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The Day I Joined The Slits

By Simon Fellowes.

It was the summer of ’79. I had three months to kill before leaving for college. Aged just 18, three months felt like an aeon, and I was desperate to find something to do. I was an avid reader of the music press at the time, spending long hours devouring the inky pages of the NME, so much so that completing the weekly crossword took only minutes, my accumulation of music trivia, encyclopaedic. Occasionally I’d even flip through the small ads, which is where I stumbled across the box stating ‘drummer wanted’. To this day I’m not sure why I bothered to call the number, something in the ad’s wording no doubt, but having rung, I was surprised to discover that the outfit in question was ‘The Slits’, the girl punk group whose debut album Cut had just been released. The drummer who played on the record was a man named Budgie. He had recently left to work with Siouxsie Sioux, a wise move, it turned out, both professionally and personally. Because of this, The Slits needed a new drummer for their upcoming tour. The person who told me this information was their manager, Dick O’Dell. He instructed me to turn up at a rehearsal studio located a few streets from Victoria Station the next day.

Putting down the phone, I felt both nervous and excited. I had seen The Slits perform a couple of times, most notably at The Electric Ballroom, and had been impressed by their ramshackle energy and enthusiasm. The album they had made with producer Dennis Bovell had been a revelation. Gone was the permanent state of collapse explicit in their performances, the constant feedback of guitar, the Germanic honking of the lead singer. In its place was a complex soundscape of rhythms, playful tunes, and intelligent calls and responses. It was a truly infectious collection of songs. The drumming which locked them together was both sturdy and light, giving space to the reggae-infused bass-lines, tripping the songs forward. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to replicate it. Nevertheless, girding myself for the audition, I put on my best trousers, a silver-grey pair of tonics bought in Kensington Market. Dragging my best friend from school, Marcus, along for support, I took the train from suburbia up to Waterloo.

It was a hot sunny day, and as the two of us shuffled past Victoria Station, I could feel my heart beating considerably faster than I liked. Nevertheless, I was pretty good drummer at the time, having played for about five years in various bands, though none of them professional. This audition was definitely a step up. But The Slits were renowned for their lack of musical prowess. It was what gave them their identity and charm. The fact that they had fashioned a creative musical unit with such basic tools was one of the major reasons for their existence. If we can do it, it seemed to suggest, anyone can.

But the album I had been listening to seemed to contradict all that. It was calculated, considered, delicate, and precise. There was nothing laissez-faire about it. Nothing amateur. I would have to be on my best mettle if I was to do it justice. I knew that. As did my best mate.

