Green Gartside has always been known for his wordplay ever since high school, becoming a bit of a pop music master that many have been influenced by, but sadly fewer could name.
Since the late 1970s Scritti Politti has been, for all intents and purposes, Gartside’s vehicle, its own name derived from Scritti Politici, a bowdlerization of a book by the Italian anarcho-socialist thinker Antonio Gramsci which roughly translates as ‘political writing’ and “sounds a bit like Tutti Frutti, like some Little Richard lyric, a piece of nonsense rock ‘n’ roll.”
His sugar-coated vocals have featured on records by Elvis Costello, Eurythmics, Kylie Minogue and the Manic Street Preachers, and today the most autodidactical political of pop wordsmiths turns 65. This is his story.
Born Paul Julian Strohmeyer on 22 June 1955 in Cardiff, the Gartside had been handed to him by his stepfather, though ever the outsider, “the ‘Green’ bit came about because I didn’t like the fact there were two other Pauls in my class and I wanted something different. So I just chose something random after listening to a Captain Beefheart album where all the musicians were named odd things like Zoot Horn Rollo.”
I wonder if Zoot had a helter skelter…
Politically active at a young age, Gartside formed a branch of the Young Communists at 14, a passion he’d cling to while later studying art at Leeds Polytechnic. It was there, after seeing the Sex Pistols open their Anarchy In The UK tour at the Poly, that he first got the idea to put a band together, recruiting Tom Morley (drums) and Nial Jinks (bass) to form the nucleus, whose music was intentionally disjointed, anarchic, and unlike anything you’d hear on Radio 1 at the time.
However, given the scratchy, discordant sound of early Scritti Politti and their opening trip of non-charting indie EPs (noisy and belligerent, but with effortlessly erudite lyrics and sometimes even a hint of a tune), no-one – Green himself included – could have guessed they’d go on to find mainstream pop stardom and fans in the legendary likes of Miles Davis and Stevie Wonder.
“By ’79 punk was dead, post-punk wasn’t interesting anymore and everybody wanted to sound like Echo And The Bunnymen and dress like Ian McCulloch,” says the singer, who ended up back in Wales listening to his sister’s soul and black American pop records to rethink Scritti’s sound.
The result was transformative if endearingly wonky: the honeyed reggae-tinged pop of 1981’s The “Sweetest Girl” (note the ironic Bowie “Heroes”-style use of quotation marks), with Robert Wyatt loping over the beat of a home organ drum machine, and Green abandoning his roughly barked vocals for the lush, melodic if rather unnatural style he has used ever since. Said Green about the song in 2011:
“It was meant to be a duet between Kraftwerk and Gregory Isaacs. Gregory Isaacs’ management were keen. Years later, in New York, I went to see Tito Puente with Ralf (Hütter) and Florian (Schneider) from Kraftwerk, and I brought it up. They said they hated reggae.”
It also marked his postmodern take on pop music lyrics, even as he made use of the conventions of the form. It was only the most minor of hits (it took a kooky cover those Camden nutty boys Madness to take it into the Top 40, but it’s pure class, confirming Scritti as an irresistibly attractive brand of song infused with sumptuous depth and keen intelligence.
A plagued-with-delays debut long-player, Songs To Remember, finally followed a year later. The album has a seductive, meandering charm which never quite seems fully realised, delivering a promising blend of textures and velvet soul while rooted in heart-moving pop, somehow retaining Gartside’s playful lyrics and sublime anti-establishment bent.
The band had transformed from an almost archetypal Rough Trade recording group – politics up-front and image intellectual – to a group bulging with reputation and drenched with promise, collecting wildly enthusiastic accolades from the press.
But if you were going to point to any kind of heyday for Scritti Politti, most people will remember them for that luxurious, intricate and sample-driven sound that took over the charts in the mid ‘80s. Cupid & Psyche 85, their hugely successful sophomore set that launched the group into the big time, remains an enormously popular album for decade enthusiasts, and it’s not hard to understand why.
