Wednesday, March 13, 2019

.O.rang

.O.rang
Herd Of Instinct
The Wire, 1994

by Simon Reynolds


 Talk Talk always were a band teetering on the brink of  'too-much-ness'. One friend couldn't handle "Spirit Of Eden" because the woodwinds made him think of the theme to "Pogle's Wood", the psychedelic animated children's show. .O.rang are Talk Talk's rhythm section, Lee Harris and Paul Webb, and sho'nuff, "Herd Of Instinct" is as brave and foolish an odyssey into neo-prog excess as any mounted by their former band.
           
.O.rang's methodology is similar to the jam-and-chop approach of Can and Miles Davis during the early Seventies. The seven compositions on Herd were edited down from material generated during long improv sessions. As well as taking on 20 different musical and programming chores themselves, Harris & Webb draw on a floating pool of 16 musicians (including Graham Sutton of Bark Psychosis and Matt Johnson). That's a lot of sonic matter for them to daub on the walls of their grotto-like mixes.

Like their prime influences (Can, Miles, Fela Kuti, African Headcharge), .O.rang's  music combines groove and atmospherics,  funk and ambient spatiality. And like those bands, .O.rang's vibe is ethnodelic and shamanistic. Each musician is represented on the inner sleeve by a tribal totem or  charm, while the artwork and captions like "a view of the vision mountain from the ageless collective unconscious" propound a vague pro-aboriginal peoples eco-politics. This "time to get back in touch with what we in the West have lost" shtick may be a tad too Wobble-y to take seriously, but at its best .O.rang's music convinces you they really are plugged into a primal matrix of voodoo energy. The opener, ".O.rang" is like A.R.Kane circa "69'" if they'd had a shit-hot rhythm section underneath the textural fantasia, while the roiling polyrhythms and cosmic guitar of "Little Brother" recall little-heard NYC mystics Saqqara Dogs.

Perhaps the most ambitious track is "Anaon, The Oasis". It starts with eerily treated, transcendental moans echoing through subterranean chambers a la Can's "Augmn" or Grateful Dead's "What's Become Of  the Baby" . Then Webb intones a fragile, dejected melody  in a glottal quaver uncannily like Talk Talk's Mark Hollis, over a meandering groove. Oozy Jon Hassell-like trumpet and cloudbusting female backing vocals finally push "Anoan" into the vicinity of  Kate Bush's under-rated "The Dreaming".  "Loaded Values" is even better. Moondust vibes, braying harmonica and blues guitar trail around a run-away-train groove; decelerating as if hitting a gradient, the track mutates into something close to techno, as Colette Meury's scat-vocals vault skywards.

Like their first band, .O.rang valiantly walk that precarious line between garishly over-ripe and gorgeously overwhelming,  but only rarely slip into the prog-swamp. Herd Of Instinct is a most worthy addition to the post-rock canon.
                                                                                                                               

Monday, March 4, 2019

The Prodigy (RIP Keith Flint)

[in chronological order of release, not of me writing them)

The Prodigy
Charly EP
XL Recordings
(for eMusic, Rave Dozen, 2007)

by Simon Reynolds

The Prodigy’s career could be Exhibit A in the case claiming that rave, far from being anti-rock (like its precursor sounds techno and house) was in fact a futurised reinvention of rock. From ‘ardkore classics like “Everybody in the Place” and “Out of Space” to the digi-punk and Oi!-tronica of “Firestarter” and “Breathe”, the core essence of Prodigy is a teen rampage spirit of bring-the-noise mayhem. Producer Liam Howlett is a riff-master on a par with AC/DC’s Angus Young, while his grasp of tension-and-release, build-and-breakdown dynamics is as consummate as genius pulp hitmakers Chinn & Chapman (the team who wrote and produced most of the classic glam smashes for The Sweet). Yet his pre-rave past as a Public Enemy-loving British B-boy ensured a level of bass-knowledge and breakbeat-science that made the Prodigy sound utterly contemporary.

Only the group’s second single (the first, “What Evil Lurks” b/w Android”, has never been reissued for some reason) “Charly” was a Top 3 hit in the UK in August 1991. It singlehandedly spawned the hardcore subgenre of toytown rave, tunes that sampled children’s TV shows (especially where some kind of Ecstasy-pun or druggy double-entendre could be made out of the show’s name or a fragment of dialogue). In ‘Charly’”, the sample is a little boy from a Public Information Film advising children how to avoid getting lost or abducted. “Charley says, always tell your mummy before you go off somewhere,” the kid says, translating the words of a cartoon cat, Charly, whose miauow is transformed by Howlett into the tune’s killer riff. The joke here is the idea of UK teenagers sneaking off to raves where they get up to things that would make their mums blanch. The original version of “Charly” sounds slightly restrained, so the one to go for is the “Alley Cat” mix, its swirly Belgian-style techno-riff expertly simulating the timbre of the cat’s miaouw but turning it into a spine-tingling MDMA-activating noise. In between the two ‘Charlys” you’ll find two other terrific tunes, “Pandemonium”and “Your Love”

You are also recommended--nay, urged--nay, instructed--to check out The Prodigy’s debut album Experience, especially in the Expanded reissue version with its bonus disc of back-in-the-day remixes, B-sides and rarities. 





