Scritti Politti’s lifelong search for the perfect pop song

By Mark Guarino

At age 51, pop careers do not typically burst to life, a reality Green Gartside is well aware he is bucking.   

“Things are just happening backwards, really,” he said from his home in Hackney, a neighborhood in east London. “I can sing in a bigger range than I used to be able to sing and I also find writing songs increasingly easy as well as pleasurable. Whereas generally speaking, these things are supposed to go into decline after 30 years.”   

Starting in 1979, Gartside has recorded in different configurations under the moniker Scritti Politti, releasing albums that, in the shadow of punk’s first wave, were meant to deconstruct conventional pop music to show how fallible it was. Playing alongside a new flank of leftist punk bands that included the Gang of Four, Echo and the Bunnymen and Joy Division, Gartside consciously evoked Marxist theories in his music and played shows that were purely improvisatory.   

Then an odd thing happened. Gartside became enamored with the structures of pop music. In 1983 he moved to New York City and launched the second phase of Scritti Politti in which Gartside became an early MTV star with mainstream success as a Warner Bros. artist with polished R&B hits like “Wood Beez,” “The Word Girl,” and, most notably, “Perfect Way.”   

“I had been denying myself the pleasure of actually writing a song,” he said of his past. “It’s a bit like trying to make your own currency. You can say ‘I don’t want to be part of the system to I’m going to go print my own money with insignias and pictures.’ But go and try to spend that and, of course, that has very limited efficacy.”   

In the late 1980’s, Gartside did not fade out, he just turned around and disappeared. Stage fright cost him exposure. Aside from writing songs for people like Chaka Khan and recording with admirers like Miles Davis and Shabba Ranks, Gartside returned to his native Wales. Scritti Politti was meant to instigate conceptualist theories into the gloss and glitter of MTV, but he soon discovered it was futile when the music was directed at the dancefloor.   

“I can remember doing ‘American Bandstand’ with Dick Clark. That’s when the horror kind of really began,” he said. “I had a sense of critical distance, an ironic distance from pop music and the industry. I was very interested in it as a historical phenomenon and as a cultural phenomenon and as a political phenomenon. So getting into playing it seemed like a great idea. So when you’re on with Dick Clark and you’re lip syncing and you feel like a complete idiot, you feel very uncomfortable in your own skin and everybody’s just talking (expletive), you start to die really. My perception of the landscape changed significantly then.”   

In Wales, Gartside kept a low profile. He made hip-hop beats based on what he had heard in New York (“I remember seeing Afrika Bambaattaa DJ at roller discos”), and found an obsession with reggae. The new mixed tape culture was inspiring, “completely antithetical to the whitebread pop music I had grown up with,” he said. The 1988 album “Provision” featured Davis and heavy doses of synth funk. It was followed up 11 years later with “Anomie & Bonhomie,” which featured guest rappers including Mos Def. Both albums were critically praised but universally ignored.   

It took returning to Rough Trade, the U.K. label that launched Scritti in the earliest days and is home to The Smiths and Belle & Sebastian, for Gartside to feel he had more to say. Geoff Travis, Rough Trade’s founder, encouraged him to resign to the label and try recording from home. The result is “White Bread Black Beer” (Nonesuch/Rough Trade), a new album of gentle and personal pop songs that are, remarkably, the best of his career. Gartside, who sings in a honeyed falsetto that is ageless, multi-tracks his vocals so they sound like an army of voices, both intimate and chilling. The perfectly crafted songs do not betray his love of hip-hop — a verse in “The Boom Boom Bap” lists all the song titles from Run DMC’s first album. There remains a hesitation in these love songs that is sweet. On “Snow In Sun,” he sings “you will never need to doubt me/there’ll be something good about me/soon.”   

The album was nominated, alongside Muse, Thom Yorke and others, for this year’s Mercury Music Prize (Arctic Monkeys won), signaling a new phase for Gartside. He is currently on his first-ever tour of the U.S. (including his Chicago debut), which is remarkable for someone who was hospitalized for panic attacks at the start of his career. Cognitive behavior therapy helped but he said the main salve was age.“I had never really been sure I was in the right line of work,” he said. “Generally I found almost everything gets better as you get older. With the exception of hangovers.”

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