The rackety, all-girl English punk band The Slits combined angular Captain Beefheart-style guitarwork with reggae-soul-afro rhythms and caustic social commentary. Beneath the politics they were determined to have fun.
Without The Slits, it is safe to say, there would be no Lady Gaga; a generation of women were emboldened to pick up the mic and give it a go. Their debut album, Cut, released in 1979, absorbed the dread-heavy sound of reggae, and could only have come out of mixed-up, mixed-race London.
The documentary Here to Be Heard (cert 15, 86 mins, ★★★★) tells the story of The Slits from their first concert at the Harlesden Coliseum in 1977 to their last tour in 2010. The band’s name, suggestive of pornography and violence, outraged critics at the time: whatever the originality of their music, they presented the frightening spectacle of women in control of their image.
The Slits went through a total of 13 managers, and set out to shock in a humorous way. The band’s classic line-up of “Ari Up” Ariane Forster, Viv Albertine, Tessa Pollitt and “Palmolive” Paloma Romero flared brightly at the height of punk, and offered hope of deliverance to young women singers and musicians “downpressed” (as they say in Jamaica) by the music business. Ari Up, the vocalist, added an element of wild-child abandon to Pollitt’s infectiously heavy bass and Albertine’s scratchy lead guitar.
William Badgley’s film is dedicated to the memory of Ari Up, who died of cancer in 2010, at the age of 48, soon after the band’s last tour. Here to Be Heard is not terrifically well made (the archival footage is forbiddingly grainy) but it provides a touching record of pre-1980s do-it-yourself musical idealism. Now in her mid 50s, Pollitt provides the narrative for the film as she leafs through a worn-looking scrapbook of Slits-related newspaper articles at her home in north London. Stories of her band-mates from the early days are told with affection.
Romero, with her thick Spanish accent, tells of how she shared a squat in London with the punk idol Joe Strummer and re-embraced Catholicism after quitting the band in 1979 (“He is a revolutionary, Jesus”). Albertine, always a glamorous presence, speaks of her upbringing in Muswell Hill, where she went to the same school as Rod Stewart and members of the Kinks.
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