|The Biz radio interview
Red Dragon radio station (Wales) - April 1991 (Easter Monday)
Plays 'Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)'
Good evening, this is Chris Moore. Welcome to an Easter Monday
special edition of 'The Biz'. For the next hour it's words and music
from Green Gartside, born in Cardiff in the middle 50s and, for the last
10 years, lead-singer and founder member of a band who have had many
hits both in the UK and the USA: Scritti Politti. A couple of weeks ago
I had the chance to spend some time with Green in the very luxurious
surroundings of the Royal Gardens Hotel in Kensington High Street, and
we talked about Scritti Politti past and present...
Well I was born on Glossop Terrace in the Maternity Hospital. My mother reminded me only this morning, that I was one of the first babies to be born there before the Queen opened it, which probably dates me a little bit. But, um, that's where I was born and all my family are from Canton and Whitchurch, and I spent my early years on the Caerphilly Road. Moved all round the area, so I guess I know it pretty well.
So as a child you saw most of South Wales then?
Yep. We, er, my family were in the habit of moving at least once a year for reasons best known to themselves, so I lived in Caerphilly, Eston Manor, Bridgend, Rhiwbina [pronounced 'Rubina'], oh my god - everywhere! I don't know why they did it but we trotted around and I ended up being educated largely in Newport and Cwmbran [pronounced 'Cumbran'], Croes-y that way, you know. So I'm pretty familiar with the area, yeh.
So what age were you when you moved away from South Wales?
I would have been in my late teens, I think, and I went to Leeds - I did my foundation art course in Newport - and then I went to Leeds Polytechnic to do fine art and it was whilst I was there that I saw the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Damned and the Heartbreakers on a fairly famous tour that I think changed a lot of people痴 lives - it certainly changed mine. And it was almost, you know: St. Paul, road to Damascus, overnight, scales fell from my eyes and I realised I'd like to have a crack at being a musician.
I mean I'd been in a few school bands in Wales, in fact interesting enough playing sort of traditional music including some Welsh traditional stuff. On one occasion - just a little reminiscence - we revived a tradition; Mari Lwyd - which is a Welsh Christmas tradition where there's a bizarre business about taking a horse's skull around caked in lime and knocking on people's doors - and we researched all the songs from that, from the library in Cardiff and we staged it at the theatre in Cwmbran when I must have only been about 16. It was electric then, I mean, we were kicking. We were doing sort of reggae versions of Welsh traditional tunes as long ago as that.
So after the inspiration of the Sex Pistols and punk bands of that era, was that when the seeds for Scritti Politti were sown?
Yeh, absolutely. I finished up at Leeds, we blew the last year's art school grant on buying a drum kit, bass guitar and a guitar which we learnt very quickly - very hastily as was the fashion in those days, it didn't matter how badly you played - and moved to London and started squatting in Camden Town and paid to make a record of our own, it only cost under a hundred pounds. Pressed it up ourselves and took it around, shoved it into John Peel's hand as he walked into the BBC one night, and that very night he offered us a session on the John Peel programme (radio show). And the day after that the Clash got in touch with us and said "would you like to support us on the next tour", I guess partly because that very first record was a kind of reggae rocker's kind of thing which the clash were always into - and I was a big fan of the Clash - and I couldn't do the support tour because I'd only written three songs. So, it was really that that obliged me to take the business of making music a bit more seriously because I was so heartbroken about not being able to go on the road with the Clash. So I've been fairly serious about it ever since.
Now you got a song on a New Musical Express give-away cassette, didn稚 you: 'The Sweetest Girl'. Was it because of that that the deal with Rough Trade came about?
Er no, I was already involved with Rough Trade by then. I mean, they
picked up on that first self-produced single that John Peel did. And I
got very friendly with them almost straight away, in fact Rough Trade
put a... I think they paid for the recording of 'The Sweetest Girl' so I
was well in with them by then. And I did then the one album for them, of
which that was one of the singles, and it did really well. I mean, it
was the first Rough Trade album ever to go Top 20; it went to No. 12.
And, um, that was a new thing for Indie groups at the time, to do quite
that well first week of release with an album. And very, very luckily
for me off the back of that, all the majors (record labels) got
interested, and I realised by then - because I'd almost bankrupted Rough
Trade, even making that record which was very hastily thrown together -
I realised that if I wanted to do things my way I needed a much bigger
budget. So with no ill feeling I left for Virgin records and Warner
Now I must admit the first time I came across Scritti Politti was a song called 'Asylums In Jerusalem' which was on another, I think I'm right in saying, another NME cassette. On the same cassette was a song by David Gamson called 'No Turn On Red'. How did he become part of the band?
