Wednesday, January 12, 2005

SCRITTI POLITTI: EARLY

It's a funny old thing, capitalism. Empowered by yet obedient to the forces of the market, its efficiency depends upon its ability to adapt to the whims of the market, which do not always change in the anticipated directions. Consider Green Gartside. In his rather defensive sleevenote to the imminent Rough Trade compilation of their early recordings - entitled Early and whose front and back cover consist of a Scritti Better Badge and its reverse - Green seems to be at severe pains to distract the consumer from listening to its contents. He refers to at least 11 of its 13 tracks as "a bit winceworthy," and categorises the music as "some anti-produced labour of negativity, kind of structurally unsound and exposed, by design and default...music with the questions built in and the assurances left out." As the '80s rolled around, Green was clearly desperate to roll as far away from that Camden squat as possible, towards America, towards brutal beats and above all towards gloss - call it Gramsci gloss if you must. His journey seems to have been singularly powered by the notion of "nowness." And yet, when you next find yourself at a motorway service station, feel free to browse through the plentiful copies of his 1999 up-to-the-1999-minute-Mos-Def-involving Anomie and Bonhomie album, yours for just £1.99 - whereas the new collection of his scratchy, disjointed post-punk improv stuff from two decades ago reportedly already has 10,000 advance orders.

Not that you could easily slot in Scritti with the multiple platitudinous misreaders of the pop/philosophy interface they set in motion. Given that a one-time squatmate of Green's was Ian Penman, it's credible to think of Early as representing the principal manifesto for what would eventually become New Pop, as well as the chief historical document for the kind of writing approach which has resulted, amongst other things, in this website. I am at least partly here because of this music.

But it's also pretty hard to categorise Scritti with any other post-punk operatives of the period; even in 1978/9 they stood distinct and separate. Thus their debut single "Skank Bloc Bologna" more or less initiates the template which would later yield "The 'Sweetest Girl'," with an almost identical lovers' rock rhythm; except that what's on top of it is an angular, staccato guitar - Nial Jenks' bass, as is generally the case on these recordings, carries the melody (though here the basslines are practically antiphonal to Green's guitar work) - with a small debt to the considered Beefheart/Zoot Horn Rollo of "Dali's Car" but a considerably greater one to the meandering chord changes of Matching Mole (interestingly, Chris Cutler, then of Henry Cow, sent Green back a copy of this single asking him to leave this sort of thing to "real musicians" - so it's no wonder Scritti identified with the romantic prog-Left rather than the schematic, pragmatic camp which Cow so stridently represented). Also (as is again the case throughout) Green's voice carries a distinct London post-punk drawl of an accent, though on words like "clue" and the first syllable of "answer" in the choruses he betrays an inspiration from the Home Counties voice of Robert Wyatt. The song seems to be about the Unreachable Girl or Purposely Not Understanding Girl - "Someone's got a question that she doesn't wanna see.../Over and above and she hasn't a view" - but the track is so tactilely stretched out that it could permeate indefinite variations ("Music and marmalade"). Note also the curt nod to disco in drummer Tom Morley's use of the glockenspiel as cowbell (and compare, if you're quick enough, with the use of the glockenspiel throughout the first U2 album).

The B-side,"Is And Ought The Western World (the "Ought" being pronounced as "Out")," begins with some Beefheartian dissonance and stumbling rhythm but soon settles into a smoother (and once more dub-derived) pace over which Green muses about sex, money and politics ("It's houses, bedsits and squats"), namechecking Persil and Clearasil and all the time sounding like he is trying to lick the back of your Left ear with his tongue. The final chord sounds like that of "A Hard Day's Night" mangled slightly and played backwards. They can go anywhere from here but remain as radical as Crass, if not more so because they are seducing you with radical thought rather than screaming at you (not that there isn't always a time and place for the latter - "Reality Asylum" now having renewed relevance following the Springer spat). And in case you might be overly carried away by the seduction, there are always tactics such as the brief instrumental "28/8/78" (the date of their second Peel session, which comprises the next five tracks, although their first Peel session is not represented here) over which is cemented that evening's Radio 4 news (even the Greenwich pips are in tune with the guitar!) full of grim 1978 news such as the British Leyland tool workers' strike in Birmingham, though an ironic smile of light is let through as the music ends to highlight a report on rioting at that year's Notting Hill Carnival, with reference to the spaces under the Westway with its "rows of loudspeakers pounding out non-stop reggae and rock music." Guess whose side they're on.

