Everything I learned about London came from an album called Cut by a band named The Slits. I bought it at Avalanche Records in Glesga, while at college, one eye on my work, the other on a city that always pulled at me. London needs no explanation. For me, London birthed punk. The real punk. It reshaped the lexicon of pop culture. For a while, there was an attraction to that city so acute that real happiness could only come my way if I went there and breathed its air, heard its noise, and felt its fear. The London I wanted to see was the one The Slits told me all about. Though the city remained, The Slits were long gone, living on in tracks, all of them perfectly arranged in sequence, perhaps the most perfect running order of any album ever. The Slits were Ari Up, Viv Albertine, Tessa Pollitt, and Palmolive. Actually, they were many other people, including Budgie from The Banshees. The Slits I’ve written about made the album that became my bodyguard during a late night in London.
I knew all about The Slits before I heard their music, of course. You don’t obsess over punk bands without knowing them. Bjork, who ruled the early ‘90s, once namechecked Ari Up as a formative influence. You can almost hear it when Bjork sings. Ari Up, who sang in tongues, is in every girl who picks up a microphone without knowing what they’re going to sing, not even knowing if they can sing at all. Punk is the greatest equaliser in art, putting power in the pens of working class men and women. Yes, women! From Bjork, The Banshees, and X-Ray Spex, I knew it was time to listen to Cut.
The cover photograph is famous for showing the band bare-chested, wearing loin-cloths, their bodies soaked and dried in Surry mud. But there’s nothing inviting about that shot, for The Slits look fearsome. You don’t ever see a band look that combative on their CD cover art. Simply put, The Slits looked like they could kick the shit out of you if you crossed them. Maybe they’d pogo on your spine once you were down for the count. God, I thought, they’re perfect. So I grabbed the CD and bought it, heading home right away to listen in my bedroom. Home was thirteen miles away, but thirteen had always been a lucky number for me.
What I hadn’t known was that the album was punk, but not in the way I understood at the time. “What the fuck?” I screamed. “This is reggae!” Yes, it was. But that was punk too. For The Slits successfully took all those sounds and made them into punk, the real definition of the word before it became mohawks and pins. The producer of the album was Dennis Bovell, a genius who made skeletal-sounding dubby music sound enormous in your headphones. The song on Cut do not sound like anything from the other punk bands on the scene. In punk, The Slits stood apart. Bovell’s production allowed The Slits an opportunity to find gaps they could fit into, whole spaces to craft sounds uniquely their own.
The album was pure London. It sounded how I expected the city to be and one day, I vowed to be there myself. Shoplifting (my favourite song on Cut) made me want to stuff clothes down my top and run past the aisles, the breeze making my hair flap wildly, security eating dirt from Dr Martens. Instant Hit comes in and out of your vicinity, odd from the first second, but enough to grab any listener. Oh, I was mesmerised. FM (the morse chanting of “frequent mutilation” being the least likely chorus you’ll ever hear in a song) is another brilliant moment for the band. But if the band ever recorded a hit single, surely Typical Girls is the one. A spiky diatribe about the expectations of women
When I first heard Nirvana and Mudhoney, I wanted to visit Seattle. Now it was another band and a different city. If The Slits were from London, I had to go there too.
This…didn’t happen as quickly as I would have liked.
Years later, while I was at college, my best friend decided to go down to London so he could visit his brother. There was a girl at college he liked, someone he missed after spending a whole year making films and wandering corridors. Also, the thirtieth anniversary of Doctor Who was being celebrated in The Hilton, which gave me an opportunity to see some heroes. When he asked if I fancied a holiday to London, I was already packing my CDs. Slit was the first. The rest? Mostly Electroclash albums. At last, I thought, I’m going to London, the city of The Slits.
One night, while my friend headed out to meet his old college friends, I decided to get out and about – this meant pressing play on my portable CD player. After a few seconds, Ari Up’s voice played and I walked around in circles, not knowing where to go. HMV on Oxford seemed like a sensible bet. After hours of looking around, stuck in a space you could spend hours in, I decided to look for Waterstones. Eventually, I felt my way forward. By the time I got there, Love und Romance was playing. Nearly time to start again, I thought. Yet I was also strangely disconnected from the experience. Even then, I knew the London of Cut didn’t exist, maybe my version had never existed. Goodness knows what I expected. The 100 Club, a Vivienne Westwood shop called Sex, and maybe tonnes of rubbish everywhere. That itself made me catch my thoughts. Who wants to see rubbish all over the street?
Weirdo, I told myself.
But I also laughed.
Then, finally, I pressed play again and listened to Cut from the start.
My friend arrived later that night, apologetic that he’d been away for so long.
Time? It flew in. In the end, Cut became the sound of London, but a different London that I found myself in while waiting for my friend to come back, a nighttime neon street scene full of billboards, slow traffic, and panic-stricken people. Maybe that’s the real London?
Years later after I forgot all about my trip, I suddenly found myself remembering The Slits again. Viv Albertine had written a new book and my goodness I needed to read it immediately. She came into geostationary orbit with me at The Edinburgh International Book Festival while I was raiding the food table. I never went over even though I was desperate to say hello. Her solo album, the wonderful Vermillion Border, was on my CD pile and stayed there for quite a while. Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to approach people I hold high in esteem, so I left her to get on with her book promo, but not after getting a copy of her biography.
Some songs, just like the scenes they spawn from, are cities. Punk was London. Cut is London. And London is…better left in the imagination or in the chords of a good song.