Monday, July 29, 2019

gang gang dance

Gang Gang Dance
Revival of the Shittest
(The Social Registry)
The Wire, 2004

by Simon Reynolds

Probably the most peculiar band to emerge from the ferment of out-rock activity in New York these past few years, Gang Gang Dance are a disconcerting live experience. Of the two shows I’ve caught, the first was fairly excruciating and the second was sublimely odd. Half the enjoyment, at least for over-acculturated hipster types, is trying to get a handle on where the band are coming from. You might momentarily flash on Can’s “Peking O”, The Sugarcubes’ “Birthday”, Attic Tapes-era Cabaret Voltaire,  The Raincoats’ Odyshape, or forgotten downtown New York outfits from the Eighties like Saqqara Dogs and Hugo Largo, only to have the reference point confounded within 30 seconds as the group move back into untaggable territory. Gang Gang Dance’s music is like a myriad-faceted polyhedron. As it gyrates before your ears, different aspects flash into focus: No Wave, prog rock, drill’n’bass, psychedelia, glitch, assorted world musics, and more. But there’s always a feeling that the music is an entity, animated by some kind of primal intent, as opposed to being the byproduct of eclecticism and aesthetic flip-floppery.

Coming only a few months after their self-titled album on Fusetron, Revival of the Shittest is a vinyl rerelease of the group’s sort-of-debut, which originally came out in the autumn of 2003 in an edition of one hundred CDRs. Pulled together from live tapes, studio out-takes and rehearsals recorded on a boom-box, the six untitled tracks capture moments in the protean early life of  the band. The first thing that grabs, or gouges, your ears is singer Liz Bougatsos. It’s hard (at least for someone with my limited grasp of  technical terminology) to pinpoint precisely what she’s doing with her pipes--singing microtonal scales inspired by Middle Eastern music, perhaps?  On Track 6, she emits what can only be described as a muezzin miaouw, while elsewhere there’s often a kind of 4th World/Ethnological Forgery aspect to both her vocals and the group’s music that suggests a sort of defective Dead Can Dance. Sometimes she seems to be simply singing every note as sharp as possible. Whatever the technique involved, the end result ain’t exactly pleasant--indeed, her ululations have a set-your-teeth-on-edge quality, like vinegar for the ears. But there is something queerly captivating about the way Bougatsos weaves around the strange, sidling groove created by her bandmates Brian DeGraw, Josh Diamon and Tim Dewitt. 

Seemingly a blend of drum sticks on electronic pads, hand-percussion, and digital programming, Gang Gang Dance’s beats have clearly assimilated the bent rhythmic logic of  electronic music in the post-jungle era. Heavily effected (often using reverb and delay), the drums generate a florid textural undergrowth redolent  at various points of  4 Hero, Arthur Russell, and Ryuichi Sakomoto’s B-2 Unit. Needling guitars and glittering keyboards, often processed so that it’s hard to tell which is which, exacerbate the chromatic density. Writhing with garish detail, Track 5 feels like you’re plunging headfirst into a Mandelbrot whose patterns aren’t curvaceous but geometric-- endlessly involuting cogs and spindles, the acid trip of a clock-maker surreptitiously dosed at work. On tracks like this, Gang Gang Dance music has a quality of deranged ornamentalism (think pagodas, mosques, but also coral reefs and jellyfish flotilla) pitched somewhere between exquisite and grotesque.  A beautiful horror unfurls--folds and fronds, filigree and arabesque-that reminds me of Henri Michaux’s maniacally exact accounts of his mescalin experiences in Miserable Miracle.

At 31 minutes, Revival of the Shittest is just long enough--anymore and you’d be worn out by its poly-tendrilled density. At the same time, it’s this very quality of TOO MUCH-ness that makes Gang Gang Dance so compelling.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Mokum Madness

The Wire, 1996

by Simon Reynolds

Now that jungle is totally assimilated, and even happy hardcore and handbag house have their apologists,  Dutch gabberhouse is the only post-rave style left to be gentrified. Gabba is the most extreme version of the ultra-fast hardcore techno that's still popular in Northern Europe and Scotland. If hardcore is derided by Detroit buffs as 'the new heavy metal', then gabba is the rave equivalent of thrash: even faster (180 to 250 b..p.m), even more macho, mindless and monotonous.

The English connotations of 'gab'---"to talk in a rapid, thoughtless manner'---are stunningly appropriate, but in Dutch, 'gabber' means 'mate, lad, yobbo'. This Rotterdam-based 'hooligan-house' originally emerged in antagonism to the more decorous Amsterdam rave scene. Originally a negative, exclusionary term wielded by Amsterdam hipsters, 'gabba'  was seized upon as a banner of underclass pride by hordes of  Dutch proles. Label names like Ruffneck and Terror Traxx, track titles like Sperminator's "No Woman Allowed" and Wedlock's "I'm The Fuck You Man!", eloquently convey gabba's  rowdy male-bonding and adrenalized aggression.

"It's just not music" is a rhetorical strategem used by those who simply aren't prepared to subject themselves to the specific regime of sensations that a particular form of musical extremism enforces. Both early UK 'ardkore  and thrash/speed/death-metal were both diss(miss)ed  in these terms (despite the fact that thrash is intensely, baroquely muso in its construction).  So is gabba music? Of course. Do you want to listen to it? Probably not. Like thrash, the sensation gabba offers (Virilio's  "becoming speed") is too one-dimensional to appeal to most.

Pure gabber is totally percussive/concussive. Every musical element--stomping kick-drum, hissing hi-hat, one note bass-thud, stun-gun oscillator-synth-- functions rhythmically, yet the rhythm is incredibly simplistic. We're talking multiple tiers of four-to-the-floor, as opposed to polyrhythmic interplay. On this Mokum compilation, Haaardcore's "Toxic" is typical, offering the same kinaesthetic rush as Richie Hawtin and Jeff Mills but about 40 beats per minute faster. The effect is as astringent and soul-rigidifying as snorting sulphate cut with Ajax. Recently, however, gabba's rhythm-science has gotten less stiff, as producers like Robert Meijer and Francois Prijt (who dominate "Battlegrounds") have begun to incorporate breakbeats, albeit whipped up way beyond jungle's 150 bpm to a convulsive, trebley skitter

Another weird but fascinating development is the strange spiritual affinity between rap and gabba, whereby Dutch oiks have appropriated the rage and ressentiment of the African-American underclass (hence band names like Gabbers With Attitude or Fear of A Ruffneck Planet). "Battlegrounds" features lots of vocal samples from Public Enemy and other early Def Jam artists. Chosen Few's "Ravedome" samples LL Cool J's "think I'm gonna BOMB" from 'Mama Said Knock You Out", while Annihilator's "I'll Show You My Gun" abstracts a Chuck D combat-rap imperative (from "Mi Uzi Weighs A Ton"), transforming it into a blare of context-less belligerence. A similar mood of empty insurrectionism characterises High Energy's "Revolution", which turns around a soundbite from a Latin American demagogue.
The Public Enemy connection makes sense, since PE is the fastest of rap groups, and producer Hank Shocklee accentuated the high-frequencies in order to match the aural attack of punk. Gabba shares PE's aura of panic, imminent apocalypse, mass rally. But the music with which gabba has greatest affinities is metal. Just clock the  militaristic band names: Annihilator, Strontium 9000,  Search and Destroy. Musically, gabba's ur-texts are Joey Beltram's "Mentasm" and "Energy Flash", whose death-swarm synth-stabs evolved into the 'Belgian Hoover' sound of T99 and Human Resource (still active in gabba). Consider the fact that Beltram is a big Sabbath and Led Zep fan and the connections between HM's ear-bleeding decibellage and hardcore's 'nosebleed'-inducing
bass-frequencies start to make ghastly sense.

Thankfully, gabba also has something of metal's self-parodic sense of humour. The logo of gabba-label K.N.O.R.  is a horned demon in diapers, while the Babyboom label's mascot is a nappyclad infant giving you the finger: both images nicely blend rave's regression with metal's puerility. And the most enjoyable tracks here are the silliest. Despite its Sabbath-echoing title, Search & Destroy's "Iron Man" is a wonderfully daft collage of rave styles, cutting from sped-up ragga chants to a  snatch of the Buggles' soppy "Elstree" to a burst of Goldie/Rufige Cru's '92 classic "Darkrider" to 303 aciiied uproar to a brief interlude where the 200 b.p.m. frenzy drops to a languid 90 b.p.m. skank.  Also exemplifying the new hybrid of happy-gabba or fun-core (gabber infused with happy hardcore's cheesy ravey-ness) is Technohead's "I Wanna Be A Hippy", whose nursery-rhyme tantrum ("I want to get high/but I never knew why") is bellowed by an apoplectic Poly Styrene soundalike.
At its best, gabba is a blast.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

1979, in 2005: Green interviewed about the early days of Scritti, and some later days too

This is the full transcript of an interview with Green from 2005, originally done for an Uncut feature pegged around the release of Early, the CD reissue of the three long unavailable DIY-era EPs. For a while this transcript was up on the Rip It Up website, until the guy who created it and maintained decided to disappear, taking the construction with him. A shorter and tidied-up version of the Q/A is in Totally Wired, but here is the rambling and ragged entirety of our chat.