Walking into the rehearsal studio I was met by Dick O’Dell, a tall man dressed in black, short blonde hair and mixamatosis eyes. He seemed friendly enough and introduced me to the band. Slumped in a corner was Tessa the bassist, all black curls and low-hanging fringe. Directly in front of me was Ari, freckled toffee-coloured skin, piercing blue eyes and a wide-toothy smile. She never kept still, bouncing around the room, talking ten to the dozen, half rapping, half chanting, blurting out an ad-hoc repertoire of statements and demands. To me, still the suburban kid, she was a whirlwind, exotic, unfathomable, unlike any girl I had met before. Her dreadlocks tied in a thick wrap of material, she seemed to have arrived from another planet, far bigger than the one I lived on. Watching me as I did my best to take in this kinetic apparition, was the last member of the group, Viv Albertine. Standing at the far side of the room, she stared at me coolly as if sizing me up, her Fender guitar hanging loose around her shoulders. I glanced over, struck by her kohl-black eyes, her rats-nest of hair, her never-ending legs, and glued-on sneer. She was one of the sexiest women I had ever seen. This did nothing for my nerves. Dick O’Dell ushered me towards the drum-kit, a silver-affair, kick, snare and two toms. I picked up the sticks only to discover they felt like logs. I realised I should have brought my own, but being totally unprofessional, hadn’t thought it necessary. I was at an age when one never considered such things. You turned up, trusted instinct, and somehow things worked. I started hammering the drums in a 4/4 pattern. This didn’t impress Tessa, who from her slumped position lazily picked at a few booming notes. Viv joined in with a scritchy-scratch plucking. Ari immediately started complaining that she didn’t want to hear this ‘rock shit’, and that I should funk it up. I did my level best, laying down a quasi-James Brown backbeat, made almost impossible due to the two-foot planks now held in my hands. My arms were quickly tiring, so taking inspiration from PiL’s recently-released Metal Box, I switched to the hi-hat and began bashing out a disco-beat. This pleased Ari, who began leaping and howling, her bunched-up dreadlocks grazing the ceiling. I turned towards Marcus, now huddled in a corner, and the two of us shared raised eyebrows. I continued to play but as soon as I felt comfortable, Ari tired of her screeching and brought the song to a halt. I looked over at Viv, who ignoring me, stepped forward and whispered in Dick O’Dell’s ear. ‘I really like the disco beat,’ Ari smiled at me, apologetically. Tessa meanwhile remained resolutely blank. ‘Thanks,’ I replied, taking a moment to rest my twin cabers on the snare-drum. ‘That’s great,’ said Dick, turning towards me. ‘We’ll give you a call.’ I nodded uncomfortably and rose from my seat. Marcus moved forward. ‘One thing before we go,’ he announced to everyone in the room. ’He usually plays much better than this.’ I shot a look at Viv, who, for the first time smiled.
‘What are you doing tomorrow?’ she asked.
‘Nothing,’ I shrugged.
‘Have we got your number?’
‘I gave it to Dick.’
‘Cool,’ Viv nodded, returning to her guitar.
The next day I received a call. It was Dick.
‘You’re in,’ he told me. ‘They want you in the band. And Viv wants to meet with you later.’
‘She does?’
‘To talk logistics.’
‘Uh-huh. Have you got a pen?’
I scribbled down the number Dick gave me and put down the phone.
I was a member of The Slits. This was extraordinary. My life was about to head in a series of directions I couldn’t possibly imagine. One thing was certain, college would have to wait. I called my friend Marcus and told him the news. He was thrilled for me, still more excited to hear I was to meet with Viv.
‘To talk logistics,’ I explained.
‘What does that mean?’ he asked.
‘I’m not really sure,’ I said. ‘Songs I guess.’
It turned out logistics meant more a getting-to-know-you kind of thing. Viv took me to the movies – a Kurosawa double-bill at The Electric Cinema on Portobello Road. If I need reminding how out of my depth I was with this woman, this was it.
‘I liked your trousers,’ Viv told me as we made our way to our seats. ‘Those silvery ones you wore at the audition. They were cool.’
‘Thanks,’ I said, wondering if in fact it was my choice of clothing that had got me the gig as oppose to my heavy-handed drumming.

The two of us spent a pleasant evening together, the stern appraisal I’d felt in the rehearsal room, replaced by sisterly encouragement as the two of us swapped stories about music and songs. I returned home believing I had an ally, someone who would help shepherd me along.

Viv called the next day, the tone of her voice still gentle, despite the bad news she had to impart. It seemed their friend Bruce Smith, the drummer from The Pop Group, had offered to take the vacant position. Maybe Viv had determined during our evening together that I was still a tad too unworldly for the job required. I couldn’t begrudge the band from changing their minds. Bruce was a brilliant drummer, and I for one would have chosen him over myself.

My job in The Slits had only lasted a day, but at least I still had that 24-hour memory. It was a brilliant yet bizarre moment, one I will never forget. Over the years, there have been many similar: the abortive meeting with a crack-addled Rick James, a booze-fuelled offer to replace Robert Palmer in the ill-fated Power Station, a dubious position as head of film production for an Indian billionaire now facing jail, to name but three. These situations come and go, my life is peppered with them. Their lasting affect depends on how I look at them. I have no regrets that’s for sure. I took different paths, the ones that, I guess, were always meant to be. Three years after my audition – just as I finished college – The Slits broke up. A year after that, I got my own record deal.

Simon Fellowes is a writer living and working in London. Beginning his career as a freelance journalist for the NME, he went on to form the duo Intaferon (‘Get Out of London’) before enjoying a successful solo career in the USA as Simon F. Moving from NYC to LA, he spent the next decade directing music videos before returning to London to work as a screenwriter. More recently he has been working as a creative strategist for several major corporations while writing his Hollywood trilogy of novels, the first two of which – Don’t Breathe the Air and My Name is Ferdinand! – are now available via Strata Books.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, August 3rd, 2014.