BY MIN CHEN
Early in 1979, The Slits set up camp at Ridge Farm Studios to record their debut album. There, Ari Up, Viv Albertine, and Tessa Pollitt live and work alongside producer Dennis Bovell—carving, buffing, and finessing a punk-reggae platter that would eventually be known as Cut. On the day a photo shoot is planned for the album’s cover image, photographer Pennie Smith arrives, at the request of The Slits (after they veto Island Records’ suggestion of Dennis Morris). The band has the rough idea of posing as woodland creatures, wild animals. They gather in the residential studio’s rose garden and apply lipstick to their cheeks in preparation, but Smith has a better, less genteel idea: warpaint.
She points them to some flower beds, freshly watered and newly muddy. The Slits get buckets, collect mud, strip down, and proceed to smear the sludge on each other. “It was liberating,” recalled Pollitt. They then tear up an old sheet and fashion loincloths. Topless and coated in mud, they stand and pose like warriors, fiercely facing down a foe. Pennie Smith takes a picture.
Months on, upon the release of Cut, the furor and outrage that greeted its sleeve was outsized. Writer Vivien Goldman remembers her editor at Melody Maker recoiling in horror at the cover; record shops balked at displayed it; and a man, who crashed his car after getting distracted by a huge billboard advertising the album, filed a complaint against Island. Like any self-respecting, boundary-smashing punk band, The Slits did seek to provoke. Except, their (highly successful) provocation was above mere titillation or idle incitement; rather, theirs was an all-out challenge to and subversion of the male gaze.
Albertine, in her 2014 memoir Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys, emphasized the band’s intentions for the cover image: “We’re aware what we’re doing could be misconstrued. We want the photo to have the right attitude, not be prurient.” In fact, the shoot itself, far from being a sleazy affair, was, as Pollitt remembered in Zoë Howe’s Typical Girls?, “childlike.” The Slits’ sense of play also involved them washing off their muddied selves by jumping into Ridge Farm’s swimming pool, ejecting producer Bovell, who’d gone in for a relaxing dip. Of the final image, Pollitt continued: “It was quite menacing, like warrior women, a powerful cover whether you like it or not—it made you think.”
The album’s contents issue that same report. At the heart of Cut lies “Typical Girls,” a stellar, stark anthem that drives a razor-sharp knife directly into the misguided notions about womankind. “We were on a mission, not just to show that women had a place in music,” Albertine said in 2015, “but to show alternatives in how to act and dress, speak, walk.” After verses that sardonically list the many, much-desired qualities of the typical and in turn, ideal girl—“sensitive,” “emotional,” “stand by their men,” “don’t rebel”—comes the track’s dare: “Who invented the typical girl? Who’s bringing out the new improved model?”
Fortunately or unfortunately, The Slits were light years ahead on that count. In 1979, their debut record and its cover fell victim to exactly what they were skewering—the myth of the typical girl and the scope of the male gaze. They may have had allies among the punk audience (their manager Don Letts and Public Image Limited’s Keith Levene staunchly defended Cut), but the music industry at large remained dominated by a manmade framework. More women, after all, could be found on display in videos and on album covers than as participating members of the actual band. Even NME, when featuring the mud-caked Slits on the cover of their September 8th, 1979 issue, labelled them “Page One girls,” sorely missing the point.
All that was in addition to the prevailing societal norms and cultural expectations of women. “At the time, you were expected to comb your hair perfectly neat and be glamorous, like the magazines tell you to be. You couldn’t be naturally sexy,” the late and great Ari Up told Dazed in 2009. “I felt we were very sexy by nature. If we wanted to be sexy, we were, but not to please men. We just did our own thing. In this way, we threatened society.”
History has been kind to punk art and acts that shattered expectations and stunned staid English society; today, Cut is treasured as much for its ground-moving punk dubs as its bold sleeve. Its defiance, however, was way more nuanced and enduring than a safety pin through the Queen’s nostril. For a picture of semi-naked, mud-bathed women, it succumbed not to sexualization or voyeurism, but illuminated strength, spirit, and guts—subverting long-held ideas of women’s being and bodies. As Vivien Goldman put it, “They’re reclaiming their bodies: ‘Here we are, that’s it, what’s the big deal?’” In the long, relentless effort to upset and disinvite the male gaze, The Slits here lobbed a pioneering glob of mud.