The conversation  took place just in time for me to squeeze a few last minute quotes into the book before it finally went to press. Originally, I had not attempted to interview Green for Rip It Up because A/ I felt certain he would not wish to talk about a period of musical activity he had so loudly disowned and derided, and B/ there is so much Green interview material available on the web and in old music papers (he’s always been very good at talking, and copious in his talk) that it seemed simply unnecessary. 

During the phone call (me in NY, he in Dalston) I was surprised by A/ how happy he now seemed to discuss that period and by how fond he seemed of that time, despite still professing at regular intervals during the conversation to find the pre-pop era Scrit sound acutely embarrassing. And B/ how thorough  his recollections were of the period, despite his insistence at regular intervals that he had a terrible memory and had trained himself to forget stuff. Finally, I was also struck by how charming he was.  An earlier encounter circa 1988’s Provision had not been as enjoyable, but the only echo of his supercilious manner on that day in our second encounter was his occasional tic of saying “dyaknowwhatimean?” with just a tinge of donnish snappishness to it. 

Another nice thing about the interview was the discovery that nothing I’d written on Scritti in Rip It Up turned out to be wildly off-base, either factually or interpretatively.

I am told Green is currently working on a memoir for Faber & Faber. Look forward to that, although given that it's now 13 years since his last album White Bread Black Beer - which is a longer gap than even the yawning chasm of time between Provision (1988) and Anomie and Bonhomie (1999) I'm not counting on its arrival any time soon. 


First Scritsong I ever heard, courtesy of Peel.

S: I was struck by the coinage in the sleevenote you did for Early, talking about how listening to those early EPs for the first time in ages, they struck you as a bit “winceworthy”!

G. I assumed it was already in the dictionary. Maybe not!

S. “Cringeworthy”, maybe--I’m not sure about “winceworthy”! Is that really still how you feel? And is it the sound of the records that make you cringe or knowing what your mindset was when you made them?

G:  Well, all the music I’ve ever made makes me feel uncomfortable to listen to, and I would go to some lengths to avoid having to hear it if I could. Fortunately, nowadays I don’t have to go to terribly tortuous lengths to avoid hearing it. I hadn’t listened to the early Scritti music since it was made. It sounded awkward, a bit gauche. But then, like I say, I think that about everything I’ve ever done.

S. So the obvious next question: why then agree to let it be reissued if it still embarrasses you?

G: I guess the same answer would hold:  I would be uncomfortable about any of my records being released, but it’s part of the business of making them. The final act of the process is them being consumed. I would guess it was a consequence of just a persistent interest from Geoff Travis at Rough Trade in reissuing that stuff. He’s been looking after me for a few years and… it would have been rude to say ‘no’!

S. I loved those records at the time, and they still sound good to me. But I can see why they might feel like a little pocket of time that feels really strange and is hard to recover or get back inside the mindset of. At the same time, I always heard a kind of pop sensibility thing in them, so when you went pop I…

G: You knew it was on the cards?

S. Well, actually--I wasn’t going to admit this--but in the summer of 1980 I think it must have been, I was all set to write you a letter, advising you that you should just go for it, do all-out pop music.

G: [archly] Well, what an insightful young man you were!

S: Well, I never wrote the letter, but it was songs like “Confidence” that made me hear that pop potential, I think. Also I’d probably picked up on people in the music papers talking about “pop” and the notion of infiltrating the mainstream. In hindsight, though, it’s really clear there’s this poppy melodic element even in the most fractured Scritti stuff--a Beatlesy/Bolan-y thread, as well as the obvious Robert Wyatt influence

G: There weren’t many people then who picked up on that, but it was certainly there, a history of listening to things other than the obvious. What were you doing at the time?

S: I was living at home in a small town in Hertfordshire. I think I first heard “Bibbly-O-Tek”, it would have been on John Peel, and was immediately struck by it. Winding back though to your own hometown and early youth, I’ve read that you attempted to form a branch of the Young Communist League at your school. Today, that sounds like a fabulously hardcore thing to do, but presumably A/ in South Wales, where there’s miners’ unions and such, and B/ in the early Seventies, when some union leaders were Leninists, was it the case that being a communist was still on the spectrum of legitimate political opinion?

G: It wasn’t actually. No, the concise answer, and I can say this with some confidence, despite how appalling my memory is generally, is that to begin with there was just me and Niall Jinks the bass player. We formed a branch of the Young Communists and after our inaugural meeting, Niall was beaten up quite badly, somewhere near the school. That was the beginning of years of violence. I haven’t done interviews for a long time but I did one the other day, went out for a meal with these guys and they said ‘reminisce about the time’ and what came up was that there was an awful lot of violence. No, there weren’t communists around, and it was a peculiar thing to do.

S: But, you know, didn’t Arthur Scargill have a bust of Lenin in his office? And surely there were loads of Trotskyites and Maoists and the like on university campuses?

G: That was different, when I got to Leeds. There’d be Marxist summer schools at London universities, and you’d go and meet other young communists. That was an exciting time and you met some very interesting people. But that was once I got out of Wales really.

S: What kind of political background did you grow up in, in terms of your family’s views and values?

G: Right-wing Tory, really. Working class Tory.

S: So you being a Communist, this was a strident statement then?

G: It was. It got into the local newspaper, and Niall and I were named, and it didn’t go down at all well with the extended family. It heralded a beginning of a decline in my relationship with my parents.  I didn’t see them for years and years and years. Then I think they read in the NME that I’d got ill [in 1980] and through my sister, they proffered some help. But yeah, we fell out big time.

S: So what was the musical analogue of being a young Communist? I read this intriguing piece several years ago, about Scritti and the Desperate Bicycles, and this guy Richard Mason claimed he could detect a discernible influence from Martin Carthy in your guitar playing on “Skank Bloc Bologna”. He pinpointed it precisely to Carthy’s playing in Steeleye Span actually!. So after that I went out and found a load of Steeleye albums, and sure enough, on Please To See The King, tracks like “The Blacksmith”, you can hear the connection from Carthy’s guitar playing to your playing on “Skank.”  But I wondered, was there a correlation between being a Communist and loving traditional music? Folk as the people’s music, that sort of idea.

G:  Yes, there was. Definitely. At that point, at school, the twin things I was into it were Martin Carthy--his solo albums are really astonishing, if you ever get the chance to get hold of his early or middle period stuff, it’s quite fantastic. So there was an interest in traditional music. And then the other thing was Henry Cow.  I first heard Carthy and Henry Cow on John Peel. It was that predictable thing of being attracted by more challenging music. In Wales, for a while, we lived in a fairly remote bungalow, and I would tape record the Peel shows on a Saturday, and for want of anything else to do, I would listen to that tape every night or day until the following weekend. And the thing that stayed with you, I found, was the challenging stuff. The music you found most difficult on the Sunday, by the next weekend had become your favorite.  Does that make sense?

S: Totally. I think people forget now the state of cultural-and-sensory deprivation involved in growing up in a small town in the UK back in the early seventies. No internet, no video stores, no video games. There were only two or three TV channels and they were off during the afternoon and closed by about 11-30 at night. There was only one radio station that played pop music, and during the day time it was pretty much a wasteland, Radio One. So, if you lived in a small town, there was virtually nothing to do! Just books and records and the music papers.

G: Yes. Most extraordinary, growing up in South Wales at the time. Nowadays if I go back there to see friends, there are bands everywhere, at every bus stop and every garage, it’s like everybody’s in one. But there weren’t any when I was growing up there. I think we had Man and Budgie--those were the only two I could think of that had come out of Wales.  I didn’t really care for either. Also growing up in the new town that I most associate with being there-- although I lived all over different bits of South Wales-- this brand new town, Cwmbran.  We lived at the end of a cul-de-sac, and beyond that there were the hills--or ‘mountains’, as we called them, and the other way there was just acres of estates leading to a town centre where nothing much happened. It was pretty peculiar. One of the consequences of being a new town, though, was that there was a fairly broad mix of people at school. New towns were places people used to relocate to. That’s what Niall, the bass player in Scritti, had done. He came from Kent, so he was the most exotic thing I could imagine, just ‘cos he came from Kent!

S: So you became fast friends at school. What was Niall like? Very political?

G: Yeah, his parents were CP people. Or at least his dad was.

S: See, it’s things like that that have given me this idea that being a Communist wasn’t that unusual in those days. For instance,  Richard Kirk’s parents were communists, he told me he had a young communist badge! But because growing up in Sheffield, hard-line socialist politics was normal, everyday, a bit mundane--he described going to the Young Communist League events as almost like going to Sunday school--he reacted against it and got into Dada.

G:  Well, I didn’t ever have that because it wasn’t my personal home experience. Also, there’s was nothing about the sense of [Communism] that I got from Niall that wasn’t wholly comfortable about it sitting alongside surrealism and whatever.

S: And of course, the Surrealists, they were all communists, weren’t they? Most of them.

G: I didn’t feel at any point at that point that there was any impediment to the imagination involved in undertaking the business of learning about Marxism. I was already primed, and possibly not surprisingly, by the experience of growing up in South Wales, which was pretty harsh. So it wouldn’t be stretching a point too far to say that a sense of inequality was formed pretty early on, and supported by all the evidence around, both domestically and in the broader community around me.

S:  Henry Cow, they were a bit Marxist, right? And part of a whole Euro-rock movement, Rock In Opposition, kind of dissident left-wing prog-rock bands?

G:  I didn’t know much about that. I think I came to Henry Cow through… when I was at school, I was quite precociously interested in pop music, and I’d gone to the Reading Festival when I was [really young]. The top of the bill would have been The Faces, who I was pretty keen to see, but further down the bill was Robert Wyatt and Matching Mole. Have you ever heard them? Fantastic! 

