Monday, February 8, 2016

Scritti Politti

The journey of Scritti Politti is one of pop's strangest stories.

1979:  Scritti's scrawny, fractured sound and commitment to demystifying the means of musical production have made them leaders of postpunk's do-it-yourself movement. Holed up in a squalid squat in North London, the shadowy collective--drummer Tom Morley, bassist Nial Jinks, singer/guitarist Green Gartside-- issue sporadic communiqués to the wider world: sessions for John Peel's radio show, EPs wrapped in grubby photocopied sleeves, and occasional appearances in the music papers, where the theory-dense spiel of ideologue-in-chief Green is alternately baffling and enthralling.  

1983: Scritti have morphed into a pop group and romped their way into the UK hit parade with the state-of-art electro-funk of "Wood Beez" . Two years later, they complete the crossover triumph with "Perfect Way", which reaches #11 in the Billboard singles chart.   A band that took its name from a tome by the Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci and penned songs with titles like "Hegemony" has penetrated the money-pumping heart of Pop Mammon.  

You don't need to know the back story to enjoy Scritti Politti music, its surface seductions are more than sufficient.  But these drastically different--seemingly opposed--phases reflect back on each other revealingly. The mainstreamed Scritti of Cupid & Psyche 85 makes you hear the latent poppiness trapped inside the "anguished racket" (Green's words) of those early EPs.  

Equally, DIY-era songs like "Bibbly-O-Tek" provide the secret key to the later Scritti: they explain the melodic eerieness that persisted in hit singles like "Absolute" and point to a continuity of lyrical preoccupations: the struggle between utopian hope and paralyzing uncertainty, and  Green's inexhaustible fascination with the slippery duplicity of language. “The weakest link in every chain/I always want to find it/The strongest words in each belief/To find out what’s behind it”, he crooned on “The ‘Sweetest Girl’”, the sublime 1981 pop-reggae tune that announced Scritti's new pop direction.

Talking about that single on the eve of its release and seeking to deflect any arguments from the diehard DIY crew that Scritti had gone "soft" in their embrace of pop's attractiveness and accessibility, Green suggested that there might be "a dirt, a criminality if you like, in sweetness itself".  Early Scritti was shaped by a young intellectual's suspicion of pop's beauty as "false" and facile, and by a young Communist's disdain for pop as product.  But at the cusp of the Seventies into the Eighties, Green decided, or realized, that beauty was never simple and that nothing could be stranger--or stronger-- than the purest of pop.  Far from being trapped and travestied by its commodity form, pop music still somehow managed to speak of values and energies beyond capitalism.  

Green became convinced that the commercial overground was where the action was, rather than the margins. But Scritti's movement towards the center wasn't really about subverting pop, on the lines of the fifth column, or militant entryists infiltrating mainstream political parties.  Nor was it the "sugared pill" strategy of New Wave artists (like Paul Weller with The Style Council) who attempted to smuggle Messages and Protest into the charts via upful dance pop.  Green didn't want to bring something from outside into pop; he wanted to get inside pop, learn its magic tricks, and exacerbate the turbulence and excess at play in even the mildest, outwardly innocuous pop tunes.  For if you really listened to what was being proposed in a typical love song, you'd find delirium and delusion, addiction and idolatry.

Green reached his revelation through listening to contemporary black pop like Michael Jackson's Off The Wall and lover's rock (a silky, supersweet UK homegrown style of reggae making the charts with hits like Janet Kay's "Silly Games"). He'd also discovered Sixties and Seventies soul like Aretha Franklin and Stax, and rediscovered stuff he'd grown up with, like the Beatles and T. Rex.  All these influences swirled inside Songs To Remember, the 1982 album that followed "The 'Sweetest Girl'" . Songs displayed an impressive mastery of the rhythmic idioms of funk, soul and reggae, while its production was deluxe compared to the DIY-era Scritsongs.  But with lyrics referencing Wittgenstein or deconstruction (the deliciously jaunty country-tinged bop of "Jacques Derrida"), this wasn't the complete transition to pop just yet. Scritti were still not quite ready for Smash Hits.  

So Green retooled Scritti again, hooking up with American synth whizzkid David Gamson and drummer Fred Maher. He absorbed the Funk osmotically, through deep immersion in hip hop and the postdisco productions of Leon Sylvers, The System, and others.  This new Scritti was all about the interface between syncopation and technology, about exploiting  the unprecedented rhythmic intricacy and precision made possible by drum machines, sequencers and samplers. Paralleling Scritti’s mutation into sleek, streamlined machine-pop, Green devised a style of lyric writing that could pass for common-or-garden love songs.  Embracing what he called "the generic empty parlance of pop"--the babble of "baby" and "girl" and "heaven"--he reveled in the sweet nothingness of the lover's discourse while cunningly working in extra fissures and voids. 

Green also developed a voice to match the hall-of-mirrors dazzle of his new sound-and-vision: a falsetto that soared and swooned somewhere between man and woman, soul and machine. On Cupid & Psyche 85 Green almost sounds like he's been AutoTuned, fifteen years before the pitch-perfecting device hit the market.

The five singles from Cupid--"Wood Beez", "Absolute", inexplicable non-hit "Hypnotize",  UK smash "The Word Girl", and US smash "Perfect Way"--stand as Scritti's peak, the completion of a most unlikely narrative arc. What followed in the years to come was fitful but always intriguing. Provision suffered from Green's realisation that having penetrated the pop mainstream, he didn't really enjoy being there, but still produced gems like "Oh Patti (Don't Feel Sorry for Loverboy)" and "Boom! There She Was" (featuring, respectively,  cameos from Miles Davis and Zapp's Roger Troutman) .  After a few years recuperation, Green recharged by plugging back into the Jamaican source that had nourished so much of his best and most successful songs, from "Skank Bloc Bologna" to "The Word Girl". In 1991 he reached the Top 20 with a delicious concoction of Scritti sweetness and ragga saltiness, when he persuaded dancehall king Shabba Ranks to guest on a cover of The Beatles's "She's A Woman".  