THE PRODIGY
Experience: Expanded
(for Spin I think; 2001)

by Simon Reynolds


1997's "Firestarter" might have been their US breakthrough, but in Britain The Prodigy were massive almost from the git-go. Their second single "Charley" was a #5 pop hit in the summer of 1991, and the follow-up "Everybody In the Place" was only kept off the top spot by the re-released "Bohemian Rhapsody."  Back then the Prodigy were pop ambassadors for hardcore, staple sound of England's early Nineties rave scene and the hip hop/techno mutant that eventually evolved into drum'n'bass. All convulsively strobing keyboard vamps, frenzied breakbeats, and bruising bass, hardcore always was the "the new rock'n'roll". It's just that Liam Howlett had to add guitars, punk-snarl vocals, and videogenic hair-rebel shapethrowing before the non-rave world was convinced that Prodigy rocked.

Experience: Expanded is a reissue of Prodigy's 1992 debut album with an extra disc of remixes and B-sides. Sounds slightly dubious, I know, but actually it's a radical enhancement of an already bona fide classic. The B-sides offer ruff proto-jungle bizness, and the remixes are the absolute killer versions that slayed 'em on the ravefloor in 1991-92 (then reappeared in slightly-inferior remixed form on the original Experience). So this retrospectively "corrected" Experience now includes the definitive "Alley Cat Remix" incarnation of "Charly", with its cartoon feline's miaouw smearing into the miasmic churn of the distorto-synth riff, and the superior "Fairground Remix" of "Everybody In the Place," a dementedly whirling dervish-machine that was actually popular on rollercoaster sound systems.

Experience is all about speed--not just the synergy-rush of E's and whizz (UK slang for amphetamine) with exponentially-soaring b.p.m rates, but an entire emergent culture of hyperkinetic thrills, from videogames to snowboarding. And in 1992 that gave The Prodigy and their hardcore rave brethren real resonance for Brit-kids languishing under Tory tyranny: when your culture is all about blockage and stagnation, reaching escape-velocity becomes  paramount. Things haven't improved a whole heap since, which might be one reason Experience still packs such a mighty buzz.   


The Prodigy interview, circa Music for the Jilted Generation

Melody Maker, July 16th 1994

by Simon Reynolds


"So I've decided to take my work back underground... to stop it falling into the wrong hands."

So begins Music For The Jilted Generation, The Prodigy's fab second LP. See, seven consecutive hits and a gold debut album aren't enough for 23-year-old whizz kid Liam Howlett. He's sick and tired of his public image: peerless purveyor of hyper-hyper bubblegum nuttercore for E'd up popkids. Liam wants to be taken seriously; more to the point, he wants to be taken seriously by you, the alternative rock fan. So that's why he's used rock guitar in a couple of tracks on the album, and that's why Jilted is a sort of semi-concept album, with a ‘heavy’ political statement.

"The Jilted Generation, it's all the kids who've grown up on this supposedly corrupt dance music," says Liam, in between hacking his lungs out (he's run down by endless remixing and a recent tour of Australia). "The government are trying to make out the whole scene is bad, and they want to stop everyone going out and having a good time."

On the album's inner sleeve, a painting depicts an allegory of this confrontation, as a police force and a ragged army of ravers glare at each other across a ravine, with the rave-tribe's chieftain about to slash the ropes of the bridge. The chorus of ‘Their Law’ – a surprisingly effective metal-riff propelled collaboration with Pop Will Shite itself – articulates this defiance: "Fuck 'em and their law". What's riled Liam isn't just the Criminal Justice Bill, but the unofficial clampdown on legal raves.

"The police can control the sound levels at raves. Basically, there aren't going to be big outdoors raves anymore. They're not giving them licenses in the first place now cos of the alleged disturbance and noise pollution, and all the drugs. And cos of that, the punters have lost faith a bit. A year ago, you'd get 20,000 at a big event, no worries. Now you'd be lucky to get 10,000. Events happen up until the last minute and then they get cancelled, and so people stop bothering. The Obsession rave, a big three-dayer on the beach, was cancelled, and that was going to be the only major event this year. The Prodigy haven't suffered from it at all, we're still packing out shows and selling records. But it does annoy me, the government telling young kids what they can do."