It was really through that kind of thing that I got into Henry Cow. The Wyatt route.


S: Did you like Hatfield and The North?

G: I did like Hatfield. I got to know the people in Henry Cow a bit, because when I left home and went to college, I started promoting gigs for things like the Young Communists, and being a fan of Henry Cow I would ask them to do these gigs. And
Chris Cutler, the drummer, his father was Party. So Henry Cow were lefties basically. When I was at Leeds, they would kip on the floor of our place and play gigs. I can remember when we did the first Scritti single and had stamped all the labels by hand on the kitchen table of the squat in Camden, and we put the squat’s address on them. And almost by return of post, it seemed, the very day after sending it out, Chris Cutler send his copy back to us in disgust. He told us we should leave making music to--

S: Real musicians?!

G: Basically! Which I thought quite staggering.

S: Cutler didn’t really get that whole do-it-yourself, emancipatory amateurism side to punk, did he?

G: No.  I can remember arguing about it when punk started--we were at Leeds then-- and Henry Cow came up to Leeds, and I was like, ‘Jesus Christ, this is just the fucking bomb,’ and Cutler was like, ‘this is  appalling rubbish!’. So that was the end of that really! I did see Fred Frith quite a few times, though. He was living in New York during the late seventies and beginning of the early eighties. We went to places like the Mudd Club and saw Bambaataa gigs and so forth.  Frith’s father was the headmaster of a school in York and Henry Cow used to rehearse there. Not during school time, but when it was the summer holidays. And we were invited along to their rehearsals, which was an incredible privilege. I was very excited. They were fantastic, I thought, Henry Cow. I don’t think many people remember them now.

S: They were very….

G: Scary!

S: Yeah, and there was a sense of rigour about what they did, of thinking hard not just about the music but about political issues. In the rather slack context of the mid-Seventies, that must have been quite bracing. 

G: Yeah, it was. Bracing’s a good word. It was astringent. Frightening at times, and difficult. That was what attracted me at the time, in the beginning--the difficulty.

S:  Was there a similar attraction about going to Leeds Polytechnic to study art? The Poly was quite radical, right? A lot of conceptual art, critically-driven and theoretically informed art, video and performance stuff?

G: I’d got interested in conceptual art when I was at school, just reading those stupid Thames & Hudson books about contemporary art. When I went to look at art colleges, Leeds was the most-- for want of a better word -radical. Of course, it wasn’t really remotely radical, but at the age I was then it was quite appealing to wander round the art college, where people were doing things like shooting budgerigars with air rifles for their degree show. I went up there when that year’s degree show was on. There was one room where a chap was making himself vomit, and the next room someone was shooting budgerigars. It was fantastic!

S:  So was the Poly’s Fine Art department more radical than Leeds University’s art faculty?

G: It was. Leeds University’s art department was where the Gang of Four and the Mekons were. When I started my work at college--or my lack of work, depending on how you look at it--I stopped painting and started writing. So they were going to throw me out, this was broached fairly frequently. But somebody at the Poly had the good idea of letting the University people read what I was writing. So Tim Clark was roped in to adjudicate as to whether I was writing just complete gibberish and bullshit to get away with it, or whether I had anything sensible to say. Anyway, he helped me stay there. But by that point, I’d started a sort of counter-curriculum.  I had got in with some members of the Art & Language group, and I’d organized visiting lectures. So I’d get people to come to Leeds Poly and lecture. It got very, very popular.  People like Patrick Nuttgens [the first Director of Leeds Polytechnic], who was the head of the whole thing, ended up at the last few events we did. It got very politicized and interesting. I was encouraging all these lecturers and artists from Art and Language to come and basically say what was going on in our faculty was a crock of shit and that everybody was wasting their time!

S: So you were a troublemaker!

G: It was good fun. We did an awful lot of reading. Drinking and listening to music and arguing, all the stuff I continued to enjoy for the early Scritti thing.

S:  When you switched from painting to writing, was this based in the belief that ‘before I create anything as an artist, it’s imperative that first I have to work out what is actually valid’? Have a really good hard think, before actually picking up a paintbrush?

G:  I think that’s fair. It sounds completely ludicrous now! Or does it? It was a conclusion that was fairly easy to come to, though. I mean, you know what British art colleges were like, right? I’m sure they’re even worse now. All the clichés are true--you’ve got the randy old lecturer who’s got scant knowledge about art really…

S:  I didn’t go to art college but one of my friends did, and at her place, there was a randy old bohemian lecturer with one of those scarves round his neck, and all he did was nudes, and he was a lecherous old sod, always going out with the models, or with female students.

G: I don’t think such niceties were needed, you didn’t have to feign an interest in the life study to start pawing and groping young girls! There is a whole other bunch of interesting things I could tell you about the experiences of art colleges generally, and drugs officers, and policemen, and art lecturers, and weird goings on. But going back to your question, I did think… well you get there and all these kids are basically left to their own devices to get on with this god-awful stuff that they haven’t spent any time really thinking about. They haven’t considered why it is that they’re painting in the manner of x, y or z. And if you tried to have an informed discussion with any of them, you were on a hiding to nothing. I just thought ‘this is fucking nuts! 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, in this country, at this time! I was like, ‘Hello? Hello?! Is anybody here thinking about this stuff at al?!?!. So that’s why I stopped painting and started writing.

S:  You met Tom Morley at this time?

G: Yes, he was at college too.

S: Did he always have the dreadlocks?

G: He didn’t have the dreadlocks until we squatted in Camden. His hair was that kind of hair. He had a white ‘fro, when I first met him.

S:  Marc Almond and Frank Tovey--Fad Gadget--were both at Leeds Poly, doing art, right? Did you know them?

G: Yes,  Marc and Frank, they were both at Leeds. But I was a bit sniffy…

S: Cos they were into performance art?

G:  Oh I don’t know, I’d had my moments of performance! I did a…oh blimey! I did some COMPLETELY pretentious piece when I first got there. It was called something like ‘Fox Logic’, and it was about the deaths of Wittengenstein and Kimber. William Kimber was a Morris dancer who died in Oxford the same day that Wittgenstein died. [William Kimber aka ‘Merry’ Kimber, 1872–1961, was the concertina-player of the Headington Quarry Morris Dancers and the prime instigator of the Morris Dance revival. His meeting with Cecil Sharp in 1899 was a trigger for Sharp’s embarking on collecting traditional songs, leading to the formation in 1911 of the English Folk Dance Society].  So it was just all this stuff about the First World War, English traditional things, men, villagers dying, patterns, abstraction, language… It was a massive wank, really! That was my brief bit of performance. And I enjoyed it for a while. But I guess I was more snooty and sniffy about people’s musical interests than I was anything else really.

Said to be Marc Almond's degree show work at Leeds Poly, or something like that. Via Jon Dale. 

S: You’ve spoken before about the revelatory, transformative moment of going to your first punk gig and going into the venue as one person and coming out again afterwards completely changed, a different person. Was that the Anarchy Tour hitting Leeds, the Pistols, the Heartbreakers?

G: It was the first punk tour--The Clash, The Pistols, The Damned, and The Heartbreakers. Was that Anarchy? Or White Riot? No, it was the Anarchy tour, and maybe the third date on that. They’d been prohibited from playing in Nottingham the night before.  You think back, and occasionally you’re reminded that you’ve made these claims about these Damascene moments in your life. But I wouldn’t mind still describing that gig like that, in those very strong, revelatory, life-changing, clichéd terms. It was like that. I was fucking astonished.

S: Previous to seeing the punk bands, had you been on a more musically proficient Henry Cow trip, learning your chops and all that? Had you even played music at all?

G: What I’d really learned to play by then was some traditional folk songs. Niall could play the fiddle and he knew a bunch of Morris tunes. I could play a couple of jigs and reels fairly badly! We were listening to the Henry Cows, and things like Miles Davis by that point too. Whatever else we could get our hands on that was upsetting! We weren’t really playing seriously.

S:  After the Anarchy show, did you decide to form a band immediately?

G: I think so, I can’t really remember exactly. I’ve got a terrible memory because I’ve trained my memory to be ruthlessly  poor--cos I’m best served that way! All memories are bad, really. Memories of good things are bad, because they’ve gone, and memories of bad things are bad because they were bad things. I don’t like remembering anything, and I’ve become really good at that. Also, I don’t really have any sense of time--I don’t feel the difference between things that happened last week, or three months ago, which gets me in all sorts of trouble. What were we talking about?

S: The initial forming of Scritti.

G: I don’t remember that, but I remember I was the one who persuaded Tom and Niall to blow the last of their grant on a drum kit and a bass guitar, and start learning to play them. That’s what we did. We played one gig in Leeds as The Against. We supported this one other punk band in Leeds at the time, SOS.

S: Did you apply the same sort of thing you’d done with your art work--thinking very hard about it--to the initial conceptualization of Scritti, before actually making the music? Or was it more instinctive and spontaneous?

