From The Desk Of The Pogues’ Spider Stacy: Ari Up

The Pogues on record are never short of inspirational, and in person, they might be a life-changing experience. This hackle-raising blend of traditional Irish folk music, politically charged broadsides and electric rock ‘n’ roll, delivered by charismatic frontman Shane MacGowan flanked by a grizzled band of veterans that includes penny-whistle virtuoso/alternate vocalist Spider Stacy, was formed in the King’s Cross district of north London in 1982. Despite occasional time off for good behavior, they’ve been playing ever since and have a handful of festival dates planned for this summer. Here’s hoping it lasts for at least another 10 years. We are proud to say that Stacy, who is currently appearing as a street musician in season two of HBO’s Treme, will be guest editing all week. Read our new Q&A with him.

Stacy: From the early ’50s onwards, in response to the need for cheap labour to help rebuild and repair the country following years of warfare and neglect, black immigrants from what were then the British colonies in the Caribbean were encouraged to emigrate to the U.K. In London, these new arrivals settled in the rundown, formerly genteel neighbourhoods of West London, mainly the area between Notting Hill Gate and Harrow Road so perfectly realised by the British novelist Colin MacInnes, who rechristened the area Napoli, in recognition of the exuberance, importance and colour of its street life, a world away from and mistrusted and resented by some elements of the local indigenous population, whose attempts at fomenting racial conflict, whilst brutal and horrific on occasion, ended in deserved, ignominious failure. (In short, the West Indians kicked their fucking heads in.) These days English racists prefer not to discuss this particular example of white supremacy in action.

Along with so much else (a magnificently enhanced gene pool for a kick off; racist attitudes can fade away like the pain of an old wound when love comes to town), the Jamaicans, Trinidadians, Tobagonians, Antiguans and all the rest brought something else. They brought Carnival. Originating in Trinidad and early on heavily featuring the steel drums and elaborate polyrythms of that island and its neighbour Tobago, music from Jamaica came to be more and more defined as the Carnival’s soundtrack. The emergence in the ’70s of heavyweight Rastafarian roots reggae and the resonating, echoing majesty of dub, bought a powerful, spirituality inspiring message from Jamaica to a generation of indigenous black Britons who were economically and educationally disenfranchised by their own country. All of this was exacerbated by an unprecedented level of harassment of black youth by an ever-more openly racist (in its fascist, as opposed to casual, form). The descent of hundreds of thousands of people on to the streets of Ladbroke Grove and Portobello Road every August Bank Holiday was, as one might expect, heavily policed, with many officers being brought in from rural areas whom had had little or no contact with black people. The signs were there in ’75. In ’76, the place erupted. The cops, as is their right, tried to blame everyone and everything barring their own special-forces, red-mist, ass-tight tunneled mindsets and were rightly congratulated on a job well done. And the Carnival became a symbol. Look at the back of the first Clash album, look at the way Burning Spear would be played alongside Television at the Roxy. And look at Ari Up and, of course, the Slits.

Having spent the mid-’70s listening to mostly worthless garbage suitable only as a soundtrack for taking acid, in the summer of ’76 I discovered speed and Dr. Feelgood. By the summer of ’77, my head had been completely turned. A friend and I went to the Notting Hill Carnival. I remember getting off his motorbike in a side street off Harrow Road and feeling the pulse of the first sound system, blasting out some killer deejay version of “Diana,” one that I’ve never heard since. It was a beautiful, hot day in the last weekend in August. On Acklam Road, just beyond the flyover (overpass), was a row of four-or-five-storey Victorian houses. Outside these there was an ridiculously huge array of cabs and speakers, pounding out bass lines so deep, the fucking towerblocks were shaking. There was a crowd of people dancing, and I noticed that they had mostly moved into an informal, irregular circle around a strikingly beautiful young girl, wearing a grey cotton school jumper, a yellow mini-dress and sneakers. Her hair was a tousled pile of dreadlocks, and she was utterly lost in the vast depths of that volcanic bass. I recognised her immediately. She was Ari Up, the lead singer in the Slits, who were at the time a screaming noise of joy, girlhood and an absolutist fuck-you maenad ferocity that made them, when you add it all up, the best British punk band of the lot. They recorded a John Peel session—raw nihilist punk—and then, using Budgie (Siouxsie’s old man, the lucky bastard) on drums and bringing in British reggae legend Dennis Bovell as producer, they recorded Cut, a debut album that’s too good to exist. But, thankfully, it does.

Ari Up died in 2010, and this piece is really meant to be about her. I think all that I can say is that when I saw her that day, I saw someone who knew what it meant to be free, and I’ll always love her for that.