Banjo speaks to John Lydon about Manchester, advertising butter and his plans for the future.
The Slits were not a band who were prepared to compromise.
From their formation to their demise, they were determined to be in control of their own destiny and to make their own choices. This they did with a huge amount of both determination and style.
In fact, The Slits were much more than this. Even in the rebellious, shock filled early days of punk, The Slits were fucking mental.
The Slits formed in the white hot heat of punk’s first flowering. Lead singer Ari Up’s mother Nora was something of a free spirit herself; she was a friend of Jimi Hendrix, had dated guitarist Chris Spedding and had appointed Jon Anderson from Yes as one of Ari’s godparents. She would also later go on to marry John Lydon.
Nora welcomed the fledgling punk musicians into her home and, as a result, the 14 year old was surrounded by punk influence at a particularly important time in her life. The upshot was that Ari soon decided to form a band of her own.
This she did, with Palmolive on drums, Kate Korus on guitar and Suzy Gutsy on bass. Even before 1976 was out though, the band members had shifted into the classic Slits lineup of Ari Up, Palmolive, Viv Albertine and Tessa Pollit.
The band were still learning their instruments, as was common at the time, and they did this in public. Their early recordings capture what John Peel succinctly described as ‘where an inability to play meets a determination to play’.
The noise they made was a little out of time and a little out of tune. It was also some of the most exhilarating and wonderful music to emerge from the whole punk movement.
The band quickly won admirers and were well placed enough to support The Clash on their 1977 White Riot tour along with Buzzcocks, The Prefects and Subway Sect.
In her excellent and highly recommended autobiography, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys, Viv Albertine remembered that The Slits were often refused entry to hotels on the tour, as the punk image was barely tolerated for boys at the time, but not for girls. This is the arena in which The Slits operated.
In the fusty late 70s, merely being an all female rock group instantly set The Slits in a radical position.
The Slits’, and in particular Ari Up’s, behaviour was that of an innate, natural rebellion. They were simply being themselves and not conforming to anybody’s view of how young girls should behave.
At one show, Ari Up squatted and pissed on stage, which she thought was totally acceptable because she was on stage and she happened to need a piss.
The Slits quickly became a gang. Looking back at photos of the band from this time, they do not look hugely punky or shocking, but we need to remember that this was the late 70s, when it was still possible to shock people by the width of your trouser leg. It was also a time when women were denied a voice and an equal role in society.
I can remember in the 70s in the Banjo household when my mum was given a tax rebate. Because she was a married woman, the tax rebate was made out to my dad, an idea that relates to when wives were considered to be nothing more than property.
The hangovers from these ideals were still prevalent in the late 70s when The Slits were quite rightly and very bravely refusing to abide by this kind of archaic oppression.
Not that this helped them get a record deal. At a time when even the shittest of punk bands were being signed, The Slits’ wild reputation and their refusal to compromise frightened away the major labels and independents alike.
The sound of the band at this time is perfectly captured in their first two Peel sessions, which are to this writer’s ears the two finest Peel sessions ever recorded.
However, the fact remains that the band remained unsigned for far too long, which is why we are celebrating the anniversary of their debut album now and not in 2017. As good as Cut is, and it unreservedly is, the world missed out on their early sound being properly captured.
But, paradoxically, this is also Cut’s greatest strength; by the time the band were signed to Island and allowed into a proper recording studio, they had grown up a little and the punk of their Peel sessions was replaced with a more considered, intricate approach. The intervening time had also allowed them to master the more difficult musical disciplines of the reggae that they loved so much. The resulting fusion of post punk and reggae has never been bettered that on Cut.
The Slits belatedly signed a record deal in 1979, with Island having the vision to take them on. The first fruits of this partnership was the Typical Girls single. It was instantly apparent that The Slits had moved on and the song familiar to us from the Peel session was almost unrecognisable.
Gone were the sound of musicians learning how to play, gone also were the rough edges that seemed so important to their sound. In their place was a new sound that proved that The Slits were now as important to post punk as their younger selves were to punk.
By this time, drummer Palmolive (so named because this is how a drunk/stoned Sid Vicious pronounced Paloma, her real name) had left the band and Liverpool musician Budgie was drafted in for the album.
Budgie is, of course, one of the best drummers of his generation and with him in the band, The Slits could now expand beyond the use of traditional rock rhythms.
From the off, Cut lays out the future vision for The Slits.
First track Instant Hit is a glorious fusion of scratchy post punk guitars, reggae rhythms and Ari Up’s multi layered vocals.
By delaying the recording of the debut album they may have missed creating a punk classic, but instead they came up with something much longer lasting. There is none of the punk baggage that would have nailed their songs to a specific time. Instead it would be harder for a new listener to pinpoint exactly when Cut was recorded.
It’s influence spread through the 80s so that it is an album ahead of its time.
