ENIGMA variation

-- Melody Maker, March 5, 1988

Break out the dictionaries and Post-Structuralist text books, pop's most perfect intellect, GREEN GARTSIDE, is back with a new SCRITTI POLITTI single ready for release later this month and an album to follow. Analysis and transcription: Simon Reynolds. 


I can map out the last 10 years around the eternal returns of Scritti -- the lengthy absences (they seem to have average out at about two and a half years), the disowning, in fairly scathing terms, of the previous work, and the reappearance each time with material ever closer to the hyper-real phantasm of "perfect pop" Green pursues, perhaps despite himself.

I've followed the trajectory avidly, because from the start it was clear that here was that rare thing, a pop intellect able, at least half of the time, to evade itself, to steer unclear of the customary pitfalls of intelligence in rock -- archness, over-determination, manifesto-mongering. And rarer still, a pop intellect endowed, arbitrarily, with the facility for melodies of almost murderous elegance and poignancy -- apparent even in the mannered, self-consciously fractured early DIY songs like "PAs", "Confidence" and "Bibbly-O-Tek". I've watched this ease grow, through the asphyxiating sweetness of "The 'Sweetest Girl'" (like "The Word Girl", a love song about the implausibility of love, that seduces as it unravels(, the grandeur of "faithless" (a song about the impossibility of faith couched in the deep testifying of gospel), the somehow lethal slickness of "Wood Beez", "Absolute", Hypnotize", all eerie spaces and opaque, dazzling surfaces like a hall of mirrors (literally), brilliant pop. Green understand and distrusts our need for the immaculate, the mythic. He knows that beauty can be terrorising.

Now he's back, with a new single, "Oh Patti (Don't Feel Sorry For Loverboy)", and what promises to be a cracking album to follow. But for the first time, there's been no major leap, he's still working with David Gamson and Fred Maher, the new stuff takes the hyperactive synthetic-funk and hard gloss of "Cupid & Psyche" only marginally further into the mainstream. And, although it may just be his manner, you get the impression that Green is a little sure about his own doubt, smugly settled in uncertainty. Nineteen eighty eight's "Oh Patti" does pretty much reiterate the perplexities of 1981's "Faithless": "I got so tired of concluding there's nothing for us to conclude...we tried together to discover why we failed the test of our time...I've gone where a lost cause can be found".

"Well, yes, there are abiding concerns...the fact that lessons learnt' politically or philosophically, can't be gone back on or be forgotten. They just become part of the way you think about the world, they aren't problems which become solved or superceded. I haven't found a faith to replace the faithlessness."

Does this give you grief, on the level of everyday living?

"It is difficult to live with what I see as an endless indeterminacy of meaning, an interminable equivocality, a lack of any higher authority to sort out the lack of founding principles..." (ie God, or some kink of science of history like Marxism which would enable you to predict the imminence of revolution)..."I consider them all to be irreversibly revealed to be metaphysical" (ie nonsense). "Which is not to say that you can live without some idea of truth, history, prescience...but these are never to be relied on. It means living in a world that's never to be trusted. And, as the single says, you should certainly never trust yourself. So you do live propelled by these nightmare anxieties, in a little daydream of a world. It's not grief, exactly, it's just weird."

He certainly looks as though the groundless existence agrees with him, ruddy-cheeked and slimmer than we remember. But why deal with this perplexity in uptempo, coherent, joyous pop?

"Because on one level, doubt is a liberating thing, engenders an anarchic freeplay of meaning. but also I just happen to like those kind of pop sounds at the moment, not that this aesthetic preference is at all fixed."

This refusal to be pinned down, to close off any bolt-hole, is typical of Green's slippery, elusive discourse.

"And again, maybe the idea of assembling a piece of music when all around you is chaotic and falling apart, is the appeal -- you're able to build, perhaps, because music is, in a sense, outside meaning."

The lyrics, I tend to find a bit opaque...

"They're opaque in the sense that I don't think language can be transparent and clearly revealing, either of something within yourself or outside in the world. Language is oblique, opaque, ambiguous, and the thing to do is court that a bit...and try to maintain a little diligence...the fact that I don't believe that someone's intentions count for anything in how a piece of writing will be read, doesn't lead me to give up on any idea of purposiveness in my writing..."

You seem to like to run together statement that are in contradiction -- on the new track "Lovesick": "come back baby I know it's over" -- or surgically bare the impossible aspirations that are generated in the lover's long, unheard monologue with the loved object: "I've gonna get that girl/and give her a present that never arrives...a future that's hard to believe in...the time of my life"...

"There arise fairly unforcedly...from the way I think...it is nice to unsettle and undo...and it doesn't seem incongruous to do this from within uptempo music rather than atonal, dirge-like music. One is no more truthful, or ultimately radical or interesting than the other. But it's not so much that I'm fascinated by the bizarre pieces of language that people generate when 'in love', but that I think all language is nonsense...and that love is just an effect of nonsense. I think someone once said that all our problems are the result of our bewitchment by language."

