Monday, December 22, 2008

Some Italian Political Writing - In Music

One of the rarest happenings in popular music history would have to have occurred in 1986. British pop trio Scritti Politti entered the U.S. Hot 100 for the second occasion, this time with a song titled ‘Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)’. At the same time the ‘Queen of Soul’ herself, Aretha Franklin, had one of her own singles, ‘Another Night’ sitting well inside the U.S. Hot 100 (it was Franklin’s 66th such foray into the Hot 100). I’ve strained my brain, which admittedly doesn’t take much at times, trying to think of another occasion when an artist had not only featured in the charts, but at the same time featured in the title of another artist’s chart hit. Aside from that quirky little aspect to Scritti Politti’s hit ‘Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)’, the band themselves deserve a closer look.

British band Scritti Politti have primarily been the creative vehicle for Welsh singer/songwriter Paul ‘Green’ Gartside. Gartside’s height (six foot six inches) serves as a stark contrast to his gentle, almost wispy singing voice. But to call Gartside a complex man of many contradictions, would be an understatement. Gartside grew up in South Wales, and from an early age gave every indication of being a genius, but one who didn’t want to play by the rules. His schoolwork may have suffered, but Gartside poured his intellectual energies into other endeavours. He joined the local chapter of the Young Communist League, and it was through that organisation that Gartside got to know future Scritti Politti bassist Nial Jinks. Gartside must have at least turned up to his high school exams, because he earned a scholarship to Leeds Art College. There he met future Scritti Politti drummer Tom Morley. Both Gartside and Morley dropped out of college in 1978, and moved to London where they took a lease out on a flat. Gartside contacted his old Y.C.L. buddy Nial Jinks, and invited him to join them in a little musical endeavour. Gartside had been inspired by a psychedelic post-punk outfit called Desperate Bicycles, and wanted to form his own band. Now for a name - something clever, something political, something different - what’s Italian for ‘political writing’? Scritti Politti! Well, that’s approximately right - the name was essentially a homage to Italian Marxist writer Antonio Gramsci. Actually, the band’s earliest performance was under the name ‘The Against’.

With a post punk political manifesto as their calling, Scritti Politti just needed to come up with some music. Three months into their odyssey, Gartside and crew decided to make their own record, literally. They recorded the song ‘Skank Bloc Bologna’ (more Marxist parlance), hand printed the covers, and rubber stamped the labels themselves on their own ‘St. Pancras’ label. Word of mouth eventually led them to selling 2,500 copies of ‘Skank Bloc Bologna’, and brought them to the attention of influential DJ John Peel, who recorded some of their songs on one of his famous BBC ‘sessions’ programs. The Rough Trade label released the Peel sessions, and reissued ‘Skank Bloc Bologna’, selling 15,000 copies second time around. The band’s edgy musical style, combined with Gartside’s sweet delivery of impossibly abstract lyrics, placed Scritti Politti on the cutting edge of things. They were soon signed to tour with the likes of Gang Of Four and Joy Division. However, Gartside didn’t take well to the whole touring environment. At age 23, he suffered his first heart attack, and had to withdraw from music for a year, while he convalesced in his home town in South Wales.

With the high energy post punk phase behind them, Scritti Politti, which was now firmly in the creative control of Gartside, re-emerged in 1981 with a cleaner, new wave meets art pop, with a twist of reggae, sound. Gartside retained his abstract, obscure lyrical bent, but served it up in a sweeter package. ‘The Sweetest Girl’ (UK#64) was originally released as a demo version, via a giveaway cassette titled ‘C81’, with an issue of New Musical Express (NME). The feedback was positive, but the finished version took some months to be issued, by which time the initial momentum had waned (Madness later covered the song in 1985). Scritti Politti issued their debut album ‘Songs To Remember’ in September 1982, winning widespread acclaim from the music press. The Adam Kidron produced album reached #12 on the British charts (#1 Independent Albums), and spawned two minor hits. ‘Faithless’ had already peaked at #56 in Britain a few months earlier. The second single was a double-A side, ‘Asylums In Jerusalem/Jacques Derrida’ (UK#43), and featured Robert Wyatt on keyboards. Jacques Derrida is an Algerian-born, French-based philosopher and writer, who Green Gartside greatly admires. By the time ‘Songs To Remember’ was in the stores, Scritti Politti had effectively been reduced to the creative force that is Green Gartside. Drummer Tom Morley was the only other original member still involved at the point ‘The Sweetest Girl’ was released. But with a top 10 album under his belt, and an acknowledged reputation as an astute and gifted songwriter, with a silky smooth pop falsetto at his disposal, Green Gartside had outgrown the independent Rough Trade label, and was in the mood for another change of musical direction.

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