A long silence ensued, lasting almost the rest of the 90s, largely filled with skateboarding and pub-going. At decade's end, Anomie & Bonhomie consummated Green's nigh-on 20 years love affair with hip hop: the album   juxtaposed guest flows from American underground rappers with Green's renewed passion for guitar playing.  Songs like "Brushed With Oil, Dusted with Powder" also marked a  tentative shift towards a more personal style of lyric-writing that would blossom with the oblique confessionals of White Bread Black Beer, 2006's Green's glorious 2006 comeback, and a solo album in all but name.  Unlike the final tracks on this compilation--"Day Late & A Dollar Short" and "A Place We Both Belong", which come from 2007 sessions with David Gamson and make you crave a full-blown reunion of the Cupid dream-team.

Over the years, Green has talked eloquently about the wrecking power of dance grooves, about how the softest music can be the most shattering.  There are very few people out there who can come up with a concept like "the micropolitical effect of the goosebump" and also deliver such shivers and tingles through music. Looking back over the arc of Scritti's trajectory to date, the thought occurs that it's perfectly conceivable that the brilliant music and the brilliant ideas about music don't have any connection with each other: that the theory and the practice,  the glossy music and the gloss Green puts on it all, actually come from different parts of his being altogether.

Green, naturally, and annoyingly, had that insight himself already. A long while ago, actually; in 1991, talking to Melody Maker, he argued that music has very little "to do with what the rational sensible side of you ever does. It's a lot to do with the unconscious, and the unconscious is an unruly fucking crowd....  It's always a magical thing, finding chords and tunes and the rest of it.... The theory just bumbles along after the unanswerable subconscious." Amen.

(sleevenotes for the Absolute compilation, 2011)

Bonus beats: 

A friend of mine once asked me to "explain" Scritti - what exactly they were trying to do; why they mattered (to me, and generally);  what governed and propelled the journey they went on, that strange leaping evolution... It's partly covered by the above, but some things are also clarified in a more chatty way in the "explanation" I offerred:

I guess ‘consciousness raising’ might be one objective, very broadly

I think they went through a sort of evolution, or dialectic or something

Scritti started out as Clash type band, called The Against –

Very quickly realized the problems with such a straightforward, sloganeering approach (preaching to the converted, inanity etc) and switched to more complex lyrics and  to music that didn’t offer the simple satisfactions of anthemic rock

So the idea of the lyrics, and all the discourse around the band (packaging, interviews) would be to start a process of thought – a real critical engagement – in the listener

I suppose in a lot of ways like a DIY update of Henry Cow, with all the sternness and forbiddingness but without the virtuosity (did you read Totally Wired, the interview with Green I did, he goes into this in some detail, and Henry Cow was one of the HUGE bands for him, they actually ended up friends with the band until Chris Cutler was very dismissive of punk’s antimusicality)

But Green was also into folk music, English traditional music, Martin Carthy etc so some idea of the people’s music is in there as well as the incredibly dense theory. And you hear in in some of the chord changes and guitar textures, a bit of Carthy

And they were also directly involved in Young Communist stuff, fund raiser gigs, anti-racism benefits as so many were then

Then I think as the French deconstruction etc started to have an impact he felt that the debates about Marxism he wanted to see happen would never happen within the UK communist party (despite presence of some of the people who started that magazine Living Marxism, that were quite open to new approaches....  Desire/style...  ‘New times’ was their slogan)

But certainly from my own point of view the early Scritti stuff was genuinely consciousness raising - in the sense that the text on the back of the Peel Session EP, the page from the imaginary book Scritto’s Republic, all that stuff about language as the prison house of consciousness, it really had a big effect on my intellectual horizons. It was a cliche at that time for bands to say "if it only makes one person think about this issue, then..." - but this is an actual example of a band having that effect on an individual. On quite a few individuals, I suspect.

Equally it's true that ‘language’ as the problematic was something in the postpunk air  then, and even from people like Costello circa Armed Forces and Trust and Imperial bedroom, there’s a lot of stuff about language, words degraded, the mystifications of love

But it's because of Scritti I read Gramsci

So I think in the first phase Scritti, they were trying to promote thought and critical engagement, the idea being also the creation of an oppositional culture outside the competitive structures of mainstream pop etc 

As for DIY, they went through a dialectic – starting with the basic idea that it is empowering and oppositional to make your own music (DIY meets folk/the people’s music), it releases all kinds of voices and opinions. Also that if you have something to say you needn’t wait until you had the skills to put it over, the urgencies of the time (political, cultural) meant you should speak now. hence e.g. Raincoats

Then quite soon Green felt like DIY had become a gestural thing, a sort of empty enactment of self-empowerment – especially with the cassette tapes movement, people putting really substandard stuff or willfully silly music

So then there's a  veer back to the idea of talent, or at least of doing a really good job, making great sounding music, actually trying to compete within the pop mainstream

But in among all of this is ambition – the ego of Green -  at first it hides behind the collectivism façade, it’s sort of a “we”... but at a certain point it breaks loose and he really want to make it, be recognized as the songwriter and mainstay of the group, and have hits and compete with his peers

Says some very bitchy things about his contemporaries, e.g. Martin Fry

But that explains the veer away from DIY as well – when everybody does it (even if it’s a thing you’ve seemingly called for and helped happen by propagandizing and providing info etc), you don’t stand out anymore. And (if you’ve got a brain and musical gift like Green) you really want to stand out.

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