Rock and roll is a notoriously male-dominated genre: never more so than in the 1970s, the peak years of a groupie culture that turns women–and, more often than not, underage girls–into a commodity for chauvinistic rock stars to exploit. But the communal ideology and relatively asexual nature of the late-’70s punk movement gave women and girls a window to become subjects, not objects in rock. Artists like Patti Smith, the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde, Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex, and the aforementioned Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads came the closest of anyone to date in cracking rock’s glass ceiling and carving out a prominent space for women in full control of their music and image.
Of these women in punk, few others were as bold, brazen, or shocking as the Slits. Widely considered the first “all-girl” punk band, the quartet of Ariana “Ari Up” Forster, Paloma “Palmolive” McLarty, Tessa Pollitt, and Viv Albertine were like a female Sex Pistols, only better. Ari in particular would wear an oversized raincoat and intermittently flash the audience; she was even known to occasionally urinate onstage. Then, of course, there was the iconic cover photo for their 1979 debut album Cut, which featured Forster, Albertine, and Pollitt topless and covered in mud like a cult of Dionysian maenads caught mid-revel.
But the Slits were more than mere shock value: Cut in particular is a milestone in post-punk music, and played a major role in merging the sound of Jamaican dub and reggae with the aesthetic of U.K. punk. And with “Typical Girls,” they provided an anthem for nonconformist women everywhere: “Who invented the typical girl? / Who’s bringing out the new improved model? / And there’s another marketing ploy / Typical girl gets the typical boy.” Who would ever want such a bleak, conventional existence–especially when the Slits were modeling such a liberating alternative?
In the end, of course, even punk would fall victim to patriarchy. Within months of the release of Cut, former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren would assemble the group Bow Wow Wow: basically a watered-down Slits in sound and image, with an added dose of skeeviness in the fact that their frequently-nude “frontwoman,” Annabella Lwin, was only thirteen years old. The revolution, in other words, had been fetishized. But the Slits’ influence proved resilient: while the group would crumble in 1982, their brazenness and utter rejection of the male gaze would live on in artists from Bikini Kill and Bratmobile to tomorrow’s Women’s History profilee, Peaches.
How’s that for a transition? We’ll see you then.