September 29th, 2008

operesque

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.