Collected Works: Music



by The Slits

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A plectrum scrapes at muted electric guitar strings, the ‘chk’ sounds of stunted strums arranged into even groups of ten. On occasion, a slight shift of the left hand allows a harmonic to ring. Words are half-sung, half-spoken, each syllable falling firmly on the beat. The lyrics introduce us to a young addict, his unruly behaviour contrasting with the strong sense of rhythmic order. The refrain, ‘He is / Set to self-destruct’, is passed around by a trio of female vocalists in canon, outlining a cheery A major chord.

‘Instant Hit’, the opening track of Cut, acts as an apt introduction to The Slits’ irreverent humour. The song’s duality, with its sunny melodic motifs belying the gloomy subject matter, is reflected in a punning title. The desperation of substance dependence is here aligned with popular fondness for a catchy chart smash. This trick, casting conventions as destructive cravings, proves to be a common one. ‘Newtown’ repackages football, phone calls, and television as narcotics with over-the-counter labels, while FM radio is reimagined as ‘Frequent Mutilation’.

The characters who stick to these stale social structures are mimicked, depicted as unthinking and discontent. The narrator of ‘Spend, Spend, Spend’ seeks satisfaction in the splurge of a shopping spree: ‘I need something new / Something trivial would do.’ The album’s first single, ‘Typical Girls’, surveys a list of expectations placed on women, with the final chorus switching out irony for ire: ‘There’s another marketing ploy / Typical girl gets the typical boy.’ The last line is repeated as a sardonic slogan, stressed further by a sudden shift in key.

Just as the band hijacks and subverts the voices of their ideological opposites, they also transform the soundworlds of their stylistic predecessors. Dub influences are filed by punk’s rough edges, clean timbres arranged to cause a commotion. The panpipe-like tones on ‘Instant Hit’ peer playfully through the texture. The piano on ‘Typical Girls’ drops out abruptly after its central riff. Songs slip into irregular time signatures. Ari Up, The Slits’ lead vocalist, alternately coos, screeches, and trills her way through worries and witticisms, her exclamations cutting through the noise.

Words by John Wadsworth

More to discover

Listen to 'Instant Hit', 'Newtown', 'Spend, Spend, Spend', and 'Typical Girls'. Tim Burrows interviewed the late Ari Up for Dazed, as did Sean O’Neal for The A.V. Club.

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