The Slits Are Refusing to Be Written Out of Music History
A new documentary retells the story of punk from the perspective of its most unapologetic band.
It's Friday lunchtime at London's May Fair Hotel, and the subdued atmosphere has just been punctured by a small yell. It's Tessa Pollitt, bass player of the 1970s punk band The Slits, who has just spotted Paloma "Palmolive" McLardy – the woman she informed, 40 years previously, that she no longer had a place in the band. McLardy makes her way through the milling guests, past trays of finger sandwiches, and places a hand on Pollitt's cheek, beaming.
Later on, when I ask them how they repaired their relationship, McLardy tells me it didn't need repairing – she always understood. For a little while, she, Pollitt, Viv Albertine and the band's firecracker vocalist Ari Up were a ball of uncontainable energy, teenage pioneers of punk music with an attitude and aesthetic that thrilled and terrified people in equal measure. But it was an energy that was hard to control, and ultimately unsustainable, each member hurtling in a different direction.
"Prior to The Slits," says punk professor Vivien Goldman in the new documentary, Here To Be Heard: The Story of The Slits, "there was no self-determined group of women sounding the way they wanted to, dressing the way they wanted to, living their lives how they wanted to. But the fights and the endless conflicts that The Slits went through were part of them being a harbinger of a new generation."
The violent reaction they received was a part of that too. "People couldn't tell if we were male, female or even human," says Viv Albertine in the film. "These guys didn't know whether to fuck us or kill us." The Slits never set out to be antagonistic, exactly – "We were just having fun," McLardy insists – but their brash, unapologetic sense of autonomy, and the fact they deigned to seize a space for themselves in the scene they helped create, threatened people "on some deep, psychological level". They were kicked by strangers; hotels took one look at them and refused to allow them to stay; at one point Ari Up was slashed with a knife. But every incident only made them more determined that the status quo needed to be torn apart.
The film, directed by William Badgley, explores all of this through interviews and archive footage, following the band from their very first gig, when Ari Up was just 14 years old, to their reunion tour a decade ago, a few years before Ari died of cancer at the age of 48. It's a revelatory, insightful and ultimately joyful film, doing its best to put The Slits back in the history books that they are so often, by nature of their gender, erased from.
We sat down with Paloma McLardy, Tessa Pollitt and William Badgley to talk about the difficult process of making the documentary, and delve further into the band's colourful past.
VICE: This documentary has been a long time coming. Can you talk me through how it began?
Tessa Pollitt: We were doing a five-week tour of America in 2006 with the new, reformed members, and Ari just wanted to film everything non-stop, and set up strange little scenarios. Maybe she did have some kind of sense that she didn't have much time left. We just don't know. Jennifer [Shagawat, the executive producer] and me felt that it was Ari's wish that something was done with this footage, because there's a hell of a lot of it. So we wouldn't be able to rest unless we went ahead.
William Badgley: It's really cool that you have this footage, but it's also like a big noose around your neck, because it's a lot of work. I was in a touring band and had just made my first movie, Kill All Redneck Pricks, and I was just back from that first tour, so it just kind of was this perfect storm. Jennifer was like, "Can you help me out of this jam?" So then we just started chugging along on it.
How did you find the experience of trawling back through old memories?
Tessa: I personally found it quite difficult. Also, I was having to contact people who I haven't seen for over 30 years, like Suzy Gutsy, the original bass player, so it was quite emotional and a bit disturbing. But I got a really good reaction from everybody I asked to be interviewed, so that spurred me on to keep going.
Paloma "Palmolive" McLardy: I didn't feel too emotional, to be honest. I think it was just fun to revisit it. And then it was great to get back together with Tessa. We always loved each other and we contact each other, but very sporadically.
I was going to ask about that, because the documentary covers Paloma leaving the band –
Paloma: They kicked me out!
Sorry, being kicked out of the band – but it doesn't really talk about how you repaired your relationship after that.