"Scritlocks Door" is a fairly bitter diatribe against the abovementioned market forces ("It fucks up liberty!"). Set mainly against a martial drum pattern, Green then seems to proceed to question the listener for even listening to him, speaking of "the myth and the cackle" and "the dark history of the groups you like the most." Eventually multiple Green voices come in, cancel each other out and shift the track out of focus, and enormous tectonic bass earthquakes rumble regularly at the end as if they are setting out to blow up pop altogether.

Also sorely relevant in 2005 is "Opec-Immac" with its tagline of "Fourteen nations and they're all producing oil" accompanied by Jenks' dislocated bass. "You're scarred with masculinity" states Green before the track devolves into a sprechtesang duologue in the manner of the Gang of Four's "Love Like Anthrax" (and also, incidentally, presaging Kevin Rowland's similar exercises on Don't Stand Me Down and elsewhere) although Green's loftier pronouncements are always abruptly curtailed by a sexy "chk chk chk" (!!!). The conclusion? "Oh how very stupid you have been, dear."

"Messthetics" represents a drowning man trying to fool us all that he can swim. "I know what we're doing," Green reassures us over a backing track which sounds like skinny tie Noo Wave gone gloriously awry. But he still wears the seductive mask - that oscilloscope of undulation as he sings, in one breath, "Yes, we know how it sounds" (Lynsey de Paul, who would doubtless despise every lyric on this record). Finally, Green admits "The pages let you down" against a background of laughs and (sexual?) grunts.

"Hegemony" might be the track which could best be compared with post-punk, complete with its pseudo-moronic chants of platitudes ("An honest day's pay for an honest day's work! You can't change human nature! Don't bite the hand that feeds!" etc.) over which Green practically sozzles with rage. "You are the foulest...cunt?" he hisses, though the latter word is only suggested at with palpable sizzle in his spittle. "Such is the splendour of popular control" he sneers before launching into a sudden outburst of musical paranoia in the third verse when Morley's percussion thunders out-of-tempo in and out of the foreground of the mix. It all ends in a thunderclap, with residual bass and guitar remnants fumbling towards the fade.

"Bibbly-O-Tek," on the other hand, the first of four tracks from Scritti's Pre-Langue E.P., is practically a template for '80s pop, from its intro, which with its "Come To The Cookhouse Door, Boys" guitar and Boys' Brigade drumming invents Orange Juice (before the music collapses and folds into itself), giving way to predications of everything from Chic to House (even the title alone could be argued to have invented Stereolab, especially via McCarthy). Again there are dual vocals singing and speaking opposing points of view, but the structure of Scritti songs of this period are extremely flexible; as with Plush, the songs are moulded around the shape of the story they are telling, the difference here being that the abrupt changes of style every 20 seconds are more redolent of an ongoing debate; the inability of the open-minded liberal to make their mind up about anything. Meanwhile, Green cheerfully reassures us that "we take no big interest in means of production." But he was about to do so.

With "Doubt Beat" Scritti took their first careful inchings towards approaching what we might consider to be "pop." The scratching guitar here is more securely in the lineage stretching between the Gang of Four and the Fire Engines, underlined by the insistent tom-tom rhythms. Green sings of the difficulties inherent in allowing yourself to believe in anything ("Sometimes I think it's all just a heartbreaking mess"). Despite the bass solo, which incidentally invents the flange bass which cursed most of the '80s, Scritti's music still carries the aura of wilful enclosure - you can almost hear the guitar heads bouncing off the walls of the front room of their squat, desperate to exceed their boundaries ("We have no big interest/We listen sideways").

