the green manifesto
-- The Face, 1988
The only pop artist who can incorporate Miles Davis and Jacques Derrida into
the same repertoire, Green Gartside is still pondering the "the
undecideability of meaning" as his new LP "Porvision" unshrouds
another Green world...
The tooth hurts. David Gamson cradles his jaw. Green sent him to a dentist who wears leather trousers and now David, the homesick New Yorker, is vulnerable enough to discuss his pick of British television. Snooker. Yes, that is very acceptable. Antiques Roadshow is excellent and he is slowly coming to grips with One Man And His Dog. Try Highway, I suggest.
This is the David Gamson whose keyboards snap and burst out of a Scritti Politti recording like exploding clock springs. He's drinking Perrier. I'm drinking Perrier. Green is drinking Red Stripe. Howard Gray, a distinguished member of the Scritti alumni, drinks Red Stripe. Green wants a name for the new record. Nobody's got a clue. Looking at the food on the restaurant table, one of us could have said "Provision", but we didn't.
A few days before this dinner, Green Gartside was involved in that part of the pop process which engages him least: the interview. He smokes and shields one half of his face with his left hand in a shy gesture that looks like it might be a habit rather than a necessity. The way he talks is bright and lucid, however, stacking up the clauses and the qualifying adjectives in pursuit of what he describes as "that ultimate undecideability of meaning". Perhaps that opposition, an inner turmoil projected and concealed by an agreeable, somewhat virtuosic outward manner, could serve to characterise Scritti Politti music. As Green sings on the new LP, aided and abetted by Zapp's Roger Troutman, "Sugar and spice is here for you, the best of both worlds". But then as he also sings a few lines before: "Nothing is ever what it seems".
"Provision" is a record of nine songs that has been more than two years in the making. "Pretty continuously," says Green. "Every day, pretty much. Yes. Christ. It's absurd. That's what happened." Every time there is a technological advance, recording slows down as procedures are adjusted. "Even though all the songs are written and arranged they still don't quite exist as songs," he says. This purely notional material, the ghost of a chance you might say, is inflated into life through the auspices of instruments like the Synclavier. "They're very detailed, pointillist arrangements that have to be made to work with a song or against the voice," he says. "They exist theoretically. They are never rehearsed as such. Back in the old days you might sit around and rehearse it until you knew it."
I remember back in the old days, actually. Green fresh from art college in Leeds, drinking in the opposite corner of a Camden Town pub. Or in the grey dark days after punk, looking out over an audience awash in lager and doomed independent ideals, as Scritti Politti limped through a support slot with their reggae-suffused music. Melodic certainly, if compared with their contemporaries, though not in the wildest dream a blueprint for the spectacular, vivacious sugar candy of "Cupid & Psyche 85" and now "Provision".
I also remember when Green was one of the six or so white faces you could spot at a black American gospel show, along with Brian Eno, Paul Weller, Paul Jones and a writer or two. Those were the early days of the 'authenticity' movement, when the great waves of emotion that swept through a congregation of believers presented a mirage of truth -- an illusion of the stuff of real life that could be lifted out like a nugget and reworked in the pop arena -- to somebody jaded with the oppressive ubiquity of white rock that dominated the times.
These were the theory days, too. Move from the margins into the centre. There was a lot of talk about a superior fusion of disco with European avant-gardisms. The ironic manipulation of images from glamour, commerce and advertising. Invariably, the end product was a mainstream dance music besotted by glamour, money and marketing.
Should we point the finger? It has been done, but let's not cast Green as one of the villains of pop history. It's surely not that important. "It's such a transient little wisp of a thing," he says. "You know, the rich Axminister of pop. It's just a little thread. It doesn't really mean very much." He considers those who saw the move from marginal, brutalist, incompetent and independent to successful, luxurious, skillful and signed to a large record company as reflecting the political movement to the right. "Any attempts to tie it to Thatcherism are just nonsense," he says crossly.
The presumption, the pretension, if that's what it was, was welcome in the context of commonsense showbiz dogma or anarcho-indie dogma. Even more welcome was "Cupid & Psyche 85", a record which will stand in years to come, regardless of its intentions or the associations of its era. It was a stunning LP which took music apart and reassembled the skeleton, seemingly piece by piece.
The style was initially influenced by the New York underground disco sound of The System and D Train and the Solar sound of Shalarmar. Listen to The System's "Sweat" LP from 1982 or "X-Periment" from 1984. It is segmental, intricate music that fizzes, drops and peaks from bar to bar. Green describes "Cupid & Psyche 85" as "a very super, hyper, syncopated, ping-ponged, biff pow zip bang thing".
With the refinement of technology, this way of making music is increasingly possible, perhaps almost inevitable, and increasingly conducive to choice and dilemma. "Manipulating the machinery," says Green, "the technology, to make things groove and swing properly takes time, and obviously that's a job that expands. The greater degree of control you have over frames and milliseconds, the more you're able to perceive frames and milliseconds, the more you're able to move things around. Sitting things back, cutting things short, changing the ending or moving things forward. That takes a long time.
