We don't think there is a great deal of use in personal biographies. - Scritti Politti, New Musical Express, November 1978
The Punk Phase
British post-punk/synth-pop band that formed in Leeds, England in 1977/1978. Scritti Politti originally consisted of Green Gartside (born Paul Julian Stromheyer) as the lead vocalist, Nial Jinks as bass player, Tom Morley as drummer (he also did much of the artwork on the band's album covers), and Matthew Kay as the manager who sometimes played the keyboard1. Green and Nial had gone to school together in the South of Wales, and Green met Tom at Leeds Polytechnic, an art college they both attended. They played one show as The Against in 1976, doing covers of Chelsea songs. Disillusioned and bored with art school, Green and Tom left in June of 1978 and moved into a squat at 1 Carol Street2 in Camden Town, London. Nial was invited to join the band and Green taught him how to play the bass in three weeks.
We heard the Clash album and saw the (Sex Pistols) Anarchy Tour and they're what really put the notion of 'doing it' into our head.
The squat in Camden Town housed many people, and one of them was Matthew Kay, whose job was really to be the organizer/manager and book gigs. In September of that year, inspired by the Desperate Bicycles, a group that had done the pressing and releasing of their album themselves, the band decided to make a record. With a £500 loan from Nial's brother, they booked some studio time and the finished product was a 7" called Skank Bloc Bologna, a brittle, fractured collection of three songs peppered with philosophical and literary allusions. It was somewhat controversial due to the record sleeve, which was a breakdown of what the band had to do to make the record. Scritti Politti released the album through their own label, St. Pancras, and distributed it through Rough Trade Records, eventually selling 15,000 records.
I was thinking of certain things when I wrote it...the issues that are behind something like Skank Bloc Bologna won't immediately become obvious...not to everybody. Things like sexism, things like the messes that young people are in, especially in inner city areas, like the bad bits of London...some of the difference between that and what is happening in a city like Bologna3...I wasn't trying to analyse that much...the way that answers aren't posed for young people in terms of anything that they are likely to encounter in their lives...also when I wrote it the Clash had a big interview in the NME and they said they felt like the Magnificent 7 - a bunch of outlaws that would come into town to put everything to rights, and the last bit was something to do with that overestimation, the ability of a beat group to ride into town and put everything right, the idea of a beat group as macho gunslingers, the Robin Hoods of today, or some such silly over-romanticised notion of that, and it was a bit to do with our own overestimations as well. - Green Gartside, After Hours, June/July 1979
From the very beginning, it was clear that Scritti Politti was different. Even their name was unusual: chosen for its onomatopaeic qualities, Scritti Politti "sounded like the noise" that the group hoped to create; they also didn't want to be another "the" band. The name came from a book called Scritti Politici, which was written by Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci while in prison, and was a translation of the phrase "political writings" in Italian. Green stated that they used "politti" because it was an English word that stood for "any group of individuals who get together for the purpose of working towards a set of aims."4 Scritti Politti put this into action - before any of their songs were recorded, or even played, a group meeting of fifteen people had to take place and give approval of the material; each one was considered to be a member of the band, as sort of a collective project.
At this point in the group's history, the band was quite leftist - Green and Nial had tried to start a branch of the Young Communist League when they were teenagers, and Green worked with the Young Communist League in November of 1978. The band became known for being "intellectual" right off the bat, as a result of Green's lengthy political and linguistic theorizing in interviews.
Scritti was a highly conceptual and politicised project from the start. One of the key ideas was "messthetics." Says Green, "We were anti-rock, because rock was too solid, too strong, and too sure a sound. We wanted a music that wasn't strong, solid and sure, because we weren't strong, solid or sure." -Uncut Magazine, April 2005
Scritti Politti played their first show in November 1978, a fifteen minute set in London's Acklam Hall. In many of these early sets the band liked to improvise songs, leaving many of their spontaneous creations, such as the songs "Disenfrachised" and "Doledrums", unrecorded. On December 12th, Green, Nial and Tom recorded the first of two Peel Sessions, which included the songs "The Humours Of Spitalfields", "Doubt Beat", "Knowledge And Interest", and "5/12/78" and was broadcast on the radio later that month.
In 1979, Scritti Politti toured with Red Crayola in March and April, and opened for Gang of Four and Joy Division on a tour of the United Kingdom. On the way to a Gang of Four show in Brighton, Green collapsed and was paralyzed for four hours, unable to speak. His depression and anxiety had culminated in "a collapse of bodily functions" and caused him to have what was originally thought to be a heart attack, but what was really a panic attack. (The lifestyle he was living at the time, which included a lot of drugs, probably didn't help.) Later that year, in June, Scritti Politti did a second Peel Session, broadcast in early July. The four songs recorded were "Scritlock's Door", "Hegemony", "Messthetics", and "OPEC/Immac". Rough Trade Records liked this material and loaned them money to make two EPs, a 12" called 4 A-Sides and a 7" of the second Peel Session, released in October and November, respectively. 4 A-Sides, which was also known as the Pre-Langue EP, included the songs "Bibbly-O-Tek", "Doubt Beat", "P.A.s" and "Confidence", the last of which was a sampling of a more melodic Scritti Politti to come. Green developed pneumonia in November as well, and at the urging of his parents went back to Wales, where he was hospitalized, and later moved into a cottage there to regain his strength.