Well it was interesting because, um, Rough Trade were the only people to have taken any interest in David Gamson. Geoff Travis who runs Rough Trade, which is still a magnificent label doing great work, was in New York to see David Zilke of Ze Records - Ze at the time were putting out all that kind of Kid Creole And The Coconuts, that whole 'deconstruction disco', or whatever it was they called it, Was Not Was - and while Geoff was there this young kid walked in with a tape, which turned out to be David Gamson, to play to David Zilke. Zilke threw him out of his office but Goeff Travis overheard a little bit and said "I'll put this out for you, if you like". And when David Gamson said "yes", when David was sent his test pressings back to Manhattan by mistake there was a test pressing of 'The Sweetest Girl' that was thrown in his box, and he heard it and thought 'well I quite like this', and obviously I heard 'No Turn On Red' and said "I quite like that". So, it was on the strength of some degree of mutual admiration that we were introduced to each other and ended up working together for two albums.
The first album being 'Cupid & Psyche 85' and that was also the album that Fred Maher became involved with. How did he join the trio?
Do'ya know, it's very hard to remember exactly where Fred... tagged along. I think we either possibly met him in a night club. I mean, the big thing that we all had in common was a funny mix of interests; Fred infact, when he was 15, left school in Manhattan to play with the very last line-up of a group called Gong - which some of your older, and perhaps dare I say it 'hippier' listeners might have heard of - and, um, I was into all that stuff too, groups like Henry Cow, people like Robert Wyatt, as was David Gamson. And the other thing we were all into was Bootsy Collins, Funkadelic, Parliament, the P-Funk. And we were just three people that had those two disperate interests in common, so we sort of gelled immediately and, er, off we went.
'Cause of course 'Cupid & Psyche 85' was produced by Arif Mardin. What was it like working with a man who produced some of the all-time great soul singers?
Oh awful, awful, you know I mean I, um... it took a lot of nerve really, I think, after doing one album for Rough Trade that was obviously very scratchy, very indie, very guitary kind of record, er, to decide that I did want to make a more - because I was really by then only listening the black music, to R'n'B, dance music - and I just had the nerve to sort of go to New York and knock on people's doors. Arif was interested in the demos that I'd done, liked them very much, and introduced me to all of the famous players whose name I'd only seen on the back of albums that I adored, you know, and I was just thrown in very, very much at the deep end. It was just Atlantic Studios one morning and there was Marcus Miller, Paul Jackson Jnr, Steve Ferrone... everybody, you know. It scared me to death, I had a bit of a hard time.
I was going to mention those because I've written them down. Going through the sleeve notes on the albums you see people like Paul Jackson Jnr, Marcus Miller and, erm, the System - (Mic) Murphy and (David) Frank - and Roger Troutman, who played on Provision. Some of the top soul musicians in the world...
Yes, awful isn't it really, what a damn cheek! I can't even really
sing properly! But, you know, you've got to go with... I think you have
to, take all your courage and what little bit of confidence you've got
and seize your chance, you know, and that's what I did. And it was very
nerve-racking but you've only got one shot at these sort of things so I
decided that was the music I really liked, they were the musicians I
really admired, and it was a great, I suppose, test of character, or
whatever, to see if I could do anything with them. And it was, in fact,
a very happy and fruitful time for me, I spent a long time in New York,
living there on and off, and getting to know all those musicians... and
learning more from them than I can possibly tell, I mean, it was just
The album, of course, yielded hit singles like 'Wood Beez', erm... you've probably been asked it a million times before but I've heard the single a hundred times and I've never understood, what does 'Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)' mean? Or does it mean anything?
Well it clearly did mean something very specific to me once and
because I've got an appalling memory I can scarcely remember myself what
it means! I think, oddly enough, that the spelling out of 'Wood Beez' -
W. O. O. D... - came from an old reggae record that I think was by Dave
and Ansell Collins ['Double Barrel'], that the connection... it's a bit
tenuous but it was also informed, although again this sounds unlikely,
by all the sort of theoretical reading I was doing at the time -
different kinds of politics and what they call in France 'schizo
politics' - so it was a rag-bag of references and illusions and, you
know, obviously a sort of hymn to Aretha at the same time. I can't
really say much more than that about it!
