Ari Up obituary

The Slits frontwoman, she helped to reinvent women's role in music

The singer Ari Up, who has died after an unspecified illness aged 48, was the idiosyncratic frontwoman of the Slits, the British punk band formed in 1976. With her bird's-nest hair, gutsy attitude and wardrobe from hell, along with the band's ferocious sound, Ari confounded her audiences. The Slits fused punk with another rebel music – reggae – to create an original sound that transcended their musical limitations.

The band were denied mainstream commercial success, achieving their biggest hit with Typical Girls, backed with a cover of Marvin Gaye's I Heard It Through the Grapevine, which reached No 60 in the UK in 1979. But the Slits have been enormously influential, not least thanks to Ari's stage presence and fierce vocal style. She helped to reinvent the role of women in music.

She was born Arianna Forster in Munich. Her mother, Nora, was the daughter of a wealthy German newspaper proprietor. Ari grew up in London, where Nora had many connections in the music industry. Nora began a relationship with the guitarist Chris Spedding, who had done a demo with the Sex Pistols, and this led to Ari seeing one of the band's first gigs. "Nora started seeing the Sex Pistols in 1975 and took me with her," Ari said. "What impressed me about the band was how different they were from all the hippies in the audience. After the gig there was no stopping me."

The drummer Paloma Romero, who had renamed herself Palmolive, met Ari at a gig in 1976 and asked her to sing in her band, the Slits. Ari remembered: "She had a pig earring in her ear and that did it for me. We started chatting and she asked me to sing for her band. The next day I was in the Slits and rehearsing – all because of that earring."

The 14-year-old Ari had found the perfect vehicle for her punky-reggae party. The band created their own style of music at a time when there were no templates. "That first rehearsal, I played the drums because I loved the drums, then I started singing, I think it was the Ramones' Blitzkrieg Bop. We didn't have a plan, we just worked with the lyrics and made the music. We only knew that we would not be influenced by anyone else. That was what was important. We were not feminists politically but we took pride in putting ourselves together without men. We wanted to be natural and female. We wanted feminine rhythms."

In 1977 the Slits shared the bill with the Buzzcocks, Subway Sect and the Jam on the Clash's White Riot tour of the UK. Joe Strummer had previously given Ari lessons on "a big 50s guitar". The Slits were managed briefly by the director and musician Don Letts, who featured the band in his film The Punk Rock Movie (1977). Letts and the Slits had a mutual love of reggae, which was the key to them opening up their sound, as heard on a 1977 John Peel session on Radio 1.

Produced by Dennis Bovell, the band's debut album, Cut, was released in 1979, by which time Palmolive had left the band. The album featured the two songs that would define the Slits for ever – I Heard It Through the Grapevine and Typical Girls – the latter of which summed up the band's humour with its ironic title. The Slits were anything but.

The Slits were making music that was more revolutionary than that of their peers and in many ways defined what punk really was. The band released another record, Return of the Giant Slits, in 1981 but split up that year. Ari moved to the jungle regions of Indonesia and Belize. She later settled in Jamaica. Her accent – a mixture of patois, cockney, American and German – summed up her transient lifestyle.

A few years ago, I interviewed her in a studio in London where she was working on a fusion of hip-hop, dub and punk. She was a great interviewee, sharply intelligent and full of inspirational energy. After the Slits broke up, Ari continued to make music, recording with the New Age Steppers and as a solo artist under the names Baby Ari, Madussa and Ari Up. Her first full-length solo album, Dread More Dan Dead, was released in 2005.

In 2006 Ari reformed the Slits with the bass player Tessa Pollitt and went on tour. The band released an EP, Revenge of the Killer Slits, followed by a new album, Trapped Animal. Their gigs were rapturously received. At their Manchester concert last year, she was a force of nature and owned the stage, her long dreadlocks flailing about as she invited women in the audience to get up and dance with her. The Slits had never sounded so good.

She is survived by her sons, Pablo, Pedro and Wilton, and by Nora, who is married to the former Sex Pistols frontman John Lydon.

• Ari Up (Arianna Forster), musician, born 17 January 1962; died 20 October 2010


John Robb

The GuardianTramp

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