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’!”

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