Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Gartside Finds A Perfect Way Into The U.S. Charts

Gartside took some time out to consider his options, during which he worked with Eurythmics on the track ‘Wrap It Up’, then he recalled having met another songwriter on the Rough Trade roster, whilst he had been working in New York on material for ‘Songs To Remember’. David Gamson joined the Scritti Politti movement, and brought along ex-Material drummer Fred Maher. The fresh trio began recording new material in 1983, under the guidance of acclaimed producer Nile Rodgers (ex-Chic - see earlier post). But there was a sticking point. Gartside didn’t see the independent Rough Trade label as having the muscle to back his proposed assault on the world of mainstream pop. When Gartside and Rough Trade split, the material that he had been recording with Rodgers was shelved, indefinitely. There were no shortage of major labels willing to woo Scritti Politti, and Gartside eventually decided to go with an offer from Virgin. With Gamson, Maher, and a selection of accomplished session players in tow, Green Gartside set about recording a selection of songs he’d been working on for some time.

The first of these to surface, was the aforementioned ‘Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)’, featuring former Miles Davis bassist Marcus Miller. The song was released in the U.K. and Australia almost two years prior to its eventual U.S. issue. ‘Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)’ cruised to #10 in Britain and #25 in Australia, and had been produced by the legendary Arif Martin. No sign of a finished album in 1984, but two more pop-soul styled singles followed, with ‘Absolute’ (UK#17/OZ#77), and ‘Hypnotize’ (UK#68), keeping the Scritti Politti musical manifesto in the charts. Just as an aside, it’s worth noting that Gartside, and supporting members of Scritti Politti, have rarely featured on the cover artwork for their singles/albums. The next single ‘The Word Girl’ showcased another side to the Scritti Politti sound, and featured Ranking Ann. ‘The Word Girl’ became their biggest U.K. hit (#6/OZ#70), and proved the perfect appetiser for Scritti Politti’s much anticipated sophomore album. ‘Cupid And Psyche 85’ finally hit stores in June ‘85, and featured the previous four singles from ‘Wood Beez’. It was an immaculately assembled, and sophisticatedly produced cache of catchy synth-edged pop. The album also became a landmark set due to Gartside’s innovative use of sampling and sequencing, pushing the limits of those techniques, both stylistically and technically (it was still only 1985). Gartside continued his mischievous and provocative wordplay, but it was his employment of cutting edge technology and recording styles that imbued ‘Cupid And Psyche 85’ (UK#5/OZ#59/US#50) with a genuine element of timelessness. The album also featured the smooth pop piece ‘Perfect Way’, which proved a breakthrough for Scritti Politti in the U.S. (#11) in late ‘85 (UK#48/OZ#75). The song was later recorded by jazz legend Miles Davis. ‘Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)’ finally received its U.S. released in early ‘86, following the success of ‘Perfect Way’. Scritti Politti toured extensively in support of ‘Cupid And Psyche 85’, before Gartside hit the pause button once more on the band.

Green Gartside worked then with Chaka Khan (see earlier post) on the song ‘Love Of Lifetime’ (co-written and produced with Gamson). The only track to surface to from Scritti Politti over the next two years was ‘Best Thing Ever’, included on the ‘Who’s That Girl’ soundtrack. Miles Davis played trumpet on the next single ‘Oh Patti (Don’t Feel Sorry For Loverboy)’, which debuted on the UK charts in May ‘88, eventually peaking at #13. It featured on Scritti Politti’s new album ‘Provision’, this time co-produced by Garside & Gamson. The album saw Gartside further refine his straight pop approach, complimented by a more prominent synth-funk edge, with dashes of reggae. The album was well received in the UK (#8), but couldn’t find an audience of note in the US (#113/OZ#96). The follow up single ‘First Boy In This Town (Love Sick)’ was a moderate performer (UK#63), and Scritti Politti welcomed vocalist Roger Troutman on the only single from ‘Provision’ to chart in the U.S., ‘Boom! There She Was’ (US#53/UK#55). Troutman had charted as ‘Roger’ in 1987 with the US#3 hit ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’. Gartside also experienced a debilitating relapse of stage anxiety during this period, and had to withdraw completely from live performance duties. Combined, with the disappointing U.S. sales for ‘Provision’, Gartside decided he needed another sabbatical from Scritti Politti.

Green popped his head up briefly for a couple of single releases in 1991, both reportedly from a proposed album that never eventuated. The first single was a cover of the Beatles’ track ‘She’s A Woman’ (originally from the ‘Help!’ soundtrack), and featured guest vocals from Jamaican rapper Shabba Ranks. It was Scritti Politti’s last U.K. top 20 hit to date (#20/OZ#94). The follow up single featured another guest vocalist in Sweet Irie, but ‘Take Me In Your Arms And Love Me’ (a version of the Gladys Knight song) only managed to embrace the British charts at #47. Green Gartside then withdrew once more to the Welsh countryside, turning his back on the music business, but not on music.

From as far back as the mid 80s Gartside had taken an interest in, and a liking to, the rap and hip-hop scene. In yet another radical change of musical tack, and confirmation of his pop maverick status, Gartside set about making the next Scritti Politti album a heavily hip-hop inspired affair. Just as most had concluded that Scritti Politti had faded into pop history, the album ‘Anomie And Bonhomie’ hit stores in mid ‘99. I say Scritti Politti, but it was more or less a Green Gartside album, with a support cast of session players and guest vocalists. Hip-hop specialists like Mos Def and Jimahl were invited to contribute to tracks, whilst Scritti Politti keyboardist David Gamson was still on hand to help with production. Though positively reviewed by critics, ‘Anomie And Bonhomie’ achieved modest sales in the U.K. (#33) and couldn’t crack the U.S. market. The single ‘Tinseltown To The Boogiedown’ (UK#46) is the most recent Scritti Politti single to make the charts.

Sticking to the pattern of releasing an album , then retreating from the scene, Gartside returned to low profile status over the next seven years, aside from a duet with Kylie Minogue on the track ‘Someday’, from Minogue’s 2003 album ‘Body Language’. In February 2005 renewed interest was sparked in the early career work of Gartside and Scritti Politti, via the Rough Trade released compilation ‘Early’. Gartside hadn’t been idle during the intervening years, and in early 2006 he hit the stage for the first time in over twenty years, with an all new live line-up of Scritti Politti. Over the next few months several more gigs followed, by way of previewing tracks a new album. ‘White Break, Black Beer’ was released in May 2006, and was recorded almost entirely by Gartside (co-produced with Andy Houston). The album saw a return to more conventional pop music, and Gartside even treated listeners to the rarity of more personal, emotion based lyrics. The album was highly praised, and nominated for the prestigious Mercury Music Prize. With a new found sense of performance confidence, Gartside and Scritti Politti hit the road for an extensive tour.

With his track record for sporadic output, there’s no telling when or even if Gartside will record another Scritti Politti album. But it was definitely worthwhile taking that closer look at the work of an enigma, maverick, innovator, individualist, intellectualist, a pop-chameleon of sorts, who has forged a unique path through popular music for more than thirty years.

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