Suitably fired up by my chat and meeting with Viv in Chicago -- not to mention a great show -- it only seemed logical to contact Zoë Street-Howe, author of TYPICAL GIRLS? THE STORY OF THE SLITS (UK: Omnibus Press), the first real (and long overdue) in-depth look at this ever-provocative band, who -- even now -- don't comfortably fit the arid cultural landscape of what is often accidentally labeled "rock 'n' roll."
Kudos to Zoë for the wit and wisdom that she displays so abundantly here -- so much, in fact, that we ended up with roughly 15 questions! As with Viv's interview ("Not Your Typical Girl"), the answers will run in several bite-sized chunks, so -- without further ado, here's Take One of my email chat with Zoë!
CHAIRMAN RALPH (CR): As you've proudly detailed in one interview, you were born only four days before "Typical Girls" came out (in 1979). What inspired you to write a book about the Slits? What makes their story interesting to you, and why is it relevant for today's audience?
ZOE STREET-HOWE (ZSH): I don't know if it's so much a matter of pride, but I think it's nice, and auspicious perhaps, that the Slits' debut single and I "came out" within days of each other...!
I first started thinking I wanted to write about them because I passionately felt they deserved more recognition for what they did, musically, socially, artistically, in so many ways and for many reasons. I was broadcasting a punky reggae/alt music radio show at the time, very underground but good fun, and I was really getting into the Slits, adored CUT and their second album, RETURN OF THE GIANT SLITS, and just thought they were such an interesting band, I couldn't understand why nothing had been written about them, but that there were books on The Clash, etc.
They were inspiring to me because of their free-thinking approach, they weren't labelling themselves and the onus wasn't on sexualising themselves in order to get attention, it wasn't on perfect body images. I think we can learn a lot today from the way the Slits were at that time, and what they achieved.
Initially it was solely going to be about CUT, but, while the album is still very much the heart of the book, as I believe it to be a watershed for the group and a seminal album, it evolved into the book it is now because it needed context and history. Because not much was out there about the Slits, you couldn't just go in and write about CUT exclusively, you couldn't risk it going over people's heads.
Ari Up wanted it to be only about CUT, but while that was my initial idea, it soon became apparent that doing it in such a limited way wouldn't have worked. The point of it was to flag up the importance of the Slits and relevance of what they were doing, so I felt it had to be more than that. Ultimately, the book was intended as a huge compliment, a tribute, a gift to the Slits, really. A celebration! Which I felt was long overdue, and came out at the right time to celebrate 30 years of CUT, as was my intention.
I know I'm a lot younger than them, obviously, but I also felt that on the plus side this a) meant I did my utmost to get my information from the horses' mouths and b) I didn't write it through my own filter of having been part of that scene or time myself.
CR: Having written a book myself, I know this quite well...every biographer runs head-on into myths, half-truths, and total PR fabrications. What's the biggest misconception about the Slits? Did you run into any surprises during your research, things that you didn't know befiore? If so, what?
ZSH: There was plenty I didn't know before because, as I say, there wasn't much out there, comparatively.
There were a few things out there that seriously needed righting - a myth that the Raincoats and Slits started a "bloody riot" at a Throbbing Gristle gig -- this didn't happen, although something much worse did, and it was misreported by, apparently, someone who actually had a ring-side seat to the whole shebang, but still chose to misrepresent it for the sake of a "good story". You'll have to read the book to find out what happened!
Obviously the most popular misconception about the Slits is that "they couldn't play", very boring and tired that one! They were rough at the beginning of course, as most punk bands were, very rough according to some, but then so were Buzzcocks initially, so was X-Ray Spex and so was Siouxsie, going on stage at the 100 Club with her mates, having never picked up an instrument before. That was kind of the point. The Slits moved on quickly but people were keen to keep them in that pigeonhole. They were very creative, very exciting musicians with some great musical ideas.
Talking of myths and misrepresentations, funnily enough Ari recently said the "biggest mistake" in the book was that she and Palmolive met at a Patti Smith gig, but this story was told to me by Palmolive. Plus a respected rock writer friend of mine mentioned that Ari herself had previously told him they'd met at Patti's gig! I don't know, I could only try my best and repeat what they told me in good faith.
In the meantime, while this was all being picked over, what seems to have been missed is the fact that the book totally celebrates them. I always called it an "appreciation" as opposed to a "biog" -- it was written from a place of love and respect, that was always my motivation, and I think most people can see that!
The more people involved, particularly in the case of a band, the more people's memories and perpectives differ, which can be tricky especially when, at the end of the day, the biographer is held responsible! Because everyone is so different, they all have a very different reality...
CR: Adverse perceptions and run-ins (with the press, the general public, and so on) seemed to be a defining theme within the Slits' career. To what extent do you feel they fit -- or didn't -- into what was going on back in '76-'77, and beyond?
ZSH: They fitted into the scene that didn't fit! They fitted snugly into that counter-culture, and it must have been a very exciting time. There was a core of people who felt like outsiders and thankfully they found each other and that scene was born and they sparked off each other creatively. They quickly outgrew it of course, as did The Clash and other groups of that ilk.