There's obviously, running through your music, a strong, as you said earlier, a strong soul influence. I mean, not only the Scritti Politti stuff but writing songs for Chaka Khan and Al Jarreau. How do you get people of that ilk to record your songs?
Well you just write them and demo them, and, um... they like them. I don't know. Sounds awfully glib really but that's the way it's happened. The tune that I did for Chaka, I had a sort of wet afternoon in a hotel room in New York and a guitar, and just wrote it and rang David up and went into Atlantic Studios, got a piano and a guitar, did a quick demo... and I'd already met and got to know Chaka by then - extraordinary woman, wonderful in every respect - and that was it. Played it to her and she love it and it hasn't... we were never very aggressive about trying to get cover versions for songs it was just when there was - because we never did write many, we weren't like writing hundreds - it was just if there was an odd one around, that someone else was usually keen to do it.
There was a gap of three years, wasn't there, between 'Provision' and 'Cupid & Psyche 85'. What were you doing in between times?
Er, well, if it was... I kind of like to think it was nearly two years, which still isn't really very much better... I was really promoting 'Cupid & Psyche 85' for over a year. Really I did go round the World, you know, I did every country imaginable, partly because we don't play live or wouldn't play live, one was obliged to actually go and do a lot more press and radio and a lot more different territories. I did about a year of that and then about a year of writing and recovering, really, I suppose. We tended to work very, very slowly and very critically about things.
There's a nice quote from you in some of the blurb that the record company provided me with explaining the delay or the time taken between albums, and you said it was "too many months spent in milliseconds". This is the technology side of it coming through here?
Yeh it's definitely the technology which was really fascinating to us. I mean, the ability to sequence stuff... [pauses for ambulance in background and says "they're coming to take me away, cleary"] ...but, erm, we were always very interested in syncopation, you know, and particularly the work that, I suppose, the great people that had been... people like Quincy Jones, stuff that Shalamar had done, you know. With the advent of sequencers you could infact get a lot more clever with your syncopation - you could move things about by smaller degrees, you could allote different sounds to different synthesizers, the advent of MIDI - and this just allows you the space to get more and more particular about smaller and smaller increments of sound, in terms of time and colour and everything else, and before you know it, you really are sat listening to snare drums for two days deciding whether they ought to be moved back 3,000ths of a second to see if it sounds any cooler. Which sounds laughable, I'm sure, and if not appalling to most people. But it was an education, it was something that we were very interested in: in exploring the boundaries of that, just how far you could push that technology and how critical you could get with it.
Was it also the fact you were following a very, very successful second album and maybe you were looking for perfection on the third album?
I think the third album certainly got a bit, got a bit 'bogged down',
I mean I can tell you that now in retrospect. I wouldn't have realised
at the time, obviously, and 'Cupid & Psyche 85' was done in, you
know, a bit more of a piecemeal way and was enormous fun to make. I
think perhaps somewhere in the recording of 'Provision' some of the joy
went out of it, when the milliseconds took over.
'Oh Patti' featured Miles Davis, one of the greats, on Trumpet. Now Miles recorded... had covered one of your tunes a few years earlier, hadn't he, the 'Perfect Way'. Had he kept in touch since that and had you invited him to play on the third album?
Yeh, he erm.. I haven't spoken to him for a while. He used to ring me up at home, you know - this is when I was living in North London - and it would be like 3 o'clock in the morning and one would get a 'phone call [impersonates with a deep voice] "yeh, it's Miles", you know, and what do you do apart from quake in your slippers because it's Miles Davis! And how the hell do I deal with one of the greatest musicians of all time? And again, you just have to sort of... swallow your fear or what-ever else and have the brass neck to say "well would you fancy playing on a tune, would you like to get together?", and it worked out very well.
We got on very well with him which is unusual because he's not always
particularly tolerant of white musicians, which I have every reason to
sympathise with him for actually, but it just worked, you know. In fact
in America, I think, Scritti got in some ways a lot more respect than
they did here. I think we got a lot of respect with the very early stuff
(the Rough Trade stuff) when one's a 'darling' and one's struggling, and
then when I went to America and got a bit slick I think there were
fewer... critically less well received here apart from, I suppose, the
musicians and the public liked it. Critics didn't. But other musicans
always seem to see some merit in it which was more rewarding than
anything else, really.