Released in 1985 to the surprise of no one, Cupid & Psyche is a collection of music that’s seen by many to be the pinnacle of so-called ‘sophisti-pop’, a subgenre term that was applied to anyone luxuriant who looked or sounded like they’d been influenced by Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music’s high-end ‘80s catalogue (in other words, wine bar Brits such as Sade, Simply Red, Spandau Ballet, Style Council, Swing Out Sister, and even the odd posse of honorary members who didn’t start with an ’S’ like ABC, Blow Monkeys and Hue & Cry)
The core group around C&P comprised of Gartside, synth maestro and producer David Gamson, and drummer Fred Maher. On the surface, the record seems typical of the buffed-to-a-shine top end of the charts in the mid ‘80s, but at the same time, it’s a huge blue-eyed soul subversion in the face of mainstream pop. Spawning a tasty triumvirate in three Top 20 hits prior to its release in the wondrous Wood Beez, shimmering Absolute and, highest placed of all, the lilting reggaefied The Word Girl, the album crashed into the UK chart dated 22 June 1985 at No.5 the very same week the latter single peaked at 6; both career bests to date, and a birthday to remember for Green.
Where he created an intriguing set of identity-finders with Songs To Remember, on Cupid Gartside becomes his self-fulfilled pop prophecy, the end result of a three year gestative period and packed to the rafters with synthetic chicanery and MTV-friendly sheen by Aretha Franklin’s producer Arif Mardin doing his uber best Trevor Horn impersonation.
Whilst the album unabashedly utilised all manner of mid-’80s state of the art synthesizer technology (Fairlight CMI, drum machines, sequencers), 35 years later I don’t really ‘hear’ those elements any more. All I hear is top-notch songwriting, intriguing and intelligent lyrics, hook-laden funk and R&B grooves gilded by Green’s gossamer-light, impossibly breathy vocals.
Designed in 1979, the Fairlight CMI (named after a Sydney ferry that served Fairlight, the area of the Aussie city’s Northern Beaches where I’m writing this very article from), became a fixture of every major recording studio because of its possibilities for sampling and sequencing and its ability to produce multiple timbres at once.
One of the Fairlight’s most recognisable sounds — the ORCH5 sample, better known as the “orchestra hit” is, admittedly, all over Cupid & Psyche 85… and elsewhere. Believed by many to be sampled from Stravinsky’s The Firebird, this assertive “stab” would show up in everything from Yes’s Owner Of A Lonely Heart, the Art Of Noise’s Close (To The Edit) and Afrika Bambaataa’s Planet Rock. The most prominent use of the ORCH5 on C&P is probably on the showstopper Hypnotize, with David Gamson adding a layer of dramatic aggression to Scritti’s lightly frisky funk.
If I think back to the Britain of the 1980s, the vast majority of my generation had next to no idea who the hell Aretha Franklin was before Scritti’s affectionate ‘tribute’. Gartside told Smash Hits magazine that, “if you’d played me Wood Beez six years ago, I think I’d have spat at it or something.” “Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)” is one of the album’s most dense accomplishments, it’s music bombastic and light, vulgar and soaring, mechanical and human.
The dedication to the Queen of Soul speaks to Green’s conflicted emotions about pop music, and he told the NME:
“It’s the whole question of what pop is. Its relationship to language, power and politics. It’s also a question of music’s transgression and abuse of some of the rules of language. Aretha was singing what are arguably inane pop songs and had left her gospel roots. But she sang them with a fervor, a passion, though I hate to use that word because it’s been hideously tarred in recent usage. To a committed materialist whose interest had come round to language again—perhaps because of a bankruptcy in Marxism to deal with ideology or any artistic community—hearing her was as near to a hymn or a prayer as I could get. Obviously I couldn’t make that point in a three minute pop song.”
Even David Bowie was impressed, spinning Wood Beez on an XFM radio show in 2003 and it ”one of the best singles of that particular era. I thought the line about ‘When I go to sleep at night I pray like Aretha Franklin‘, I thought that‘s one of the greatest lines ever written. What a wonderful line to put in a song.”
But he did. Green’s swooning blue-eyed soul works against the mechanical drum beats and real drum beats. “Wood Beez” has some appropriately wooden beats, but the vocals and synth melodies soar, the bright rhythm guitar line propelling the track through its hit-single contradictions.
