Thursday, 5 April 2018

Here To Be Heard: The Story of The Slits - New Documentary Screening and Q&A with Tessa Pollitt

We recently attended a screening of Here To Be Heard, an excellent new documentary movie about The Slits at the historic Regent Street Cinema in central London. This was followed by a lively Q&A session with Slits’ bassist Tessa Pollitt, the movie’s Director William E. Badgley and The Slits manager Christine Robertson. “Here To be Heard” is packed full of exciting live footage of the band in all their shocking and colourful glory and it’s easy to understand what an impact and sense of danger they must have exuded in their early days. Throughout the film, the main voice of The Slits comes from Tessa and the story unfolds from the pages of her scrapbook. She’s wearing gloves to protect the book, almost like some sort of Punk Rock historian in a museum archive and as she carefully flicks through the well-thumbed pages there are fascinating glimpses of old music press cuttings, reviews and photos. The film really captures the fear that spread through the establishment at the emergence of Punk and of course the violence that this fear provoked at the time. Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten and Paul Cook were attacked in the street as were many less high profile musicians and fans and girls were not immune either. Tessa shows us a photo of The Slits on stage and she is wearing jeans with a big slash across the backside. In the voiceover, she tells us that they were actually Ari’s jeans and the cut was caused by a knife. Ari was slashed by some outraged nutter yelling words to the effect of “If it’s a Slit you want, I’ll give you one!” The only place they felt accepted was among their Punk and Reggae peers and they received some welcome support and help from Joe Strummer, John Lydon and Don Letts in particular. They toured with The Clash on the legendary White Riot Tour along with Buzzcocks and Subway Sect and appeared in “The Punk Rock Movie”. Although the early UK Punk explosion did pave the way for some amazing individual female performers and artists such as Gaye Advert, Siouxsie, Fay Fife and Poly Styrene it is still hard to believe that The Slits were pretty much unique at the time. There were not that many independent non-industry manufactured all-girl bands around back then. 

The Slits at Thames Polytechnic, Woolwich 4th March 1978 Photographed by Paul Slattery
The Slits were also more challenging and more chaotic than the majority of their contemporaries and I can imagine that the male dominated music industry and media must have been scared witless by them. Scared, not only by their attitude but by their music too. There was Viv Albertine’s spiky almost Avant-Garde guitar work, Tessa Pollitt’s fluid Reggae-inspired bass, Palmolive’s tribal drum beats and of course Ari Up’s fearsome voice and presence all topped off by her unnerving confidence. The movie highlighted an interesting reminder that this definitive all-girl line-up of the band never actually released any official records and were only captured on tape by the BBC for the John Peel radio sessions. In fact, The Slits didn’t get round to releasing their debut LP “Cut” until 1979 and by then Reggae had really taken a hold and they insisted on signing to Island Records and working with producer Dennis Bovell. In the movie, they admit that most Punks were disappointed that it didn’t sound anything like their raucous radio sessions and early live performances.

Viv in 1980 by Paul Slattery
It wasn’t just the music that had changed either. There were only three band members captured topless and mud-covered in Pennie Smith’s iconic album cover photo. Palmolive, who had left to join The Raincoats, was replaced by Budgie on the drums and they were no longer an all-girl band. The movie mentions the influence of The Pop Group’s angular Funk on The Slits’ sound even to the extent of them borrowing their drummer Bruce Smith to replace Budgie when he left for Siouxsie & The Banshees. The band certainly wanted to challenge people and break down genres and boundaries – touring Revue style with a revolving line-up of eclectic bands, taking in Jazz, Soul and Reggae. They would also become enamoured by Don Cherry’s daughter Neneh who would join the band as a vocalist before going on to a successful solo career in her own right. In 1981 they released an underrated album “Return of The Giant Slits” but the band were sadly to fall apart in 1982 and they disappeared off the mainstream musical radar. In the movie and the later Q&A Tessa describes the shock of suddenly finding herself out of music as akin to a war veteran coming back home, full of adrenaline with nowhere to channel it. She honestly admits that this sudden void was filled by a heroin addiction and she jumped at the chance to re-form the band when an opportunity came up in 2005. Viv and Palmolive declined the offer to re-join but Ari was back and her chemistry with Tessa was renewed.

Compere with Christine, Tessa & William E Badgley at the Q&A
They recruited Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook’s daughter Hollie as replacement vocalist for Neneh Cherry and started touring. They released an album entitled “Trapped Animal” in 2009 and played dates in Japan and Australia. In America, they opened for Sonic Youth and it was nice to see Thurston Moore was there at the movie screening. However, it was during one US tour where things started to unravel. The band were getting frustrated by Ari’s increasingly erratic, confrontational behaviour, decided enough was enough, and quit. Even Tessa could not handle Ari any more. In the movie Hollie gets quite emotional when discussing this period as in hindsight they realise that Ari must have known she was ill and her behaviour was possibly a defence mechanism. What comes across in the movie from the start is that The Slits all looked out for, supported and defended one another so it is sad that Ari could not discuss her health with the others and instead, pushed them away in her efforts to deal with her situation. In the Q&A session afterwards, Director William E. Badgley explained that the seeds of the movie were sown during this last fateful American tour. Ari had insisted that Jennifer Shagawat, the Tour Manager filmed everything along the way, it was as if Ari knew she did not have long to live. When Ari passed away in 2010, Jennifer passed the footage to him and asked him to make sense of it all. Luckily for us Badgley did just that and he has created a long-overdue portrait of The Slits that certainly fizzles with as much energy and excitement as the band themselves. The film also includes new interviews with Viv Albertine and Palmolive (now a contented Christian school teacher living in the States) and there are talking head pieces from a variety of friends, fans and contributors including Gina Birch, Budgie, Bruce Smith, Don Letts, Dennis Bovell, Adrian Sherwood, Hollie Cook and the later line-ups of The Slits. 

During the Q&A session I asked Tessa if she had ever considered picking the bass up again and she admitted that she had tried a couple of times but that it had been too traumatic losing Ari. They had such an unspoken connection and so far she hasn't been able to find that playing music and she gets more pleasure as a DJ nowadays. Some other topics covered included discussing how the dole and squatting scene in the 70's meant that people could be creative on little income which is far more difficult now. Tessa felt that music has lost it's vibrancy and she wouldn't want to be starting off as a youngster in the music business now. She's not really into any bands at the moment but did express her love Subway Sect when I mentioned their original guitarist Rob Symmons is still performing with Retro Man Blog favourites The Fallen Leaves. However she is still enthralled by Jamaican music and culture and talked about The Slits interest in exploring new ideas and inspirations from World music. Indeed their admiration for Japanese culture led to Ari singing in Japanese on "Earthbeat Japan". She explained that The Slits always wanted to move on and not become a caricature of a Punk band. Tessa also touched on Pussy Riot and how there was still much to be done for Women's rights around the world. If you enjoyed the movie and you are a fans of The Slits and Reggae then you may like to know that William will be working with the Here To Be Heard team again on a documentrary about Don Letts, which has just started filming.

Compere with Christine, Tessa & William E Badgley at the Q&A
I can also thoroughly recommend Typical Girls? The Story of the Slits by Zoe Street Howe, which was published by Omnibus Press. Faber have just published Viv Albertine’s second autobiography To Throw Away Unopened a follow up to the excellent Clothes, Music, Boys. You can read a report on Viv’s book talk at the Social in our Blog archive here. There is a Pledgemusic campaign running for the Here To Be Heard DVD release and you can check out William E Badgley's official web-site with details of all his movies here. With thanks to Paul Slattery for the excellent archive photos.

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