G: There wasn’t a simple agenda, but there would have been lots of thinking about it. Because that was a lot of the pleasure. It’s just a pleasurable thing to do--to sit around talking and thinking about things. We were possibly much better at that than we were at making music. There were lots of different forces at play, all these seamlessly contiguous areas of interest: music’s relationship with language, which was a bit like art’s relationship with language, and there was the whole political dimension of the linguistic turn in philosophy--that point when language became a subject of philosophy. The political dimensions of the turn towards language interested me a lot. Then there would have been music and its role in identity formation. That was something all three of us had personal experience of--how important music had been growing up, to who we were. Music’s power, latent and transforming. Then there was a lot of that Gramscian talk at that time too, talking about culture and ideology in a more straightforward Marxist-y way. And then there was the whole punk thing about control of production and distribution, getting up and doing-it-yourself. So these were all separate but seamlessly contiguous areas.

S: So you’d be exploring all these different issues, grappling with all these overlapping theories, simultaneous with the more practical stuff, like learning how to use an amplifier, or how to string your guitar?

G: I paid no attention to how set up an amp! Partly because we were anti-rock in a way. Rock was too solid, too strong, and too sure a sound. All its mannerism and gestures and conventions were strong, solid, and sure, and we wanted a music that’s wasn’t strong, solid, and sure, because we weren’t strong, solid or sure. And I wouldn’t have known how to make a music that was strong solid or sure. It wasn’t until I started supporting the Gang of Four,  and Andy Gill would tell us, ‘this is how you get distortion on an amplifier, this is how loud they can go’…  So it was a blend of the via negativa and being a bit gormless about it, to be honest!

S: So when did Scritti move down from London to the Camden squat? Would that have been early ’78?

G:  I would think it would have been around then. We did those first tracks [the ‘Skank Bloc Bologna’ three-track single] at Spaceward Studio in Cambridge, and whether we went to Cambridge from Leeds or from London, I can’t remember, but I’d think it would have been from London. So maybe we were in the squat by ‘78.

S: Had you chucked in your art degree?

G: I completed it. I got a 2.1.

S: So they decided text was valid then, as artistic practice!

G: That’s all my degree show was--an awful lot of writing. But it got the thumbs-up from various people. People that my lecturers thought possibly knew what they were talking about! And I was told I didn’t get a first because I’d never attended any of their lectures, which is absolutely true. I did finish the art course and was thoroughly fed up with the whole business. As I remain to this day--perfectly appalled by Brit Art and everything that’s come in its wake.

S:  Did you ever do any painting as such?

G: Yeah, I could paint. Occasionally I draw. Get the crayons out. It’s a very pleasurable thing to do.

S: What was Camden like in those days? A bit grotty?

G: It was pretty grotty. The squat was in a little terrace. Some girls from art college had gone down and squatted the year before and tipped us off about this place. When the old lady moved out… Well, we went and knocked on her door, and said, ‘Are you going to be moving soon? We’re going to squat your place after you’ve gone.’ So she was complicit with us squatting this place, and they tried to get us out but they couldn’t. But the Carol Street squat didn’t have a bathroom. It was pretty rudimentary. The band Skrewdriver lived a few doors down, in our street. We were young communists and punks and there was an awful lot of violence. There was violence on an almost weekly basis. Like, every time you went to see a gig… We’d travel in fairly large groups, of five or six… and we’d walk, say, all the way to Stoke Newington to the Pegasus to see some band, and then walking back at whatever time of the night you’d be attacked. You’d be attacked on the London Underground, or you’d be attacked if you were out selling Challenge, the young communist paper. I was doing some part time work at the Communist Party headquarters in King Street in Covent Garden, and there were letter bombs while I was there. There had been a lot of violence in Leeds before, a lot of people I knew had been attacked. And some of my friends in Camden [were attacked], like Matthew Kay, who worked with Scritti [as organizer/manager], and people who ended up working at Rough Trade--all of this was through a Communist thing. So I remember violence, a great deal of violence. But also a lot of fantastic fun, which came from that business of putting your home address on your record sleeves, which meant that you did get the disaffected public schoolboys and French hippies and Italian Eurocommunists turning up. They would bang on your door. It was open house, and we’d be going out to gigs most nights, and you’d come back and you never knew who would be there, and you’d stay up all hours, talking, about whatever books were of interest or someone had maybe bought a new pre-release dub thing. It was just pretty good. Good times!”

                     film actually made by Scritti Politti for the BBC program Grapevine,  broadcast 1980 explaining how to make your own record - with lots of view of Carol Street and the squat, as well as Scritti in the studio, Scritti at the record pressing plant, etc

S: There’s a load of commune-style bands in rock history--Jefferson Airplane, Faust, Amon Duul--bands that lived together in squats or big houses. But Scritti is unique, I think, is being a collective that involved a large number of non-musicians who were on an equal basis with the musicians. How large did Scritti actually get?

G: We used to have meetings at the house--I don’t know if we called ourselves a collective, we called ourselves something--and these meetings were attended by people who were going to be in their own groups, or they were fans, or just friends. And maybe of an evening, 20 people or so would attend. Some of whom went on to make their own records.

S: Like this guy Simon Emmerson, who went on to be Simon Booth of Weekend and Working Week, right?

G: Simon was one of them. And there were people like the Janet and Johns, and Methodishca Tune. Most of these people just made one or two singles. One of the key figures at the time was a guy called Bob Scotland, who was one of our closest friends, and who ended up driving a van for Rough Trade and having his own band. He was a working class Glaswegian communist, and an incredibly bright guy. He’s now some fantastic Oxbridge don specializing in spores, molds and fungus! For a lot of people [early Scritti] was an exciting and fascinating phase, for two or three years.

S: These people who actually didn’t write Scritti’s songs or play instruments, did they still actively contribute, in terms of ideas and thinking out what the band was about?

G: Oh yeah. Around the time of changing [from Mark 1 Scritti to the pop Scritti], there was a fairly big aesthetic shift that went on. I think it was partly precipitated by my ill health, on a Gang of Four tour and various other things. I went back to Wales, and I would have never thought of just announcing that I now wanted to make a different kind of music. So I sat down for months and months and months and wrote screeds of justification. And I started listening to black music that I’d heard before but never listened to before. But yes [with the writing of the screeds of notes],  there was that sense of having to have it understood and approved and thought-through. I have to stress that that was also a very pleasurable thing to do.

S: Well, flashing back to the early days again, tell me about ‘Skank Bloc Bologna’. Was that inspired by what was going on in Italy in 1977?

G:   I’d read a book, Red Bologna, about the time I wrote that song. I guess if I had to draw the essence of the song out of thin air really quickly-- at the time I’m sure I would have spoken with more eloquence or at least more length--I can remember there was this idea of the “bloc”, the “historical bloc”, coming from Gramsci‘s idea of hegemony. And Bologna at that time was a city in communist control, and I was interested in certain ideas of Eurocommunism. As for the skanking bit, that was what just filled our house twenty four hours a day--nonstop dub and lover’s rock, really. It was just beautiful.

S: In Bologna, though, the Communist mayor was the one who actually tried to suppress the more radical Il Movimento people, who in 1977 were rioting in this really carnivalesque fashion, taking over the city center.   Was ‘Skank Bloc Bologna’ inspired by those people, the radicals who were even more left-wing than the establishment Communist Party? Or were you just struck by the fact that it was possible to have a whole city in Northern Italy that was Communist controlled?

G: To be honest, I can’t really remember… I would have been inspired by the book Red Bologna, which wasn’t uncritical of what was going on. And at that time we were going to meetings where various young European communists were talking, and there were people in Italy who were setting up radio stations--they were nominally communists but they were pretty wild, dyaknowwhatImean?

S: Oh, you mean Radio Alice, il Movimento’s pirate radio station.

G: Yes, Radio Alice--things like that. I’d forgotten about that.

S: So that’s what you’re talking about when you’re singing in “Skank” about how the Magnificent Six--the Scritti collective--are busy working on developing some reasons for political hope--“a Euro vision and a skanking scope”?

G: Yes, yes, yes. Please don’t remind me of any more lyrics! It might lead to me dying of embarrassment.

S: Are you really embarrassed by them? See, what I like about those lyrics is… and this may not be what you were trying to do at all, but there was a lot of debates going on at that time but how to do the politics-in-pop thing effectively. So you had Tom Robinson with his straightforward messages, which people soon decided was pointless, just preaching to the converted. And then the step beyond TRB was Gang of Four, doing their songs that were very schematic and diagrammatic, almost case studies in false consciousness, diagrams of relationships of conditioning and exploitation. And then your songwriting in the early Scritti is the next step beyond that: it’s more like a  kaleidoscope that switches back and forth, almost on a line by line basis, from very mundane details of every day life to that sort of deep, abstract structure, delineating the contours of the absolute bedrock conditions of political reality, what shapes your deepest beliefs about how reality has to be. So one line you’re singing about people doing shitty jobs in supermarkets, or prosaic stuff to do with bailiffs and rents, and the next line it’s more like something out of Gramsci, the constraints on your consciousness.  Was that what you were trying to do?

G: Absolutely. That’s pretty spot on I would think. And it continues to be. The songs I’m working on at the moment --God, songs I’ve been working on “at the moment”, more like songs that I’ve  been working for the last God knows how many years--that continues to be how I write.

S: So it’s not the approach then, it’s the specific lyrics you wrote that make you wince!

G: Yes, it’s any specific instance of any of it! But you’re right in your analysis.

S: With the Desperate Bicycles, did you actually like their music or was it more the do-it-yourself credo that inspired you?

G: I loved their music. I really did, and we got to know them, and they were amongst the people who would come round to the house and we would talk about things. They were very similarly-minded. There was a sense of community amongst some bands at the time, and around Rough Trade, with bands like the Raincoats, and lots of others. A sense of community, and a shared feeling that….  the unexamined pop life wasn’t worth living. Let’s put it that way!

