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Return to the Giant Slits - click opera
February 2010
 
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Mon, Sep. 29th, 2008 11:36 am
Return to the Giant Slits

On Saturday I wrote my next Playground column. It won't appear on the Spanish music site for a couple of weeks yet, but it's about Matsuri-kei, a music movement that doesn't really exist outside my head. Or it's about my hypocrisy in declaring genres in record shops useless whilst continuing to make up new ones myself. Or it's about the fact that a genre is both artificial and real, fiction and fact, arbitrary and binding, meaningless and meaningful, useless and useful.

Anyway, part of the essay is about choosing a starting point for this Matsuri-kei genre. If OOIOO's Umo is central to what I'm calling Matsuri-kei, the ur-ancestor of the whole genre must be -- I've decided -- The Slits' second (and last) album, Return of the Giant Slits (1981). More specifically, the Japanese-language version of Earthbeat, Daichi No Oto (which translates, roughly, as "Field Sound"):

The Slits: Daichi No Oto (stereo mp3 file)

It might seem odd to choose a track by a Western band as the origin of a Japanese genre, but Daichi No Oto has so much else going for it. Matsuri-kei bands are generally all-female. They have eco-boho-baba lyrics over tribal beats. They look to Jamaica, wear dreadlocks, and love dub, without actually being Jamaican. They shout in a primal, tribal way. The Slits did all this (with Yoko Ono-esque warblings and a German accent) long before OOIOO, and even sang in Japanese for the Japanese release of their album. I can't think of a better origin.

I re-acquired Return of the Giant Slits digitally this weekend -- it's a record I listened to and loved in 1981, just before dropping out of university (for two years, anyway) to become a musician myself. It's also a record that's undeservedly unloved and un-celebrated -- there are no YouTube clips of tracks from it, for instance, and until its late 2007 re-release on Blast First it was available on CD only in Japan.

Return of the Giant Slits still sounds fantastic to me; reggae producers Dennis "Blackbeard" Bovell and Dick O'Dell gave the record an amazing feel, an ambience which can switch from wet to dry in a flash, a sound full of space, twangling with exotic instruments, reggae horn arrrangements, chuckling syn drum hits, brittle early 80s synth lines, funky, schizo guitar chops, tribal beats. Everything's apart and together at the same time; it's tight and loose, clean and dirty, song and dub.

I can understand why the record had a limited audience, though. You can see quite substantial British crowds responding to the punky shouts of early Slits, as (supporting The Clash) they ranted about shoplifting over power chords. I remember Peel expressing disappointment with Cut when it first came out -- they'd gone reggae, recruited Bovell, and the power chords of the early sessions were suddenly replaced by more delicate, spacey, tentative guitar stabs from Viv Albertine. Tessa Pollit's bass became the band's anchor (if such flighty music can be said to be anchored anywhere). I remember Peel advising his listeners to stick with the new reggage Slits, though; they'd be rewarded in the end. Reggae was good for you, it widened your horizons.



Return of the Giant Slits is nothing if not wide -- tracks like Animal Space, Earthbeat and Walk About made you feel you were wandering the outback with Jenny Aguter in Nic Roeg's Walkabout. The exotic warmth of it was important to me in the Aberdeen winter of 1981. I remember listening to it on Baker Street, sharing a flat with my communist friends Babis and Catherine. I made a Matisse-like mural of a reclining, gaian woman out of cut coloured paper. The room was furnished with books -- Ivan Illich on radical education, Erich Fromm's "To Have or To Be", "How the Other Half Dies" by Susan George, Mary Daly's "Gyn/Ecology", poetry by Brecht. But my main memory is of sitting there in low light -- possibly candlelight, possibly just an anglepoise close to the wall -- listening to The Slits.

I saw The Slits live at this point -- they came to Aberdeen and played in a little club off Union Street. I was completely in awe of their bohemianism, they seemed like 50-feet women. Not many people came to the show, and I remember Ari Up sitting in the middle of the empty-ish club on a chair, rocking back and forth in a strange, sexy limbering-up movement, her dreadlocks flopping around wildly. She might have been some sort of dream girlfriend for me, but I wouldn't have dared speak to her; she seemed to live in a different dimension. And yet it was a dimension available in Aberdeen's indie record shops (they were all gone when I visited last year) for the price of an album.



The Wikipedia entry on The Slits describes them as getting "increasingly experimental and avant garde" at this point (they managed to sound like a dubbed-up Red Crayola while being signed to CBS), and collaborating with Bristol's Pop Group (the Bristol line later carries this sound through to Massive Attack and Tricky in the 90s). But -- and this is getting to the nub of what I really want to say about The Slits today -- it's what undoubtedly alienated The Slits from people in 1981 which attracted me most to them; the way that their scatty, quirky, baba-boho radicalism led you, wherever you actually were in space, to a core of hip, post-materialist districts. Places like Notting Hill, Kreuzberg or Koenji. Places where people were united in a common, shared left-wing bohemianism; exactly the atmosphere I was to encounter the following year when I went for the first time to Rough Trade's Blenheim Place warehouse, with its notorious brown rice atmosphere, its egalitarian staff policies (everyone earned the same at that point), its right-on-ness.