The songs that made up The Slits set are mostly still here, but in such altered versions that they are, to all intents and purposes, new songs. The album fairly buzzes with the band’s delight at finally being able to release their music ionto the world.
Much of the credit for this new sound goes to legendary dub producer Dennis Bovell and to The Slits’ canny intuition in getting him to produce their first recordings.
Bovell is a Barbados born multi instrumentalist who based himself in Britain, where he played in reggae band Matumbi, wrote and produced Silly Games for Janet Kaye and produced classic albums for Linton Kwesi Johnson.
Getting him to produce Cut was perhaps a gamble, but one that paid off handsomely.
Slits’ classics Newtown, Shoplifting and Love & Romance are all present and correct and wearing their new clothes proudly. There is a sense of joy that runs through Cut that makes it an irresistible joy, even 40 years down the line.
Ari Up’s lyrics concern the world that she grew up in. Typical Girls is perhaps the best example of how she saw the world, or perhaps more accurately how the world saw her.
Starting off with ‘Don’t create, Don’t rebel’, Ari Up goes on to say ‘Typical girls buy magazines, Typical girls feel like hell, Typical girls worry about spots, fat And natural smells.’
The Slits focus was always more on personal politics than the sloganeering of their peers, which is another reason Cut stands up so well today.
Unfortunately and perhaps predictably, The Slits flame burned bright but brief. Second album Return of the Giant Slits came two years later, a long gap in an age where, for example, The Jam released their first four albums in three years.
As part of their rejection of the rock rule book, The Slits looked elsewhere for inspiration and Return developed their affection for what would later become known as World Music.
A few months after its release, The Slits split up.
Unsure how to cope with the aftermath of being an integral part of a music revolution that changed the world, Ari Up retreated to Indonesia and Belize with her husband and twin boys, where they lived with the indigenous populations.
The Slits reformed in 2005 and toured to great acclaim, the affection for them seeming to have multiplied in their absence.
Sadly, Ari Up developed breast cancer in 2008 and passed away in 2010. Her uncompromising attitude also applied to her battle with cancer as she refused conventional treatment,.
Step father John Lydon said ‘who refuses chemo because they don’t want their Rasta locks cut off? Ariane was just not sensible. She thought she could cure herself with witch doctors. We spent hundreds of thousands trying to save her, but it was too late.’
The legacy of The Slits can be seen writ large in many of the female bands that have come after them. They were trailblazers and the music world is vastly improved as a result of what they left behind.
Punk rock progenitor and one-quarter of arguably the greatest ever punk band, The Sex Pistols in conversation with Sun 13’s Banjo
Like a lot of people, Glen Matlock looms large in my cultural background. As one quarter of Sex Pistols, he was directly responsible for the total upheaval of my teenage world. He was the band’s main musician and was the closest we were likely to get to a Sex Pistol you could take home to meet your mum.
The Pistols and punk appeared quite suddenly in my life. I have a crystal clear memory of a day in my last year at school when I was told of a band who had appeared on TV the day before and swore ‘like troopers’.
Again like a lot of people, this was the first time I had heard about Sex Pistols. It was not to be the last.
I lived hundreds of miles away from where the program was broadcast and nobody in my school had seen it, but its shock waves had made it to my neck of the woods the very next morning, so we can see the effect this program had on spreading punk across the country.
But, and this is an important point to Matlock, there is more to him than his past. To the point that it is easy to imagine him coming across this article and feeling immediately dispirited that yet another interview with him starts off with that band and that interview.
He has played with Iggy Pop, The Damned and The Faces, but the shadow of the Sex Pistols looms large over him to this day.
Glen has a new album, Good to Go, released this Friday, 21st September. Recorded with Earl Slick and Slim Jim Phantom, it is an album of unashamed, unadorned rock n roll. To promote Good to Go, he has been keeping himself busy, playing gigs in such far-flung corners of the globe as Korea’s demilitarised zone and the banks of the river Ganges in India.
When I spoke to him he was in the middle of an intensive couple of days of back to back interviews, and sounding fairly worn out and weary with the whole thing, as anyone would be spending that much time answering the same questions and giving out the same details.
‘Sorry’ he tells us at one point as he struggles to answer a question, ‘I’m a bit interviewed out today, I’ve done about 9 or 10 interviews so far.’ Yeah, I saw your schedule I tell him, I’m amazed you’re still going.
Back on a roll, he continues. ‘I’ll tell you what I did do earlier’ he says, ‘I did The Wright Stuff tv program, then I did some Russian tv thing. But it’s all part of life’s rich pageant. I think my maxim to life these days is just say yes to most things that come your way.’
There’s a mate of mine who’s in the fashion business, and when we ask what we’re up to, we always quote Newton’s Law of Motion at each other – a body at rest stays at rest, a body in motion stays in motion, unless an exterior or equal force acts on it, or something like that.
