Dead at 48. Ageing rockers and younger fans are mourning Ari Up, or Arianne Forster as she was known to her mum and dad. Forty-eight. Cancer, what a miserable bastard you are.
I was lucky enough to be around for the postpunk explosion in, well, in my neck of the woods, the early eighties. (For Ari Up and the Slits, of course, it started with punk in the seventies; She formed the band when she was only fourteen.) When I think of that time, of the black speaker boxes, the gaffa tape, the guitars and sticky smelly carpets, the cigarettes and stuffy rehearsal studios and shared-house lounge rooms exploding with mess and potential, it’s the Slits, along with the Fall, Raincoats, Go-Betweens, Cramps, PiL, and all the other passionate, not-classically-trained, sweet-and-sour, unbeautifully beautiful and rough-edged bands which provide the soundtrack. On vinyl, of course, on dodgy stereo systems.
The Slits’ feminism wasn’t something implied, implicit or hinted at. It was front and centre in their historic album Cut. I didn’t hear the term performing femininity until a few years ago, but I already understood what it meant.
Typical girls try to be
Typical girls very well
Ari’s subversion wasn’t just the natural outpouring of a natural wild child; it had a direction and an intelligence.
Ari Up explained the thought process behind the cover in a fascinating interview with Simon Reynolds recently published in his “Totally Wired: Post-Punk Interviews and Overviews.”
“We were in the country together doing the album,” she said. “The studio was in a cottage and there was mud all around the place. We just decided, ‘Let’s cover ourselves in the mud, naked but natural. Ruin that image that females need to be sexy by dressing sexy.’ We could be sexy by nature, naked but not pornographic — not a prescribed way of how you’re supposed to be sexy.”
Being a musician and a woman was a fraught position before the punk era. Australia had plenty of good bands but women were pretty much expected to the the singer or the backup singer. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a singer – but that was a role beyond which we weren’t supposed to explore, and part of the brief was to represent that conventional sexiness that the Slits turned on its head. A woman with an electric guitar was a curiosity, and a woman behind a kit of drums, honestly, you might as well stick a PATRONISE ME sign on your forehead. Of course, we were also expected to be stereotypically attractive somewhere along the virgin (Seekers) and whore (Rock) dichotomy. Lip service was paid to geniuses like Janis Joplin and Joni Mitchell, but mostly at the grass roots it was the boys picking up the guitars and the bass and drums. Until Punk and Postpunk came and blew it wide open and women like Ari Up showed us the way.
Typical girls are looking for something
Typical girls fall under spells
Typical girls buy magazines
Typical girls feel like hell
The Slits were a life-changing band that made life-changing music. What does life-changing mean? It means someone puts a song on a mix tape or throws a record on and you stop dead in your tracks because now, whatever path you were on no longer exists. In that moment, you think of histrionic and cliche things such as “from this day forward” and “from here on out,” and you hope to God you have the conviction to follow through with all the things this music has inspired you to do. And, hey, you don’t always do them, or all of them, but the fact that some song like “Typical Girls”- with it’s swirling punch punch punch of a melody – makes you think that you’re capable and bold and a little on fire, well isn’t that what music is for?
It’s hard to recall the optimism of those days, when the men we played music with bought Cut themselves and Backlash hadn’t been written yet and MRA was the name of a motorcycle rider’s association, and Fay Weldon and Doris Lessing hadn’t gone antifeminist yet. Our foray into the rock’n'roll domain seemed like part of the inevitable crumbling of the patriarchy, much as our middle-aged teachers might scoff at our music. Sadly, these days we need Ari and women like her more than ever.
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
The typical boy gets the typical girl
The typical girl gets the typical boy
R.I.P, Ari, as if resting was ever in your repertoire!