Where radical meets chic

NME magazine - October 1981 
Interview by Barney Hoskyns


"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 there been such trouble with interviews in the past?
The usual thing that happened was that we were accused of making it impossible for the kid on the street to understand what we were talking about. That always bewildered me, because a) I found the myth of this "kid on the street" irksome and reactionary, and b) I didn't think it was difficult to understand anyway. But since the NME style seems to have degenerated into a welter of idiosyncracies, writing as signature and so forth, I would have thought that was far more obscure than us.

Why has the LP taken so long to record?
A lot of the ideas for this album, particularly lyrically, weren't finalised by the time we went into the studio, so we decided to do a couple of days at a time. Also, we were working with Adam Kidron, who was at the time committed to Delta Five and Pere Ubu and Orange Juice, so it took that much longer to complete. Plus the fact that there's quite a few other musicians playing on it, many of whom could only work two hour schedules.

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 your illness?
There was a shortage of material, and also a marked inability to play, which we enjoyed as best we could, and could almost see some virtue in at the time. By then we'd already set our sights on trying to pull ourselves together. We went out and did dates with all the right people... you know, Joy Division, Bunnymen, Gang Of Four, and so on. But at that time I was finding the whole thing a bit of a strain, and I wasn't taking the best care of myself, and that's what led to the illness.

Why, when the problematic that seemed to occupy you most was language, did you turn to music in the first place?
We grew very tired of formal art and culture. It's difficult to talk about the attraction of music, the way it motivates us and what it meant to grow up with it. These things were illuminated for us by punk, plus the use and abuse of language, something I have always been inescapably aware of.

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 peoples' emotions?
Pop does lie outside the limits of language and logocentrism, yes... beat doesn't go "thick", like the broth of language Barthes imagines will go thick if he isn't watchful. Beats are finite and perpetual, and without meaning. They have power, and they are violent, and they do transgress sense. I do not think that I am "knowledgable" of them nor that I've somehow caught them or tamed them and can put them to my services. The exact opposite: this is to do with my AWE of pop music, as measured against the endless signatures and closures of more idiosyncratic music.

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?
No. I don't believe that innately a piece of music is radical or not radical, because it always depends on its context, on its relation to other music written at the same time. But I didn't like the quirkiness and idiosyncrasy of our past music, because I saw that as identifying with both normality, in terms of it somehow being "true", or the property of "genius", and marginality you know, aside, apart, rare, or special. I've never courted that, or felt part of it, and the move to the new music is very much a move away from it.

You don't feel this new music, this "pop" music, is a "compromise"?
Listen, pop music is of the Other, of the ironic - it's about criminality, sexuality, madness. Antithesis of sameness. Though of course we have to bring out that Other, by listening, by recognising the unspoken, not by gauche attempts to construct more of the mythical "alternative", or metaspeech. But Pop is the least shut away or hidden otherness.

But isn't pop a very conditioned, formularized thing?
I don't think pop has its fixed historical conditions, I don't think its meaning or its sense are determined by language and that all we can do is play clever footsy with it. That may be the impression you got from past interviews and statements, but it's really the last thing I feel.

I think it was the impression a lot of people got, acutally.
Well, yes, I was very distressed by that. It sounds gauche to say it, but there's enormous passion and anger in everything I do and write. If it seemed cloying to you on record in the past, there's nothing much we can do about it. But I think there's something dreadful about the way one's history builds up behind you, and you kind of trail it around yourself. There's no essence to my writing, and I hate to be characterised in terms of its history.

WHATEVER HAPPENED to "demystification", or are we leaving that to other Rough Trade artistes like Zounds?!?
Demystification was never a po-faced concern, and never a concern whose history and significance we were prepared to make cast-iron guarantees about. It was a concern of ours at the time, but it meant neither a mythical, hygienic "cleaning-up" of music, nor a mythical "dirtying" of music. Above all, it was never a personalisation of music. That was not the way to break it free of the bonds of critical knowledge that it had become trapped by as far as I was concerned.

