March 7th, 2001

Scritti Politti – Songs To Remember

Only a year before many of the songs on this album (enjoying a long overdue re-release this month) were recorded, Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside seemed as far from pop as it was possible to be without turning to ash. Scritti started life as a musicians’ collective revolving around a group of Young Communists at Leeds University, forming a punk group initially called The Against and making a grey, dissenting din in various pubs. As part of the indie “squattage industry” (in very early interviews, Green talked overheatedly of “overthrowing” the major labels) Scritti would go on to make a handful of limited edition EPs, including Skank Bloc Bologna and Messthetics with stencilled and photocopied covers, with song titles like “Hegemony”, fiercely ideological yet fragile post-punk collages that seemed to self-deconstruct spontaneously.

By this time, however, a combination of strict adherence to avant-garde lit crit aesthetics and Marxist dogma, cult oblivion and a Withnail-style self-neglect were beginning to exact their toll on Green. He wasn’t eating for days, wasn’t sleeping for days but he was drinking and popping pills every day.

In 1980, his parents, fearful for his ravaged health, urged him to return to Wales to recuperate, where he wrote a massive tome on the psychology and politics of rhythm and, retreating into his teenage passions for jazz, lover’s rock, r&b and jazz, made a conscious decision to return to London musically redrawn and coloured into full-on pop. He’d be accused, of course, of selling out as well as praised for his supposed subversive “entryism”, for choosing to spike the mainstream waters. Truth probably was, he made the decision for the sake of his health and his sanity.

The first, huge inkling of Green’s apparent musical volte-face came on NME’s C81 cassette. “The ‘Sweetest Girl'” complete with hotly-debated inverted commas, was quite unlike Scritti’s previous scratchy, fragmented output. With fellow Rough Tradesman Robert Wyatt providing his signature, decaying electric keyboard drones against a wispy drum machine backdrop, Green offered up an exquisite vanilla slice of dreampop, whose loin-melting, bass-led melody and gorgeously fey vocals left jaded, post-punk listeners of the day both astonished and ravished.

What’s more, this wasn’t the mere pastiche of lovesong cliche it seemed to be on the strength of the first two verses; without abandoning the lilting, almost courtly pace and rhythm of the song, Green systematically takes the lyric into a sort of intellectual meltdown. “The weakest link in every chain/I always want to find it/The strongest words in each belief/Find out what’s behind it” Later, when discussing the lover’s rock that inspired material like “The ‘Sweetest Girl'”, Green talked about “a kind of struggle, a kind of hope, of loneliness and strength” that had accumulated through repeated use of this sort of lyrical language, an accretion that was, to Green, “political” in a manner that the likes of Crass and Tom Robinson might be hard pressed immediately to understand.

Though too dazed to appreciate it at the time, music fans had been treated by Scritti Politti to one of the first great golden salvo of post-modernist pop, which sprung logically from, rather than rejected, punk. Simultaneously, ABC (formerly Sheffield punksters-turned dour electro-poppers) were constructing their own spectacular launchpad, while The Human League were upgrading Seventies glampop dominance for the synth age with Dare. All shared an idea that nothing was more vital in music than great, leading-edge pop, that to sulk in the grey post-punk margins was futile, something they’d all learned through having served apprenticeships there. All of this was happening but no one imagined where, if anywhere, it was going to lead.

Of course, there were those who suspected Green of opportunism, of graverobbing classic pop and soul. However, Green protested that what he was doing was closer to what his hero Jacques Derrida called the “violence of re-opening tomes”, revisiting and reinventing the very concept of pop, re-imagining it in a pristine state.

Not only was Green by far the most articulate proponent of these notions, he was also preternaturally blessed with a gift for pop melody and a voice as creamlike as Ronnie Isley, Art Garfunkel or Prince. Songs To Remember was eventually released in September 1982, by which time two further singles featured on the album – “Faithless” and “Asylums In Jerusalem/Jacques Derrida” had been released, with each cover sleeve a parody of the “finer things in life” – cigars, or Courvoisier. By now, the Revolt into Pop was in full effect, dividing hipsters into Cavaliers and Roundheads – some believed that the new Face/ABC/Spandau/cocktail culture was a mere “revolt” into head-in-the-sands escapism, others that it was alcoholising the pop scene with a disruptive delirium. Wasn’t it something, after all, that Green was able to smuggle allusions to French philosophers into the charts under the guise of pop?

