Ari Up, the powerhouse of female-fronted punk rock, would have been fifty-three this week had cancer not claimed her in 2010.
Researching a biography of guitarist Chris Spedding, Trebuchet’s Kimberly Bright spoke to Ari Up in 2004 about the formation of her band The Slits. The tumultuous existence of this teenage girl surrounded by rock royalty has the makings of a movie script, and to an extent, played out with appropriate drama. In her own telling of the story, Spedding takes the role of reliable, if remote, father figure.
One, as we say, from the vaults.
Ariane Forster: My mom [Nora Forster, later Mrs. John Lydon] was living with Chris Spedding when I was about 10. I think she met him around when I was 10, 11, but I was still in boarding school. So I saw him occasionally when I came over to England, because I was in Germany in boarding school. My mom was a promoter in Germany with all the major big rock groups she was promoting over there, and then she moved to London.
After hanging around with all the rock groups in London she eventually met Chris. So when I left boarding school I moved in with him and my mom, 11 ½ to about 12. It wasn’t a big house or anything, but there was a huge, huge, huge, record collection. It’d be be records, records everywhere. There wasn’t much furniture because it had to be records everywhere.
What I found interesting is that he was always cutting edge, he kept up with the times, the modern music, all the modern shit that was going on at the time. Roxy Music, a huge fan of Roxy Music [of which he later became a member]. Him and my mother. He looked like Bryan Ferry for a while, and my mom definitely looked like all the [Roxy Music album cover] chicks!
There were all these phases that he went through, like the ‘40s, the ‘50s, that’s probably how he got that whole “Motorbikin’” thing too, leather suit, Elvis look.
But then he was really up into all the glam rock, David Bowie and T. Rex, I believe. Or T. Rex might be more a thing of my mom’s. That’s really an irony, because we leap to the next step now. I became part of the punk revolution through Chris, in a funny way. I can explain it in more detail, if you want.
Ariane: What was happening was, I came from boarding school totally green. I’d been in England, grew up in England a couple of years prior to that, but
extended family to me. They were
all like my brothers.
So when I came back to England, it was just like “Whoo”! I was listening to the radio, I was listening to pop shit. I didn’t know reggae and obviously punk wasn’t even heard of yet, and so I was just, like, getting fed up after a while, of not finding the style of music that I could currently relate to.
Please, keep going.
Ariane: It’s music history. I want to tell you. It’s still very personal, very deep. So my mom got introduced to the Pistols by none other but Chris. He went and saw the Pistols, and then he came back to my mom and said, “You’ve got to see this band. You’ve got to know about this band.” So in a funny way I got introduced to the Pistols and to the whole punk scene just because of Chris.
That’s how The Slits [formed]. he told me recently that he would have liked to have been more involved with me when I was little, as far as my musical upbringing and more into what was happening to me as a child coming up, but my mom kept him pushed out. My mom made him feel a little uncomfortable about that.
Really? That would be so weird, living in the house with this accomplished musician but not wanting your daughter to be influenced or educated by him.
Ariane: She didn’t want me to get too close. I was a threat. That’s the symptom of a femme fatale. Around a man, very possessive. I realize that now; I didn’t at the time.
I hardly spoke to Chris. I couldn’t make anything of Chris, because he didn’t speak to me much. I didn’t speak to him much, because he was kind of a quiet person anyway… then if he has such an overpowering woman like my mother, who’s very controlling, to come in and, like, make him feel that it’s not his territory to come near me….
This has nothing to do with sexual protection. It had nothing to do with that, because I was never molested in any way by anyone my mom ever knew, and there was no threat of that ever happening to me. So it wasn’t that she was trying to be protective in case he would come and molest me. Let’s get that straight and out of the way and totally correct. It had something to do with attention. She wanted all the attention.
Chris said the other day that he had wanted to reach out more to me and he wanted to be there more for me. Throughout the whole entire Slits period, I was a teenager. The thing that hit me hard was to think that I could have been more developed or involved with Chris as far as him taking care of my musical direction. He could have put me in a studio maybe, like he did with the Pistols. He found the Pistols and did a demo with them.
Did he bring them to the house? Did you first meet them at home?
Ariane: No, I didn’t. For some reason, I don’t remember seeing them. I was probably in school at the time. I didn’t get into punk until ‘76. He already knew them in ‘75, I think. If they had come to the house, it would have been just another musician dropping by. It would have made no impression on me.
