Inspired both by the cognitive dissonance of seeing giant billboards next to council housing, and the strangeness of being the only all-girl group on the bill, the Slits' early performances seethed with manic energy and frustration. "I want to satisfy this empty feeling," Ari Up sang on the group's anti-consumerism screed "Spend Spend Spend," from their 1979 debut Cut. But feelings change, and by the time Cut was released--three years after the band formed--the Slits already sounded more like disaffected pop stars than the giggling teens who first crashed into music-making like they were falling out of a closet. They had already opened for the Clash and released several singles and Peel Sessions. Though they still wanted to sing about boys and being bored and listening to the radio, they had also become part of the music business--just like, say, Emerson Lake and Palmer. Well, not quite. Keith Emerson didn't pose naked on his album covers, his chest provocatively smeared with mud, or record a song about the joys of shoplifting. Would his audience have let him get away with it, even if he wanted to?
If the Slits had simply made a record that sounded like the Damned sung by girls, with only their gender distinguishing them from the rest of punk's second wave, they might have simply been a footnote in a rock history textbook. Instead, Cut's punk-reggae hybrids (now available domestically for the first time on CD, with two bonus tracks) cleared a path for generations of genre-melting adventurers. Reggae confounded many of those who tried to incorporate it with rock (see the Clash's Sandinista) or pilfer it outright (the Police's Reggatta De Blanc), and Cut feels like Lee Perry Meets the Shaggs Uptown by comparison. The melody rambling through the smoky "FM" oozes the swaggering defiance that punks tried so hard to copy from their Jamaican idols. "Shoplifting" is still punk as fuck--all yelling, squealing, and grinning from ear to ear--but "Instant Hit" is dub (as...fuck?), with producer Dennis Bovell's bass pressure matching or bettering punk's capacity to terrorize authority types. You can just imagine the Slits in place of the Pistols on Bill Grundy's show, with Ari Up talking about doing drugs and listening to King Tubby--the U.K. government would have declared martial law on all unmarried women under 40.
Through all these provocations, the band exhibits the brassy exuberance of suburban mall rats picking out jewelry, assembling their identity one shiny piece at a time. But though the Slits' everything-we-like-is-fair-game attitude anticipated both the pan-genre fusions of the ProTools era and the serial career reinventions of girl-power pop icons, there's an air of staleness hovering over Cut, suggesting that back in 1979, they were already thinking about relinquishing their 15 minutes of fame. Indeed, it's hard to imagine what the Slits would have sounded like had they continued past '81's Return of the Giant Slits into career musician territory. Still, even though the band had mostly run its course by the time Cut was first released, the album's chattering guitars and dense rhythms remain a fascinating snapshot of adolescence, with three girls imagining what they want to be when they grow up. They might not have known whether they were punk or reggae, pop stars or Amazon women. But for the time being, it was theirs to choose.
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