The irony, of course, is that Green talks with eloquence about the futility and poverty of words, soberly and sensibly about nonsense. He speaks sotto voce and with the fastidious emphasis of a schoolteacher. Where the rest of us sluggish, vernacular souls are impeded by the torpid resistance of language, he moves through it as though immune to gravity. 'E talks like a booook.

"But, arguably, my preoccupations are ultimately irrelevant to how the record is consumed...the meaning of a record is determined by a whole bunch of other parameters and elements..."Does this worry you? "No!" Amuse YOu? "It's something that I'd like to see understood more widely, that the hearing of a record is where its meaning(s) or lack of meaning is determined. And that you should be wary of anything that causes the closure of those meanings. If you think you know what something's about, you should be decidedly suspicious of yourself."

(Of course, here Green sounds at his most supercilious and invincible. In fact, I've just twigged who he reminds me of: a tutor I once had, a very clever man unfortunately handicapped by an insufferable manner, in which he sounded both pedantic and at the same time immensely weary, almost extinguished, by the laboriousness of having to go over ground immensely obvious and familiar to himself.)

There are those who would say that if you want to do anything in this world, have any kind of political agency, then you have to make some kind of mental closure...

"Yes, yes, I'd agree with that...and in as much as conservative pragmatist accept that the best you hope for is a provisional morality, I'd certainly urge for a provisional immorality."


"I'd seek to undo and unsettle a provisional morality...because to accept it would be unthinkable."

Is this the idea that wherever power, or the "normative" is, you should resist it, simply for the sake of resistance?

"Well, it's difficult. It's easy to end up in a kind of infantile anarchism, if you're not watchful...although it's arguably difficult to point a way out of that...that anarchic f*** it completely attitude...But I think it's such an arid, sterile place to end up! There's a half-assed, ill-thought-out proclivity to drift romantically towards the margins, in a juvenile, narcissistic way, which you find in some quarters of the indie scene..."

Here, readers, Green is talking about everything you and I hold most dear, from The Butthole Surfers and Big Black to The Smith and the Mary Chain...

"And having been on these margins of convention myself, I can testify that is no greater power or truth or radicalism there...which is not to say I won't revisit them, or that history might put me back there. But to seek them out and install yourself on them, amass some sort or armament of difference for yourself, mark out an identity by choosing from the catalogue of stylistic and theoretical positions with attendant aesthetic preferences..., well, it's just a trip...I couldn't make any claims for it...does that answer your question, in a roundabout way? Eight vodka and orange, you know!"

I should cocoa. Norralf. The above could pass for a scathing portrait of me, and all my friends. Complete coincidence, I'm sure. So what were the revelatory intellectual moments when you realised everything you'd done previously was rubbish?

"Oh, I always think what I do is rubbish...or at least I'm never comfortable with it...or anything else. But to answer the question...Marx, Freud, Nietzche, art college, drugs, rock'n'roll, Derrida, Jamaica, certain seminal indie figures like Mark E. Smith, hip hop..."

Now hip hop, to me, corresponds to the juvenile, anti-nomian narcissism you were disparaging just now, more than soul (which is why I like it)...

"Yes, it's certainly shot through with that...but I find it crushingly interesting for all that, in the same way I find patchouli smelling Goths...rather crushingly sad."

I credit Green with a lot of influence for the pivotal shift away from rock towards funk-and-soul, that took place in the early years of this decade. He was doing a lot of interviews, and in them he presented his switch from cerebral, introverted, self-consciously "different" rock to black pop, as a king of paradigm of a return to health. Post-punk, squatting and speed had nearly killed him; he withdrew to Wales to recuperate for nearly a year, and emerged a bush-tailed blue-eyed Soul Man. But doesn't he think the idea of health especially where it connects to the hegemony of soul today, has subsequently proven to be rather an oppressive apparatus?

"At the time, things had gotten unhealthy, I had gotten unhealthy. A sluggishness had set in around the early Eighties, and I would point to PiL as representing the other way things were going to go, a reversion to a white rock ghettoisation. There was a certain frisson then of talking self-consciously about a cathartic transition to clear-eyed pop, but really, I'd like to think I have an 'unhealthy' attitude to black music."

What do you think of those people who throw themselves wilfully into "unhealth", that Nick Cave syndrome...

"Oh, I'm still a bit of sucker for that...Everything abut Cave I have a lot of sympathy for...until it comes down to making the actual records! Same with The Smiths...fabulous song titles, but the music...I think that in a world of nothing but provisional morality and unwarrantable assertions, a self-destructive bent is a perfectly understandable and excusable movement. The crisis of the Subject, of the belief in the individual's consciousness, which is what I'm engaged in, is a kind of self-destructiveness that seems inescapable to me, and for me...although maybe that seems anomalous alongside the records. But beyond this microscopic, factimal approach to pop where you argue that such-and-such record is more disruptive than another record, you should look more broadly at how all pop is disruptive of meaning. When I met Derrida he said that what I was doing was part of the same project of undoing and unsettling that he's engaged in. He's written that what sets the musician apart is the possibility of meaninglessness. That unsettling has always been my experience of pop, from the earliest moments -- pop is about the abuse of language, the assertion of rhythm. And that element is there in my music, no matter how saccharine it appears."

