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Silence Is A Rhythm Too: Ari Up 1962 – 2010

October 24, 2010

Here’s something I wrote about the death of Ari Up a few days ago. It mentions this bit of footage:

…and this one…


As I write, it’s only a few hours since the announcement that Ari Up has died of what is currently only described as a ‘serious illness’, so I am sat up ruminating about what an incredible impact the music she put her voice to has had on me. Although she was still recording as a solo artist (part of the reason, allied with her relatively young age and incredible talent, that her passing is quite so devastating) in collaboration with the likes of The Bug and Lee Perry, and had also been one of the founding members of the New Age Steppers, it was as frontwoman for The Slits that she will be best remembered. It’s also the reason why she affected me so much.

If you want writing about why The Slits were so influential, exhilarating and important, there are better places to read it frankly (Jon Savage’s essential England’s Dreaming and Greil Marcus’ excellent Lipstick Traces being two such examples), so I will just say this: The Slits changed the way that I personally thought about music, and hence, by extension, the way I viewed pretty much everything. John Peel said they recorded two of his all-time favourite Peel sessions – something that I would completely go along with – particularly because “they were just mesmerising. Their inability to play coupled with their determination to play, the conflict between these things was magnificent.” While this is selling their musical skill a bit short – they were hardly incompetent, even early on – it is something that, around a decade ago, broadened my musical horizons in a way that I’ll forever be thankful for. A few years after first falling in love with them, I ended a review for a band with “they can’t play their instruments. But they can’t play their instruments really well.” I meant it as a huge compliment.

Of course, it wouldn’t have mattered if their songs weren’t any good, but as far as I’m concerned The Slits managed to record some of the least ‘not good’ music in all of recording history. A huge part of that is because they eschewed the quickly tiresome ‘1-2-3-4’ aggression of other rhythmically illiterate acts around them, incorporating tribal rhythms and dub influences that infiltrated even their thrashiest, punkiest numbers. That doesn’t, however, mean that Ari’s contribution is secondary to that of the rhythm section; as hinted at in Peel’s description of the group’s appeal, the thrill in listening to them – as well The Raincoats and Au Pairs and other people they influenced – is the feeling that the whole thing could collapse in on itself at any time, and that is bolstered in no small way by Ari. In live recordings she often sounds less like someone who has to sing along to the music as ride it while it kicks in the air. When she squeals, yelps, toasts, garbles and wails (like the blood-curdling scream in the middle of ‘Shoplifting’ or the incessant chanting through ‘A Boring Life’) it’s often even more ferocious than the sonic assault whipping itself around her. Yet sometimes, like with the superlative ‘Typical Girls’ (pretty much unsurpassed by anything to this day) her voice accompanies what could have been a reasonably sedate musical backing (by punk standards) with a vocal so threatening, sinister and damning it transmogrifies the whole atmosphere of the song. Same with ‘Love Und Romance’ really, the lyrics a twee bit of schmaltz on paper, but which she hisses through with such edge that, whether intended or not, it ends up sounding like a threat. Her stage presence also helped her with that, though – in Don Letts’ live footage for Jubilee: The Punk Rock Movie she rocks exaggeratedly from side to side as ‘Newtown’ slowly unfurls, before prowling the audience in the darkness, her actions confrontational and completely captivating.

Speaking of which, it is that movie (where the band destroy a car by forcing its doors off with their bare hands, before stomping all over it as a policeman looks on), as well as other Don Letts footage, that captures the spirit of Ari particularly well – or at least fortifies the notion of the teenage upstart that nobody really knew how to deal with. There’s film of them in Peel’s offices though, with Ari ripping up Abba LPs, pouting and jumping about boisterously, that makes being in a band look amazing. Watching it, and watching them, I immediately want to be in a band. In reality, I want to be in that band.

You might be reading this thinking it patronising to even suggest, but really, if you haven’t ever heard Cut, go and listen to it now; I doubt you’ll regret it. That’s what I’m going to do, and I’ll be thankful. RIP

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