But if you say I’m just waiting for the phone to ring it invariably doesn’t, and one thing begets other things.’
Glen Matlock also still sounds like someone who is passionate about the music he is making and is very keen that it gets listened to.
Tell us about the tour and these far flung dates you’ve been playing.
‘Well it’s not really a tour, but I’ve been playing selected dates. I’ve just got back from Korea, I’ve had something in India, just a one-off thing, and I’ve had a five night residency in a place in Canary Wharf, I’m going over to Dubai for a gig with Chris Spedding and then in September I’m going to Scandinavia for some shows, just me and my acoustic, which is kind of one down from being a comedian I think. ‘
It all sounds a long way from Monday nights in the 100 Club.
Yeah, but that’s alright too. When you’re an older bloke you take what comes along and as long as you approach it with a good heart, it all comes out alright in the end. The main reason I’m doing this is for the new album, which I’ve got to get people to dig somehow.’
So tell us about your new album?
‘It’s a bunch of songs I’ve been writing over the last four years. I wanted to so something a bit different, not the same old punk kinda thing, which is fine, but not when you’re not playing to the people who did it with the first time around.
And I saw Bob Dylan play, maybe three or four years ago and I can appreciate Bob Dylan. I’m not his biggest fan, but the band he had were fantastic. He had Charlie Sexton on guitar and the bass player was Tony Matthews, who plays stand up bass. And the drummer was fantastic and spent most of the set playing with brushes, and I thought that’s really cool, you can get the songs to come through, how can I do something similar?
And I thought ‘I know, I’ll call Slim Jim Phantom, he only uses half a drum kit, I’ll ask him if he’s up for doing it.’ And he suggested using Earl Slick on guitar, who I’d worked with before. Chris Spedding plays guitar on a track which I’m quite pleased with, with him being a member of The Wombles!
And I wanted to make the album a little more Americana-ish. I don’t think I’m ever going to get on Radio 1 these days, but I know that Radio 2 and Radio 6 are playing music like that, so I thought maybe I should change the tune, production wise.’
Would you want your stuff to be played on Radio 1 these days? Did you ever want your stuff to be played on Radio 1?
‘I think anyone who writes a song wants as many people as possible to hear it and then be able to decide whether they like it or not. If you write something that’s catchy and people hear it a couple of times they might think it’s really catchy.
Music is about communication, so the more avenues there are to get it out there the better really.’
Where do you look to for your influences these days?
‘Just what’s going on in my life really, and how I’m dealing with it and how you’re rising or not rising to the occasion or dealing with the pitfalls of it all. I’m not on some heavy political bent, because we all know what’s wrong with the world and you end up preaching to the converted and can come across as a bit Billy Bragg, which I don’t want to be.
You write in songs what you can’t necessarily express on a piece of paper and it brings out some emotional thing. Or that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.’
Has the way you write music changed over the years?
‘Nah, it’s the same old shit basically. Most songs I write, I’m walking down the street and an idea comes into my head, and if that idea doesn’t go away it’s time to pick up the guitar and work out the chords that go with it.
Every songwriter’s got a mental bag of half ideas that they can use and reference, but the whole thing is about trying to get across what’s on your mind. It doesn’t always have to be of the most fantastic consequence, but I think it’s got to be as succinct and direct as possible.
I try to write songs as if I’m having a conversation with somebody. I do like to think there’s a bit of humour in my songs, I think we can all be a bit tongue in cheek about things sometimes.’
Well it must all work for you. You’ve written some of the best songs ever recorded and it’s taken you all over the world and last over 40 years. You must be doing something right.
‘I suppose I must be. I don’t know what yet. [laughs]’
One thing I noticed recently, looking at the calendar, is that a few weeks ago it was the 40th Anniversary of the first time I went to Eric’s in Liverpool, and it was to see you in Rich Kids.
‘Were we any good?’
You were great, Rich Kids were a brilliant group.
‘I’ll tell you what I do remember about Eric’s, it used to whiff a lot because they had a problem with the drains, but also I do remember playing there with Iggy Pop, must have been in ’79, and I’m pretty sure we did a matinee performance for the underage people.
And instead of having the usual intro music to come on to, we played the theme tune from A Fistful of Dollars and Iggy would come on.
But by the time he’d come on, in that Iggy Pop style he has, there was all these kids dressed as scouts down the front.
And they started singing Happy Birthday, and for a split second he was dumbfounded and then he turned to the band and said ‘well fuck you’ and we went straight into Kill City.
I met some really cool people there, in fact we played there with the Pistols really early on. We played upstairs and there weren’t that many people there, but I skived out of packing the van and when I went downstairs there was this whole thing going on.