S: So Rough Trade was a really cool milieu then.

G: I don’t think we thought of ourselves as ‘cool’. I thought Geoff  was cool.

S: Well I didn’t mean ‘cool’ in that sense but more like, a fertile place to be.

G: Oh definitely. For me it was the spot. And at time I was also promoting Young Communist gigs--we did one of the first Fall gigs in London, with John Cooper Clarke.  I even put on Sham 69. Sham 69 and Aswad on a bill together at Highbury! And these things were always done with Rough Trade’s active support. Unofficially. But Rough Trade would give us all the stuff to make the show more appealing. If you needed to borrow any record decks, or if you wanted to sell badges or singles at the gig and make a bit of money on that, Geoff would help out with that. I’m not sure one had any gauge of how remarkable that was at the time, because working with Rough Trade was our only experience of what a record label was like. It wasn’t until later that I discovered how anomalous that was.

Despite the title given this YouTube clip by some German Stiff Little Fingers fan most likely, this is actually the South Bank Show dedicated to Rough Trade and postpunk DIY culture, from 1979.

S: It does seem more and more remarkable, as time goes by. The spirit surrounding Rough Trade and a few other likeminded labels. Also, the degree of hopefulness involved, and the confidence that it all made a difference, doing these things, and doing them in this particular ethically-minded way. Rough Trade was really ambitious about wanting to create a whole alternative culture, with independent distribution, independent retail, independent media even. I think they were  planning to start a magazine at one point, although when that finally came to be some years later it was more like a trade paper, serving the Cartel, the independent label scene. The Catalogue, it was called. But originally it was an alternative culture type magazine they envisaged.

G:  There was certainly a great deal of hope. Yes.

S:  In the Rough Trade milieu, did you have much interaction with Mayo Thompson?

G: Yeah Mayo… he was doubly interesting because he’d been in Art & Language and The Red Crayola. And I didn’t hear the Red Crayola until I met him and he played me the old stuff and it knocked me out, I thought they were fantastic.

Scritti toured Europe with the Crayola and I used to go and spend time with Mayo and his wife in their cottage. He went to live in Germany. Yeah, he was a cool cat. Did you meet him?

S: I interviewed him on the phone because of the postpunk book. He’s involved in an art gallery now, and still does music.  

G: He was an assistant to Rauschenberg, wasn’t he?

S: I didn’t know that.  He’s got an interesting style of talk--it was hard to do the interview because he spoke very very fast and quite quietly, he’s very soft spoken and rapid in his speech. Transcription was a nightmare, but even hearing him while doing the interview was tough. But from what I could pick up, he’s got this interesting manner of talk--quite tough-minded. I think he came from a military background, so there’s a kind of soldier-like discipline combined with bone-dry humour, and of course the Art & Language hallmark, this penetrating rigour of thought.

G: There was an interesting crossover between the Art & Language mob and other groups on the Left, whose language became so exquisitely wrought, dense, tortured. A lot of the later writings by Art & Language, it’s absolutely impenetrable, but it’s a fascinating style. I recommend their old publications to anyone who wants to see an interesting mixture of the splenetic and the rigorous.  

S: So the official live debut of Scritti, at Acklam Hall, late 1978, you only had four songs written at that stage, and had to repeat the entire set, to please the punters?

G: Maybe it was three, it might have been four. We just played them twice. No problem.

S: Because it was rapturously received?

G: Yeah, they liked it a lot! Which was good, I should commend that to people more often. Because by the second time you play something, it’s a little familiar already. Hahahaha! It went down very well. It was terrifying. And that was already the beginning of the end, because of the nerves and panic attack stuff that later afflicted me.  I used to get terribly, terribly, terribly nervous. I mean, I was very nervous about doing this interview.

S: You don’t sound it! You sound totally assured.

G: It got too bad. It was a great shame really. But I just couldn’t fucking do the live performing.

Live bootleg tape of Scritti, with tantalising references to unrecorded songs, and a pirate radio interview with the band. You can hear the Electric Ballroom February 1980 concert part of this tape  here at the Bibbly-O-Tek fansite archive

S: But didn’t you do things like make songs up on the spot, at Scritti gigs?  Wouldn’t that have been even more nerve-wracking?

G: We did a lot of making stuff up on the spot. In some ways that was less nerve wracking. The idea came from a mixture of things.  I was never convinced that there was any simple correspondence between the formal aspects and the political (in its fuller sense) dimensions. But I did get less interested in chords and structures for a while. But making stuff up, again, was pleasurable. In all that we’ve talked about, the theory and the practice,  there’s a central hedonistic streak in it all. It was pleasurable to struggle to make these things up on stage, not always successfully. But it was all nerve-wracking, generally.

S: In the sequence of the recordings, did you do the Peel Sessions EP before 4 A Sides?

G:  I’ve no idea what the chronology of any of that was I‘m afraid.

S: Because you were talking about the nervous strain, and that Peel Sessions EP, sounds particularly affected by that. I read somewhere, an interview you did a few years later, during the pop phase, maybe 1982, and you say something like “I listen back to the Peel EP and I can’t understand that record, it feels like a really ill record.” And that’s what the EP sounds like--almost like the music is shaking itself apart. You get the sense of a group of people living on their edge of their nerves. There’s a vein of paranoia in the lyrics of songs like “Scritlocks Door”, or elsewhere, there’s this strong current of despair, like with “Hegemony”, where you can’t see any way out of hegemony’s mindlock on your consciousness.

G: Yes, that’s all true. I was not well physically. There was that whole thing of making a music that was trying to be expressive of the stresses of being--this’ll sound wanky--the stresses of being spoken by the language that we were being spoken by, dyaknowwhatimean? But at the time, we were trying to be analytical of it, look inside it. And those were hard things to pull together. I guess you’re right--there was a bit of despair and paranoia. But there might even have been some pleasure in the despair.
That’s a dangerous thing to say, and a whole other--

S:  No, I know exactly what you mean--how there’s a certain buzz to contemplating this totally bleak, apocalyptic, ‘no way out’, scenario, a reveling in it…

G: Except it can tip over into making you properly depressed and completely inert and deeply unwell and unhappy. But I didn’t have too much of that. And at that time there was funk and R&B to help me. And then later hip hop. But at that point, the tail end of disco, I was getting fed up with the whole indie thing anyway. There was a concurrence between getting a bit fed up when indie became aware of itself and became something definable and something with its own set of [conventions] and becoming pretty disinterested it. Then, at this period at the tail end of disco and the beginning of hip hop, I woke up to funk and R&B. Which I’d not grown up with.  I’d grown up in South Wales with a strictly whitebread kind of  diet. It might have been left of center and hugely influenced by black music, but I didn’t know that, I didn’t know where the black music was in Henry Cow.  I didn’t know where the black music was in anything.  I hadn’t found the funk. So that was a whole adventure, discovering how all these questions of music and identity and the body and power were reinscribed in the whole black popular music and dance culture. That was a whole other way of thinking and feeling about these things.

S: You can sense this stuff coming through towards the end of the do-it-yourself era Scritti, you can hear it in 4 A Sides, there’s a kind of funk element to tracks like “P.A.s” and “Bibbly-O-Tek”.

G: I suppose so, although it’s a completely calamitously inept dabbling in that area. That was interesting from a musical perspective, the way that you can actually learn to listen, you can learn to understand the funk--which was a very, very pleasurable thing to do. In those days, I recognized some of the surface features of it without grasping much of what was going on inside it, dyaknowwhatimean?
S:  ‘OPEC-Immac’ is one of my favorite songs on Peel Sessions, it’s got a really odd structure to it, it’s Scritti music reaching this point of near-disintegration, but still retains a lot of the melodic beauty, this sort of melodic eerieness that’s really haunting. The lyrics are very fractured too. Can you recall what that song was trying to ‘say’?

G: I can remember playing it live at the YMCA and Ian Penman playing saxophone on it, when we were supporting The Fall. What can I remember about it as a song? Well given that  I can only faintly recall a bit of it…

S: There’s this spoken word part, it’s only semi-audible, but you sound very fraught and insistent, like maybe you’re having a near-tearful argument with someone, desperately trying to get your point across, make yourself understood.

G: I think Niall was saying some of that, and so was I. Again, it was expressive of that whole thing about language and identity. But Scritti was also a group that was… we partied very hard. As they say nowadays! We were always pretty poorly. We were kind of cheese sandwich vegetarians for years. What does that account for? It’s a kind of scratching, collapsing, irritated, dissatisfied music.  I was listening to some music the other night, on 6 FM or whatever it’s called, BBC 6, their alternative rock station, and I was struck by all the new bands: there was no trepidation. I had no sense that these people were playing with anything that they were slightly frightened of--either in themselves, or in the music. No sense that they going anywhere where they weren’t sure where they would end up.

S: With so much of the music of that period, but especially Scritti, there is precisely what you’re talking about: a feeling of precariousness. There’s a real sense of anxiety, people grappling with these deep doubts and exorbitant hopes:  where do we go next after punk? How can we make our good intentions actually have any purchase on the world? That’s what I find so inspiring about that whole period. Possibly it was delusory, that shared feeling that music could have that degree of power. But it seemed like that for a lot of those bands, believing that it might have that power meant that it therefore became very important to work out exactly the best way of directing one’s energy. To locate the correct path, the righteous way forward, became a very urgent thing. 