Because of the clampdown, rave culture's gone into the clubs and it's fragmented into factions: scenes like techno, jungle, progressive house, garage, et al. Liam admits to being nostalgic for the golden days of rave's bygone unity.

"I think a lot of people are. That's why the housey progressive scene is so popular, cos even though it's not as mental and sweaty, it's still got the love vibe. On the hardcore scene, the DJs won't mix up different styles of music, they just wanna play the brand new 'dubpates' that no one can get hold of, cos they only printed ten copies."

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

The Prodigy emerged from  the early hardcore scene (what's now evolved into jungle). Along with Altern-8, they were the principal ambassadors for 'ardkore in the Top Ten. The Prodigy's Top Three hits ‘Charly’ and ‘Everybody In The Place’ were classic breakbeat tracks, and the debut LP Experience was ruff jungle bizness, albeit with a commerical sheen and Liam's poptastic choonfulness well to the fore. But ever since a dance mag accused The Prodigy's ‘Charly’ of instigating "the death of rave" (because it inspired a rash of lame bubblecore tracks with kids' TV samples, like ‘Sesame's Treet’), an embarrassed Liam has struggled to distance himself from hardcore.

"It's the 180 bpm breakbeats I've moved away from. The new album is as hardcore as anything I've written, but hard in a different way, a German techno way. But I still use breakbeats, cos I've always been into hip-hop and that side of me will always be there."
It's all a bit ironic, given jungle's creative renaissance in '93 and its long overdue return to hipness in '94. (The dance mag in question just leapt on the bandwagon along with every other rag in town).

Admits Liam, "There's loads of quality jungle tracks around. The problem was that a lot of people thought it was so easy to make hardcore that they just knocked out white labels and flooded the market with crap. But this year there's been a lot of intelligent jungle. Moving Shadow are the leading label."

But Liam still doesn't like the attitude and moody atmosphere that so often surrounds jungle '94, and which is so different from the nutty, luv'd up vibe of 'ardkore '92.

"The reason I got into rave was that hip-hop had gotten too much into attitude. To me, the jungle scene now is really confused. One minute they'll play something really uplifting and the next it's dark and gloomy. Also, that music's lost a bit of energy. Because it's so fast, people don't dance to the 160 bpm drums, they lock into the reggae baseline, which is half speed. So you dance really slow. With techno, you dance to the full-on beat. The stuff I really rate is European, like CJ Bolland and a lot of the German artists."

When I suggest that The Prodigy are the last representatives in the charts for the old rave spirit, Liam frowns. What he really wants is to get back his underground credibility – something as difficult and arguably futile as attempting to recover your virginity.

"We actually do everything we can to stay off the telly and out of Smash Hits and the pop media," he stresses. "We only do interviews that I feel are credible. It is a battle, a constant battle to get the correct press."

Hence his flirtation with alternative music and deployment of rock guitar on Jilted. He's been listening to Led Zep and Pearl Jam, and he might be producing Skinny Puppy's debut for Rick Rubin's American label. He tells me how much he like Senser's "energy" (they were actually first choice before Pop Will Eat itself, but were too busy). As well as ‘Their Low’, grunge guitar features on the killer next single, ‘Voodoo People’.

But Howlett doesn't need to latch misguidedly onto that dodo ‘alternative rock’ for cred; his own roots – in electro and early hip-hop – are solid enough. I always thought his thang was like a hyperkinetic version of Mantronix's breakbeats-and-samples collage aesthetic, and sho'nuff, it turns out he was a big fan. His old-school hip-hop background comes through in the funky, fusiony ‘3Kilos’, which is part of the LP's ‘Narcotic Suite’ – songs meant to evoke different drug atmospheres.

Back to the present, to Generation J, the kids who live for dance and drugs… Are they going to fight back against repression, or are they just going to languish at home, get despondent, get wasted?

"At the end of the day I don't think there's anything anyone can do. But as long as people can still go to clubs, it'll survive. They'll never kill the whole thing off completely. Why are the government so threatened? I don't know. We live in Essex and there's a massive Farmers festival every year at the Showground. They block up the whole f***ing road and it's totally disruptive. But they won't have a rave there. It's the same with football matches – there's loads of drugs at football now, people taking E’s. So it's one rule for us, one rule for them."

                                                          

The Prodigy: The Fat of the Land

Village Voice, July 8th 1997

by Simon Reynolds

Some say the Prodigy have betrayed the bright promise of the "electronica revolution", resulting in a techno-rock hybrid that's not so much kick-ass as half-assed. But the Prodigy have always been a rave 'n' roll band rather than ‘proper’ techno. The crucial distinction to grasp here is that techno and rave are not synonymous, and that in some respects rave has more in common with rock than with club culture.

