Remembering The Slits’ dub-punk cover of Motown classic ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’
The Slits are one of those bands whose contribution to music is far too often overlooked. A staple of London’s punk scene the band transcended the genre to create energised post-punk capable of reducing a dancefloor to a sweating heaving mess. This is the same energy they bring to Marvin Gaye’s ‘I Hear It Through The Grapevine’.
One of the blazing sparks of the new wave scene The Slits came together in the melting pot of London’s scorching punk scene a few years before. As the members of two of the scene’s groups, The Castrators and The Flowers of Romance, joined forces to form a breathing mass of pulsating musical power.
Consisting of Ari Up (Ariane Forster) and Palmolive (a.k.a. Paloma Romero – a later member of The Raincoats) alongside Viv Albertine and Tessa Pollitt who replaced founding members Kate Korus and Suzy Gutsy, The Slits were soon on the radars of British musos everywhere. Supporting The Clash on their ‘White Riot’ tour would gain further attention for the band but they weren’t quite at their provocative best.
By their 1979 debut record The Cut their sound had been polished and refined to provide a cultural blend befitting the city they were cultivated in. They picked up musical cues from reggae and dub, like much of the capital’s punk scene, as well as using the talents of producer Dennis Bovell to lend further sonic authenticity to their exploration of world music through an artistic yet degenerate lens. It would shape so many artists of the future.
The record as a total is something of a post-punk masterpiece. Cleverly navigating the trappings of the now seemingly out-of-fashion punk, the band shows their contemporaries how it is done, delivering their message across a dub-punk backdrop that is both infectious and startling. It felt like you were being kindly guided through the inner workings of an urban arthouse.
Songs were not in any traditional format, deliberately challenging their audience to avoid being lulled into submission by the cradling reggae beat and instead engage with the off-beat guitars and emboldening lyrics. With that said, one of the best moments of the album does come via a traditional cover of an iconic song.
The Slits take on the smooth tones of Marvin Gaye as they produce an antithesis to his soulful sweet sounds. Recorded by a plethora of Motown artists including Gladys Knight, The Miracles and the Isley Brothers, it is Gaye’s 1967 release which still remains the fan favourite.
The story of the song resides in a first person telling of the singer’s feelings of betrayal and disbelief when they hear of their partner’s infidelity. All bread and butter stuff for a pop song. Yet The Slits seem to turn it into something entirely different.
The band uses the same dub-punk style to replace the full arrangement with a deliberately angled percussion and rhythm section, that feels like walking down a dimly lit London street. Slinky and violent in equal measure Ari Up delivers one of her finest vocal performances, adding nuances that a plained vocal could never hope to achieve.
As well as the new sonic style the band’s inclusion of the cover on their debut record means that they had connected with the song in the same way ‘FM’ and ‘Ping Pong Affair’ had connected with them. That sees the band add the extra weight of personal gravitas to the song, they perform it their way and transform it into their own song bound only by its content.
It is this connection that The Slits add to the song which sets apart from all others – perhaps even Marvin Gaye’s.