Of all the myriad genres into which popular music has been categorized, for me punk has been one of the most difficult to embrace. I blame The Sex Pistols and The Clash, in particular two of the least representative songs in their respective oeuvres. Thinking these songs (have you guessed what they are yet?) as indicative of the entire movement, much of the real quality on offer passed me by for many, many years. And as a result I wasted precious time listening to chart drivel (Brothers in Arms – ouch!, Invisible Touch – the shame!, August by Eric Clapton – almost too embarrassing to admit to!) when I could have been immersing myself in truly astonishing music like Cut by The Slits.
The back story (please feel free to skip). At the tender (and impressionable) age of 15 I got a job working in the Ilminster (of bypass infamy…and not much else) Co-Op, stacking shelves for a pittance whilst marveling at the tightness of the correlation between ill fitting hairpieces and the odour of stale urine. Hours passed by ridiculously slowly and the prospect of venturing to the local video game ‘arcade’ – it was a stinky room with a couple of out-of-date games with broken joysticks, a jukebox and a sticky carpet – at lunch was scant reward for such a mind-numbing morning. The two staples on the jukebox were…wait for it…Frigging in the Rigging and Should I Stay or Should I Go. Two songs that, to this day, are so unremittingly awful, and are connected to such awful times, that I still get a shudder down my spine when I recollect them. In fact, writing this has been something of an ordeal as I now have them both firmly lodged in my brain. Of course, both bands released work of great quality and huge cultural significance and I have grown to quite like The Clash. I have, however, never quite seen past the posturing and rhetoric of The Pistols and I still have problems when I hear that sneary Lydonesque warble that was so prevalent throughout the early days of punk and, to the 15 year old me, symbolized what punk was all about.
So I came late to the party and it has only been in the last fifteen years or so that I have realised that floating around the fringes of punk are some fantastic, innovative and honest-to-the-core records that are pretty much unique within popular music. And Cut is right at the top of the tree. It is, crucially for me, much closer in sound and attitude to reggae than The Ramones and is a very distant relative to Never Mind The Bollocks. Hugely sophisticated yet childishly simple (and they say the band members couldn’t play their instruments!?!), dangerous and threatening whilst being welcoming and accessible, rhythmic, melodic and hilarious…it’s a cracking record and one of the most important of the era. Cut has paved the way for so much that has come since, the Riot Grrrl stuff from the 90s, Sleater-Kinney, Bjork’s yelps, PJ Harvey’s independence and, more recently, the chants and playground feel of tUnE-yArDs. But whilst Merrill Garbus conjures up an inclusive, celebratory, Sesame Street style playground, The Slits playtime is full of menace; back-stabbing cliques from an inner city comprehensive out to get you. Having a laff, but at your expense. As they say…’Typical girls feel like hell. Typical girls worry about spots, fat, natural smells’. But in the same (awesome) song they also manage to rail against the system: ‘Here’s another marketing ploy. Typical girl gets the typical boy’. The listener is left in no doubt that The Slits are definitely not typical girls and that is starkly evident not just from the words they use throughout Cut but from the way they use them.
If you like punk, you already own this record. If you think you don’t like punk, Cut may be the record that makes you think again. It did me.
Rob listened: I was passingly familiar with The Slits but had never listened properly to ‘Cut’. It’s on the very long mental list of post-punk canon I have to investigate at some point of infinite idleness in the distant mythical future (hey Minutemen, Bad Brains, This Heat, Television Personalities, The Pop Group… i’ll get to you guys too). So pleased to hear it this evening. What a stark reminder of the wild, fearless creativity that flowed from punk’s second wave and, amidst the clattering reggae fusion, what a strong voice for young women. Ari Up R.I.P.
Final note: We’ll get a chance to discuss Tom’s view of one of the great rock albums (Never Mind The Bollocks) and one of the great rock vocalists (John Lydon) when I bring ‘The Flowers of Romance’ to a meeting in the near future…
Nick listened: I liked this, a lot; enough to buy it the following morning. Well, order it online. Sadly the rainforest shop shipped it via the notoriously poor Home Delivery Network, and it still hasn’t arrived, a week and a half since I placed the order, meaning I’ve not had chance to reassess and see if it left me as impressed second time around as first.
I liked Cut so much because it wasn’t what I was expecting; I was expecting something punky, amateurish, spiky, confrontational, and what I actually got was a really awesome, characterful dub-pop, shot through with the energy and freedom of punk but not the safety pins, perhaps. I had no idea it was produced by Dennis Bovell, that it was so minimal, so smooth, so sinuous, so… dubby. I goes I should have cottoned on that it wasn’t going to be a spiky, guitar-noisey first-wave punk album simply from the fact that it came out in 1979 and not 1976, but I was four months old when it was released, so you’ll have to forgive me. Like Rob, it’s one of those records that’s been on my mental checklist to investigate for some time. I’m glad Tom gave me the opportunity.