In the USA, rave is regarded as the epitome of fashion-plate Europhile trendiness, but in Britain dance music is the mainstream of pop culture, and rave specifically has a decidedly lumpen, un-cool aura. "Raves were mass, teenage, one didn't go to them," is how a veteran of London's 1988 acid house club Shoom explained it to me recently. Purists, who believe the music is properly experienced in clubs, where DJs play long, varied, ‘educational’ sets to an allegedly discriminating audience, see raves as alarming close to arena rock concerts. Ravers' rowdy rituals of abandon and joyous uniformity of attire suggest the very ‘herd mentality’ that clubbers define themselves against.

By 1990, huge-scale one-off raves were transforming house and techno into bombastic spectacles full of lights and lasers, fun-fair attractions, and stellar DJ lineups. Where a club might have one or two DJs, raves featured ten DJs playing a bare hour each, sometimes less. To avoid being blown away by the other jocks, the DJs played crowd-pleasing anthems with their turntables cranked up to plus-8. Then DJ-producers started making music to fit this full-on tempest. Detroit techno was ‘debased’, or so the official history goes, into the hyperkinetic drug-noise called 'ardkore (which was when my ears pricked up).

And by 1991, the UK had a massive circuit of commercial, fully licensed raves, with promoters booking rave bands as well as DJs. Alongside N-Joi, Bizarre Inc, and Shades of Rhythm, the Prodigy were the most popular hardcore rave act. Musically, the Prodigy fit techno's standard syndrome – the boffin (Liam Howlett) knob twiddling alone in his studio lab. But live and on video, the Prodigy were always a band, with three other members – MC Maxim Reality, and dancers Keith Flint and Leeroy – taking up the visual slack.

At the height of this golden age of rave, the Prodigy encapsulated the contradictions of 'ardkore: this music was simultaneously an underground phenomenon and solidly pop. Apart from their first, every Prodigy single released to date has made the top 15; their second, ‘Charley’, got to Number Three in the summer of '91, while the follow-up, ‘Everybody in the Place’, was kept off the Number One spot only by Queen's ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. All the more remarkable since these brilliant early singles offer an only slightly more polished version of breakbeat hardcore, the music that evolved into jungle. Techno purists sniffed, but I always saw it as the new garage punk: riffs, noise, amphetamine-frenzy freakbeats, a sort of aggressive euphoria – the spirit of 1966 and 1977 channeled through the body of hip hop. When the Prodigy stepped onstage at Irving Plaza a month ago, they were introduced as something "for all you punk rockers, hip hoppers, and pill poppers." No mention of techno headz or house bods; indeed, Liam Howlett has been proclaiming in interviews that he never liked Kraftwerk, the sacred source for Detroit techno.

Starting with 1994's sophomore album Music for the Jilted Generation, the Prodigy repositioned themselves as rock, partly by using electric guitar on a couple of tracks, and partly by the vague conceptual/protest angle to the album. The jilted generation, explained Howlett, was kids who'd grown up under Thatcher, had little to live for but drugs and dance music, and now found even their weekend utopia threatened as authorities targeted raves. The UK equivalent, in other words, of the American grunge audience: Generation E.
All that remained was to bring the noise to America. Step One: turning dancer Keith Flint into the video-genic vocalist on ‘Firestarter’. OK, the promo is corny: Flint's Mohican and psycho-youth grimaces. But sonically, ‘Firestarter’ is a sampler-wielding cyber-Stooges, a Dionysian hymn to destruction. Appearing at the MTV Europe Awards to pick up a trophy for Best Dance Video, the Prodigy greeted EC youth with "Hold it down!" a vintage '92 rave rallying cry – as if to confirm 'ardkore's historical victory and vindication. No matter that out of the early rave bands only the Prodigy had survived the collapse of the 1990-92 circuit; the music had become what it had always secretly been – the new rock.

‘Firestarter’ looked like a dead cert as electronica's ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, but inexplicably stumbled at the threshold of the Billboard top 30. Maybe ‘Breathe’ – a jungle-punk duet between Flint and Maxim – will bust down the door, what with its abjection-chic video à la Tool and Marilyn Manson. Enjoyably reminiscent of Oi! bands like Angelic Upstarts, the song was a highlight of the Prodigy's otherwise patchy performance at Irving Plaza. There's rock, and then there's rawk; too often the Prodge crossed the line. When they dragged onstage a ‘real’ guitarist, nor only did he look like a ye olde punke relic from the King's Road, but the overall effect was a tad Rage Against the Machine. Sans politics, of course: the Prodigy's brand of vacant menace and quasi-insurrectionary mayhem slots into the illustrious plastic punk lineage that runs Alice Cooper/Sweet/Billy Idol/Adam and the Ants. (The Prodge even feature an insect in their logo.)