G: I think you’ve put that very succinctly. Because of what was happening politically at the time. And also because of what had seeped out to us from academia--even those who hadn’t gone directly into higher education--there was a lot of intellectual stuff in the air.
And music became an interesting case in point for a lot of these ideas. We didn’t understand fully what was going on with Deleuze & Guattari or Lacan or Kristeva, but there was that stuff around. But there was also a whole running fight with the BNP.
And beyond those things there was just something we’d grown up with--the power of pop music. We all knew about that latent utopian possibility in the music, a transformative power, what would later be called ‘counter-hegemonic’. So there was a real sense of that potential in music and a real interest in talking about it. But most of all there was a lot of music, a lot of making music. Dyouknowwhatimean?

S: Well that comes through clearly--I mean, it’s obvious that underneath all the cerebration and deep thought, there is this pure musicality. If there was no musicality involved, no pleasure or beauty, it wouldn’t really be worth much at all. And there’s mystery too--the mystery of melodic beauty.  

G: Yes. And it was also a massively romantic project, I would have to say.

S: You mentioned Kristeva and all that stuff, and although I went to university, that kind of thing--Barthes, Foucault, et al--that was stuff I read in my spare time, for fun. My actual course was History. It’s really people like you, and some of the journalists on NME who quoted Barthes, who turned me onto this stuff. You have no idea… well probably you do actually, because people must have contacted you guys all the time at the squat, cos of the Scritti records--but that ‘Scritto’s Republic’ thing, the pages from the imaginary book, on the sleeve of Peel Sessions, that was like a window opening out onto a whole world for me. The whole idea discussed in those two pages-- language as a cage, the prison-house of consciousness, grammar structuring the reality you lived within… Language as a problem, rather than something transparent, a tool that you could use in a simple empowering way…  Well, being introduced to that idea was so interesting. You wrote that text, right? It’s a really eloquent piece of writing. Was that influenced by reading Althusser?

G: No, Althusser was some years before. I don’t know what I was reading at that point. Whatever cropped up. Whatever turned up at the squat when someone would say ‘have you heard of this person?’  A useful thing was Compendium, the bookstore in Camden. Compendium was a really important spot. Did you know it?

S:  I used to go there all the time, when I lived in London, I was really sad when it got closed down. It was full of pamphlets and fanzines, wasn’t it?

G: Yeah, mad stuff. You could go downstairs and root about, and spend hours in there.

S: Was Compendium the first place in the UK to have the early translations of the French post-structuralist theory?

G:  One of them. I’d started on that stuff in the university bookshops in Leeds, there were some good ones up there. Compendium was an important place for a lot of people, its name comes up often, talking to people since. To this day people would say how important it was. It was to us, anyway.

S: So in the ‘Scritto’s Republic’ text, it ends with this little Warwickshire folk rhyme, a “counting out rhyme”. “Vizzery, vazzery, vozery vem/Tizzery, tazzery, tozery tem/Hiram, Jiram, cockrem, spirem/Poplar, rollin, gem”. The sense-shredding power of folk-speech or something!.  Of course at the time it would never have occurred to me in a million years that you’d have been into traditional music! Did you do actually do research in English folk music?

G: I did. I actually did a lot of research into Welsh traditional things, at the national archives in Cardiff. This is many years before.  I was looking into a Welsh tradition called the Mari Lwyd, or the White Mare, which is when the skeleton of a horse is exhumed and taken round the houses at a certain time of year. Basically you had to join in with the people that came around. It was mixture of…. they were menacing, it was anarchic, and you entered into almost an MC battle. The people outside had to come up with a rhyme and you inside had to come up with a rhyme to match it. There was a sort of contest-cum-orgy. It sounded good to me!

Scritti, "P.A.s", 1979, said to be out-takes from the filming for the Grapevine DIY program Scritti did for BBC

S: On 4 A Sides, there’s one particularly beautiful piece of music, “P.A.s”. I love the sinuous melody, the sheer groove of the song. But lyrically that’s partly about fascism, right? The myth that it could never happen here, in the UK, land of moderation, whereas you’re saying, well, no, it could happen, all that’s needed is for the right circumstances of economic collapse and mass unemployment, and for “the language” to “shut down” like it did in Germany in 1933, and Italy in 1920?

G: That’s one that’s hard to remember. There’s the bit that I quoted in the Early CD sleevenotes, ‘til doledrums roll us into battle”. That song operates  exactly  as you  mentioned earlier--it takes  a line through what you would otherwise think of in sedimented terms, in spatial metaphors…  it cuts across from the basic structure [of political reality] to unconscious day-to-day political stuff. It’s a trawl, really…

S: So it goes from the bailiffs and the debts to resurgent fascism to--

G: Yeah, all that stuff. I think around about that time was when Geoff came in and bailed me out, as he has done on more than one occasion, and started giving me a wage. Or us a wage. It’s funny, cos there were no contracts in those days, it was all just…

S:  Trust.

G:  Trust, yes. It was like, ‘if you need some money to live, here’s some money to live’, and ‘when the record comes out, this is your half, this is our half’ I don’t know however it worked, but it worked. It was good.

SCRIT 3 -  a DIY booklet produced by Scritti Politti explaining how to make a record


S: You’ve talked a lot in the past about the Brighton gig in early 1980, supporting Gang of Four, and the nervous collapse. Was that the first time you suffered a crippling panic attack?

G: That was the first.

S: You thought you were dying.

G: Yeah. It was the whole ambulance with the sirens going to the hospital deal.

S: This was after the gig, right?

G: I think maybe I’d made it  through the gig on that occasion. We weren’t living too healthily… I think maybe if I’d known what was going on, I’d have gone for some help with the whole panic attack thing. Everything from the drinking to the speed to… It’s like, yipes, the very thought of it now makes me feel… weak!

S: Was there a sense  too in which you were also thinking too much, worrying too much? That all that--worrying about the right path to follow--made you ill? And you must have been reading tons and tons of books, constantly.

G: There’s something that certainly happens, and it happens to me--where the querying of the significance relatively of various things seems to contaminate your whole life, to a point where you might describe it as mental illness. I don’t think I’ve ever had it that bad, but there’s definitely a continuum. It’s nasty, when you do, on a few occasions, reach that point of finding minutiae overburdened with potential significance. D’you-know-what-I-mean?. I know what that’s like.

S: So  your family  rescued you.

G: They did a bit. They got me a place in Wales, to recuperate. I was never kind of deliriously bonkers, though.

S: Hahahahahahaha.

G: I possibly was actually! No, I certainly wasn’t, but I did go back to Wales and got it back together in the country, maaaan. Which is something I’ve had recourse to do at various other points.

S: Like in the Nineties?

G: Yeah, more of the same

S: So, you mentioned this earlier, but this postpunk legend turns out to be true---the story of Green going back to Wales to get well and writing a whole book in order to convince his band mates that it was ideologically correct for Scritti to go in a more poppy direction?

G: It wasn’t quite a book, but there was a lot of it.

S: I think the idea’s quite glorious. Heroic, even!

G: Somewhere I’ve probably got all those writings still. I’ve just moved boxes and boxes of writings from a place I had in Wales up to London.  I like to leave the boxes closed. But I took the risk of opening one of them and I pulled out a notebook, literally the topmost thing, and what I found was a four or five page account of my meeting Miles Davis. Going to his apartment. I’d forgotten completely I’d done this, but afterwards I’d gone back to wherever I was staying in New York at the time and I wrote the whole encounter down in great detail--what he was wearing, what we said, what we did, what we listened to. Absolutely fascinating.

S: Well, you should publish it somewhere

G: Nah. It’s possibly of interest to anyone interested in Miles, but it’s just a detailed diary entry about a day spent with Miles. But I don’t know what those other writings are like. I certainly wrote a lot in those years.

It has been argued by some that this song is not actually an anthem in celebration of DIY, but a critique of it - the line "we know what we're doing" is not saying 'we fracture our songs like this on purpose' but talking about how scratchy-collapsy had become codified, a new set of conventions: a contrived amateurism, a theatricalised naivete. In other words, Green was feeling trapped by the aestheticization of mess, bored by its predictability, and looking for a way out. 

S: In terms of the notes you wrote to convert the band, and where your thinking was changing at this time, was one of the ideas this post-structuralist, Derridean idea that problematized the very notion of the margin? And you realizing that postpunk in general, and Scritti in particular, was based around this obsolete opposition of margin versus center, with the marginal being celebrated as a zone of  authenticity and purity beyond the conventional forms of the mainstream?

G: Well, I didn’t believe in authenticity or purity, and part of the whole thing was to militate against uncritical ideas of expressivity, authenticity, identity, the ‘real’ you, the ‘real’ voice.  I didn’t buy into any of that and part of the project was to draw attention to that. Part of  going to New York and working with Arif Mardin, that was again uppermost in my mind, was of being true to an idea of inauthenticity. So when you’re talking about Derrida, do you mean ‘the frame’?

S: No--and here I’m going by my memories of your interviews in the music press at the time--I got the impression that you felt independent label music had become obsessively marginal, in the sense of willfully difficult and contrivedly unconventional. So the shift between the first three EPs and ‘The ‘Sweetest Girl’/  Songs to Remember was a shift from self-conscious marginality to a deconstructionist pop music. And whether Scritti ever subscribed to ideas of authenticity or marginality or purity, certainly a lot of the groups you’d have been associated with originally--your postpunk fellow-travellers like PiL and Pop Group--they were totally bound-up with those notions.