Can you think of some kinds of pop you'd claim a disruptive effect for, that we in the rock press would be surprised by?

"A lot of the Beatles records...I remember buying them, having great reverence for them, and being greatly disturbed by them. But it's more difficult to think of something so anodyne there was no tension in it, for some reader."

My pleasure in music is very much bound up with what you describe, jouissance, a mindblowing incapacity of language to contain the experience. But many people would argue this was a very middle class, elitist, solipsistic version of pop. Pat Kane, for instance, argues that people use pop to make sense of the world, give them a narrative.

"It's not true in my case -- except in the sense that my way of making sense of the world is to make nonsense of it. This deconstructive movement is the movement of our epoch. And when the last refuge of homogeneity (which is, even after Freud, the human Subject(, when that is finally pulled apart, then a whole new sense of the world emerges. And it's just puerile to think of pop as providing people with narratives to their lives."

But the people you've influenced, the new, white Brit-Soul, do see soul as therapeutic, a stable ground, a return to sanity, roots, "real" expression. (Wet Wet Wet even get their name from a Scritti song.)

"Yes, you're right, there's this wholesomeness, earnest expressiveness, honesty...and yes, that's garbage. I would say that soul and funk are the most WRECKING experiences, you can feel it when a really NASTY groove hits you, there's much more a sense of falling apart, in an affirming way, than of its..." (really sneering now) "...its honesty."

Hasn't soul become over-written and over-determined in much the same way that you used to complain rock was in 1980? It's got so I can't listen to Aretha Franklin's voice without horrid words like "pride and dignity" popping into my head.

"I think you're right and it's something we should, um, band together and fight against! No, if that is the story that maintains then it needs to be contradicted and undone, and another story needs to be told about it, because that sure as hell wasn't what appealed to me about black music, even though the 'health' factor was salient at the time, strategically. It's a question of tactics without teleology , of slipping around."

Do you follow what happens in the world of rock? I mean, what do you think about the validity of "noise" as an option?

"There is no point at which music stops and noise begins...that's elementary. I've always considered music as noise and noise as music...these are obviously the arcane squabblings that persist in the airless, closeted confines of the music papers." (Here, I have to think of how unlikely this notion of the interchangeability of noise and pop would be to deflect those rock carnivores The Stud Brothers from their jeering Green-is-a-nance Oporto stance.) "I don't make any noisy noise right now, but I'd be quite happy to make it in the future. There's every reason to expect as bold departures in the future as I've made in the past. Five years ago it would have been inconceivable to me that I'd have a song on a Madonna album, or be working with Miles Davis."

Having covered "Perfect Way" on "Tutu", "we've become good friends" and Miles guests on the "Oh Patti" single. Another celeb collaborator is Roger Troutman, the genius funkateer behind Zapp, and Top 3 in the States recently with his solo single "I Want To Be Your Man". His unique vocoderised meta-ecstasy appears on a couple of album tracks and there are plans for a more involved project. "Roger's firmly entrenched in the Seventies P-Funk groove syndrome that's so scarce these days...it was fabulous working with him, he really suffers from the funk, every twitch of his body is syncopated."

From your own, punk generation, do you feel you have any peers?

"No, not really." Anyone you appreciate? "Lots, lots. I like Bros. I like The Proclaimers." I'm stupefied twice, especially about The Proclaimers. Why? "I don't know why, I just think they're good. I allowed myself not to think too hard about that."

Having started from an interest in politics, do you have any ideas about the viable forms of political agency? Do you see any kinds of activity of resistance that encourage you?

"My ideas on that are as abstruse and difficult as ever...I couldn't point to any particular text or group with a handle on the right way...I can do nothing more than be hopeful for the Labour Party...a statement which rings in hollow silence...and is unlikely to incite much comment or fervour from me or anyone...A lot of undoing needs doing in the Labour party, and there's no one about to do it...I just have this negative theology...which is to deny privilege wherever I find it." Here, he doesn't mean toffee-nosed twerps in stately homes, but the privileging of ideas and theories. I reckon he could afford to undo his own privileging of black music as a source of extra-linguistic force and as a cue for jouissance -- but then I would, I'm a ROCK FAN.

"Beyond this denial of privilege, though, I can't be prescriptive, or teleological, or...oh!...I'm so sorry..." (a supremely hollow note of apology) "...I'm disappearing, disappearing...it's been a long day..."

Disappearing into the labyrinthine recesses of his own colon. and good for him. Someone's got to do it.