In 1979, The Slits had just signed a deal with Island records, and taking their love of dub reggae and non-musiciany musicianship, they were booked into Ridge Farm recording studio in Surrey UK with dub producer Denis Bovell.
“I Heard It Through The Grapevine” was recorded not as an album track, but as something destined for the B-side of the single “Typical Girls”. It has since been included as an extra track on re-issues the Slits LP “Cut”.
“I Heard It Through the Grapevine” was written by Barratt Strong and Norman Whitfield in 1967. This now classic song was their first collaboration, but the pair later went onto write many more including, “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” and “Papa was a Rollin’ Stone”.
According to Barratt, the original idea for the song began with that haunting, some would say ominous bass line. Originally played on the piano Barratt twinned it with a vocal phrase that he’d started to hear, but had never heard in a song.
Along with writing partner Norman Whitfield who was based at Motown, it was initially recorded by Smokey Robinson but not released, this was followed by a version by Motown’s newly signed soul singer Gladys Knight. Gladys and her Pips took it to number 2 in the US charts in 1967, with an upbeat gospel soul interpretation – a version that to us, sounds like it was designed to give Aretha Franklin’s RESPECT a run for its money. The following year, it was recorded by Marvin Gaye, and it is this recording that is widely considered to be the definitive version of the song. Subsequently it’s been performed by The Temptations, Trini Lopez, AWB, Joe Cocker, Ike & Tina Turner and in 1970 by Creedence Clearwater Revival, who managed to sprawl it out for nearly 11 minutes.
The genius of the Slits lies in their ability to produce pure punk music without ever relying on either shouting, volume or tempo, even though they were more than capable of doing all three.
Their take strips the song back to something more primal. Gone are the lush orchestral arrangements of Marvin and Motown, instead the backing track skips between the dazzling highs of the hi-hats and Viv Albertine’s scratchy guitar rhythms, and Tessa’s sub-sonic bass. Underpinned by Max Edwards’ solid drumming, with the groove of Philly soul, intersperced with dub influenced fills.
By the second chorus, even the lyric “Heard It Through The Grapevine” has been updated by Ari to her own reference point, namely that she “heard it through the bassline”. Apparently recorded without the help of Cut producer Denis Bovell, the production credit reads The Slits, Rema and Stuart.
From an article by Hillary Kirby in FT.com – “[The Slits] found themselves in the studio with a woman called Rema who had come along … to help out and make the tea. Rema said she had a bit of studio experience and took over at the controls; together the women worked out how they wanted the song to sound, giving it a strong reggae vibe. They couldn’t afford a brass section, so they sang the horn parts. Then, behind 17-year-old German lead singer Ari Up’s vocals, they chanted “Grapevine, grapevine” over and over — using, as Slits guitarist Viv Albertine later said, “our real voices, not little-girl voices the way so many girls sing”. This DIY production yielded a recording that’s wild, patched-together, ferocious, raw — a total contrast to Motown’s pop-factory classic.”
Between them, The Slits, drummer Max and “tea maker” Rema, produced a raw yet sophisticated take on a Motown classic. Ari’s vocal performance is one of her very best, navigating between her signature yelps and deeper, darker almost spoken phrases. In places they quiver with that same breathy, cracking vulnerability that Bjork does so well. Starting with the band almost humming the horn parts over the song’s insistent and instantly recognisable bass line, we can even hear hints of Bolan’s 20th Century Boy lurking somewhere just below the surface.
Popular music and all of its inherent trends moved fast after the late 1960s, and twelve years after the song’s chart debut, The Slits turned a smooth and showroom condition Motown song into something new, striking, raw and earthy – and both fearful and yet completely fearless at the same time.