Keith Flint has described the Prodigy as "buzz music." The song titles are mostly self-reflexive, referring only to the music's own sensations: ‘Hyperspeed’, ‘Pandemonium’, ‘G-Force’, ‘Full Throttle’, ‘The Heat (The Energy)’. 'Ardkore always did belong to a burgeoning ‘rush culture’ that includes video games, roller-blading, extreme sports like snow-boarding (a hobby of the band's), and bungee jumping (a popular sideshow at raves), as well as the obvious illegal stimulants. The Fat of the Land is no departure: it's all teenage rampage, cheap thrills, and adrenalin OD.

Fat kicks off well with the boom-bastic ‘Smack My Bitch Up’. Shame about the obnoxious title/chorus – teenage boys hardly need any more excuses to strike pimp poses. In mitigation, it must be said that the Prodigy are not a group that repays close lyrical analysis; their forte isn't deep and meaningful, but the profoundly superficial (not a dis by any means). Howlett is a supreme organizer of dynamics, bridges, and breakdowns, tension and release. ‘Diesel Power’, a pumping midtempo collaboration with rapper Kool Keith, nods to Howlett's pre-rave past as a British B-boy. ‘Funky Shit’ – old-school 'ardkore, more or less – is one of the few non-vocal tracks. Fat's use of ‘real’ singers is an indication of the band's eagerness to meet post-grunge America halfway. But it means the Prodigy have to get around the fact that they have nothing much to say – "this is dangerous/open up your head/feel the shellshock" is typical – which didn't matter when the music was just breakbeats, riffs, and samples.

Ironically, given their desire to be taken as a futuristic rock band, the Prodigy's taste in yer actual contemporary guitar bands is poor. ‘Serial Thrilla’ samples Skunk Anansie; ‘Narayan’, a nine-minute collaboration with Crispian Mills of the god-awful Kula Shaker, is a poor man's ‘Setting Sun’ (the Chemical Brothers' Britpop/breakbeat merger). The L7 cover ‘Fuel My Fire’ would normally count as more bad taste by my lights, but I must admit it's an exciting finale, with a heavily distorted Flint tirade and Republica's Saffron providing baleful backing sneers. The song fits perfectly into the Prodigy's shtick: depoliticized punk offering youths a sort of aerobic workout for their frustration and aggression.

Fat packs enough big beats, bass-quake, and flechette-insidious hooks to do the required job (conquering America), but as an album-length experience it sags somewhat in the middle. In true punk tradition, the Prodigy are really a singles band, which is why the 1992 debut Experience (in effect a collection of greatest hits up to that point) remains their most consistently exciting album. But as opposed to ‘proper’ techno, where there's no brand loyalty and artists are only as good as their latest 12-inch. I'll keep faith with the Prodigy. They're a rave 'n' roll band, and I'm a fan.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Scritti Politti retrospective interview 2005

Scritti Politti / Green Gartside
director's cut, Uncut, 2005

by Simon Reynolds



Winceworthy (wins-wur’the), adj. 1/  embarrassing, specifically referring to the cringing sensation felt by a creative person confronted by his early gauche attempts at poetry, songwriting, record-reviewing, etc.


Actually, “winceworthy” isn't in the dictionary. It’s a freshly minted coinage, making its debut in Green Gartside’s sleevenote for Early, a collection of Scritti Politti’s do-it-yourself era music. Wincing appears to be how he genuinely responds to those EPs, unavailable for nigh-on 25 years, judging by the howl emitted when I quote some lines from one song: “Please, no more lyrics!”. Does Green really find this music--which sounds as weirdly gorgeous to my ears as when I first heard it in 1979--so excruciating? 

“All the music I’ve ever made makes me feel uncomfortable,” says the singer, speaking by phone from his home in Dalston, East London. “And I would go to some lengths to avoid having to hear it if I could!” So why, then, allow it to be reissued? Green deftly sidesteps that question, arguing that the final part of the process of music-making is “the act of consumption” and it would be presumptuous to interfere with that.

Personally, I reckon Green’s being a wee bit coy here. I think he knows that, alongside its immense historical interest as a window into the postpunk zeitgeist, the early Scritti music, under-produced and scrawny as it is, has enduring aesthetic value. Tangled inside its wilful fractures you can hear a latent poppiness that would later blossom with “The ‘Sweetest Girl’” and “Wood Beez.” Listening to early Scritsongs such as “Bibbly-O-Tek,” you hear a fascinating struggle between sheer melodic loveliness and an intellectual suspicion of such beauty as both "too easy” and somehow "not true" to reality. Early isn’t, then, just a timely release (chiming with the seemingly unflagging resurgence of interest in postpunk), it’s a long-overdue recognition of an achievement.

