Monday, October 25, 2010

Ari Up, RIP

Ari Up of the Slits is dead. I'm a bit late with that, so it's not news. She died on October 20th, 2010 at age 48, which is too young for anyone.

Let me tell you a bit about The Slits. First, I'll tell you a bit about me. Growing up, rock music seemed to be a progression (no prog pun intended). It started, as far as I could tell, with people playing washboards and tea-chest bass, and went on to Wipe Out and Louie Louie, and the Beatles went from I Wanna Hold Your Hand to Paul Buckmaster string arrangements. We went from You Really Got Me to Queen II, from three chords to carefully splicing tape of literally a thousand sounds into one track. Music went from Chris Montez' Let's Dance to Yes.

Yes. They were prog and had Mellotrons and suspended chords.

I actually bought Yes records. Listening to them - and listening to the other prog bands of the day back then, one thought predominated. It was, "How can anyone coming into music today surpass this? It's pretty fucking clever. No new band can ever have more Mellotrons or Moogs than this. No one can know more augmented or suspended chords. Where can we, and I mean this sincerely, where can we go after this?"

And no, the answer wasn't Ari Up, at least not at first. Just as I arrived at university in 1976, I started hearing about the Ramones, and shortly afterwards the Sex Pistols. These guys played three chord rock, very loud, very fast and would, one learned, be quite happy to wipe their asses on Rick Wakeman's glittery cape. I listened, and it was refreshing.

Instead of trying to beat the current dinosaurs at their own game, to be more clever, to be better musicians and have more gear, the Punk bands did what nature does, which is, when in doubt, go for neoteny. The fully-featured adult body of a metazoan is hard to improve or beat, so nature instead works on the embryonic form, where small tweaks lead to large changes in the adult. It's impossible to restructure and improve on Tales From The Topographic Oceans to come up with The Next Big Thing, but it's relatively easy to re-engineer Be-Bop-A-Lula or Johnny B. Goode - and come up with a great pop track that leads to riots among the youth and general happiness.

Which is what the Sex Pistols did. I saw them, and the Ramones, and the Clash and all the other Punk bands of the era as hacking off 20 years of twigs from Briar Rose's hedge, and leading us back to the main trunk, rock and roll. The light this pruning let in was dazzling. What I hadn't seen at first was the gender biases inherent in that assumption. To get back to Scotty Moore or Cliff Gallup from Steve Howe or Robert Fripp was an amazing leap that energized me no end.

But it was The Slits that showed me that even the females, even the birds, the chicks, could play rock music and mean it. In an era when Blondie had male instrumentalists, and the exemplary bassist was Jah Wobble (despite the example of Tina Weymouth), The Slits were the ones who put it out there that women could rock. And their take on it, the queasy, slippery dub where they excelled, which would never, ever need a Mellotron to progress.

And so I salute Ari Up. Thanks for the music and thanks for the wrench you gave the dopey, major-oriented music of 1979. I wouldn't be the person I am without you.

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