There's a phrase that goes "the first one through the wall gets bloody" and, according to filmmaker William Badgley, this is a pretty accurate way of describing the story of The Slits—the 70s British punk group that, led by frontwoman Ari Up, took the boundaries of society, gender, and genre, and crushed them like grapes under sledgehammers.
These days, you only have to walk down the street to see a girl with choppy, bird's nest hair and a leather jacket, or into Brooklyn's Silent Barn on a Thursday night to catch someone screaming about "Typical Girls." To imagine that there was a time when this was perceived as a dangerous way for a girl to be seems absurd to a generation brought up on ripped tights and riot grrrl posters. For that, we can be forever indebted to bands like The Slits. And now, their legend will soon be realised in the forthcoming documentary: Here to be Heard.
For the past two years, Badgley and his long time collaborator Jennifer Shagawat have been piecing together the tale of this many membered feminist punk outfit, from the early first wave punk days of 1976, when lead vocalist Ari Up was a nutty 15-year-old, to their final few tours as the reggae-dub "reformed Slits," a period in which Ari, who was then becoming increasingly unwell, became obsessed with Jennifer's filming, in order to tell a story she felt hadn't yet been told.
Ari passed away in 2010, but the imminent completion of Here to be Heard means this intimate portrait of The Slits will still yet be heard. To fund the last leg of editing and archival deals, Badgely and Shagawat have started a Kickstarter, which has less than a month to go. So, I rang up William to get a better idea about what the documentary will look, sound, and feel like, and why we should all donate now. Watch our exclusive trailer premiere here and read the interview below.
Noisey: Hi Bill. First of all, why did you decide to make this documentary?
Bill Badgley: In 2006, Jennifer Shagawat, an old friend, was hired to be a jack-of-all-trades on tour with the reformed Slits, and during that time period, Ari Up asked Jennifer to film everything. It was couched in this urgent, high-energy vibe, like: "We have to do it now!" Jennifer started filming, but they didn't know that the pressure Ari was referencing was very real because she was sick and it was serious, but she decided to keep that private. As time went on, they started to get this idea that something was going on but they didn't know exactly what it was.
Jennifer's not a filmmaker, so when Ari passed away she was left with all this footage, but didn't know how to assemble it, and also she was grieving for the loss of a close friend. She approached me about the project, which at first really scared me. But one morning I woke up and realized that I had to do this—it's an amazing story, and it's insane that it hasn't been done before. So we kept working and kept working and it's really paid off.
Did Ari Up have a very specific idea of what she wanted?
In my understanding, it was incredibly important to her that the Slits' story was brought out into the light. She didn't feel like that had happened yet.
How did you end up piecing the story together?
A lot of the narrative is based around Tess Pollitt (The Slits' bass player) and her scrapbook, which is beautiful. She started it right when The Slits began, and it was a great visual to lean on. Before we started putting it together, I'd seen that film Good Ol' Freda—the one about the Beatles secretary. It caused a lot of inspiration for this film, the way that you're just hanging out with this delightful English grandmother who's just telling you about her really awesome friends from when she was young, but they just happen to be John, Paul, George, and Ringo. It feels like you're curled up on the floor in a blanket listening. We wanted to have this punk rock feminist version of that: you're curled up on the floor listening to the quintessential punk rock grandmother.
And what about archival footage, how did you incorporate that?
We have archival footage, but we don't lean on it because The Slits were a band that affected entire lives. It's not just something cool that happened when they were young—it reaches beyond that. So it would be robbery to make a film in which you stay in the 70s and then you're like, "I don't know what happened next exactly."
I love a bit of archival footage, though. Especially from the seventies - it's so beautiful.
Absolutely. One piece of footage that blows me away is when the band were on their way to a show in London and they were walking and Ari decided that she wanted to change. She ducked into this well-lit bank enclosure to change into her stockings and within minutes there is a crowd of 45 people. I lived in New York for 12 years – I can't imagine what you'd have to do on the sidewalk today to garner a crowd like that. I don't even want to know what that would be. There are a lot of moments like that.
Did you discover any revelations about the band?
I realized that there's this unifying feeling of not wanting to be contained by a gender or a genre and arguably, in the end, even by a band. When you spend as long as they did with an artistic idea, it can become something elemental: books, ideas, blogs. That's real art—art that makes community. Including the reformed Slits in this film is essential because that's what I see happening there. One of my favourite quotes from that section of the film is, "I was a slit before I was a slit, I was a slit when I was a slit and I'm a slit now." That idea that people can identify with it who are outside of the band. It's intensely important and exciting.
How do you feel like The Slits changed the world?
We were interviewing Viv Albertine and we asked her whether she'd heard the phrase, "the first one through the wall gets bloody," and she thought that should be the name of the film. I think that phrase applies to them pretty well. It was a double-edged sword, they got all the good stuff but they also got physically attacked actually. I mean, Ari got stabbed.
What was her take on that?
It was outside Screen on the Green in London, it was wintertime, and Ari was wearing this big coat. This guy comes up and says, "Here's a slit for you," and just stabs her in the butt with this knife. Luckily, she's wearing so many clothes that it doesn't hurt her really—but it's disturbing, obviously,
Wow! That's horrific!
I think they just rocked the boat so much. People thought girls couldn't be in a band. The Slits thought "fuck that" and they were in a band, then they were in an all-girl punk band, then they were like "fuck that" we're not going to stay there either. And then they were creating punky reggae but were like, "Guess what? We don't want to stay there either," and they would just continue this journey, which I think lots of musicians should be doing with their lives. They never did what people wanted at the time.
Which made them perfect, really. Thanks, Bill.
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