It’s hard for me to be objective about Early’s contents, though.  I’ve been a Scritti fan ever since hearing them for the first time on John Peel, and subsequently have followed every twist of Green’s journey, across the records and the interviews, delighting in the voice, the words, the intellect, and the exquisite difficulty. Appropriately, this story “starts” with Peel and the pleasures of difficult music. Growing up in South Wales, the young Green was starved for stimulus and turned to Peel’s show as a beacon in the banality. “I would tape record his show on a Saturday, and for want of anything else to do, I would listen to that tape every day until the following weekend. And what I discovered was that the music you found most challenging on the Sunday, by the next weekend had become your favorite.”

For Green, the challenging stuff included Robert Wyatt and the other Canterbury bands, English folk minstrel Martin Carthy, and above all the politicized uber-prog of Henry Cow. “They were astringent, even frightening at times.” Henry Cow’s ever-so-slightly didactic anti-capitalist lyrics and Carthy’s explorations of traditional music (folk as the people’s music) also correlated with Green’s other teenage passion: communism. He and Niall Jinks, future Scritti bassist, attempted to form a branch of the Young Communist League at their school. “After our inaugural meeting, Niall was beaten up quite badly.”  The local newspaper even wrote a story about them. “We were named, which heralded the beginning of a decline in my relationship with my parents.”

The same rigorous, demanding quality that Green admired in Henry Cow was what drew him to conceptual art. When he went around checking out art colleges to apply for, he gravitated to Leeds Polytechnic’s Fine Art department for its radicalism. “I went up there during the degree show, and it was quite fantastic. In one room, there was a chap making himself vomit, and in the next room there was someone shooting budgerigars with an air rifle!”  If Leeds became one of the UK’s leading postpunk cities, it was largely due to the density of art students there, not bands formed by locals. Among Green’s contemporaries at the Poly were Marc Almond and Frank Tovey (a/k/a Fad Gadget), while most of the future membership of Gang of Four, the Mekons, and Delta 5 were Fine Art students at Leeds University.

At the Poly, Green quickly became a troublemaker. He stopped painting and started producing only writing. This was conceptualism’s next step--keeping the concepts and ditching the actual artistic practice, the idea being that before you created anything, you ought to work out what was actually valid. The very free-for-all spirit that initially attracted Green to Leeds Poly now struck him as self-indulgent. “You know what art colleges are like, all these kids are basically left to their own devices, and they haven’t spent any time really thinking about why it is they are painting in the manner of x, y or z. I just thought, ‘somebody has to be asking some questions about what it means to be doing this, what it means to be in this kind of institution’.”  Provocatively, he started a kind of counter-curriculum within the art faculty, a highly popular lecture series that involved talks from members of Art & Language, a collective who had given up making artworks and generated instead an intimidating torrent of text, much of it devoted to tearing apart other artists. “I was encouraging all these people to come and basically say what was going on in our faculty was a crock of shit and everybody was wasting their time!” This combative approach--argument fueled by heavy reading and heavy drinking--would shape Scrittii, both in terms of how they operated internally as a band and how they dramatized themselves against the rest of the music scene.

First, though, came the “Damascene moment,” the life-changing experience of seeing the Anarchy Tour of 1977 arrive in Leeds. Prior to this, Green and Jinks had toyed with English traditional music. “Niall could play the fiddle and knew some Morris tunes,  I could play a couple of jigs and reels fairly badly!” After seeing the Sex Pistols, The Clash, et al, though, Green persuaded Jinks and their friend Tom Morley to blow the rest of their grants on a bass and a drum kit. After playing one gig as The Against, they took the name Scritti Politti, derived from a book by Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. Scritti was a highly conceptual and politicized project from the start. One of the key ideas was “messthetics”. Says Green, “We were anti-rock, because rock was too solid, too strong, and too sure a sound. We wanted a music that’s wasn’t strong, solid, and sure, because we weren’t strong, solid or sure.”  Despite his commitment to social justice, Green’s brand of Marxism was far from dogmatic. The fragmentary sound of early Scritti was meant to express the anguished precariousness of those for whom “raised consciousness” doesn’t mean the end of uncertainty but the start of a life dedicated to questioning everything--including your own opinions and innermost feelings, which might not be your “own” at all, but ideologically implanted.

