pointing the way towards what came next – the do-it-yourself aesthetic of punk married to a more disciplined approach to songwriting than some of what had come before, which seemed to rely on the ability to shock more than the ability to make you sing along.
Then there was this album. I know that it would never have appeared in the library – not with that cover – and I know it wasn’t the kind of thing you could casually leave lying around in your bedroom – not with that cover – but I also know that I had a tape of it, and while there was a lot of stuff going on in 1979, and so much music that there are entire genres I don’t remember listening to, this strange, intense, captivating album stayed with me, and instantly transports me back to that time and place whenever I hear it.
A few years ago, I read Viv Albertine’s mesmerising memoir (full details below), and resolved to revisit Cut. What I found was so much more than the sparse, half-finished sound I remembered. At a time when everything seemed to be ground-breaking, it was easy to overlook that which genuinely was shifting expectations of what was possible, what was normal.
The Slits were deliberately provocative, from the name, to the image, to the kind of music they made, to – particularly, if less publicly – being a band of women who expected to be able to do everything the man did; there was a confidence about them, easily dismissed as arrogance, which simply expected the world to work the same way for everyone. The Slits weren’t the first all-female group (and by the time Cut was recorded, they were no longer all-female), but you can argue that they were the first of this wave of groups who made things up as they went along, had something to say which they expected to be able to get out into the world, but who happened not to pay any attention to what was not called the patriarchy at the time – it was simply called ‘the way the world works’
Cut isn’t, however, about being a woman in a man’s world; it’s about being a woman. It’s about the lives of three young (very young, in the case of singer Ari Up) women living in the uncomfortable inner-city world of the late 1970s, where disorder and breakdown seemed to be around every corner. For a comfortable teenaged boy, it was something of an eye-opener.
I was, I like to think, politically aware in 1979. I read the newspapers, I was outraged by the same things that outraged my generation; I had my CND and Rock Against Racism badges, but I’m not kidding myself about any of this; I wasn’t exposed to any of the situations which generated these songs. There’s an obvious difference between being aware of inequality, and having to live with any of it; a difference between being shocked and concerned at the way the streets were policed, and being subjected to it. I know that, and I knew it then. What I’m grateful for is that I was exposed to all of this through the music I heard and the people I knew, and I’ll always be grateful for having heard this album at a time when its radical (to me, at least) approach to the world could shape my ideas.
What I know about women’s place in the world is not because of the books or newspapers I was reading at the time, or because there was something which happened to me or to someone I know; it’s not because of the vast majority of the music I listened to which (as I’m sure you’ve figured out by now) didn’t all see women as equals or as anything much beyond objects of desire; it’s because I heard Cut in 1979, and thought about it, and understood at some unconscious level that there is no difference. The people who made this album were having the same kind of experiences as the men, and were reacting to them in the ways which made sense to them, and – I don’t know how, given the hormones sloshing around – that message got through. This record, as much as, if not more than, any of the others on this list, changed the way I think about the world, and it did so without me really noticing. It did so in a way which I only properly acknowledged when I came back to it much later, and properly listened to what I’d been hearing back then.
It’s not jolly and tuneful; it’s not whimsical or lyrical; it’s played by a group who are clearly still figuring it all out as they go along, and it’s genuinely radical, life-affirming and perspective-altering. It might be the best album on this list.
And, if you’re 17 when it comes out, the cover is extremely distracting, yet the album still does what it did to me. That’s extraordinary.
The songs are short and to the point, and they’re knowing – the first track is called Instant Hit, which you could read as an arch commentary on disposable pop music until you hear the words about heroin. It is brilliantly structured, with the voices layering this sharp criticism as if it was a round of the kind you learned in primary school. The drumming – as it does throughout the album – underpins the jerky, reggae-like rhythm; there’s a real confidence and swagger to it, and it immediately has me feeling the way I felt when first hearing it, likely on the John Peel radio programme late at night.
So Tough gives the first proper glance at what turned my head. I don’t think I had ever heard women talk about men like this before. It felt like I had intruded on some private conversation; something I probably hadn’t thought about before. There’s also a line about milkshakes and cherry cheesecake which resonates so strongly with me that it will need a whole paragraph of its own.
Around this time, I was part of the Longacre Players; it was the more grown-up version of Children’s Theatre which you graduated to on turning 16. We rehearsed on Wednesday evenings and then retired to Radar’s American Diner for the cheapest food on offer and over-exuberant teenage gossip. Milkshakes and cheesecakes were only for special occasions (I seem to remember the usual order was a plate of fries to be shared between about ten of us), but hearing that line again now, I developed a faraway look in my eye; it’s nothing more than a strange coincidental resonance, but it will have meant something to me then, navigating this strange, difficult world of hormonally fuelled social interactions.