Yachts were playing and I was stood there having a drink and everyone was waiting for me. I got in the doghouse with everyone over that, but I met Clive Langer, Maybe Ian Broudie and Jayne from Pink Military.
It was good to realise that there was this thing outside of London. In our capital city ways, we may have been too high minded to think there possibly could have been.
But also likewise I remember going down to Newport or Bridgend in Wales, we did a series of gigs there and I met Steve Strange for the first time and got chatting to him.
And they were the same, they looked like punks before punk had been invented. And he asked where we were playing next, and it was a gig in Burton on Trent.
We stayed in Wales and by the time we got up, he was already in the car park waiting for us. He actually helped us carry the gear in, which I doubt he ever did since [laughs].’
Were you aware at the time, when you were playing these gigs, of the effect you were having on people and the outburst of creativity that you left in your wake?
‘You know what, I don’t want to sound big-headed, but yeah I think so. We knew we were polarizing people somehow.
We had this self-confidence, maybe not so much on my part personally, but Steve was the biggest ne’er do well in London. He was the spirit of the Sex Pistols, John put it all in words, I came up with the tunes and Paul provided the backbeat and kind of went along with what Steve said.
They were a double act and to me, they were always like Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble, which was fine by me as I liked Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble.’
How do you feel about the way the Sex Pistols and punk turned out over the years to now, where we can still feel the ripples from what you did?
‘Good I suppose. I don’t really know any different. I remember reading some interview with Keith Richards and the interviewer asked him about the price of milk, and he replied ‘Don’t ask me mate, I’ve been a rock star all my life, what would I know’
And I don’t know any different, I’ve always been saddled with the Pistols thing. I’m proud of it, but it’s a bit of a double-edged sword because here we are talking about that rather than what I’m doing now.
And I kind of hate it for that sometimes. A little bit.’
Well back to your new album then. There’s quite an old school rock n roll feel running through it.
‘Maybe so, I like all that kind of stuff. I’ve tried to do something slightly different within the confines of what I like and do and the people I’m playing with and get the songs across. My favourite song on the album is Speak Too Soon, which is kind of earthy and quite up.’
My favourite is Wanderlust at the moment, although that could change – there are some catchy riffs on there.
‘That’s a bit of an older one that I’d never really recorded before, that’s kind of my hats off to Roadrunner, but not by Jonathan Richman, but by Junior Walker and the All Stars. I do like the bluesy kind of stuff sometimes.
I’m chums with Pete Wylie, although I haven’t seen him in a long while. But I’m a big admirer of his, and he called one of his album Songs of Strength and Heartbreak and that’s what I subscribe to lyrically, finding a way through the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
Pete Wylie does the most fantastic version of a Gilbert O’Sullivan song, Alone Again Naturally, just him and an acoustic guitar. It’s heart-rending.’
Matlock has a huge library of tales he can tell about his time in music, with every mention of a band of a city inspiring more anecdotes of a life well lived. And more tales are doubtless being generated as he continues to tour and make music.
Do you still keep up with new music?
‘I do, my kid’s in a band and they play me new stuff and it sounds alright, rocky kind of stuff. One of the bands I played with in Canada were really good, and the name is fantastic too. They were called Ringo Deathstar. And Ringo went to see them. [laughs]
I met him, I was helping out his son Zac, and his dad actually plays pretty good guitar. We did a showcase gig for the record we were making at Raymond’s Review Bar we were telling Zac we needed to go on stage. And he was saying ‘no, no I’ve got to wait for my dad’ and I thought ‘wait for your dad?’ before remembering who his dad was! ‘
Well according to your schedule Glen, you’re late for a radio interview now.
‘Have I? oh blimey, I didn’t know that. I’d better go then’
And with that Glen Matlock says his goodbyes and heads straight into another interview, no doubt adding further to his fatigue and world weariness. It says something of the man that he is still prepared to put himself through such a punishing schedule to promote his work. He is obviously still proud of his work if a little frustrated that it is not naturally finding a wider audience.
Reflecting on our conversation later, I think to myself that one of the common threads that runs through the lives of people who were caught up in shaping the early days of punk is that of the huge difficulty dealing with the huge void that followed when their part in it all seemingly came to an end.
Steve Jones and many others turned to heroin to fill their days, The Slits’ Ari Up retreated to Borneo, living with a tribe almost completely cut off from civilisation while others abandoned music completely, turning to other careers. Others were not so lucky and didn’t manage to make old bones at all.
Matlock’s approach to all this has been to keep his head down and keep making music. There is a certain dignity to this calm and steady approach, one that shows that Matlock has managed to avoid the pitfalls of his profession with ease.
We wish him well in his quest to carry on doing what he does, especially when what he does is release top drawer rock n roll in this manner.
Glen Matlock has left his past behind him and has, as always it seems, still got an eye on the future and a place in his heart for rock n roll.