Less Punk, More Pop
Green took a break and stayed with his parents in 1980, but he didn't entirely abstain from music: he spent the nine months listening to funk, soul and r&b, working on songs for a new album that reflected his interest in these forms of music, and writing a manifesto on pop music, specifically, that it could be used as a vehicle for leftist politics. He hoped his writings would convince his bandmates that they should move in that direction musically.
I wanted to go very poppy, but Tom and Nial weren't very keen on the idea, so in coordinance with the old bookwormish Scritti Politti I decided to make some notes - which in retrospect is a ridiculous thing to do - about the theory and politics of it, and why it was a good thing to do, as opposed to keep slogging away at St. Pancras Records. So I went away and wrote an enormous amount of stuff for them as well. I ended up saying 'Right, from now on when I've got a number of songs I want to do, then if you want to play on them, that's great; if you don't, let's forget the whole thing.' That was the basic shift of footing, that I wasn't prepared to go to the lengths of all that intellectualising to justify the songs -it was crazy. And as it transpired, Nial happily and pleasantly left, and Tom was happy as long as he got to play the drums.
Green felt that the post-punk/DIY scene had "merely developed its own sonic messthetic conventions
" and wanted to move on. At the end of the year, he returned to London
. While all the members of Scritti Politti had begun to veer away from their initial political idealogy, Nial wasn't sold on moving entirely away
from the band's earlier stylings, and agreed initially, but left before the year's end. And despite the fact that a drum machine
would be used under Green's new plan, Tom decided to stick around. Matthew, who had never really played in the band in the first place, stayed on as agent, promoter and manager.
Green recorded a demo of one of his new songs, "The Sweetest Girl", in January 1981, and the song was included on a compilation of songs given out with the March issue of the NME. The song prompted many major labels to offer Green record contracts, but he decided to stay with Rough Trade. By August 1981, Scritti Politti's debut album was complete and ready for release but Green wanted to wait, most likely because he could not decide on a title. "The Sweetest Girl" was released as a single in November and reached only #64 on the UK music chart, but
was cited by the New York Times as one of the ten best singles of the year. Nial Jinks also temporarily rejoined the band around this time.
In May of 1982, Scritti Politti released a second single, "Faithless", which John Peel would eventually deem the "single of the year." The song ranked high on the independent chart but only reached #56 on the main chart in the UK. The band recorded a third Peel Session that included songs from the as-yet unreleased album: "A Slow Soul", "Asylums In Jerusalem", (which is based on a book by Nietzsche) and a six-minute version of "Jacques Derrida (Green's ode to the deconstructionist philosopher)." Rough Trade released "Asylums In Jerusalem" and "Jacques Derrida" as a single in August, with 2000 of the 12" containing signed photographs. Once again, the song was at the top of the independent chart but only reached #43 on the main one. During this month, Matthew was fired and demo tapes were stolen out of Green's car. The band also recorded a fourth Peel Session, featuring Django Bates on keyboards and Jamie Talbot on saxophone.
The songs recorded are "Asylums In Jerusalem", "Jacques Derrida", "A Slow Soul", "Gettin', Havin' And Holdin', and "Lions After Slumber." In September, Scritti Politti finally released their debut album, Songs To Remember, which reached #12 on the main UK chart. The album showcased the band's change from punk to pop and some of Green's reggae influences, but still contained evidence of their earlier avant-garde influences and political conscience:
I couldn't write a song that in some way, even in its poppiest moments, didn't corrupt, subvert, twist or reveal. And what the lyrics don't achieve the rhythms themselves can...Many songs (on Songs to Remember) are about what happens when the anchor points of political, moral or religious understanding fall away.
- Green Gartside, The Face, 1982
Tom officially left the band in November. Green, who had met David Gamson, an assistant sound engineer with a single out on Rough Trade, in 1981, decided to join him on a trip to the US (where he would discover American hip hop, among other things) to record vocals for one of David's songs. David and Green acquired a new drummer, Fred Maher, and they worked on a song called "Small Talk", which they decided to release as a Scritti Politti song, as well as another song, "L is for Lovers." However, Green was in the process of leaving Rough Trade Records at that time, as he felt they didn't have enough money to finance the kind of music he wanted to make, and as a result, neither song was released at that time (Small Talk would later be released on Cupid & Psyche).