Tessa: I don't think Paloma ever held ill feelings towards me, because it wasn't my personal decision that she was thrown out of the group; it was a group decision, I was just appointed to tell her. Considering I lived with her and she was my best friend, looking back, I think that was an extremely cruel thing to do to someone. For me to take all the –
Paloma: I knew that. I knew it wasn't her. And then you, Tessa, had written me a really lovely letter at one point, just from your heart, and that was really meaningful to me, but it didn't tell me something I didn't know. We knew each other, we were friends, so I never felt like something had to be repaired. Life is too short and you move on. I understand, you know what I mean? People do what they need to do.
Was there anything in the documentary that surprised you?
Paloma: Vivien Goldman said a few times that we were having fun, and I just remembered, 'Yeah! That was what we were doing! In the beginning, it was just fun.' I mean, imagine: we were, what, 18, and suddenly the papers want to talk to you. So we were on this high, and we didn't know how to play, and so we were being very creative, and we were excited. Eventually that wore off, but I think at the beginning we were very much having fun.
Tessa: It was fun, and like it said in the movie, we were a tribe. I mean, it was scary getting onstage at the beginning, but that goes!
You mentioned in the film that you were really shy to begin with.
Paloma: She was great!
Tessa: I never used to speak in the interviews.
Paloma: She was our balance – we needed someone like that.
Tessa: Oh thank you.
Paloma: You brought a calmness.
William: Quiet but powerful.
WATCH: British Masters – Viv Albertine
The Slits were described at several times in the documentary as threatening. Who do you think they were most threatening to?
Tessa: The general public, men, society...
Paloma: The idea of what was proper, if you were a young girl. Now, everybody dresses however they want. At that time, you did not do that. Now, we value someone who goes out and explores, but at that time… I mean, I got kicked one time.
Tessa: I think we all did. I did.
Paloma: Ari got slit. We weren't seriously trying to change the world, we were just having fun! But we felt the reaction. I didn't really understand so much what we were hitting.
Tessa: We weren't consciously doing it. The world – well, London – was so conformist and corporate. We went to America and everyone there thought we were dressed for Halloween. And it wasn't Halloween. I mean, it's not shocking now, obviously, because everyone looks like that. It's hard to describe it.
Paloma: It's like every generation, the young kids establish something, and then children come and they push. I have learned over the years, someone creates a ground and then it becomes an institution: "Don't move it, don't change it." But those are the people that first changed it. In a very short time, we became an institution. Malcolm [McLaren] was telling people what to do, how to do it, how to dress. You establish something, and then you have to break it.
Tessa: Because, of course, then it becomes commercialised. You see the influence of punk on fashion now, how many decades later.
Do you mind that?
Tessa: I don't mind, no, but it's not punk; it's a caricature of punk. Because punk was "make it up yourself", and it's like "how to dress like a punk" now, so it's silly to me.
Punk historian and musician Vivien Goldman is interviewed in the documentary, and says The Slits were "stomped from history." Do you agree?
Tessa: Well, that was part of the reason why Ari wanted to continue with The Slits, because we have been written out of the history books.
Bill: There was a grassroots thing that survived, but they were written out of official documentation of punk.
Like that punk exhibit at The British Library –
Tessa: That Viv scribbled out! Because it's not just us, obviously, it's all the female groups. Maybe Siouxsie Sioux had more attention because she had more commercial success, but generally they don't talk about the women – it's always Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned, Buzzcocks. So you never get a mention. But we were there right from the beginning; we were there in 1976, out there, playing.
Obviously, the voice that's missing in the documentary interviews is Ari's. Are there questions you wished you could have asked her?
William: I mean, obviously that's an enormous challenge, and it's one of the difficult things that we thought about from the very beginning. I think you get an introduction to her in the beginning, but you don't really meet her until Slits 2, and then it's really about her. You get your hunger whetted in the first part, and then you really get into it. In the 15 minutes before the end of the film, we try to take you in this rip-roaring ride through Ari's personality.
Tessa: I remember Bill asking me right at the beginning, "Would you like to make a documentary about Ari, or The Slits?" And I just thought, 'I think Ari would want us to make a documentary about The Slits.'