Books for the News, Commentary

Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club, in memoriam

Oh, the British Invasion! It’s nearly fifty years later and moony Keith Richards’s mug, cigarette dangling, is still greeting visitors to the New York Times’s homepage. What Stone is left unturned? But seriously: what else could possibly make aficionados of this particular Glimmer Twin all (ahem) a-Twitter? Plenty, says Janet Maslin, in her review of Richards’s new autobio Life, one of many pieces on the book that dot the web today. In ironic contrast to the title of Richards’s tome, however, the Guardian broke some sad news this morning: the death of Ari Up (Arianna Forster), lead singer of the celebrated British post-punk band, the Slits.
Ari Up embraced the potentials of her name: as a vocalist and songwriter, her chaotic and high-energy performances in the late ’70s helped to redefine what was possible for women in music. She confronted norms with vocal guns ablaze: ferocious under her bow-tied and stiffed-up hair, Ari looked like a mad electrician’s daughter, with ripped tights and a nod to the Rastafarians. The Slits only made a few albums (’79’s Cut and ’82’s Return of the Giant Slits, some demos, and a later reunion EP), but their combination of reggae-infused rhythms and avant-garde experimentation helped Ari pen everything from mass media critiques to incendiary feminist anthems about what’s wrong with “Typical Girls.”
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If this catches your ear, you should give the Slits a memorial listen. But if you want to know more about the intersections between twentieth-century music and the avant-garde, the British Invasion, and how the punk and new wave bands of the ’70s and ’80s owe their cultural capital to the cabaret performances of nineteenth-century Paris, you should check out Bernard Gendron’s Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club: Popular Music and the Avant-Garde. We have an excerpt online here and it’s just the place to begin to dig deeply into the relationships between high and low culture, materialism and aesthetics, and the gender/race/class transgressions that make bands like the Slits so memorable—and important.