We're Gonna Be Big
Despite the fact that Green once maintained that if you signed with a major label you were "challenging nothing", Scritti Politti signed with Virgin Records in 1983. The company gave him a $500,000 advance for three songs, which were produced by Arif Mardin: Green had heard Chaka Khan's "We Can Work It Out", which was produced by Mardin, and liked it so much that he sought Mardin out for his producer.
As the new line up of Scritti Politti, Green, David and Fred recorded the three new songs in New York and London: "Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)", "Absolute", and "Hypnotize." (Steve Ferrone was brought in to to the drum parts for "Wood Beez" and "Hypnotize"). In April of 1984, "Wood Beez" was released by Virgin Records, climbing all the way up to #10 on the main UK chart, but just barely breaking into the main US chart, at #91. "Absolute" was released in July, and reached #17 in the UK. July also saw the inception of Scritti Crush Crew, the Scritti Politti fan club. The third single, "Hypnotize", was released in November, but only made it to #68 in the UK. Green also did some modelling for Italian Vogue around this time.
The highest-charting Scritti Politti single at that point, "The Word Girl", a "reggae-tinged rhythm", was released in May 1985; it reached #6 in the UK. Green got the idea for the song after realizing how frequently the word "girl" showed up in his lyrics. The band performed "The Word Girl" on Top of the Pops, unfortunately while Green was quite ill with the flu - he had to be given vitamin injections to help him get through the song. After 18 months in production, Scritti Politti's second album, Cupid & Psyche, was released in June, reaching #5 in the United Kingdom and #50 in the United States.
Cupid & Psyche 85, released in June of 1985, was a landmark album in many respects. No prior pop album had integrated the techniques of sampling and sequencing to such a great degree, and the technology of that time was both expensive to use and barely up to the task Scritti Politti demanded of it. Gartside's typically high-flown verbiage was as evident here as anywhere, but you didn't need to understand what he sang in order to enjoy the music. Certain songs are dialogues between Gartside and a female singer; as such, "A Little Knowledge" is a rare pop song that retains the characteristics of a mini-tragedy. Likewise, the bonus track of "Flesh and Blood," featuring Jamaican rapper Ann Swinton, sounds remarkably fresh and contemporary 20 years on. - Uncle Dave Lewis, All Music Guide
In July, the band did a worldwide promotional tour of Australia, Japan and the US, which included many television appearances, interviews and photo shoots. The band had set aside 8 weeks in July and August so they could rehearse for a month-long tour of Eire and the United Kingdom, but ten days into the rehearsal they decide eight weeks is not enough, even though the dates and venues for the shows are already set. Scritti Politti basically realized that their sound didn't translate well from the studio to the live performance, and actually none of the various incarnations of the band have played a live show since Green's anxiety attack. "Perfect Way", a synth-pop masterpiece, was released in September, going to #48 in the UK, but was a surprise hit in the Unites Stated, reaching #11 in the charts.
In February of 1986, Scritti Politti began working on their third album. That same month, Madness released a cover of "The Sweetest Girl", becoming the first band to cover a Scritti Politti song. Al Jarreau released a cover of the unreleased Scritti Politti song, "L is for Lover" in September, and in October Miles Davis included a cover of "Perfect Way" on his album Tutu.
Scritti would spend 1987 in different studios recording their third album. They also contributed a song, "Best Thing Ever", to the Madonna movie Who's That Girl?. Green also spent a lot of 1987 travelling back and forth between the US and the UK. In April of 1988, Scritti released the first single from their third album, "Oh Patti (Don't Feel Sorry For Loverboy)", which featured Miles Davis on trumpet and would reach #13 in the UK. Scritti's third album, Provision, was released in June, by Virgin in the UK and Warner Brothers in the US, reaching #8 and #113, respectively. The album far surpassed the previous one in its glossy, slick production, but Green was not entirely satisfied with it. After Provision was released, two more singles followed, "First Boy In This Town (Lovesick)"in July, which went to #63 in the UK, and "Boom! There She Was" in August, which went to #55 in the UK and #53 in the US. The singles didn't do much to bolster Provision's sales, and by the end of 1988 Green was sick and tired of the constant promotion required for the album (more promotion than usual had to be done because Green refused to tour). Despite the fact that he got what he wanted - commercial success with the pure pop sound - he was exhausted and checked himself into a hospital in South Wales. His other bandmates got involved in new projects, and Scritti Politti became a solo project for Green.
Green Goes It Alone
Green spent most of 1989 in a small Welsh village playing darts at a pub, going on walks, and dabbling a little in home recording. The only times he would leave the house were when he would go to Bristol and London to buy records, mostly ragga, or reggae rap. In 1990, a former member of Heaven 17, Martyn Ware, convinced Green to cover some songs for the British Electric Foundation's latest LP, Music Of Quality And Distinction Vol.2. Green covered Stevie Wonder's "I Don't Know Why I Love You (But I Do)" and the Beatle's "She's A Woman"; Green convinced reggae rapper Shabba Ranks to rap over the latter. He also covered Gladys Night's "Take Me In Your Arms (And Love Me)", which featured Sweetie Irie on guest vocals. The singles were released in March, August, and September, respectively.