G: But you know, the metaphor of the margin implies a centre and the centre is conservatively defined, and so by extension the margins are conservative margins. There are these edges, but they are very conservatively determined. So I didn’t really like marginality with a big M, it’s something I got more mistrustful of.

S: Was there a point at which you actually handed in your Communist Party card?

G: Right from the beginning, I was active in the Young Communists at the same time as I was having trouble with the whole idea of the scientific status of the science of history that Marxism purported to be. But that didn’t seem to mean that I had to leave the party. I presumed that those conversations would be had within the Party and the ground would shift. I was working in the same building at the Marxism Today people, all that crew, some of who were very bright and very interesting. But that didn’t happen. We’re talking only about a relatively short period of time but there just wasn’t a possibility that any serious discussions about Marxism were going to go on inside the Young Communist League or the Communist Party. So I just stopped going.


For C81, NME printed a 2-page (or possibly 4-page?) pull-out, a mosaic of little items on each contributing band and its song. Sometimes written by the group itself, other times written by a journalist. The idea was to fold the pull-out up and stuff in with the cassette (when it arrived) although this proved quite challenging. Above is the Scritti's deliciously cryptic text to go with "The 'Sweetest Girl', which opened side one of C81. I discovered some years later that the first paragraph is from Roland Barthes's The Lover's Discourse - a clear sign of Green's "linguistic turn", away from the hand-wringing guilt towards jouissance. (The concept after which he would name his song- publishing company). (See end of blogpost for C81 cover, full pull-out etc)

S: The last song on Early is the B-Side of “The ‘Sweetest Girl’, ‘Lions After Slumber’, which was always one of my favorite songs of yours. Where does the title come from?

G: ‘Lions after slumber/unvanquishable number’--that’s Blake, isn’t it?  I think it’s the slumbering proletariat--that’s basically what he was writing about, in his way. 

[Actually it’s Shelley - the same poem 'The Masque of Anarchy", inspired by the Peterloo Massacre, that produced "for the many, not the few" - the Corbyn-era Labour Party's slogan - via the final verse: Rise, like lions after slumber/In unvanquishable number!/Shake your chains to earth like dew / Which in sleep had fallen on you: Ye are many—they are few! ]


S: The lyrics, though, are more like Whitman’s idea of “I myself contain multitudes”. The idea of the self as a population of  heterogenous desires, impulses, states of mind, bodily attitudes, langours, fleeting perceptions…  And the connection between Whitman and Blake would be there’s that kind of slippage between this internal population and a kind of political populism, a rude democracy.  Whitman, if I recall correctly, kind of maps his own body onto the bustling, heterogenous masses of America.

G: “Lions” is the listy one, right. What is it to do with, if I had to say something about it, it’s just a little relativistic hymn. It’s anti-singularity. It would mean that I am made up of a million… not points, but intersections. Something… something completely fucking stupid like that! You have to bear in mind I don’t remember what on earth I was going on about. I can’t recall the lyrics. Thankfully!

S: How did Tom and Niall and Matthew and the rest of the crew respond to the New Direction for Scritti’s music? When they read your theoretical jottings, were they instantly swayed or were they guarded about it for some while?

G: They came to Wales and stayed in the cottage for I don’t know how long--long enough for everyone to read and digest it. A bit of time. The only thing I do remember from that time in the cottage is that we were attacked by a group of bikers who kicked the front door of the cottage in. Even in Wales, you see, we could never get away from people who didn’t like the look of you and wanted to kick your head in.  I really didn’t know which way it was going to go, or what people would make of my writings. And although the big shift was accepted in theory, I think the lived practice of it didn’t sit well with Niall particularly. We were just under the general pressures of doing what we were doing, and doing other things extra-curricularly that had their own pressures… I don’t remember precisely when it was, but the radical gesture of the move to pop was not as wholeheartedly embraced by Niall in particular. And there came a point where we were playing with two bass players--one who could do the funk stuff, and Niall who couldn’t. And I guess from then on it became a kind of untenable position. But that
possibly had a lot to do with how badly I handled things.

S: So do you reproach yourself then, for what happened with the original Scritti members?

G: Oh, I’d reproach myself for the whole fucking  enterprise. I should have stayed in bed, or gone to Birmingham, or done something else. I think I was probably… well, we were young. I don’t know what to say, other than that Niall was one of the fantastic influences on my life, and continues to be. But you drift apart. Things fall apart!

S:  You’re not in contact then.

G: No.  I’m not in contact with anybody from the past, at all, ever, in any way.

S: There was this process where it was gradually revealed that, even in the earliest days of the collective, you were always the main musical figure in terms of writing the songs. And so, effectively, the leader.

G: I genuinely didn’t think of myself as the leader of anything. It just felt like something we were doing. People around me, like Dennis, this guy who was another art student from Leeds, he was an incredibly bright person who’d come and say he’d just read this in something, and ‘you should read it’. Or ‘here’s some writing by Eagleton, and what do you think of it?’ And Niall was obviously very bright. There was just a lot of bright, funny, dynamic, interesting people around.

S: So all that fed into what you were doing lyrically, and in terms of conceptualizing the project. But in practical terms, musically, it was you, right? The songwriter.

G: Yeah.   But there were various reasons why that didn’t seem in itself feel particularly privileged.  I don’t think we would have let it be. I wasn’t quietly going to bed at nights thinking ‘I’m the one that’s writing all the songs’. That really would never have crossed my mind, to think that that was a privileged thing. I knew that I wasn’t any cleverer or anything else than any of the people around me.

S: It is an amazing thing, this idea of this musical collective where there were four or five times as many non-musical members as the core band, and where the non-musicians actually contributed.

G: It wasn’t like everybody would come in the rehearsal room when you were figuring stuff out, but everybody expressed their opinion, I think. It didn’t seem strange to me. And before punk, the only band I’d actually been close to, within sniffable distance, where you could see what the musicians might be like as real human beings, that was Henry Cow. And of course they were always reading and talking. And they walked it like they talked it. It was a whole life.  It wasn’t about a career in music. It was about a whole life.

S:  With the third single of the new pop Scritti, ‘Asylums In Jerusalem”, the B-Side is “Jacques Derrida’, which I’m still very fond of. The lyric is a bit cute, that central idea of ‘I’m in love with Jacques Derrida’. But musically I’ve never quite been able to place it, that rhythm. Is it country, or Cajun?

G: I don’t really know where that song’s coming from either, but it’s my own mutant take on The Kinks. When I went to Wales and listened to Aretha Franklin for the first time, I was also actually listening to the first Kinks records for the first time. A lot of their stuff I never knew. So a big influence on that song would have been The Kinks, and there was a country influence on the Kinks.

S: Given your massive love of hip hop now, and teaming up with MCs on Anomie and Bonhomie, what do you reckon on your own rather jejeune attempt at rapping on ‘Jacques Derrida’?

G: [explodes with laughter] Oh my God, I’d forgotten. Oh my GOD.  [slowly pulling himself together].  Well, I guess I’m laughing, so as long as I don’t have to actually hear it, the idea of it is… funny.

S:  In the rap section, you go on about “desire is so contagious/I want to eat your nation state”. I like those lines. ‘Desire’ was a big buzzword at the time, sort of drifting over from journals like Semiotexte, into the hipper end of pop culture, wasn’t it?

G: Yeah, desire was all over the place! Desire was…  everybody was writing about it, thinking about it:  what was it, where was it, what should we do about it. Hahahahaha!.

S: Another cute line is the nod to Wittgenstein in “Getting’ Havin’ Holdin’”, where you say ‘it’s as true as the Tractatus’.

G: To me, a lot of it is funny. ‘True like the Tractatus’--it’s funny, I think. We just used to laugh. It has its levels

Okay, I was wrong in the book about there was little chance Green's lyrics would ever appear in Smash Hits. 

S:  I loved Songs To Remember at the time, and probably this wasn’t your intention and from your point of view would  have been considered a shortfall, but it was a big student fave that Michaelmas term, all the through the autumn and into the winter, you’d hear it in a lot  of student rooms. But I imagine you had your heart set more on people who buy their records at Woolworths. The difference between Songs To Remember and the third-stage of Scritti, with Cupid & Psyche, is that by that point you seem to perfect this style of lyric writing where the words can pass for a love song but has these aporias cleverly woven in there So they work as love songs, but they have little mind-bombs inside.  Songs to Remember, though, it’s difficult to know what your average pop consumer would have made of a song like “Asylums in Jerusalem”. From the title on down, it’s not really yer typical pop ditty. It’s something to do with Nietzche, right?

G:   Asylums in Jerusalem was Nietzche’s thing about the preponderance of desert prophets, of seers and sages. They were Jesus’s competitors, and they went into the desert and sat atop forty foot poles and had visions. There were so many they had to build asylums in Jerusalem to house them.

S: So  Monty Python’s Life of Brian is based on reality! That you could virtually trip over messiahs in Israel back in those days.

G: That was Nietzche’s point. Yes you’re quite right, I did go from doing that kind of thing to writing songs that weren’t called things like ‘Asylums in Jerusalem’. But I am again now! Hahahaha. Oh  my God, it’s funny listening to my lyrics of today….  I don’t know what anyone would make of ‘em.



