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ari up - the slits cut cover photo
Ari performing live, 1977Courtesy of Ian Dickinson, Red Ferns

Ari Up on shocking with The Slits

The late original riot grrrl on growing up with musicians and forming the all-girl punk sensation The Slits

Taken from the October 2009 issue of Dazed:

I was born in Munich but I don’t think of myself as German. Bavaria has such a different history. My grandfather owned the newspaper Der Spiegel and lived between Stuttgart and Berlin. When I was a kid I used to ask a lot of questions about him, but my family was very secretive. Everything was kind of hush-hush. I heard he was in a movement against Hitler in the war and he was always worried and nervous, pacing up and down all the time. His suits were the best. He had really fine style, like a mafia boss.

My mum, Nora, was a promoter for all the big bands who visited Munich, so I grew up with the music culture all around me. Barry Gibb played music to me on his harmonica in the living room. All the major pop and rock stars were sleeping at my mum’s place. I had a million stepfathers. My godfather was Jon Anderson of Yes. I don’t remember being overawed, though. I was four years old, so I didn’t give a fuck. The police knocked on the door every day because of the parties. You had to go to London to live that lifestyle, so my mum just drove there in her little car with me when I was eight. We didn’t have any money at first; we actually lived in the car for a while.

My mum went out with Chris Spedding, who introduced her to all the punk bands, and she started to take me along with her. I met Palmolive at a Clash gig. She just ignored that I was a schoolkid and asked me if I wanted to sing in a girl band she was starting. The next day we rehearsed in a squat in Paddington that she was living in. Back then, squats were horrible, they were like scary dark cellars; it was a bit intimidating at 14 years old. I was still living with my mum, but I was crashing at different people’s places all the time. There was a lot of peer pressure, but I always stuck to my own rules. I got into weed but that was it. I didn’t do any other drugs, or drink. I didn’t fuck, either. I felt young but I was emancipated by finding my own identity.

We felt naturally feminist without saying so. At the time you were expected to comb your hair perfectly neat and be glamorous, like the magazines tell you to be. You couldn’t be naturally sexy. I felt we were very sexy by nature. If we wanted to be sexy we were, but not to please men. We just did our own thing. In this way, we threatened society. The witch hunt was on. I was stabbed in the street, just for looking the way I did, by a guy who looked like John Travolta.

“All the major pop and rock stars were sleeping at my mum’s place. I had a million stepfathers” – Ari Up

The Roxy was a safe-haven for our circle. Viv Albertine (who joined the Slits as guitarist after seeing them play their first show) would turn up there with Sid Vicious. I would always jump on the back of Palmolive’s bike to get a lift there. We couldn’t really play very well at our first few gigs, but we learned really quickly. We started playing heavy punk music but got more and more into the reggae rhythms we were listening to. We got into dub after Don Letts introduced us to it. We’d go to his house in Forest Hill and spend the weekend there. He would just play music non-stop. Back then you had reggae clubs and blues parties (impromptu reggae dances that took place in West Indian houses and flats from the 1950s to the 1980s) all over London. Everywhere you walked, there were sound systems playing heavy bass reggae.

Chris Blackwell liked us and signed us to his label, Island. We met Dennis Bovell there, who produced our first album, Cut. Island had also signed Linton Kwesi Johnson and Dennis Bovell was mixing his stuff. We got on straight away. The world was as against reggae artists like him just as much as it was against us. 

I think the cover of Cut scared people. It was a struggle to even get it released with that image. But Chris Blackwell loved it and the label had signed a contract stating that we had full artistic control, so that was that. Huge posters advertising the album were plastered around London. There was a guy who actually crashed his car after seeing one. He tried to blame us for it and filed a complaint. Record shops didn’t display it either, which might have contributed toward the fact that we didn’t sell more. I was always pissed off that the album wasn’t bigger than it was, but you can’t regret.

We produced the second album, Return of the Giant Slits, ourselves. I think it is a very underrated record. Bruce Smith is on it playing tribal-style drums. In my view, it is the first world beat album. No one knew about world music then. After we split up, I moved to New York. I had played there in 1979 with The Slits and decided straight away that I wanted to live there. America is the centre of the world, it’s like a modern-day Rome. At the same time, I set up home in Jamaica, the centre of the music world, and I have lived between America and Jamaica since. I got into the dancehall scene in Jamaica in the 90s but didn’t release Dread More Dan Dead, my first solo album, until 2005.

We recently recorded a brand-new album in LA and then sent it to Adrian Sherwood to be mixed. Tessa (Pollitt, bassist) was with Adrian and I was on the phone in Jamaica listening to it, saying, “It needs a bit more here; a bit more there.” I trust Tessa’s opinion. We have lived parallel lives and have always liked the same stuff, whether it be the reggae or some old rock crooner. That’s why we can still play together after all these years.