I know The Slits had some really intense experiences, there were times they were attacked physically by members of the public, people threatened by their confrontational appearance who felt they had to strike first, even if The Slits themselves weren't going to strike out anyway.
There were run-ins galore, by the sound of things! There were people in the music press and the public who loved The Slits too, but I guess it's human nature to focus on the not so good stuff over time. We have to fight that!
Presswise, as I say, there was a lot of quite patronising, unhelpful coverage, but looking at the old music papers, which I did for my research, there was also a lot of love. It's always the way that if you get nine good cuttings and one not so great... well, which one are you going to remember?
At times, back in the day, they could also be challenging to interview if they weren't in the mood, from what I've heard from old tapes, and when that's the case, you can't really be shocked if the journalist then reflects their subsequent feelings in print, I guess! But on the other hand, music journalism could be very male and rockstarry at the time, and certain writers' attitudes towards The Slits and similar artists might have been sufficient irritants to make for a bit of a stale-mate.
Why should the Slits pander to the rules of how they "should" behave, if a lot of the people in the music industry were just old-fashioned sexists trying to be like rock-stars? There had to be mutual respect. I can only imagine how hard it must have been, and we've still got a lot of evolving to do!
While I know the mainstream press were very silly about punk in general and helped to actually stoke its notoriety, there were plenty of powerful people, Vivien Goldman, Kris Needs, Nick Kent and Caroline Coon, for example, as well as their musical contemporaries, who really bigged them up and continue to do so to this day.
CR: Of course, another running theme -- to the music press, anyway -- was the Slits' perceived lack of musical ability. By the time of CUT, of course, the band's sound had changed quite a bit from the punk era: in your judgment, what was the turning point in that change?
I think they worked very hard, and they were listening to new and different music all the time, they went from straight-up punk rock to absorbing the reggae sounds that were pulsing around them in Ladbroke Grove, and really reflecting that in their sound, they started going to free improv gigs as well, listening to the free jazz of Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, they were very open to new ideas. But also there was something intrinsically them about their sound, they never sounded like a pastiche back then. There was something eccentric about the musical and lyrical ideas, and those were the things that attracted my ear to them.
Of course when they came to make the album with Dennis Bovell he pushed them hard to be the best they could be, and they really developed during the time they spent on CUT, plus he was a very broad-minded, musically versatile producer with wide reference points, perfect for The Slits. But listen to their cover of "(I Heard It Through The) Grapevine" - they recorded that and mixed it themselves before Dennis was on the scene, and they play just fine! That was the track which was my first "in" with the Slits' music, as I think it probably was for a lot of people. It's great.
CR: Sexual politics is yet another theme in the Slits's story, which brings to mind a Caroline Coon quote from this book, THE LOST WOMEN OF ROCK MUSIC: she says that many of the male musicians would be quite surprised to know that the history of punk could be written without them.
I'm sure that Caroline is prominently thinking of the Slits there -- do you agree with that comment, and to what extent did the band change the whole girls-against-boys equation in rock 'n' roll?
ZSH: It is a really important, exceptional book. Generally, I have issues with segregating "women in rock" all the time, maybe that's just me! I feel it's a shame and does us no favours that "female" has become a genre in itself. What next, you know?
In an old NEW MUSICAL EXPRESS (NME) I read, someone had written in to suggest they do a "women in rock" piece, with all good intentions, and NME wrote back that that was a splendid idea, and while they were at it they were going to work on a piece on Short People in Rock, Blue-eyed People In Rock, etc... "Let's get together and split up", I seem to remember they concluded their response with. I did see their point. It's sad that there has to be a special piece on women just to ensure we're even included.
It's like the way the music press used to write about groups from the regions, the Manchester photographer Kevin Cummins was talking about this the other day. It's much better now (probably because so many of Britain's best groups come from the regions) but back in the day, Kevin observed that music papers would lump all those groups together in one issue in which they featured "regional bands" and basically get them out of the way so they could spend the rest of the year with the focus back on London groups again.
They did this with "female" groups too, or groups with women in them, you'd get these "Women in Rock" articles, in which sometimes those featured would have little in common but their gender. I think at the time, certainly, it was probably taken as a bit patronising, but on the other hand at least they were being written about!
I'm sure Caroline is right, she was there at the time in the thick of it, she managed the Clash for a while, didn't she? She was totally part of that scene and was a very strong figure within it so she has her reasons for saying that.
Maybe age has mellowed their egos a bit, but a lot of the guys I spoke to for the book, Keith Levene, for example, genuinely had plenty to say about how vital bands like The Slits were, also X-Ray Spex, the Raincoats, Penetration and musicians like Lora Logic... so I think it would be a pity to assume they would so easily pass over their female contemporaries, but I don't know what it was like at the time!
I'd always hoped that punk was a little more free of those gender divides but I'm probably being very idealistic! But, certain people's motives or individual ego stuff aside, punk was in essence idealistic, I think?
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