By early 1978, Scritti had moved down to London and into a grotty squat in Camden. Soon the initial trio expanded into a collective numbering as many as twenty. If theorizing was crucial to the group, there was no reason why people who weren’t directly involved in making the music couldn’t contribute. Scritti held meetings at which ideas were feverishly debated, attended by a menagerie of lively minds, some of who would form their own DIY outfits, such as the Janet and Johns and Methodishca Tune. Although Green was always Scritti’s songwriter and typically the most voluble voice in the band’s numerous interviews, he never felt like the leader. “Being the songwriter, that would never have crossed my mind as some kind of privileged status. I knew that I wasn’t any cleverer than any of the people around me.” More important than the formal meetings, though, was the informal everyday life in the squat. Scritti put their home address on their first single, “Skank Bloc Bologna,” and as a result people were always turning up at their door. “Disaffected public schoolboys, French hippies, Eurocommunists….” recalls Green. “It was open house. We’d be going out to gigs most nights, and you’d come back and you never knew who would be there. We’d stay up all hours talking, about whatever books were of interest or maybe someone had brought round a new dub pre-release record.” 

Green remembers these few intense years as big fun: drinking, speeding, staying up all night, ideas whizzing about, music playing nonstop. But he also remembers violence as a constant presence. “We were young communists and punks and there was violence on an almost weekly basis.  We traveled in fairly large groups, of five or six, and we’d walk to, say, Stoke Newington to see a band at the Pegasus, and then walking back in the early hours you’d be attacked. You’d be attacked if you were out selling Challenge, the young communist paper.” “Skank Bloc Bologna,” the extraordinary debut single, captures something of the vulnerability of that period, the constant seesawing struggle between idealism and despair. Green observes a supermarket girl, an early school leaver, drifting through life, seemingly unaware of the forces that buffet and constrain her, and with absolutely no sense that the world could be any other way. It could be seen as condescending, perhaps, if Green’s desire to “tell her what’s possible” wasn’t so plaintively heartfelt.  You get an  glimpse of  the gloom of the revolutionary activist with his spurned pamphlets wondering why the passers-by keep… passing by. The song’s music, a dejected lope of white reggae overlaid with jagged folk chords, is as remarkable as the lyric.

Rough Trade’s Geoff Travis wanted to put the single out but had to bow to the reservations of the rest of the label collective, who thought the song, at nearly six minutes, was too long. So “Skank” came out on Scritti’s own St. Pancras label. But Rough Trade did release 4 A Sides, the early Scritti’s best EP. Green became a key figure in the Rough Trade milieu--then the power spot of postpunk culture--alongside likeminded bands like The Raincoats, This Heat and The Red Crayola.
If one sensibility united these sonically disparate outfits, it’s the shared conviction that “the unexamined pop life wasn’t worth living” (as Green puts it). He describes Scritti, but by extension the entire postpunk culture, as “a massive Romantic project”, in which the political dread of the time (Thatcherism, fascism on the streets) jostled with an awareness of music’s “utopian potential.” If music did have this immense transformative power, then there was a moral imperative to think hard about the right path to follow.

Partly because of Green’s eloquence and quest(ion)ing spirit,  Scritti became cult figures on the UK postpunk scene, emblems of  ultimate non-compromise. This image was strengthened by the group’s combustible live performances, which increasingly involved making songs up from scratch. “We did get less interested in chords and structures for a while,” Green recalls. “But making stuff up onstage was pleasurable, I should stress. Through everything, from the theory to the music making, there’s a central hedonistic streak.”

If  4 A Sides captures a group in their prime, the sheer joy of making music together overcoming the anxiety that riddles the lyrics, then  Peel Sessions, the last of the pre-pop Scritti’s releases, sees that “central hedonistic streak” disappear almost completely. It’s the sound of a group falling apart on record, compelling to listen to but you worry for the worried souls making the fractious racket. This, you suspect, is the stuff that’s most “winceworthy” for Green today. But he still finds something to praise about the “scratching, collapsing, irritated, dissatisfied” sound of “Messthetics” and “OPEC-Immac”, contrasting it with modern British quasi-indie music. “I heard some of these bands on the radio recently and I was struck by how there was no trepidation in their music, no sense that these people were playing with anything that they were slightly frightened of, or were going anywhere where they weren’t sure where they would end up.”