Green also began working on songs for a new album in 1991. Little is known about what Green was doing in for much of the nineties (1992-1995); he most likely went back to South Wales. In 1996 a few rumors circulated that a new Scritti Politti album was going to be released but nothing materialized. He was also spotted in October of that year with Glenn Gregory, a member of Heaven 17. There were rumors of a new album in the works again in 1997, but this time they were confirmed by Virgin. By year's end, Green was recording with David, along with a new drummer, Abe Laborial, and by June of 1998, the album was complete.
Anomie and Bonhomie, Scritti's fourth album, was released in 1999. It was heavily influenced by hip hop and included guest vocals from Mos Def and Me'Shell Ndegeocello, and was received well by the critics, but didn't garner much other attention. Green kept a pretty low profile until 2005, when he was finally talked into re-releasing some Scritti's early material, on an album aptly titled Early. Green had been reluctant to reissue any of the band's older songs; in the liner notes of the CD he calls them "winceworthy." The album included the songs from the second Peel session, two songs from 4 A-Sides, "Lions After Slumber", and the demo version of "The Sweetest Girl."
Scritti Politti has undergone one of the most radical transformations in the music industry to date; however, in their transition from post-punk to synth-pop and final arrival at hip hop, Green Gartside's powerful personal convictions and belief in the importance of pop music have made certain that the multi-faceted creation that is Scritti Politti is always original and never compromised.
Scritti occupies a funny place in that it never would have happened if it hadn't had the jolt of punk, that strange hiccup. It forced everyone who might otherwise never have thought about it or done it to question what was going on around them. That particular aesthetic and political impulse, as well as several other aesthetic and political concerns, does make us rather peculiar. - Green Gartside, Blitz, 1985
Songs To Remember (Rough Trade Records, 1982)
Cupid And Psyche 85 (Virgin Records, 1985)
Provision (Virgin Records, 1988)
Anomie & Bonhomie (Virgin Records, 1999)
Early (Rough Trade Records, 2005)
Skank Bloc Bologna (Rough Trade Records, 1978)
4 A-Sides (Rough Trade Records, 1979)
Peel Sessions (Rough Trade Records, 1979)
The Sweetest Girl (Rough Trade Records, 1981)
Faithless (Rough Trade Records, 1982)
Asylums In Jerusalem/Jacques Derrida (Rough Trade Records, 1982)
Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin) (Virgin Records, 1984)
Absolute (Virgin Records, 1984)
Hypnotize (Virgin Records, 1984)
The Word Girl (Virgin Records, 1985)
Perfect Way (Virgin Records, 1985)
Oh Patti (Don't Feel Sorry For Loverboy) (Virgin Records, 1988)
First Boy In This Town (Love Sick) (Virgin Records, 1988)
Boom! There She Was (Virgin Records, 1988)
She's A Woman (1991)
Take Me In Your Arms and Love Me (Virgin Records, 1991)
Tinseltown To The Boogiedown (Virgin Records, 1999)
1. A few early articles about Scritti Politti made reference to a fifth member, Simon, who had been involved in a few of their early songs, 28.8.78 and The Humour of Spitalfields, and according to Green, "played tapes."
2. Wikipedia reports that they also lived at 3 Regent's Park Road, but I have been unable to verify this anywhere else.
3. A student revolution was happening at that time.
4. Green later said he changed the "politici" to "politti" because he "wanted to make it sound more like 'Tutti Frutti.'"
Archeology of the Frivolous. http://www.doubt-beat.com/taliesin/AREAS/sp/index.html
BBC - Music/ Artist Biography. http://www.bbc.co.uk/cgi-perl/music/muze/index.pl?site=music&action=biography&artist_id=26900
Do Something Pretty Fanzine. http://web.archive.org/web/20031219194746/http://www.dosomethingpretty.com/articles_sp.htm
Messthetics 1. http://members.aol.com/blissout/messthetics1.htm
No More Time For Spectating or How The Desperate Bicycles & Scritti Politti didn't quite manage to conquer the known universe in the late '70s. http://www.furious.com/perfect/scritti.html
Scritti Crush Collection. http://www.dosswerks.com/scc/index.htm
Scritti Politti Biography. http://launch.yahoo.com/ar-262855-bio--Scritti-Politti
Scritti Politti. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scritti_Politti
The Scritti Politti Workshop. http://www.aggressiveart.org/engindex.htm
It doesn't include any written material about the band, but the Scritti Cola site is a treasure trove of music videos and documentaries about Scritti Politti.