|Where radical meets chic
NME magazine - October 1981
"SCRITTI POLITTI" - didn't you always wonder where their "political writings" were? I did. I always wondered whether their hearts were in their music or in their minds. Or some such intolerable cliche. Their little contribution to the erosion of the music industry always struck me somehow as too concerted, too organised.
But with their "Sweetest Girl", "Scritti Politti" has become a new group, a group that has returned from a long holiday with a suntan, a smile, and an imminent LP release.
From the Marxist evaluation of punk back at art college, through the intensive studies in structuralism and semiotics, to this present status of POP GROUP is some strange odyssey - both musical and political - for a group to travel.
Two years ago, Scritti Politti put a lot of backs up, affronting the rock press by the sheer density of their thought and language. An image emerged of the group - and particularly of its central figure, singer/writer/guitarist Green - which busily exploited the fact that they squatted in Camden Town, land of intellectual dropouts, and read more books than a decent pop group should.
What remained almost totally obscured by this picture was Green's actual love for music - his awe, his humour, his joy in the damn thing. The slant made him out to be an elitist fanatic bent on reducing non-verbal aesthetic pleasure to the ground rules of language. Written statements by Green himself didn't exactly help. "Aesthetic 'concerns' alone," went one of them, "provide you with no effectivity beyond an unsortable, unnegotiable chatter."
Green seemed to have forgotten the eternal truth spoken by Nietzsche when in The Birth Of Tragedy he pronouced that the world can only be justified as an aesthetic phenomenon. So obvious really.
But even if one ignored the image, the fact remained that the music itself was a bit po-faced. Two 7" EPs and the 12" 'Pre-Langue Release', comprising their entire output up to "Sweetest Girl", were not exactly the most open, liberating music of our time. Their motor-anxiety, the desperate need to avoid slipping into conventional rock structures, had about it a somewhat sterile aura of conceptuality.
Flaunting abstractiveness and superior awareness of pop's pitfalls, Scritti Politti remained prisoners of contrived distanciation. Uneven and earnestly hesitant, the music's subversiveness lay only in the fact that it was a surrogate form of pop criticism. What especially irritated the ear was the cloying nature of Green's voice as he used it at the time - its would-be classlessness, a sound as damp as dry rot in a squat...
Unfortunately, the image has never been fully dispelled. Late in 1979, Green became very ill, though in what way it's hard to make out. So ill, in fact, that it took him nine months of hibernation in South Wales to recover. Thus 1980 was a year of complete silence, a silence in which the press image of the band lingered on.
What finally emerged from the silence was a new Green, replete with at least a dozen new songs, an enormous collection of theoretical jottings on music, and a wholly reformulated attitude to Scritti Politti itself. On his return, the group went straight into the studio and began work on the LP. Just prior to leaving London, Green had told drummer Tom and bassist Nial (who's just left the group) that the "next big thing" would be soul and funk. When he got back, they'd "learnt to play Stax..."
Not that the influence of Stax's immortal rhythm section, Duck Dunn and Al Jackson, exactly shone through on "Sweetest Girl". But the first time you flipped on your NME 'C-81' cassette, where the song was premiered, it was pretty clear something had happened to the Scritti Politti of '79. For out of speakers, headphones, and Walkmans of the world came this soft, silver sweetness, a gliding seduction and ethereality of drum machine, synths and pianos, bass swinging like a well-oiled hinge, opening and closing in suction, and the lightest, most luscious and lucid voice since Arthur Lee.
What sweet sickness had produced this? It was a sound that simply bathed in the beauty of pop's exigencies. Ideological defiance of commercial hegemonies had given way to open love, myriad forms. Politti had invaded the glamour and glitter of pop, burrowed up from beneath it, and magicked decency into triumphant exoticism.
