Over a decade before riot grrrl was a term or a movement, the Slits embodied its spirit on their uniquely radical debut album, Cut. Consisting of British musicians Ari Up, Viv Albertine, Tessa Pollitt, and Palmolive (the band’s drummer, who left before Cut was finished, opening the door for Budgie, a dude who’s also played with Siouxsie & The Banshees, the Creatures, and others), the Slits bust out of the gate with their busts bared on the LP cover, while caked in mud. (Yep, they gave zero fucks.)
Now that they’d snagged your attention, the Slits went for the jugular with their crazy rhythms, dubbed-up punk, left-field funk, raw reggae bastardizations, and ramshackle feminist anthems. Credit should also go to producer Dennis Bovell, whose aptitude at the console made these unlikely elements cohere into a vivid collection of sonic sucker punches that makes you feel wonderfully woozy.
Cut‘s first two songs—“Instant Hit” and “So Tough”—fail the Bechdel Test, in that they reportedly are about drug-addled PiL guitarist Keith Levene and the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious, respectively. No fear, though, feminists: The oddly buoyant reggae and clattering new-wave/dub eccentricity of them compensate for their focus on men. The proto-riot-grrrl content will come soon enough.
The charmingly askew “Spend, Spend, Spend” critiques the emptiness of consumerism to a zombified reggae lurch while its conceptual counterpart, “Shoplifting,” captures the churning anxiety and accelerating pulse rates of the titular subject. As a bonus, it possesses one of the most marrow-curdling shouts in music history, courtesy of Ari Up, and a killer descending dubwise bass line by Pollitt.
“FM” equates radio’s frequency modulation with “frequent mutilation,” set to music that’s too radically oblong for most stations, although the sporadic, tom-heavy beats bang hard. Later in the album, a couple of soured-love tunes follow: “Ping Pong Affair” pairs slack, slanted reggae with lamenting lyrics over a familiar story of botched romance. Even better is “Love Und Romance,” a ferociously torqued piece of dubbed-out rock laced with sarcastic observations about relationships, skewering their tendency toward triteness and possessiveness.
Cut peaks on “Typical Girls,” the Slits’ greatest song, musically and lyrically. A masterpiece of sarcasm, its disdain for restrictive expectations toward women makes the patriarchal status quo seem horribly banal, thereby spurring women to lead more interesting, fulfilling, and progressive lives. Musically, the song epitomizes the Slits’ penchant for surprising dynamics and hairpin-turn rhythmic shifts, as it looms and sprints in a bizarre, exhilarating ska-rock fusion.
The 2000 CD reissue contains two bonus tracks, including a cover of Norman Whitfield/Barrett Strong’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.” The Slits’ brutal, gut-wrenching version ranks among the best among very stiff competition (e.g., Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight & The Pips, CCR; note also that 4 Men With Beards reissued Cut on vinyl in 2005.).
I’ve played Cut nearly 100 times in my life, and it never fails to send shockwaves of delight through my body and mind. It’s a classic of femme-powered subversion that, for all its inspirational moments, is nearly impossible to replicate—almost in the way that nobody can really follow in the footsteps of the Shaggs’ Philosophy Of The World. This stuff is just too distinctive for the imitators.
(Bellingham, Washington-based director William Badgley completed a documentary about the Slits last year; keep your antennae up for local screenings of Here To Be Heard: The Story Of The Slits.) -Buckley Mayfield