Of course this ambience left -- and continues to leave -- most British people behind; geodemographics show that only a tiny fraction of British people actually tick the baba-boho boxes (alternative lifestyle progressives, tolerant of diversity, into being rather than having); just over 1% of UK households embrace these core values, according to the Mosaic survey. Now, obviously if you're signed to CBS and your values -- increasingly in-your-face values -- of bohemianism and embrace-of-the-other only appeal to about 1% of your target market, it's a problem. Not The Slits' problem, but the record label's, and sure enough, they dropped The Slits after the Return album. Ari Up formed the New Age Steppers with Adrian Sherwood, but basically went off to live in Jamaica, a place much more to her taste, for twenty years. (She married a black man who was later murdered, it seems.)



After writing my Matsuri-kei piece on Saturday, I went to see my friend Tomoko Miyata play her water bowls nearby, and the atmosphere was bobo-baba; a studio laid out with floor-candles, with a small audience of artists, mostly exiles from other countries, people who, like me, adore Berlin because it's significantly more radical and leftish and bohemian than the places we left behind. Tomoko played her bowls installation with Fluxus-style radio over the top, then a sax player blew one continuous low note for twenty minutes, then an improv duo interpreted a chart from the New York Times (a plummeting money graph from the meltdown) as if it were a music score.

Now, just like The Slits, this kind of thing could easily be pilloried by people who feel vaguely blamed, excluded or threatened by it -- the 98% of British people, for instance, who don't share those values ("don't create, don't rebel, don't make eye contact sleeping down the streets", as Ari put it in her songs). Personally, though, I love it, and I give prayers of thanks every day that Berlin is the kind of place where the bobo-baba thing continues to happen. I trace this feeling -- like Matsuri-kei -- back to that room in Aberdeen, and the magical connection that record gave me to a world where people were somehow more free and more radical than the people I knew.

21CommentReply

_ponytails
_ponytails
ponytails
Mon, Sep. 29th, 2008 09:49 am (UTC)

the song ended a moment after finishing the read


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Sep. 29th, 2008 11:11 am (UTC)

http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=AQjKjhOnYAE

I've seen Ari-Up a few times in Tokyo. A friend of mine who ran a reggae bar is always in touch with her. He used to run a jazz bar in Shinjuku but got bored with jazz fanatics. He says his life improved immeasurably by switching to reggae.


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bugpowered
bugpowered
Mon, Sep. 29th, 2008 11:21 am (UTC)

Or it's about the fact that a genre is both (...) useless and useful.

In my times of ole, we would call it "somewhat useful". Who said utility is a cleat cut choice?

Oh, all these young people with their fancy binary opposites and stuff...


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Sep. 29th, 2008 01:47 pm (UTC)

So this, for instance, is influenced by... what?



Okinawan folk, maybe?


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Sep. 29th, 2008 02:05 pm (UTC)

Bjork's "Human Behaviour", which I think came before it all.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Sep. 29th, 2008 03:35 pm (UTC)

The Slits pre-dates "Human Behaviour" by ten years, but yes, I do think Ari-Up and Bjork share an essential bohemianism, a romanticism about nature and "primitive" cultures, and so on. As well as a "progressive" attitude to sound itself. And that thing essential to getting arty teenagers to identify with you: the impression that you live for sex expression and individuality, and that no society in the world is free enough to match your standards of eclectic, electric eccentricity.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Sep. 29th, 2008 05:43 pm (UTC)

sex expresssion and individuality

Wow, I meant to write "self-expression", Freudian slip!


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Sep. 29th, 2008 03:38 pm (UTC)

We have our new genre: Superficial-Tip-of-the-Hat-to-the-Jomon-kei!

Or maybe just Joemus for short.


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akabe
akabe
alin huma
Mon, Sep. 29th, 2008 04:42 pm (UTC)


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robinsonner
robinsonner
the maven
Mon, Sep. 29th, 2008 09:34 pm (UTC)


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Sep. 29th, 2008 09:42 pm (UTC)

Hmm, that doesn't really work for me. I can hear a diluted Slits thing in the backing track, but the vocal and lyric just sounds like Ludus edging into Kirsty McColl. Too, er, wishy washy, this launderette!


ReplyThread Parent
darling_effect
darling_effect
Andrea
Tue, Sep. 30th, 2008 12:30 am (UTC)

"Private Armies" (and the dub version) are even better —not as cutesy as "Launderette."