Talking of the twilight days of the early Scritti, Green acknowledges the vein of paranoia,  but says “there was even some pleasure in despair,” in fetishising a totally apocalyptic fascism-on-the-horizon scenario. “The trouble with that, though, is that it can tip over into making you properly depressed, completely inert and deeply unwell.” The crisis for Green came with that legendary Brighton gig in early 1980 (Scritti supporting their friends Gang of Four) after which Green famously had a “heart attack”. Actually, it was a monstrous panic attack, which convinced him he was dying.  “It was the whole ambulance with the sirens going to hospital thing,” Green recalls, queasily. He attributes his physical collapse to the group’s hardcore lifestyle. “We partied very hard, as they say nowadays. We were always pretty poorly.”  There’s also a sense in which questioning everything actually turned morbid. “Finding minutiae overburdened with potential significance, this can contaminate your whole life to the point where you might describe it as mental illness. Not that I was actually bonkers, but…”

When his estranged parents read about Green’s illness in NME, they set him up in a South Wales cottage to recuperate. “I got it back together in the country, man,” he laughs. Instead of giving up the band, though, Green embarked on a thorough reconceptualisation of Scritti. Even before the collapse, he’d been getting weary of  postpunk, feeling that the DIY scene had merely developed its own sonic messthetic conventions. Green had started listening to black pop. You can hear a fitful funk element coming into the music on 4 A Sides, especially on the glorious sinuous groove of  “P.A.s”. In Wales, he plunged wholeheartedly into funk, soul, and other forms of black music he’d not grown up on.

Scritti not exactly being your typical band, though, there was no way Green could simply announce a change of musical direction. Instead, he “sat down for months and months and wrote screeds of justification. There was that sense of having to have it understood and approved and thought-through by the group.”  The band came down to the Welsh cottage and took turns to read the book’s worth of notes. They were eventually swayed to the new pop vision and set to working up a whole bunch of Scrit-songs like “Faithless,” informed by Green’s immersion in Aretha Franklin and The Staple Singers.

Green’s first attempt to “go pop” was only half-successful, both in chart terms (1982’s Songs To Remember got to #12, but none of the singles were hits) and aesthetically. The melodies are beautiful,  but the production was shabby by the standards of the time (set by Lexicon of Love). Above all, Green’s lyrics hadn’t fully made the transition, combining the old hyper-intellectualism with a new poptimistic nonchalance, and ending up a bit cute. “Jacques Derrida” was titled after the French post-structuralist philosopher, while “Getting’ Havin’ and Holdin” includes both a Percy Sledge citation and the line “it’s as true as the Tractatus”. Trust me, that’s a real thigh-slapper  if you’re a philosophy student (Wittgenstein, author of said tome, is all about dismantling truth, seeing it as a mere figment of language).  But none of this was exactly the stuff of daytime Radio One,  which is where Green wanted to be.

Tensions had also emerged in the band. “Although the shift to pop was accepted in theory, I think the lived practice of it didn’t sit well, with Niall particularly,” recalls Green. 

One by one, the original members of Scritti quit, and the group was reinvented as a production company with Green as CEO. He also quit the indie sector and signed to Virgin, but not before Geoff Travis had hooked him up David Gamson, a New York based synth-funk prodigy. With Gamson and drummer Fred Maher as his cohorts, Green started making ultramodern dance music, all programmed beats and sequenced riffs. Paralleling Scritti’s mutation into a sleek, streamlined machine-pop, Green developed a style of lyric writing that secreted its subversive intelligence within words that could outwardly pass for common-or-garden love songs.

Green was still a bookworm, but for a while he was preoccupied less with theory than with mastering the technicalities of studio-based dance pop. The result,  Cupid & Psyche 85, “took a long, long time to make,” says Green. “And an awful lot of money. I was interested in exploiting all the new technology at the time, as well as with expressing those really black pop influences. It was a whole new world of sixteenth notes and syncopation, a language of talking about  music I had never spoken.” As well as enjoying huge UK hits such as “The Word Girl”, Scritti broke America with “Perfect Way”. And so it came to pass that Green Gartside--communist, squatter, Henry Cow fan and adolescent strummer of jigs and reels--ended up on MTV and in the Billboard Top 20.

After that moment of crossover triumph, Green got tangled up in the music industry machine. Most of his joy in music-making was worn away during the protracted studio gestation of 1988’s Provision, with what remained obliterated by the global promotional tour that followed: endless TV appearances and interviews, compensating for the fact that Scritti refused to tour. ( Indeed Green hasn’t played live since the infamous Brighton gig in 1980). He withdrew for a second time to Wales, where he spent almost the entire Nineties. A few years back, he re-emerged to make the not-wholly successful but under-rated Anomie and Bonhomie, fusing Scritti slickness with hip hop (his great musical passion of the last 20 years).

Right now, Green is “very much in love” (not bad for a guy whose “love songs” have often been about the impossibility of love) and busy working on material for a new album. And Geoff Travis is managing him, resuming their relationship and making an attractive historical loop in time.  Last year, Green went onstage with Carl from the Libertines to present a music-biz award to Travis. In fact, says Green, it’s really down to Travis that the early Scritti stuff has been reissued at all. “It’s a consequence of just a persistent interest from Geoff. He kept asking…. and it would have been rude to say ‘No’!”