Imagine, Jimi Hendrix walked through my room [as a child], so it was just another group of guys coming by. When you grow up in music it was just a bunch of friends, a bunch of colleagues. A bunch of peers coming by. It goes even deeper, it can be actually more like family jumping by, depending on who. Obviously The Clash and the Pistols all became extended family to me. They were all like my brothers.
He never showed you anything on guitar?
Ariane: No, that was Joe Strummer. I’m not upset with him about it because it didn’t even occur to me at the time either to come to him and say, “Hey, teach me this” or “Hey, let’s do that.” I was still at a very young puberty age and I was feeling very oppressed by my mother. I was basically just struggling to survive.
But the point is, he said to me [recently] he used to hear me sing all day long, every day. Not only that, he said I sang a lot of David Bowie, then he added, “And you sang it really good. You were really good at it.” And he wasn’t saying it politely or because I was a kid and into it. He said it like I was singing professional. It just fucking put a cold, cold shiver on me.
He said it with regret, like if he had been allowed to be closer to me, then he would have maybe done something musically with me. I think that’s what he meant by that.
He told me that you had a piano in your room and he could hear you playing Bowie songs.
Ariane: I was pretty good at stuff, at piano. I can imagine it annoyed him as well. I mean, when a kid practices piano, how annoying that can get after a while. But that’s understandable, if it was annoying.
No, no, he was very impressed with you. He had offered to your mother to help you with your lessons.
Ariane: See? This is terrible! I would never have known that. He should have come to me! I would never have known that. This is so upsetting! I am infuriated now. Now I’m upset, because I know that he would have told my mom, and my mom would have evasively avoided this. I’m sure she just avoided it. What was the reaction he got? Did he tell you?
That she discouraged it. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Just really put the idea down.
Ariane: Because she’s…. crazy and switching around mad and always wanting attention. This is the symptom. I’m sure he came up to her and tried to tell her that, but he also wouldn’t be in her face, because he’s not that type. He’s a quiet, gentle man. He’s a very quiet guy. My mom was much too cold and abrasive to him. She’s much better with John. You know my step-father now is Johnny Rotten? She fits better with him.
That’s very sad for me now, because I know if I had been closer to Chris, it would have occurred to me, I could learn a little guitar or learn a little more singing or learn a little more this and that. By the time it would have been ‘76, ‘77, even if I’d been in my group The Slits by then, I would have maybe been in the studio with him. The Slits would have had a demo with him, and who knows?
Maybe The Slits’ career would have been better in the end. It’s just a domino effect.
This is really bringing me back to how my mother is. It’s true! It’s been hurting me right through my whole life, because every time I make a career, get a manager, or get something done or do something now, as soon as my mom’s in the picture, everyone disappears! It’s affected me all my life.
I think it’s even affected The Slits’ reputation, because I heard that I’m difficult to get along with, and that’s why I’ve been having a hard time getting a deal or getting involved with business people. The Slits have a bad reputation, of being difficult, but apparently me, personally, I have that reputation. And you know what? I was fourteen years old! Who is not difficult at that time, in a punk phase? I was really, like, crazy and loud and silly, but at the same time I was in a group that accomplished a lot, considering the times and everything.
I don’t know how we’re going to diplomatically say some of this stuff without me getting into even more trouble again from my stepfather and my mother right now. I wish we could say some of this but not quite as crass. We can maybe make a few hints at it.
I thought Chris thought I was a bad kid. My mom always came to me, “Oh, he’s annoyed with you now, he’s upset with you now, and don’t play the piano now, because he wants peace and quiet,”
No, he liked you very much. He used to go to [The Slits’] shows. Did you know that?
Ariane: Oh my God, no! I didn’t even know! He probably hid himself away from me. He was shy. It was such a devastating thing, how Nora dealt with him, I think, as well, not just with me. It was terrible how they broke up. It was very sad, the whole thing. He told me how he’s friends with all of his exes. He’s got no problem with any of his girlfriends he had before, but Nora, of course, no chance.
I think I’m kind of quiet by nature, but at the same time I’m very outgoing. I’m quiet, but I’m very outgoing. I’m creative, that funny balance. So in punk, it just went haywire, it went explosive because, of course, the reaction to my mother.