As for Green himself, he was having fun, cheekily dropping words like jouissance and allusions to Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus” into his songs, lightly applying their precepts. “Asylums In Jerusalem”, based on a tome by Nietzsche, with its waspishly perky synth-reggae backdrop reminiscent of Stevie Wonder, is almost mockingly rueful about the radical pop protagonist, routinely contained and incarcerated; “Let him pop a little let him swing . . With his hammer and his popsicle/They put him in the h-hospital for good.”

“Jacques Derrida”, meanwhile, with its sunny c&w beat paints an almost too idyllic picture of the new pop boy skipping out of the Thatcherite doldrums and into Camden, post-structuralist paperback in his back pocket to meet his girl. “I’m in love with Jacques Derrida/Read a page and know what I need to/Take apart my baby’s heart . .” yet still getting carried away in a “Chant No. 1”-style Spandau rap with dreams of revolution through radical consumption; “Desire is so voracious/I wanna eat your nation state . .”

In 1982, the notion that pop not only ought to contain occasional political sentiments but was itself political, was a given in hip, left-field circles. It’s unlikely that Green believed he or an army of musicians could overthrow the state but, scepticism and irony notwithstanding, he would never have thought of relapsing into a lazy apolitical indifference to such issues. Elsewhere, on “Lions After Slumber,” over a bumpy, Level 42-style bassline, Green intones a vast list of “my’s”; “my diplomacy, my security, my hope and my ice-cream/My tomorrow and my temperature, my lips and my selfishness” in what seems like an extended pop exercise in relativism, the equal (un)importance of all things, cutely encapsulating a debate that was raging through lit-crit and cultural theory circles at the time. Whether the little girls understood was another matter.

Musically, Songs To Remember is loaded with what in Green’s delicate hands were innovative acts of musical homage but which in pop would later become crude apeing of soul mannerisms. The free-ranging, garrulous saxophone of “A Slow Soul”, which here still sounds oddly (in)appropriate to the song, would later, in the hands of Sade’s band, become a bland signifier for “classiness”. The use of gospel-style backing singers who holler and testify all over “Asylums . .” and “Faithless” among other tracks would become a too-easy device for subsequent white popsters who wanted to add instant “soul authenticity” like so much hot water to their dried out pop noodlings.

And then there’s “Sex” (“don’t bush around the beat) which seems like the unwitting,uncanny prototype for George Michael’s later, deceitful forays into hetero raunchiness. “You got the motion that the boys’n’girls all want to touch and take it home.” Finally, imagine the dialectical and diluting process that begins with Green’s clever allusion to Percy Sledge in “Gettin’ Havin’ and A Holdin'” to Michael Bolton, years later, bellowing “When A Man Loves A Woman” convinced that big hair and big volume equal soulfulness.

Perhaps the best track on Songs To Remember, “Sweetest Girl” apart is “Faithless”, sadly missing its lengthy vocoder outro on the album version. Proceeding at the sombre pace of a New Orleans funeral march, heavily lacquered in gospel shrieking, it is, as the title suggests, implicitly about the modern, probably white soulboy and lover addicted to the linguistic constructs of soul, the “oohs”, the “testifies”, the “I got souls” but who is disconnected from them in his contemporary, agnostic time and place – “Faithless”, indeed. In a further irony, it’s as physically gorgeous as any “true” soul song. Compare and contrast with George Michael’s subsequent “Faith”, a crude and gormlessly contrived imitation of “real” black men’s moves and feelings that , un-ironically, ranks poorly even within the annals of white soul.

It’s arguable, then, that Songs To Remember was a failure. Certainly, though it reached no. 12 in the albums charts, it yielded no hit singles. It failed to “become” pop. That said, his 1985 follow-up, the immaculate, Arif Mardin-produced Cupid & Psyche ’85 was a fully realised pop success, though follow-ups Provision and last year’s belated Anomie & Bonomie saw Green, the Sweetest Boy become the Bubble Boy, indifferent to the shifting context of the pop times, turning all his old tricks with diminishing returns. The grim truth is that Scritti’s ideas of crossover and co-option of soul were crudely plundered by the hideous mid-Eighties Live Aid brigade with their own agenda – Phil Collins, George Michael, Mick Hucknall, who simply imagined that if they ate black music alive they could take on its power. Conversely, the legacy of Green’s broody but pristine white boy popism was – eurghh – Howard Jones, Nik Kershaw.

Still, that wasn’t Green’s fault and what’s great is that Songs To Remember neither sounds dated nor overfamiliar nearly 20 years on but as an unspoiled and inimitable paradigm of ideological (ideal, illogical) pop. If only they’d left it alone . . .

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