S:  I didn’t notice this until only a few days ago, but I dug out Anomie and Bonhomie, and noticed that it continues the Scritti running theme of consumer disposables - the cheap classiness of the Dunhill, Dior, Courvoisier packaging copied on "Sweetest", "Faithless, "Asylums". So you have a bottlecap, echoing back to the discarded beer bottle cap photocopied and all grainy and grubby-looking on Peel Sessions , but on Anomie, it’s this ultra-glossy, hyper-realist painting of a bottle cap. So it’s sort of fusing the grubby realism of the do-it-yourself era Scritti cover design with the glossy glamour of ‘Sweetest’/’Faithless’/Cupid & Psyche.

G: I guess the tools to hand back in the early days were the photocopier, and you would gather what there was and make use of the photocopier. So it would be whatever was on the kitchen table as the record labels were being hand stamped and the covers being folded by hand--stuff like bottle caps and match boxes. Nowadays anyone can sit around with a computer and fiddle round and take an ordinary bottle top and stick your name on it so it looks like a found object--but it’s still an extension of that original design approach, in some dimension.

 S: Songs To Remember was successful, but it didn’t turn you into a pop star, as desired. There was never the Top 40 hit you were looking for. So you hooked up with Bob Last as your manager. He’s a very smart guy, grounded in left politics and critical theory, so was he a kindred spirit?

G: Yeah. Fast Product was always very interesting. I’d always liked what was going on with them. Geoff was very tight with Bob and had a lot of respect for him. And then he had the Human League and ABC.

S:  I hadn’t quite realized until doing the book that Last had this amazing trinity of New Pop pioneers under his management wing: ABC, Human League, Scritti. Oh, and Heaven 17 too.

G: I think he thought the same way about things as people like Martin Fry. I never spoke to Martin about it, but I know from people like Ian Craig Marsh from Heaven 17, who I still see--he’s one of the few people from my past I still occasionally see--that we would have shared a lot of common ground. And I know that intellectually and politically Bob was coming from the same area.

A transitional Scritti rehearsal jam out of which emerges a prototype for "Wood Beez" - date unknown 

S: How did the connection with David Gamson and Fred Maher come about?

G:  With Gamson, I went into Rough Trade one day and played Geoff some of what I’d started to write and it had obviously got a black American New York influence and as far as I can recall, he had just visited ZE records. He’d just got back from New York, and he had overheard Gamson having the meeting ahead of him [with ZE boss Michael Zilkha]. Gamson was still a schoolboy, he was at school, or maybe it was Sarah Lawrence college, the equivalent of  sixth form, but he’d made a track at a local studio and taken it to  Zilkha to see if ZE would put it out. Zilkha passed, but Geoff heard it through the door of the office and said he liked it and he put it out on Rough Trade. And he came back and when he heard my new stuff he said  ‘you should hear this thing this kid in New York has done.’  And then they sent David by mistake--in typical Rough Trade fashion--a test pressing not of his song but of “The ‘Sweetest Girl’”, So he got to hear that, and his twin passions were--he was Anglophile, so he liked the whole Robert Wyatt thing, but he also  knew Parliament-Funkadelic, he’d grown up with black radio stations in New York.
So Geoff said, ‘I think you should meet him’ and he flew Gamson over.”

S: So with the Wyatt and black music passions in common, you had a lot of musical affinity. But was he different from you, and the original Scrits, in that he was not so much of a theory head?

G: He wasn’t really … It’s wrong to say that in one way, because he’s an incredibly bright guy. But he was that much younger, he was still at Sarah Lawrence, still living with his folks. His mother was a dancer, and his father was an opera guy, an assistant to Bernstein, so it was a very different world. Although they were liberal and intellectual up to a point, it was worlds apart. Which wasn’t to say that he wasn’t….. I mean,
if you go to his house in LA now, you’ll find really pretty interesting bookshelves. He’s a smart guy.

S: But for you too, wasn’t there a sense in which for a while the technicality of making these ultra-modern, super-precise records kind of took over for a while, eclipsing the theory side of things?  Because making Cupid & Psyche, that was incredibly intricate work, wasn’t it?

G: Yeah, it took a long, long time, and an awful lot of money. That record was interested in exploiting all the new technology at the time, and it was also about expressing those really black pop influences, the world of sixteenth notes and syncopation. A whole new language of talking about music for me. I had never spoken of bars and beats or anything before in my life. So there was a certain exhilaration in discovering that and being surrounded by musicians who could do that.

But at the same time as big an influence-- although it was never expressed--was hip hop, which was what we were doing by day as it were, or by night. And I didn’t stop reading and writing when I moved to New York. I was as avidly reading whatever I could--philosophy, and making notes about it and its relationship with dance music or whatever.

Got the idea somewhere that the text on the front of "The Word Girl" is taken from Lacan's Ecrits. I'm sure I read that somewhere...

S: Cupid & Psyche, some of the ‘love songs’ on it, I’m thinking especially of “A Little Knowledge”, there’s quite a bleak vision of love there. “Now I know to love you/Is not to know you”. Is that related to Lacan and the idea that there’s no such thing as the sexual relationship, that you can’t actually relate to anyone, really?

G: Yeah, that sounds about right.

S: Which is a terribly gloomy view of human love and relationships.

G: I’m very much in love now.


S: Oh are you--great!

G: Yeah. I am. And very happy too. I’m not a stranger to … I must admit I’m beginning to flag a little here. Just a bit knackered. I’ve been singing all morning and stuff. But please feel free to ring me again tomorrow if there’s anything else. Have you and I never met?

S: Around Provision, for Melody Maker.

G: Wow. That was a low point, I think. Where was I?

S:  In London. One thing that surprised me--although it makes sense now given your love of folk music--is I asked what you liked of current music and you said ‘I like the Proclaimers’ and that really threw me for a loop! I remember you seemed a bit worn out that day. You’d been on the treadmill of interviews around that record.

G: I didn’t enjoy that record at all, and I enjoyed promoting it even less.

S:  That was going to be my final question, actually. What went wrong with Provision? Was the process of recording just too protracted?

G:  I don’t know. I didn’t take the necessary time out to figure out what I was doing. After Cupid and Psyche, we did a very big world promotional tour, because we wouldn’t play live. So they said ‘go round all around the world and do every little TV and radio station that there is. And then go back in the studio’. Which we were keen to do.

S: So have you really never played live since that Brighton gig supporting Gang of Four?

G: No. Which is quite extraordinary. I did the Mojo Awards and I went along with Carl from the Libertines to present an award to Geoff Travis, last year, and I was most shocked to be approached by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. And they said ‘we just wanted to say what enormous fans we are of your early music’. They knew all that ‘Skank Bloc Bologna’ stuff. They were playing it on their tour bus. They were so polite and so knowledgeable about it.

S:  I knew they were big fans of Gang of Four but I didn’t know they liked Scritti too!

G: They knew it all. It was amazing. I think they were surprised that A/ I was there and B/ that I was alive and C/ basically that I’d made a living out of music for 20 odd years and had only made four albums and didn’t play live.

S: Did Cupid’s success make you quite well off then?

G: I think it must have. I don’t know how, but it’s kept me afloat for years and years.

S: The Miles Davis cover version of “Perfect Way” must have helped. But you were saying about Provision

G:  I think with Provision,  I was possibly holed up in White Plains living in a hotel, for a very long time--going probably quite barmy and losing a little bit of critical distance. HAHAHAHA!!! So I made sure I had plenty of that in the following years.

further writing (by me)

me on politics and pop from Sex Pistols to Spiral Tribe, via TRB, Crass, Go4, Scrits, Dexys and Red Wedge

me on "Lions After Slumber" in this thing on 5 key postpunk tracks

my sleevenotes for the Absolute compilation 2011

me on bands who went from postpunk to new pop (including Scritti) 

me on Scritti circa White Bread and Hot Chip and the Brit projection towards black American music, for Slate, 2006 

my interview for The Guardian with Green circa White Bread Black Beer

my interview with Green in 1988 around Provision for Melody Maker

footnotes to the Messthetics chapter in Rip It Up with further me-thoughts + quotes from 
Green and bystanders

footnotes to the Play to Win chapter in Rip It Up with further me-thoughts + New Pop era quotes from Green and bystanders

footnotes to the New Gold Dreams chapter in Rip It Up with further me-thoughts + Cupid-era quotes from Green and bystanders

my postpunk London cartography (with section on Camden) for Time Out

further writing (by others)

another one of those life-changing pieces by Barney Hoskyns - interviewing Green as he unveils the new pop Scritti   in NME

Ian, penning(man) a communiqe for his communards 

John Williams (author of Faithless, a neo-noir novel loosely based on Scritti) delves deep into his memories of hanging out at 1 Carol St and nearby pubs with the Collective, as well as doing the After Hours fanzine (issue w/ Scritti interview readable in full here). Via Indie Through the Looking Glass website

Green Gartside talking about his love of Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention at Drowned In Sound

Treasury of Scrit talk and Scrit write

further listening

a couple of interviews with Green from back in the day, posted by Bobcast

'Morrocci Klung!' independent tapezine. Previously unreleased, full unedited conversation for the unpublished Dec 1981 edition (nearly 2 hours).

Greenwich Sound Radio 'Creatures What You Never Knew About' 1983 Green Gartside talks and plays records from his collection (54 mins), in two parts. 


What Tom Morley did next

Green does the singles in Melody Maker summer 1982



a life changing piece - Barney Hoskyns in dialogue with Green in the NME. Must have read this a dozen a times,