The last time I saw the Slits (it's been a few years, now) Vivienne got up onstage and sang with them. It was the only moment of the show that didn't seem hopelessly moribund and a bit depressing.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Sep. 30th, 2008 06:51 am (UTC)


ReplyThread Parent
robinsonner
robinsonner
the maven
Mon, Sep. 29th, 2008 09:47 pm (UTC)

yr lucky!
I nearly posted the Frank Chickens!


ReplyThread Parent
imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Sep. 30th, 2008 06:46 am (UTC)

Ha! I used to go to their shows in the 80s! And the singer -- was it Kazumi? -- did a radio show about Shibuya-kei and played my "Anthem of Shibuya" on Radio 1 and said how much she loved it!

As I recall they were something like a quirkier version of The Plastics, or a Japanese version of the Rezillos...


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Sep. 30th, 2008 12:48 am (UTC)

> Matsuri-kei, a music movement that doesn't really exist outside my head.

you know it exists in our heads too now (imagined Jomon connections notwithstanding)


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steviecat
steviecat
Stephen Drennan
Tue, Sep. 30th, 2008 09:14 am (UTC)

Thanks for alerting me to that Japanese language Slits L.P. - I bought it the day it came out, or near enough, but never knew they'd recorded in another language. I remember hoping to see them but sadly they split up just after the record's release and their Brighton show never happened. To me ...Giant Slits has always been a fantastic record, completely undervalued; and I always loved The Slits' un-rock and roll-ness, the way they seemed to possess a totally different set of aesthetics (though I suppose their earliest work was more obviously from the rockier end of the punk spectrum, like a lot of bands just starting out). Rather than the typical, simplistic viewpoint of them as part of that women-in-rock trajectory, precursors of bands like Bikini Kill and Hole, I always saw them as being more akin to British experimentalists and late-night Peel show individualists like Lol Coxhill and Robert Wyatt.
Much of my favourite music comes from that era, and I certainly don't regard it as because of nostalgia - it felt like an incredibly open and foward-thinking time, with lots of interesting cross-pollination. At the time I actually took that Vivien Goldman single as a deliberate starting point, shoved all my other records into a cupboard, and worked backwards from that as it was a disc which was a portal into British reggae, English psych (Robert Wyatt), and improv (Steve Beresford), as well as Adrian Sherwood and PiL - most of this I liked already, but it was interesting bulding a collection around that single, following all the paths into musics like early 'seventies British jazz rock, early rap, lovers rock, The Red Krayola, and things like Jah Wobble's great cover of Blueberry Hill and - via the Wyatt link - the Recommended Records catalogue; and exploring African music on the recommendation of Vivien Goldman. In '85 I went to see shehnai player Kadir Durvesh simply because of his playing on the second Raincoats album and Dishari's splt single with Wyatt. A few of the records haven't aged that well, but many of them have. I don't think I've found any wave of new music since which has opened me up in a similar fashion, though I guess the mid 'nineties Incredibly Strange Music thing had a major but very different kind of impact.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Sep. 30th, 2008 02:18 pm (UTC)

Rather than the typical, simplistic viewpoint of them as part of that women-in-rock trajectory, precursors of bands like Bikini Kill and Hole, I always saw them as being more akin to British experimentalists and late-night Peel show individualists like Lol Coxhill and Robert Wyatt.

Exactly! The Slits are pretty dismissive of the "wimmin in rock" angle in the interview clip I embed a bit further up. I think in retrospect the "wimmin in rock" line is as idiotically sexist as the "chicks can't rock" notions it was supposedly wheeled out to displace.

But at the same time there's a huge component in The Slits' appeal of primal female imagery, links between women and black people, women and nature, earth goddess imagery, personal space issues. But there's more of a thematic of "being different because you're bohemian" going on. One of the songs on Return talks about make-up: if you wear camouflage on the street you're accepted as "one of them". Now, that "one of them" doesn't mean a woman, it means a conformist, a "plastic", a "normal". If there's an us-against-them here (and there is), it's bohemians against straights, not women against men.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Sep. 30th, 2008 02:23 pm (UTC)

(Which brings up the interesting question, could there be a Slits-type group now, in an era where bohemianism has been universalized, hedonism made compulsory, and all the "straights" do drugs? I mean, are CSS what The Slits would be today? Is there anything critical and dangerous in CSS? Would they advocate "difficult fun" rather than the empty kind all around us?)


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Sep. 30th, 2008 10:03 pm (UTC)

Puts me in mind of Odyshape, also from '81.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Oct. 9th, 2008 10:59 pm (UTC)

Great article. Interesting directions and connections.
Connection between, across and especially with ideas, cultures, sounds...people. Creation of communities and communal sounds.
Thanks for renewing my connection to "Earthbeat, Daichi No Oto".
Playing it in my head, I can almost feel the possibilities that having such a relaxed, open state of mind makes possible!


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