In Wood Beez, Gartside is happy to proclaim himself “a would-be” and sounds proud when he sings, “Nothing/ Oh, nothing” in the pre-chorus. Scritti’s answer to what pop is does revolve around the word “nothing”; there’s nothing that Gartside wouldn’t do to be with his girl, “nothing” as a welcomed form of inertia, “nothing” as a deconstructionist scorched-earth policy denying the assignation of meaning to, well, anything.
Nevertheless, propelled by an elastic programmed bass, frissons of incongruous guitar and Gartside’s wispy voice mirroring Off The Wall and Thriller era Michael Jackson, Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin) was a slice of pristine pop perfection if ever there was one. And I guess it’s always going to have a special place in my musical memories, probably because I had zero idea who Scritti Politti were until the song started airing either.
If I remember correctly, I caught a full page image of Green in Smash Hits before I heard the single on the radio, and I automatically assumed he was the latest outrageous homosexualist gender bender. The UK charts of ’84 were full of ‘em: from Boy George to Pete Burns, Bronski Beat to Marc Almond and the absolutely flabulous Divine.
How wrong was I. Though, come on, the earrings, the kaftans, the bouffant peroxided hair making him look like the secret love child of George Michael and Princess Diana. I mean, you would, wouldn’t you.
In retrospect, the flouncy, blousy image was an aberration anyway, if a slightly bandwagon-jumping one. A sign of the times before Live Aid put hoary old dad rockers back on the pop throne.
In addition to the tasty triumvirate of now classic hits, the album also spawned the singles Hypnotize and Perfect Way, with John Potoker’s propulsive remix of the latter far superior to the album version, and even gave the band a massive hit in the States, reaching 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 and pushing worldwide sales of the album over the million mark.
While Don’t Work That Hard and Lover To Fall might be deemed ‘filler’, they easily transcend that label by dint of their sprightly grooves and sheer catchiness. The beautiful A Little Knowledge showed that Green and Gamson were on the same page as Prefab Sprout’s Paddy McAloon when it came to contemporaneous, sumptuous romantic ballads.
A cursory listen to a retro radio station like Absolute 80s reveals the wide-reaching influence of Cupid & Psyche on countless bands whose day had yet to come: a-ha, Climie Fisher, Johnny Hates Jazz, Living In A Box and Pet Shop Boys all attempted those clinical, Swiss-watch-precision arrangements and uplifting pure pop sonics, but a-ha and PSB aside, they usually lacked Gamson’s ingenious chord changes and Green’s gift for melody.
However, the height of the pop life was never the frontman’s cup of tea.
A nervy sort, Gartside had struggled with anxiety during the early days of the band, and after having a heart attack aged just 23, was rather known for being fairly reserved and insular.
Promoting Cupid took its toll on the singer, and while he spent the late ‘80s working with artists as diverse as Al Jarreau, Miles Davis and Chaka Khan, 1988’s Provision would remain one of his least favourite works, the black sheep of an admittedly sparse catalogue. Though it’s not without its famous fans.
“I loved that record. I met Green Gartside, you know, very recently – I did a project with British Electric Foundation, with Martyn Ware from Heaven 17, The Dark Project. Andy Bell from Erasure was there too, but meeting Green was a highlight, having been such a huge fan. And I thought I’m going to seize the moment, I’m not going to let this go, because he’s quite an elusive man and he darts in and out… so I grabbed hold of him, and said [goes completely gushy]: “I just want to let you know how much your music meant to me – I know you probably get this all the time, and I know people say it to me and I try and be gracious, and I don’t mean to embarrass you – but I just want to thank you so much for making such perfect music and inspiring me so much.” Thankfully, he looked quite pleased!” — Kim Wilde
What’s more, he had grown tired of the promotion and contractual requirements foisted on him by his new record labels, Richard Branson’s Virgin in Britain, Warner Bros. in the States.
From here, Gartside would take to exile of sorts, returning to his native Wales, only challenging the pop charts briefly with covers of The Beatles’ She’s A Woman and Gladys Knight & The Pips’ Take Me In Your Arms and Love Me in 1991. He’d collaborate with the likes of the Heaven 17 sideshow BEF, but the world would only hear from Scritti again very sporadically.
