Something In Italy

Brian posted Scritti Politti’s single Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin) a few days ago so I thought it might be worth showing the distance Green Gartside travelled between their first single in 1978 and Wood Beez in 1984. Scritti formed as a collective , operating out of a South London squat, fired up by punk and Italian Marxist theory. They intended to demystify the recording and releasing of records, priting the costs of their single on the sleeve and providing phone numbers of studios and pressing plants. Skank Bloc Bologna came out on Scritti’s own St. Pancras label, a pioneering piece of DIY.

The song is firmly post-punk, with scratchy guitar, a melodic dub bassline carrying the tune and percussion dominated by cymbals. It all sounds very spontaneous and freeform. Green’s lyrics are full of real life, prosaic imagery with references to Tesco, the Bull And Bush, Harringay, Number 26 (cigarettes) and marmalade, and what I’ve always taken to be a pop at The Clash (‘rockers in the town the magnificent six’). John Peel picked it up and then Rough Trade signed them. Six years later they made Wood Beez (for a major label admittedly). I’m not sure anyone else from that era travelled as far musically as Scritti Politti. Except maybe The Clash (and probably not even them).

Skank Bloc Bologna

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The First Time Baby That I Came To You

I was watching a recent re-run of Top Of The Pops, currently in the middle of 1985. Mainly the 1985 repeats are confirming that at the top end of the pop charts 1985 was a terrible year. Occasionally something brilliant shines through the dross. Last week it was Scritti Politti. They did the same thing to me last year when I was left broadsided by Absolute. This time it was The Word Girl, a genuine top ten hit. The Word Girl’s reggae rhythm, shimmer and lighter than air vocal melody make it is mid 80s pop, there’s no mistake about that, but its instrumentation, arrangement, production and Green Gartside’s voice lift it way up above the songs that surrounded it in the chart. It floats, promising to go somewhere else, then drawing back. The digital reverb makes the song seem like it is constantly echoing itself.

It is also not a song to be taken at face value, not a simple song about a girl but a song about language and meaning. The title can also be read as The Word ‘Girl’. What seems to be a song about a girl becomes an oblique discussion about obsession and possession, gender politics, the meaning of words, the construction of language. Green had decided to shift into making pop music holed up in Wales following several panic attacks. He listened to American r’n’b and read Marxist theory. Speaking to Sounds in 1985 he said (of The Word Girl) “I was taking stock of all the lyrics of the songs for the new album and, lo and behold, in every song there was – this girl, or that girl. It seemed a good idea to show awareness of the device being used, to take it out of neutral and show it didn’t connote or denote certain things. It was important to admit a consciousness of the materiality of referring to ‘girls’ in songs.”

The Word Girl

Scritti Politti’s journey is succinctly told in this excerpt from a documentary about Rough Trade.

Absolute

On Friday night I got in from an hour in the pub and watched/fast forwarded through a few backed up episodes of Top Of The Pops, currently repeating episodes from the summer of 1984 (but only those ones without any convicted sex offenders presenting). Apart from The Smiths (Heaven Knows…, my least favourite Smiths song), Frankie (Two Tribes, number one, frighteningly 2017 thematically) and Bananarama (Rough Justice, a good song, the three girls dancing like real people actually dance rather than robo-dancers), the thing that jumped out at me- almost actually leapt from the screen on top of me, honest- was Absolute by Scritti Politti.

It’s a long way from Skank Bloc Bologna to Cupid And Psyche ’85. Absolute, a song I’d largely missed before, is a beauty, full of mid 80s pop and r’n’b flourishes, drum pads and synths and Green gamely strumming a guitar that I can’t hear anywhere in the mix. The tune sounds simple but is pretty complex. Little musical parts appear and disappear, subtly different from ones that have gone before. There’s some mid 80s funk in there too and some changes and skips that make the song move about and almost cause you have to pause to catch your breath. On top of it all sits Green’s vocal, a falsetto that floats away dreamily but somehow holds the whole thing together. I read the description ‘avant-pop’ somewhere (which seems like a typically serious way to intellectualise something so joyful- and I’ve no doubt Green and others did intellectualise it) but 33 years later this just sounds like a fucking great, open minded, inventive pop song. What a way to start my weekend and what a way to start your Monday

Also, Princess Diana hair with Nike Windrunner jacket. Sick.

Absolute

The two Top Of the Pops performances can’t be played on Youtube because they are ‘blocked in [my] country on copyright grounds’. Top Of The Pops is blocked in the UK. Nope, me either. Here’s the video instead.

And Yes, Yes, Y’all Was The Siren Call

Scritti Politti have got their first career spanning compilation out soon and there’s good article to promote it in the latest issue of Mojo. Back in 2006 Green Gartside released a homemade Scritti album, White Bread Black Beer, containing some beautifully sung songs with guitar and drum machine backing. This was the opening song- The Boom Boom Bap, a lovely tribute to and lament for the old school hip hop Green fell for in the 80s. Not that it sounds anything like old school hip hop. He manages to sweetly sing lines borrowed from those early records and make them sound like something else entirely – the boom boom bap, the tap a tap tap, the big beat drum, the yes yes y’all and the siren’s call, hard times, sucker mcs, Jay’s game, the Brewski point, the beat of my heart, wake up , Hollis crew, rock box, it’s like that, juice joint Jane, hooks can kill, jinging dollar dollar bill, I love you still… I always will.

01 The Boom Boom Bap.wma

His Eyes Are For You Only

A few years ago (and looking at the back of this cd I see it was 2004 which is probably more than a few years) I got into a band I’d been dimly aware of but pretty much completely ignored. My loss. Scritti Politti had been a pop-soul band with Lady Di hair as far as I was concerned, and I knew little about their post-punk roots. The 2004 Early compilation was a revelation- from the squatting scene, lo-fi, DIY, scratchy music, bass led with clattering drums and Clash baiting lyrics (Skanc Bloc Bologna). Really good stuff. At the same time Green Gartside released a new Scritti album- White Bread, Black Beer- which had a load of good songs on it. When I got around to playing this song it did awake some distant memories and I played it to death, eventually finding copies on 7″ and 12″ as well. The ‘Sweetest Girl’ has a lovely, hissing drum machine part, great understated melody, beautiful vocals and one of the best piano parts you’ll find, played by Robert Wyatt. Arms length lyrics, a dissection of love- Green Gartside was one of pop/post-punks intellectuals, inspired by philosophy as much as Sex Pistols, and none the worse for it. This is an absolute killer tune.

12 The ‘Sweetest Girl’.wma#2#2