The music my friend was playing seemed to make almost every record released since 1977 sound like a cover-up. The Banshees cuts drove toward a refusal never suggested on their official discs; the Slits tracks were armed playground chants. Listening, it made perfect sense that last summer’s Live Aid for Africa telecast contained not a hint that “punk” had ever happened; from art that wants to do good, it’s a short step to art that wants to please, and an even shorter step from there to art that wants most of all not to offend. With royalty in the audience, it’s no wonder Johnny Rotten wasn’t present to sing “God Save the Queen.” (The next installment will likely see the pope in attendance—what’ll be left to play for him?) There are rules about what can be said in such a forum; there weren’t any on the records I was hearing.
The music hadn’t dated. It was still poised on the edge of a future other than the one we are presently living out. The world hadn’t passed this stuff by, it had retreated from it, leaped back over it. Still, it was unthinkable that these numbers—the Slits songs on an unnamed LP in a blank jacket, with titles scrawled in no particular order across the label—could have been made at any other time or in any other place. How could sounds that so plainly resisted time be so precisely captured by it? It was as if the moment in which this music was made hadn’t yet become part of history—as if, somewhere in the relevant annals of the ’70s, there were no files, no index, just a gap that remained to be filled.
Art time isn’t ordinary time, whatever that is—newspaper time, perhaps. In Robert Zemeckis’ time-travel movie Back to the Future Marty McFly, a white middle-class kid displaced from 1985 into 1955, finds himself onstage at a high school dance playing guitar with a black doo-wop combo. After “Earth Angel” the leader asks him to come up with something hotter; “Johnny B. Goode” is a natural choice, even though it won’t appear until 1957. Announcing it as an oldie, Marty slams into the song—that astonishing guitar intro, which defines a whole way of being in the world before the listener has had a chance to accept that a song has begun. After a moment’s hesitation the band and the dancers pick up the beat, and the leader rushes backstage to a telephone. “Chuck? It’s Marvin—your cousin, Marvin Berry. You know that ‘new sound’ you’ve been looking for? Well—listen to this!”
The scene isn’t what it at first appears to be: a slick racist touch in the latest Spielberg, Inc., suburban summer smash. Duck-walking across the stage, Marty is one of those people Bob Seger called “Chuck’s children” in his tune “Rock and Roll Never Forgets”—one of those white teenagers to whom Berry tailored his music after 1955. Originally very black (listen to ”Roll Over Beethoven“), Berry’s sound became close to raceless; as Robert Christgau has pointed out, the hero in his pop stories changed from the Brown-Eyed Handsome Man to someone closer to Marty. Johnny B. Goode himself started out life on the page as “a little colored boy” and ended up “a little country boy” on record. Back to the Future isn’t saying, as J. Hoberman read it in The Village Voice, that a white kid “invents Chuck Berry’s stage persona and sound,” it’s saying something altogether marvelous: that Berry got his style from himself, once or twice removed—that he was able to invent himself by virtue of the history he made. If you think about it long enough, layering Berry’s omni-American ambitions into sci-fi, it’s not just marvelous, it’s true.Now, it’s not quite true that punk made no history, that it exists outside time: present-day hardcore is a perfectly respectable continuation of punk as a musical style, as a set of rules. As Live Aid demonstrated, it’s simply that punk failed to make dominant history, that it exists outside dominant time. Or rather, it’s not that simple at all.
The Slits—Ari Up, lead vocals; Palmolive, drums; Viv Albertine, guitar, and Tessa, bass—were the first all-female punk band. The Rolling Stone Rock Almanac entry for March 11, 1977: “The Slits make their stage debut, opening for the Clash at the Roxy in London… [they] will have to bear the double curse of their sex and their style, which takes the concept of enlightened amateurism to an extreme… the Slits will respond to charges of incompetence by inviting members of the audience on stage to play while the four women take to the floor to dance. The bootleg of their early sessions opens (on the side I’ve decided is the first) with a rampant giggle, then one of the Slits asking, “You ready?,” another answering, “Ready?,“ maybe the fourth picking up the giggle: ”Ah, ah, OH NOOOO—” It’s Alice, not tumbling but diving down the rabbit hole, the last sound you hear at the crest of a roller coaster, and then the blank pause that follows is collapsed by a noise so fierce it seems manifestly impossible. That space—that link—between uncertainty and power is what the Slits, perhaps 1977 London punk itself, were all about.
Shouting and shrieking, out of the guitar noise the band finds a beat, makes a rhythm, begins to shape it: unmediated female noises never before heard as pop music. The Slits march hand in hand through a storm they themselves have created. It’s a performance of joy and revenge. Every musical chance is taken—and for these teenagers, playing the simplest chord was taking a chance: their amateurism was not enlightened. The formal progressions of present-day hardcore have no more extended this music than the world has caught up with it, and the world has no more caught up with it than it has caught up with El Lissitzky.
By 1979, when the Slits made their first official recordings, Palmolive had been replaced by a professional drummer, and the band featured itself as a born-again reggae combo. When they began a number you could hear them try to begin it; when they tried to state a theme you could hear a statement. All they brought from the playground was the giggle, and it had a sour edge. Applied to a received style, amateurism communicated as smugness; these people hadn’t bothered to learn how to play the music they supposedly loved. The result was a curio of après punk, and bought, one suspects, mainly because on the sleeve the remaining Slits appeared nude, albeit covered in mud. The music was boring because it made ordinary sense.
In Back to the Future the out-of-time guitarist takes “Johnny B. Goode” through 30 years of rock theatrics. Plunging into feedback, holding a high note till it bleeds, he leaps from the speakers like Pete Townshend, plays behind his back like Jimi Hendrix. The dancers, even the doo-wop band, stop dead in shock. In 1955 the kid from ’85 doesn’t make sense, and the way he does make sense to a 1985 moviegoer makes the scene work, provides the ironic kick. In 1985, what the Slits did in London in 1977 still doesn’t make sense. That afternoon in London, listening as my friend played his records, I was as shocked as the crowd in 1955.
Because sub-subcultures like hardcore maintain a musicological continuum between 1977 and 1985, it’s easy to lose a sense of why the continuum is basically false, of what is lost when mere style is what is continued. On their untitled Y-label bootleg (try Rough Trade, 61-71 Collier St., London NI), the Slits get the same effect from desire that Chuck Berry got from desire, facility, and commercial calculation. (He’d know what to play for the pope at the next hunger benefit—so why wasn’t he at Live Aid?) What both Berry and the Slits were after was a world that in the teeth of their first notes fell back and reappeared utterly changed, utterly new. Back to the Future proves Chuck Berry got it—at least, that is what it proves to me. As for the Slits, you can look for their name written on a wall, or seek out their Y LP, and hear what we have yet to get.
Artforum, October 1985