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RIP Punk Royal Rasta

by Petra Mason / 25.10.2010

Ari Up: 1962 – 2010

By the time Bob Marley & The Wailers released Punky Reggae Party in 1977, British punk singer Ari Up (born Arianna Forster), was 12-years old. Round about then, Up’s Mother, a publishing heiress from Germany, worth about £50 million, was romancing the Sex Pistols’ very own Johnny Rotten. Rotten, 14-years her junior – and the Sex Pistols, had that same year released Never Mind the Bollocks. Mr. and Mrs. Rotten, who live in LA, are still together after 30 years, and their home has always been something of a punk domain: hosting Jimi Hendrix, The Clash and the psychedelic band Yes as just some of their guests. Johnny Rotten is now “Granddad” to Up’s three sons, and Joe Strummer of The Clash taught her how to play guitar.

In 1976, age 14, in the midst of the British Punk invasion, young Ari Up formed the first all-girl punk band The Slits. In 1979 The Slits released the iconic album Cut, which was recently voted one of UK Billboard’s top 100 albums of all time. With tracks titled “So Tough”, “Shoplifting” and “Typical Girl” with lyrics like “who invented the typical girl? There’s another marketing ploy, a typical girl gets a typical boy” – proof that The Slits were no typical teenagers.

The Slits

The Slits expanded and liberated punk’s sound by adding ululating, jungle animal calls, boot stomping, loose guitar, reggae, ska and rock steady to create a banshee harridan punk sound. Buy Cut right now, and the second dub album Return of the Giant Slits. YouTube them – there is an amazing amount of grainy footage in which they feature. Today’s rowdy talents, Ebony Bones, Bjork, Peaches and Sabine of The Brazilian Girls, even South Africa’s very own Yo-Landi Vi$$er all have more than a double shot of the band, and Ari Up’s original sound, rhythm and spirit – and just wait for the lame stream musicians to say they do to.

Ari Up died on Wednesday, October 20th, at age 48. Her departure was announced on her stepfather Johnny Rotten’s website. The first wave of articles that appeared posted the same story: that The Slits had attempted to shake the cage of the British punk boy’s club. The truth is that The Slits, like other wild women musicians at the time, Toyah Wilcox, Nina Hagen, Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders, Siouxsie Sioux and Bow Wow Wow’s Annabella Lwin, were not on the side lines: they were right there in the mosh-pit with the best of them.

If, like Marley said, it takes a joyful sound to make the world go round, the Punky Reggae Party that was the late 70’s early 80’s London, was a fertile foundation. Legendary producers Lee “Scratch” Perry and Dennis Bovell recorded in Notting Hill, home of the Afro-Caribbean Notting Hill Carnival. At the time, violent clashes between Punks and Rasta’s took place, and the track, Punky Reggae Party, was written as a positive response to the upset by singling out the progressive, top-ranking punk bands, who, like Rastas, were united by the fact that they were “rejected by society, in a world of hypocrisy”.

Ari Up’s life came full circle with her collaboration with Lee Perry on the album Redemption, and the August 2010 release of Subatomic Sound System meets Ari Up & Lee “Scratch” Perry. On the B-Side, Up humorously morphs Perry’s old “Bed Jamming” theme and delivers “Bed Athletes” (listen to it here) in a classic dancehall style. She twists the original children’s song melody into a positive and humorous sex education lesson for “underground youth” even suggesting that men “learn Ninjitsu” so the art of “Japanese fighting” can be “used ‘pon daggering”.

Last year, Central Park’s Summerstage, I heard Ari Up perform live. With wild dreadlocks a la Medusa, or Madussa, (her nutty dancehall persona) and her heavy German-Jamaican accent, Up shouted out to the capacity crowd: “Where are my true warriors?”

Topping the bill that sweltering day, was king of the Blackboard Jungle Lee “Scratch” Perry. A more eccentric pair of original veterans would be hard to find in this world or any other, and if either of them were on the sidewalk, and not the stage, one might be forgiven for crossing the road.

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Austrian dub band Dubblestandart and Brooklyn’s own Subatomic Sound System provided the musical and mental stability to the stage performance. And the Perry / Dubblestandart / Ari Up remake of Max Romeo and the Upsetters track “Chase the Devil” shut it down.

The Slit’s final work, the video for the song “Lazy Slam” from the album Trapped Animal was released posthumously according to Up’s wishes.

It’s a raunchy, catchy, girls bite back dancehall track. The video stars Chloe Sevigny as herself, and a bump and grind booty shaker who, unlike most booty shakers, is doing it for herself – an ebony athlete — rather than performing for the approval of the dancehall boys.

With Ari Up gone, the party on planet dub is sounding a lot better than the one on earth. “The Wailers will be there, The Damned, The Jam, The Clash – Maytals will be there, Dr. Feelgood too.”

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