A major metamorphosis, then. And while we wait for the album, a record
that promises hitherto unknown pleasures in the realm of white soul, funk,
lover's rock, balladry, and divine desire, let us discover what lies
behind it: here is the new Scritti Politti in interview. The voice is
Green's - on the subject of popular music a more eloquent one has yet to
be heard - and I have chosen not to tamper with it. Don't sneer at the
long words - look them up...
Why has the LP taken so long to record?
A bit of background: Green and Tom met at art college in Leeds, where questions of culture and education led of necessity to more general political ones. They decided to form "a punk group", which at the time of The Sex Pistols' Anarchy tour seemed a very different thing from forming "a rock 'n' roll group." Nial, who'd been to school with Green in South Wales, arrived in Leeds and learnt the bass in three weeks.
Under the circumstances, says Green, "we were initially led to a fairly reductionist politics, essentialist and polemical. But this was at least as great a part of our wanting to form a punk rock group as our enthusiasm for... Cortinas records! There was a bona fide political fervour about it, never myopic but always enjoyable. Subsequently the politics have, I think, changed an awful lot."
What led to the temporary collapse of the group in 1979, apart from
Why, when the problematic that seemed to occupy you most was
language, did you turn to music in the first place?
Have your ideas about music become more flexible, less tied to the
problem of language? Do you believe pop music can do valuable violence to
But that in itself is not a final position on the subject. You must understand the loss of sense and identity through repetition, the assertion through repetition, the currency of repetition, the demystification in and of repetition - it's so monolithic, it's endlessly powerful, the tiniest chip of it signifies. Language and grammar once acquired is both constructive and restrictive, while the acquired grammar of beat is at once constructive and destructive joy. But no one musical phenomenon is ever going to transcend beat or repetition, nor is it ever going to transcend the history of criticism and the industry. You have to keep making conditional moves. I think it's so mistaken to believe that ours is a coldly calculated and stilted music. There is no "knowledge" of beat, only the unmonotonous insistence of difference. With pop music, there is a flooring of drives, knowledge is swept away. The constraints of language, of the industry, though, prevent a complete transcendence of knowledge, and that's very important, that's a great part of pop's point.
Do you see your new music as in some sense less consciously
"radical" than, say, the 'Pre-Langue' 12-inch?
You don't feel this new music, this "pop" music, is a
But isn't pop a very conditioned, formularized thing?
I think it was the impression a lot of people got, acutally.
The ultimate mystification and alienation occurs when people are deluded into thinking that their currency - in this case pop music - has somehow become impoverished.
But don't the various currencies, the various styles of pop music,
get a bit shop-soiled and start to lose some of their value, their power
What would you like to say about the LP?
Are there any particular influences that lie behind and within this
album, as for example dub and jazz were big influences for you in 1978?
Those were the things that began to open up music for me. It transpires now, of course, that there were loads of people up and down the country doing the same thing, but unbeknown to each other because nobody was writing about it (Danny, shout the man down!) and it wasn't getting any radio play (Chic? The Jacksons?). The power, the violence, the sexuality of that music, and the anonymity of course, its economy, all of that has been an influence on the LP, which draws fundamentally on Lover's Rock, soul ballads, and I suppose on faster black music too.
So, yes, it draws a great deal on black music, but in as much as we're still learning to play it, it sounds very white. Parts of it are very fast and joyous, and parts of it are... pretty darn melancholy!
Have you a title yet?
But going back to the record, what it's about is controlled
excess. In some senses it's cool and strict: style and metre, an
articulation of time that is simple in ratio to energy across the body.
The more underplayed, the more "classic" the style, the more it
draws that energy, almost osmotically, to fill its lack. There was
something about when I found Stax, that beat, that snare drum... all its
voids required me to fill them, and sometimes that was very violent, a
theatrical excess. And something very important to me when I was writing
the songs on this LP.
What part does your intellectuality, if I may put it like that, now
play in its new context?
So could we summarise the change from the old Politti of the
language-problematic to the new Politti of Soul and Sexuality?
God I write some punchy stuff!