Ari Up, lead singer of innovative English punk band The Slits, has died. She was 48. According to a statement released by her mother and stepfather (John Lydon, of the Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd.), Up died “after a serious illness.”
Up was raised in a rock ‘n’ roll household, where her mother, a concert promoter, entertained scores of local and itinerant rock legends like Jimi Hendrix and Joe Strummer, who gave Up her first guitar lesson. In 1976, Up formed The Slits when she was only 14, and the band soon became known as much for its odd, dub-inflected style as for Up’s crazy hair and even crazier behavior. The Slits, along with The Buzzcocks, toured with The Clash on its Rude Boy tour, and earned a reputation for being wilder than the predominately male audience that was always trying to bait and taunt them, eventually winning them over. In 1979, the group released its debut, Cut, an album that continues to inspire scores of fellow female rockers and riot grrls with in-your-face songs like “Typical Girls.”
The follow-up, 1981’s Return Of The Giant Slits, was far more avant-garde, inspired by the group’s close working relationship with The Pop Group, with whom it shared drummer Bruce Smith. (Original drummer Palmolive, also of fellow influential female punk band The Raincoats, had left before the release of Cut, partly because she hated the cover design—which featured the band topless and smeared with mud.) Return was even more steeped in African rhythms and hazy Jamaican soundscapes that Up was embracing, and although daring and fascinating, it was mostly a turnoff for the group’s early fans.
The Slits broke up soon after, with Up moving fully into the world of dub with the group New Age Steppers, including singing lead on a fantastic cover of Junior Byles’ “Fade Away.”
Not long after that, Up spent some time living in the jungle with her husband, among the indigenous tribes of Indonesia and Belize. Eventually she relocated to the source of the sounds she loved, Kingston, Jamaica, where she began a second life as the dancehall queen “Madussa.” In 2006, she reformed The Slits with original bass player Tessa Pollitt, and continued to tour with a rotating cast of musicians through 2009. The group also released a new EP, Revenge Of The Killer Slits, and the 2009 full-length Trapped Animal, its sound now featuring a more pronounced dancehall influence on tunes like “Slits Tradition.”
I spoke to Ari Up in 2006 on the eve of The Slits’ reunion tour (it was, incidentally, my first-ever interview for this website), and this was one of my favorite exchanges—and as good a summation as any for what Ari Up was about:
AVC: In "Typical Girls," you wrote, "Who invented typical girls? / Who's putting out the new improved model?" What do you think of today's "typical girls" who follow, say, the Paris Hilton model?
Ari Up: Oh, exactly! [Laughs.] That's what's happening; isn't it funny? It's all happening: millions of them, one after the other! Who would have known that something we wrote about then would totally be coming true now?
AVC: So who did invent them?
AU: The same people who have always invented them: the messed-up music industry, the sick corporations, people that just have no clue about music, or interest in anything but making a product. They say what a woman must be. There has to be space for men and women like us. And if there isn't, then it becomes off-balance and one-sided, where you only see the product—these lifestyles made into product—instead of something more real. You should leave a little more space for women like us.