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 of signification?
I'm not sure they do. I like the fact, for example, that each '60s dance beat is like a little myth in itself. It's used by the audience who consume it - the audience produces it as much as whoever sits behind the kit. It's the kind of anonymous effectiveness that I enjoy about pop. And I do think that's a great violence, and going back and revisiting them is a kind of ironical violence. Because the producers of those beats and styles are not authors... because their meaning doesn't reside in any image. And as regards, say, the "sweetness" of 'The "Sweetest Girl"'... well, I think there is a dirt, a criminality if you like, in sweetness itself.

What would you like to say about the LP?
I'm very happy with the LP. It certainly isn't another Scritti Politti signature to the petitions of anti-rockism, or of anything else.

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?
The stuff I found myself listening to, long before 'Pre-Langue' in fact, was soul and funk, though it wasn't coming through at the time. By the summer of 1979, I wasn't really buying records on small labels anymore, unless they were exceptional in some sense. This was partly due to the gewgaw of anti-rockism thrown up by the rock press at the time. I was going out, in what seemed to me then to be complete isolation, and buying Chic records and Jacksons records and old Stax records, and discovering Aretha Franklin and Shirley Brown. (Hey man, some of us were "discovering" Aretha Franklin at the age of 14, OK? - and yes, kind reader, I was a pretty hip kid, I guess). And I went back to early English beat, and there was The Meters, and so on ad infinitum.

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?
When we first started recording, I wanted to call it 'Stand And Deliver'! That was long before Adam (and the Ants) brought out his 'Stand And Deliver'. And then I wanted to call it 'Junior Gichi' - 'Gichi' (as in Gichi Dan, all you lucky little Zzzzzeee fans) being lost American slang for, y'know, sharp, snappy - but then what happens, I come back from America to find this character called Junior Giscombe! Obviously fate does not intend that I shall find a title...

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.

IN THE "MANUAL" to the 'C-81' cassette, what do you mean by the phrase "a kind of festival not of the senses but of meaning"? It seems partly to contradict what you've just been saying.
That refers to an interesting point Barthes raises, interesting I think for music, which is to do with the enormous sexuality, loss and pleasure which you cannot find innately residing within four beats to the bar. The meaning of footsy-footsy, for example (!), will articulate a whole sexual, emotional and physical response, and it's the way that that illuminates just a little bit of the unspeakable power of music that I was talking about. You know, a clandestine series of gestures... a secret that can never be told. If the need arises, of course, then it's a secret whose truth you can create, as critics, companies, and musicians endlessly need to do for the industry and consumption of music to continue. But at its root, the way music signifies is an enormous mystery. As with a drug, the more anonymous it is, the more powerful.

What part does your intellectuality, if I may put it like that, now play in its new context?
The group has changed, obviously, and changed a great deal. The politics have moved from an essentialist and reductionist position in which we believed in a history of science which could make sense of the future to one that realized that what you've got is needs, demands, and desires, and you go out and you fight for them. Which means that your music will at points be indexed fairly clearly to Politics with a big P and at other points will cut across it completely. I think at the moment we're just feeling a lot more able and honest about what our interests have been all along. There's a time when you grow up, as a good, almost Catholic-leftist boy, and you learn to be scared of your sexuality, to be scared of your power, and I just think we're not intimidated by those things any longer, and know damn well that we can handle them confidently.

So could we summarise the change from the old Politti of the language-problematic to the new Politti of Soul and Sexuality?
The problematic of language is present on the LP as an essential filter to each of the songs, dealing as most of them do with love and sexuality. A primary consideration when you're addressing yourself to every problem is to say - now hold on a minute, in what terms is the question posed? But I think it's a mistake to think that Scritti Politti works by saying, "Well, look chaps, this is taboo and we all know better than to fall foul of using this device." It happens like I guess it does with a lot of people - you know, I'll come up with a bass line and a tune, and sooner or later lyrics will come and so on and so forth. But the joy we feel in our music is literally unspeakable! Let me just round this here chat off with one of my latest purple passages: "When all words are in inverted commas and all concepts are under arrangements, we go back to a time before they spoke, before the message or the admixture of performers' and critics' reason, back to a soulless soul."

God I write some punchy stuff!