"Confidence" is appropriately the crucial step towards what would become '80s Scritpop; a lovely, luxurious glide over which Green decries the obstacles of manhood and impotence ("Outside the clubs of boyhood/Inside monogamy (or monotony)"), already lamenting the loss of his youth ("Competence inherent in what a man must do," and his never sadder deployment of terms such as "lads" and "mates") with a chorus anticipating "Jacques Derrida" and alternating between "Bring it back my baby" and "Break it up my baby." Towards the song's end remote electronic clouds whistle across the soundscape (weirdly pre-empting "Visions Of China" by Japan). Note the utter fragility with which Green breathes the word "play" in the line "work and play" and note further the unutterable bitterness of his sign-off line "You haven't got no heart to tell me."

"PAs," which runs for nearly six minutes, echoing itself in two versions, seems to wrap up the history just described. "We don't practise with PAs/We have lots of bills to pay," sings Green, and it quickly becomes evident that he's had enough of both political manipulation ("What happened once in Italy/Will happen now in Germany") and the self-manipulation forced by poverty ("We have debts you couldn't credit"). Guitar and bass become briefly bitonal, and then Green offers the nearest thing to a Scritti manifesto: "Face the critics/Face the bailiffsomething British/Moves we fail if/Bas(s)es shake/And speakers rattle/Doledrums roll us into battle (Art of Noise!)/It's jokey - /Well, maybe." The music gradually becomes less agitated and more lubricious, and with Green's sighs of "Ooh, ooh, oooh!" after the line "Sleep aroused and get climactic" it seems that he is heading for sex to give him what politics haven't (that glockenspiel-as-cowbell motif returns right at the end in order to give this entire lifespan some symmetry).

After this it was a perfectly logical step towards "The 'Sweetest Girl'" (the greatest use of internal quotation marks in a pop song this side of "'Heroes'?"). In his sleevenote Green becomes markedly more animated when he writes: "I think in the final minutes [of this compilation] I can definitely hear one place, one voice, one live being left and another being entered - blimey!" Or perhaps he had had enough of the concept of the collective, having lately returned from extended sick leave at home in Wales, now healthy, now eager never to go back to the squat again (afraid of going back to the squat again?) - by 1982 he would be berating Rough Trade for not giving Scritti records proper distribution and thereby keeping him out of the Top 40. Then again, what would be the point of post-punk if you ended up like Ian Curtis (though many would, and do, argue that the point of post-punk was to end up like Ian Curtis)? In any case, the version of "The 'Sweetest Girl'" heard here is different from the more familiar version heard on 1982's Songs To Remember album, with which every child should be issued at birth. There is a different vocal, though gliding with equal ease from the personal to the political and back again ("She left because she understood the value of defiance") and Robert Wyatt's keyboards are much more in evidence, with greater deployment of dub echo. The rather dry album mix now turns into a hymn whose tender grandeur allows us to forget the persuasive poison in its heart, though it's a shame that the track is faded before Wyatt reaches his dissonant keyboard coda (and how appropriate that Robert Wyatt should now enter the Scritti story in the environment of a song which arguably could not have been possible without the precedent of "Oh Caroline," not to mention "Sea Song").

The original B-side, "Lions After Slumber," is similarly far spikier and far more sheerly danceable than its album version, with slap bass and entertainingly discursive Chris McGregor-ish piano both played by the mysterious "Mike" (does anyone out there know exactly who this was?) backing a far more voluptuous vocal itemising by Green of everything he owns and which defines him, tangible and intangible. Given the hindsight of Miles' cover version of Scritti's "Perfect Day" and subsequent starring role in "Oh Patti (Don't Feel Sorry For Loverboy)," this track actually draws an extremely solid line between the three chapters of Miles' rapproachment with New Pop (Decoy, You're Under Arrest and Tutu), and Green is perfectly entitled to lick his lips at the song, and album's, end with the words "Unvanquishable member - oh yeah!" Luckily (or unluckily) for him, the market would currently seem to agree. I think there is no need to comment on the attendant irony of this album being released on Valentine's Day.