Spend, Spend, Spend – a phrase which has a life all of its own – was almost certainly the first time I’d properly thought about consumer culture. It’s as relevant today as it was then; in fact, I’d argue it’s something we should spread more widely. At this point I’m also going to confess that I probably wasn’t interpreting the lyrics as closely in 1979 as I’m able to do now – a combination of Ari Up’s accented English and a complete lack of words printed on the sleeve (plus the fact that I only had a cassette version in any case), meant that it was only recently I found out exactly what she was saying. I got the gist though, and this leads inevitably into…
Shoplifting. Short, sharp, to the point, probably the first time I’d heard the very London expression ‘do a runner’, and just joyful in it’s bassline and accelerating drum pattern. It’s the heart of the album in some ways; fun but with the clear picture of life in a squat – the genuine hardships of the time colliding with the music of the future. Oh, and the last line still makes me giggle gleefully.
Elvis Costello tried to make the same point as FM in Radio, Radio, but while he played it for political point-scoring, this song projects a genuine sense of paranoia and unease. Listening to it now, I project on to it the idea that this is a female perspective; living in fear rather than discomfort.
Just an aside as we turn the record over; this is a female driven album, but we shouldn’t ignore that Budgie on the drums and Dennis Bovell in the production booth form the underpinnings to the sound and allow all this to flourish on top of it. Budgie was about to join Siouxsie and the Banshees and become much better known, but his drumming on this is easily as good as anything he produced later in his career.
Newtown is sparse and bleak – another song more relevant today than it was at the time – it describes the addictive qualities of the everyday and mundane accompanied by a percussion track which uses matches and a spoon to underline the point; that modern life is, as some one else would point out many years later, rubbish.
Ping Pong Affair (faithfully rendered with Ping Pong upside down on the cover and even the label) is the real eye-opener for me; hearing the aftermath of a relationship from the point of view of someone who genuinely fears being raped after storming out, or somehow expects to be assaulted just for being out alone, was sobering and has stayed with me. I love the production on this, the treatment of the voices in particular. It stands out because it’s meant to, I think, and reading Viv Albertine’s book all those years later put the song into its proper context – it was genuinely frightening to be a woman alone on the streets in 1979, and I don’t think it’s improved all that much since.
All of which makes Love Und Romance harder to interpret. You can take it at face value as a jolly love song right up to the point where the scary German lady threatens to break your neck if you’re not home when she gets in.
Teenage me goes a little pale at that point, I think. Which – I’m pretty sure – was the general idea.
Typical Girls is the one more widely known, and is exactly the kind of song you fall in love with if you fancy yourself some kind of non-conformist rebel – and which 17-year-old doesn’t? My favourite part of Typical Girls isn’t on this record; it’s the part where Mick Jones of The Clash responds to it in Train In Vain in a way which plainly demonstrates that he’d missed the point entirely.
The basslines by Tess Pollitt throughout the album are fluid and I wouldn’t change them for anything, but I can’t ignore that it’s Ari Up wielding the bass on Adventures Close to Home, and she plays it as much as a lead instrument as part of a rhythm section, and it gives the whole song a much more polished and complete sound. It’s a strange thing, to love a sound but also be kind of interested to hear it done differently. Adventures is a complex and fascinating song; philosophical and forthright, and – at the risk of repeating myself – not the sort of thing I’d been used to hearing a woman write or sing about.
I did, genuinely, change the way I thought about things after hearing this album. I also don’t think I really knew why I did; it just happened. It’s only after coming back to it that I understand what a profound effect it had on me. It’s also really hard to express this without sounding patronising; an entirely ironic side-effect of the way I could plainly see that the world worked in 1979, and the way I gradually understood it ought to work, and – naturally – a product of the fact that, more than forty years later, it still doesn’t work that way, and while it would be easier today for The Slits to get this album made and heard; I can’t say it would be all that much easier, and would involve focus groups and earnest discussions about the picture on the front.
Overly long sentences aside, this is still an essential, empowering album, and I wish there were more like it.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
One other which I heard at the time – Return of the Giant Slits which I remember as being even more strange and experimental, but which I never owned or have felt any urgent need to rediscover. Also, a much later one by a reformed band without Albertine, but I haven’t heard that one at all, I’m afraid.
Compilations to consider?
There is one I remember – it didn’t have a name, and may not even have been an official release. It does, it turns out, have a Wikipedia entry, so at least I know I wasn’t dreaming it.
Some of the above compilation album is recorded live, but no official one I know of.
Anything else? Yes. This whole post has been a roundabout way of me imploring everyone to read Viv Albertine’s magnificent, unflinching, tough but ultimately triumphant memoir Clothes, Clothes, Clothes; Music, Music, Music; Boys, Boys, Boys. It is, without doubt, the finest memoir of that turbulent punk period, written by someone who was there, and who saw it through a different lens than everyone else who has written about it (and I’ve read a lot of those over the years). It’s also, in its second half, an extraordinary story of an extraordinary ordinary life. If you don’t read or watch any of my other recommendations in this whole thing, please read this one.