A couple of the songs on 'Provision' also featured Roger Troutman, the man from the Zapp band. What was it like working with him?
Oh, that was a party. I mean that was party on wax time, completely. He uses something called a voice-box which some people might be familiar with Peter Frampton, rather feebly perhaps, using it. What you do is you stick a rubber tube in your mouth and that rubber tube is taped to the end of a little speaker, about 4" square speaker like you have in a car, hifi or something, and you tape it all up so all the air that that speaker is pumping goes into your mouth, and the other end of the speaker is hitched-up to his keyboard so he can sort of speak the notes that he's playing. And I've been a fan of Zapp for as long as I can remember, I mean they still are hugely underated; magnificent, magnificent funk outfit.
Again it was just a case of ringing him up and saying - in Dayton,
Ohio where he runs a fleet of limousines and a chain of laundrettes [laughs]
amongst other things - asking would he like to come and play on a
record. It's astonishing, he turned up in sort of red fadora (hat), red
70s superfly suit, red patent skin shoes, red tie, big red shades and he
was super-bad, he was just like all the ways you'd imagine that 70s soul
musicians were supposed to behave - he was that incarnate, and it was
enormous fun to work with him. I mean he's the funk personified; his
whole body just twitches with syncopation while you're working with him
and you just sit back and enjoy him. Wonderful, wonderful, I'd love to
work with him again.
Am I right in saying that a few of the singles off the 'Provision' album were hits on the American black singles chart?
Yeh. Yes, both 'Cupid & Psyche 85' and 'Provision' yielded music that was played, perhaps towards the end, even more on black radio in America than white which is a very funny... I mean I can remember, you know, if you go doing a lot of promotion in America, you go to Los Angeles and we would do radio promotions at the uptown posh stations which were playing songs... we were seen to be kind of 'dapper young white men being hip and trendy', you know, and then the limo - we had this awful, I don't know why Warner Brothers did this to us but they put us in a white stretch limo whose number plate was MUSIC1 - ghastly over the top thing - and then they'd drive us down to Watts, to the black stations which are surrounded by barbed-wire fences 20 feet high, surrounded by awful poverty, and it was a very, very weird experience sort of going to and from these... literally two ends of town, two sides of the track, two different cultures, and getting on the 'phones to people ringing in at black stations; black kids would say "well we're learning your tunes" and the rest of it, it made one feel a little schizophrenic, really. But America's like that, it's a wacky place.
But it must be nice to get recognition from the black music side?
Yes it is, I think, and we did. We would ask other musicians to come in not that, you understand... that colour has never consciously been an issue, where as racism is very much alive and, well, kicking in America - it's something that one attempts to deal with by almost being blind to colour, you know, you're just interested in a good groove. And these people would come along, be they Mtume or other musicians that are very... or even Stevie Wonder who went on record as saying nice things about us, saying... I don't think it was patronising when they said that this was sort of "damn funky white boys", you know that kind of thing that you used to get... I remember meeting James Ingram in Hollywood. And they would have a genuine enthusiasm for music, I don't think they were... they were too serious about it to be silly about it, so it was nice - there was no jibe about it, it was a genuine enthusiasm.
Now a lot of people won't have heard anything from the band since, probably, 'Oh Patti' which was a big hit in '88. What have - although there were more singles taken off the album - um, what have you been doing since then?
Erm, well I got kind of hacked off with the whole thing, I think that amount of time spent in the studios did take its toll. I mean, you descend into a bunker in Manhattan for two years working 12 hour days, 5 days, whatever, 6 days a week... you sort of go a little nuts. You don't realise you're going nuts until you have to come out and deal with the rest of the world, and I did find that very... it took a toll on me. 'Oh Patti' was a hit and when we released the other two things, which were popular in America with Roger Troutman, I mean by that time house music was, like rap, entering this country, and it clearly didn't fit in. And I'd just had a kind of 'guts full' so I went back to Wales. That's what I did, I sort of gave it all up for a while and rented a cottage, initially in Usk in sunny Gwent and, um, started making music again. Took all my equipment down, the computer sequencers, and just started almost from scratch again, rethinking everything and, in the meantime David went on... I worked on a record for Paisley Park for Prince, for a guy called Tony LeMans. We spent a lot of time on that, I went over and did some singing on it, and it stiffed. I think David felt a bit hurt by that. He's now taken a job working with Warner Brothers as a sort of A'n'R in house production job.