"Very often we found that when we got real musicians in we felt frustrated because you can't control the parameters of their performance as well as you can the synths and samples. I don't think we were being silly about it. You can tell when it isn't quite grooving right. You take the time to get it right. Once you've started that way you can't go back."
It seems, though, that "Provision" is a less intricate and maybe gentler record for all that. It draws back a little from the logical conclusions that others have drawn from Scritti Politti's example. Producer Arif Mardin, for instance, who worked with Scritti on "Wood Beez" and "don't Work That Hard" from "Cupid & Psyche 85", produced the ghastly "Destiny" by Chaka Khan, a firework display of emptiness with a complete absence of song, content or coherence.
Green bridles at the suggestion that the Scritti Politti sound was in debt to Mardin. "He did none of the arrangements," he says. "all those songs existed in demos in exactly that form before Arif got involved. He didn't add or change anything and was totally surplus to requirements as it transpired -- as wonderful a man as he is and as useful as he was to have around for just having an avuncular figure in the room who could calm me down at moments when I was panicking. Musically, he didn't do diddly, which was as he wanted it. I'm not trying to be arrogant. I just think it's worth setting the record straight."
The pyrotechnics have come home to roost on many a fiddling, eruptive big-noise AOR record in the last few years. "The bright, brittle endless barrage" is how Green puts it. "I'd like to think there was a difference," he says of Scritti's own music. "I remember we were going to work out in LA at one stage with an engineer, Humberto Gatica," he recalls. "He worked a lot with David Foster, Chicago and Michael Jackson. He and David Foster were working on a Chicago song at the time. As invariably happens when you meet anyone in America, they've done a Scritti. So we sat through this thing and it was horrible. A horrible, agitated bass part that's going nowhere, this jittery sixteenth note thing. An awful mess. It was quite sad to think that that's what they thought we were doing."
When Green was a small boy in Wales, he thought that musicians must be the cleverest people in the world. That notion has gone by the wayside, of course. The idea that pop music has a devastating reformative effect is still with him though. "Speaking from my own experience I found the unsettling of language that went hand in hand with the pop I grew up with was a profound influence. It really did confuse and disturb me. I'd be surprised if that wasn't still going on for some people growing up with pop music. If they're listening to the right stuff it will hopefully cause them lots of sleepless nights no matter how saccharine the pop may appear to jaded ears like ours.
"When I was really tiny," he says, "my mother used to sing a song The rolling Stones had out. I don't know who it was originally by. Was it 'Little Red rooster'?? I can't tell you how bizarre, what a shock the whole thing was." He laughs at that sudden unexpected juxtaposition of farmyard metaphor, incest and infant sexuality. "Perhaps that's why. Shook it up from the outset."
Right at the end of the new LP there is a track called "Philosophy NOw", a shuffling, go-goish song full of word chains and games. It's a title that causes no pain, sitting as it does surrounded by powerfully seductive choruses and deceptively classic compositions. It's a reminder, for those who need it, that the problems of the philosophy of language are still addressed from within these love songs.
"It would be true to say," says Green, "that hopefully in the lyrics there would at least be little indices of summations of theoretical positions that are woven completely throughout the lyrics, successfully or not."
In other words, search and ye shall find, or not. That is as open as it gets, these days, since whatever ideals of entrism and the disruption of the pop process he once held have been more or less abandoned. David Gamson joins us briefly at the table and Green explains that we have been talking about the romantic notion of entrism. "I never had those ideas," says Gamson.
Gartside, Gamson and the third member of the Scritti Politti trio, drummer Fred Maher, are now members of an international community, if that's the word, of musicians who share a similar openness and pursuit of excellence. Hanging with Roger Troutman, Christmas with Miles Davis (despite the fact that Green admits Miles still scares him to death), or going out to see Tito Puente in New York with Ralf and Florian of Kraftwerk: it's a long way from the rigours of Art & Language.
"I still find it interesting," Green says, "how music might be talked about in terms that have been deconstructed, for want of a better word...please! To be able to talk about music without the metaphysics, which I know isn't really possible, but at least to have a go. That isn't being done. It's now been forgotten and neglected largely. It's still of great interest. You can't forget Marx or Freud or Darwin or Nietzsche or, for me, you can't forget Derrida. They become part of the making and the unmaking of your world.
"I was talking to some Italian the other day about these things and he said maybe that's why you like making music -- because it's something that you can assemble in a world which in all other aspects you can't help but undo. I was sort of taken with that. When I met Derrida, we talked about music quite a lot. It is possible, but again only in a metaphysical way, to think and talk about music as something that undoes. In as much as it isn't semantic, doesn't have that bedrock of meaning, other than having other ways of circumscribing it, it is a deconstructive mood.
"That all-pervading equivocality and instability is a difficult thing to live with if you've accepted it. I, for one, am convinced that the metaphysical philosophemes that underpin liberalism or underpin Marxism or underpin commonsense are, in fact, effects of language that have been revealed and undone. You can't live without them but you can't live with them."
He grins at the way that sounds. "It's like that awful sexist remark about women, isn't it?"