When there has been a release, the work he’s produced since has moved through so many different genres and sounds that it’s often hard to keep track. Gartside’s almost-but-not-quite falsetto, on the whole, has been the only constant. 1999’s collection, Anomie & Bonhomie, was an enormous diversion in the Scritti sound, fusing rap, hip-hop, and rock together in an eclectic patchwork. In other words, yet another reinvention of Green Gartside:
“The thing is, my favourite bands and people have always been people who try different things – when I was little it was The Beatles, because they always tried different stuff, and David Bowie. It just seemed like the natural thing to do.”
Scritti Politti’s last album of new songs was 2006’s White Bread Black Beer, a series of lo-fi, introspective tunes that received critical acclaim, including a Mercury Music Prize nomination and later, a cover of the gorgeous, glistening Snow In Sun by Everything But The Girl’s Tracey Thorn.
Gartside had recruited a whole new band once more, and returned to playing live, too. A humble perfectionist to the end, I was lucky enough to have met Green upstairs in my local pub – where he’d asked me whether or not the set ‘sounded alright’. It had been, of course, fabulous.
Well, I say local pub, but the first floor Luminaire above McGoverns in Kilburn High Road had become a ticketed live music venue for intimate gigs at the time, and, even better, I could walk there in five minutes flat, past the houses of Martin Fry and Edwin Collins in fact.
Just the previous month I’d caught original Ultravox mainman John Foxx, and then on 17 December 2007 (cue video) I was lucky enough to be invited to Scritti Politti’s Christmas show, and it was all kinds of magical, in many ways. Like the duet with Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor for instance.
“Rousing” is not a word often associated with Scritti Politti, but in fact when the ensemble kicked in with The “Sweetest Girl”, the slickness of its lovers’ rock groove was underpinned with some real oomph. An anxious performer, his crippling stage fright is one reason Scritti never performed live during their height of popularity, and playing the miniscule backroom of an authentically ragged North London pub appears to be his way of dealing with this.
Green’s voice, too, though as plush and pure as ever, had power and precision despite his rugged beard, and his performance felt charged. Having only ever seen the odd lip-synched performance of Scritti’s on Top Of The Pops, from my vantage point by the side of the stage it was a wonder to behold and study at close quarters how he contorts his mouth and throat to get those high-pitched vocal jazz harmonies. There’s always been that kind of treacly intimacy to his voice, beloved by many and surely loathed by some—so childlike, so feminine. And coming from a guy who’s 6’6”, it was even more fascinating. Prince may be the Prince of Minnesota, but Gartside is the Princeling of Wales.
Green also regularly went out of his way to puncture any sense of event or museum-piece revival show, throwing in Christmassy silliness with the band wearing Santa hats at one point, and the singer even furnishing the audience with a festive tray of warm mince pies during the encore.
In lesser hands these bathetic fripperies could have seemed annoyingly coy in their self-effacement. But in fact the effect, along with Gartside’s gently nervy banter and anecdotalising about how certain songs were composed, was genuinely and bizarrely charming, as if we’d been invited into a band’s session which was happening for their own enjoyment, rather than a greatest hits show for the faithful.
Talking of hits, in 2011 Green was finally persuaded to collate the eccentrically sequenced Absolute, the only Best Of collection Scritti Politti has produced. Tellingly, very little from Provision made its way onto the disc, though two solid new songs reuniting Gartside and Gamson played the LP out.
Since then, Gartside has continued to play with various artists at small festival venues and intimate gigs up and down the UK, often playing unique material. While he grew tired of the pop scene and everything that came with it, the Welsh wonder has continued to produce the music he loves – without the pressure of Scritti’s heyday. It’s likely we’ll never truly hear the last of Green Gartside – whether or not an oft-teased new album between him and Gamson ever materialises. With six albums and a greatest hits compilation to explore, their back catalogue is ripe for re-listening, slim but endlessly rewarding. A bit like Green himself.
BONUS BEATS: Amazingly, as I was putting this article together, out of the blue Gartside announced a back-to-basics solo single on Rough Trade records, where the story began. Released just three days ago, the 45 features covers of Tangled Man and Wishing Well written by the acclaimed English folk singer-songwriter Anne Briggs, whose fan club has included everyone from Ewan MacColl (Kirsty’s dad), Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and who just happens to be my cousin on my mum’s Nottinghamshire Briggs side. You really couldn’t make it up.
Welcome back and happy birthday Mr Gartside.