Fred's doing another Information Society LP in New York, and I was in
Wales writing. And that's when Martyn Ware from the British Electrical
Foundation (BEF) rang me up and asked if I would like to contribute
something to a new album of theirs, which is what motivated me because I
was completely... I mean not even the record companies knew my address
or 'phone number in Wales, so I was utterly isolated and it was only him
that managed to track me down.
You were talking to me earlier about this album that you have been involved with. Just go through some of the names that are also involved with the project.
Well it's an album of, um... everybody does cover-versions on it, and the other artists involved include Taschan, Mavis Staples, Chaka Khan, Billy Preston, Lalah Hathaway... an astonishing list of singers, so when I was asked would I like to contribute, that sort of brought me out of my Welsh retirement a bit promptly. I was on the next 1.25 to Paddington (London train station) like that. And Martyn Ware, who's in charge of the project - some people might remember him from Heaven 17 and, before that, The Human League - said "we'd like to do it all cover-versions" and I've never dealt with cover-versions before.
I trotted back to Wales, by this time I was living in Caerleon, and in a week I just jammed together three arrangements of three songs that I liked, one of which was a Stevie Wonder song, which ends up on the B.E.F. album, and the other two were a Beatles' song 'She's A Woman' and a Gladys Knight song 'Take Me In Your Arms And Love Me'. I begged a little extra studio time from the B.E.F. boys while I was doing that Stevie Wonder track; I said "can you give me a few more hours to put these two other tracks down?" which is very unlike the old Scritti way of working which would have taken two hours to even, I don't know, plug one synthesizer up. And I smacked them down very quickly, and they were both put down with a view to collaborating with Jamaican ragga-muffin artists, which has become my passion of late.
Is this the way that Scritti Politti is going from here on?
Oh I wouldn't say that. I think a lot of the stuff that's written in Wales would... a lot of it's sort of ballads, which I think are possibly the best I've ever written and are in a very different vein from the sort of reggae ragga-muffin stuff. Some of it's influenced by that, some of it's influenced by hip hop, but it's a lot more song-crafted stuff, I think, which I hope I'm getting continually better at. So this (the B.E.F. and ragga tracks) is a bit like a 'time out', this was done for fun, this was done also, in part, as an exercise to see if I could really cope with getting back in a studio again without it driving me nuts, and I'm happy to report I could.
So presumably will you have the fourth album 'sorted' already?
Er, pretty much written already - it's on floppy disk [in Welsh accent] in Caerleon now as I speak. And, erm, it's really a question of how much time in want to take out to do any more of this ragga stuff, you know, which is not popular with a lot of people and I expect quite a lot of flak for it but that's never worried me too much. I just do what I do and, as the fancy takes me, have a go at this and that. So I might do a bit more ragga stuff in the year, in which case the album would go back to the end of the year, or it might get finished sooner. I might go to Los Angeles to do it... it's all up in the air really.
You were saying that you've come back to Wales to do most, if not all of your writing. How often do you get back?
Very often really. I mean I spent - until the last three or four months where I've been more in London than in Wales - the last 18 months I've been living pretty exclusively in Wales and really, really appreciating it. Because when you live there as a kid you're rather anxious to get away or at least I was, and I always thought that going back would be like a step backwards, an admission of some sort of failure or hiccup but it wasn't that at all. It was absolutely the right thing to do, to go back and take stock again and replenish yourself, go back and meet the people you went to school with, get a perspective on things again because it's very easy to lose perspective when you're holed up in studios or running round London clubs or whatever. It's been a great time.
Well, good luck with the single. We will certainly look forward to the B.E.F. album which, well for soul fans, sounds like heaven.
It's gonna be fun, yes. I've heard it all and it's good.
Yes, you were saying you hung around for the whole project, didn't you?
Yeh I did. I put my little bits of input on other stuff. I got Billy Preston to play on my contribution to the album, which I arranged myself, and things like that are an absolute dream. Billy Preston's contribution to it is absolutely magnificent. It's all great.
You were telling me that it's finished so it should see release any day now?
As we're speaking today, it's being compiled at the Town House cutting rooms and so as soon as Ten Records can get it together it should be in your shops.
And we look forward to the fourth Scritti album sometime this year?
Hope so. That'll be a lot of fun as well.