Reissues reappraise a band formed by The Slits’ Ari Up, revealing the serially collaborative outfit’s warm heart and timeless call for unity
Regular visitors to the Thursday night reggae gigs at London’s fabled 100 Club would have no doubt relished seeing 24 year old The Sex Pistols front man Johnny Rotten, with his 18-year-old stepdaughter Ari Up of The Slits, skanking to the rare imports being spun by DJ Adrian Sherwood as 1980 began.
Both received acclaim, inspired a generation and been pilloried by the red top press for their unconventional former groups, and both had started incorporating the bass heavy sound of their beloved Jamaican dub in their current ensembles. And whilst Rotten, or Lydon as he reverted back to, would maintain critical attention with the dissonant Public Image Ltd, the material that Up put out with the New Age Steppers has rarely been extended the same courtesy.
“it was for all intensive purposes a supergroup, intent on pushing music’s boundaries further than punk had ever managed”
That should hopefully change now, as to mark the 40th anniversary of their first record, On U-Sound is issuing Stepping Into A New Age 1980-2012, a deluxe vinyl box set containing the ensemble’s three studio efforts which they released over their three year existence, as well as the posthumous collection put together by Sherwood following Up’s untimely passing in 2010 and a brand new disc comprising unreleased material, some rare dubs and a host of alternate takes pulled from the band’s international imports and reissues.
The initial idea for the Steppers came from the burgeoning friendship that sprang up between Up and Sherwood. Living together in a Battersea squat located close to the home of Lydon and his wife Nora, the dreadlocked teen would recruit the esteemed producer to help her establish a loose dance led collective featuring mutual friends, including a veritable who’s who of the post-punk scene. On the first record alone you find significant contributions from Viv Albertine from The Slits, Mark Stewart from The Pop Group, Bruce Smith from Rip, Rig + Panic, Steve Beresford & Vivien Goldman from The Flying Lizards, Vikki Aspinall from The Raincoats, as well as members of reggae groups Aswad, Creation Rebel and the Roots Radics. Despite punk’s apparent dismissal of the tropes of classic rock, it was for all intensive purposes a supergroup, intent on pushing music’s boundaries further than punk had ever managed.
Released in January 1981 (and the first long player on Sherwood’s fledgling On-U Sound label, following the New Age Steppers/London Underground 7” single the year before) the eponymous debut by the Steppers showcased their unusual handling of skeletal basslines, eerily processed noise and haunted quixotic vocals to shocking effect. Along with covers of Love Forever by Bim Sherman and Junior Byles’ Fade Away, it featured the Can indebted Animal Space, a song that would be later reworked by The Slits, and also the experimental cut-ups Radiant Drill and Abderhamane’s Demise.
Often forgoing predictable melodies in favour of grim atmospherics, it summed up the anxiety of the age as well as the prevalent desire for countercultural innovation. As Michael Veal explained his book Dub: Soundscapes And Shattered Songs, when listening to a dub record “It was as if the music was billowing out from the speakers in clouds, dissolving and reconstituting itself before our ears”.
Keen to maintain their momentum and looking to recoup some of the recent losses the label had been experiencing financially, second album Action Battlefield followed almost immediately. Comprised entirely of cover versions and defiantly upbeat in its tone, it showcased how deeply in love with the genre Up had become. Save for PiL’s Keith Levene, by losing the majority post punk players who had given the release prior its avant-garde edge the album inched towards a more commercial reggae sound, featuring the impromptu vocal debut of a timid young Neneh Cherry. The teen had been living with Up and Sherwood in the Battersea squat following The Slits tour with her father, the jazz legend Don Cherry. Accompanying the pair to the studio, a mischievous Up asked Cherry to sing a cover of Sherman’s recent hit My Love.
“the impromptu vocal debut of a timid young Neneh Cherry”
Two years passed before the group released the third and final studio album Foundation Steppers. In that time Up had decamped to Jamaica to follow her dream to work with the people at Channel One, especially drummer Style Scott. The album is noticeable for the increased presence of Bim Sherman, who takes over the lion’s share of vocal duties from Up.
Relegated from merely providing backing vocals to de facto lead singer (and perhaps taking cues from the immense chart success that the ska influenced Madness had been having recently), Sherman’s gentle timbre brings a less nervy energy to the record. Up’s delightfully wonky take on the Lena Horne standard Stormy Weather and her charming theatrics on the group’s affectionate, if doubt ridden, reworking of Chaka Khan’s funky classic Some Love provide album highlights.
After three years as a working unit they group disbanded and Up’s life afterward became a rollercoaster of musical innovation and personal dramas. Settled firmly in Jamaica, she became heavily involved in the country’s emerging dancehall scene (becoming known affectionately as Madussa in response to her colourful hairstyle and kinetic live performances), as well as reforming The Slits for the 2009 reunion album Trapped Animal and subsequent tour. Prior to its release Up had received a devastating breast cancer diagnosis but refused to let the bad news diminish her fire, working harder than ever.
Her deliciously irregular voice slipping between Jamaican patois and Germanic brutalism, the defiant riddims that make up the 2012 posthumous collection Love Forever reveal Up’s sense of humour, as on scatologically themed The Scheisse Song, as well as her wish to honour the late Sherman, whose titular ballad they had covered back at their genesis. It concludes with Sherwood’s springy elegy Death Of The Trees for his lost friend and band mate and was, at the time, an appropriate final chapter to the band’s story.
Almost a decade later, Sherwood has graciously dived into his extensive vaults and unearthed a few more pearls for fans eager to hear more. Built around a melodica take of the nursery rhyme She’ll Be Coming Round The Mountain, the track Avante Gardening, which provides the title for the final disc, is the obvious highlight, exposing how willing the band was to push the envelope, intending as an experiment to see how disconnected a song can get before it loses structure.
Their interpretation of Send For Me, an impassioned disco track by Atlantic Starr taken from their infamous Peel session, similarly emerges from their musical cauldron as a progressive rocksteady influenced sing-along.
Incredibly the New Age Steppers only ever performed one live show. As Sherwood notes in the liner notes to the box set, their solo gig at the North London Poly, featuring Lydon and a revolving list of guest performers, was a chaotic failure and proved that ultimately any attempt at longevity or creative security was probably not going to be fruitful, despite the strength of their malleable and reverent collaborations. Replacing the nihilistic Fuck Forever that had been the Pistols’ mantra with a more inclusive welcoming suggestion, this collection reveals the band’s warm heart and timeless call for unity.
A 5CD + 32 page book boxset anthology of New Age Steppers’ work for the On-U Sound label, Stepping Into A New Age 1980-2012, together with vinyl pressings of the posthumous 2012 Love Forever album, the first three albums New Age Steppers, Action Battlefield and Foundation Steppers, and a new LP of outtakes and rarities, Avant Gardening, are out now through On-U Sound.
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