Scritti Politti Mastermind Green Gartside On Why He Still Believes In The Power Of Pop
Green Gartside forces himself to smile, even as his eyes betray the repressed scream of a man who wishes he could be doing anything other than talking to Dick Clark. It’s December 1985, and Green’s band Scritti Politti is on American Bandstand, pretending to perform their surprise hit single “Perfect Way,” which has reached #11 on the Billboard Hot 100.
“It was grotesque to me, really, to be honest,” he recalls now via Zoom, calling Clark “a frighteningly almost Vaudevillian character.” Gartside was never very comfortable in the spotlight, and a few years later he would leave it completely.
Born Paul Strohmeyer in Cardiff, Wales, Gartside would end up having one of the most unusual career arcs in the history of punk-affiliated music. He formed a branch of the Young Communist League at the age of 14, after meeting future bandmate Nial Jinks, and a Sex Pistols gig inspired a life-long passion for making music, however he could.
He moved to Camden to live in a squat with the members of Scritti Politti, as well as any other anarchists or punks who felt like dropping by. He named his band (which roughly translates to “Political Writings,”) after the work of Antonio Gramsci, famed linguist and one-time leader of the Communist Party of Italy. Their clanging DIY single “Skank Bloc Bologna,” an ode to the Italian leftist mecca Bologna, caught the attention of famed BBC radio DJ John Peel, ever a friend to post-punk, and eventually earned them a deal with Rough Trade, whose founder Geoff Travis would go on to be a mentor figure.
Gartside suffered a panic attack while touring with his fellow lefty post-punks Gang of Four, and took a long break from playing live. While recovering, he began to rethink everything. He’d become disenchanted with indie rock, and found himself inspired by American R&B, pop, and hip-hop. After dipping his feet into blue-eyed soul and lovers rock-style reggae with “Sweetest Girl” and Scritti Politti’s 1982 debut album Songs To Remember, the original lineup disbanded, and Gartside went all in on pop music. Before long he found himself on Virgin Records, working in famed (and famously expensive) studios such as London’s Wessex Sound Studios and New York’s The Power Station, alongside music industry pros like producer Arif Mardin and Michael Jackson sideman Paul Jackson Jr. But his most important collaborator at the time was keyboardist David Gamson, who helped Green’s pop dreams feel like more than fan aspiration.
Gartside’s featherweight vocals, always floating just above the proceedings, combining with ahead-of-its time drum sequencing, coy hooks, and effortless pizzaz turned the resulting album Cupid & Psyche 85 into a smash in England, launching five hit singles in the UK, and earning them an American audience with “Perfect Way.” And true to his vision, you could hardly accuse Gartside of dumbing anything down. As a student he fell in love with theorists such as Immanuel Kant and Jacques Derrida, and found himself always slipping deconstructionist, Semiotics ideas into his songs.
Gartside’s life-long mental health struggles came to a head during the making of the 1988 follow-up album Provision. Though the album afforded him the opportunity to collaborate with funk legend Roger Troutman and goddamn Miles Davis (who had, improbably, covered “Perfect Way” and then guested on single “Oh Patti (Don’t Feel Sorry For Loverboy),” he later took a long break from the music industry.
After seeking help and decompressing in Wales for nearly a decade, he reemerged with Anomie & Bonhomie, another left turn into hip-hop inspired rock. Featuring guest appearances from Mos Def, Wendy Melvoin, and Me’Shell Ndegeocello, the album largely baffled critics upon its 1999 release, but now sounds like the UK answer to the recombinant pop that Cibo Matto and Beck were making at the time, and that Damon Albarn would soon pursue with Gorillaz. He later followed it up in 2006 with the stately, Mercury Prize-nominated White Bread Black Beer, and after more than two decades, he began playing live again.
Gartside has been largely silent since, though he insists he’s never stopped making music. But in his absence, Scritti Politti have been rehabilitated from New Wave-also-rans to ahead-of-their-time pop geniuses. They’ve been praised by Paul McCartney and Elton John, the pair of Gartside and Gamson have written a song for Chaka Khan, and Gartside has collaborated with Kylie Minogue. (No slouch, Gamson has also co-wrote “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” for Kelly Clarkson and “Stephen” for Kesha, not a bad resume for a 21st-century pop savant.)
This week sees the rerelease of both Cupid & Psyche 85 and Anomie & Bonhomie via Rough Trade, and a rerelease of Provision is in the works for next year. This fall, Scritti Politti will perform Cupid & Psyche 85 live in its entirety for the first time, COVID-19 spread pending. Gartside says that US shows aren’t out of the question, but he also admits he has no idea how he’s perceived over here. He doesn’t do much American press, but once you get him talking he has plenty to say. He’s as engaged with music (and has plenty of favorite young Atlanta trap stars) and politics as ever, and while he’s happy to celebrate his considerable legacy, he insists that he’s not done yet. “I waste no time on any consideration of how I might be remembered,” he insists. “I don’t like what’s implicit in that, that I’m finished. The best work that I’ve done is yet to be heard.”
So let’s start at the beginning. The shorthand version of Scritti Politti is that you are a left-wing, Marxist-leaning guy who loves to slip deconstructionist theories into glossy, danceable pop music. That’s a unique combination only you own. Are you comfortable with that being what you’re known for?
GREEN GARTSIDE: I’m not wholly comfortable about that. The glossy, pop music thing was a chapter, and there was a Scritti before that, and a Scritti since. Admittedly the Scritti since hasn’t been [chuckles] terribly productive. Well, no, that’s not true, I’m always incredibly productive, but little has been heard of me. And that has to do with mental health and to do with procrastination and prevarication.
But yes, there was a Scritti before the kind of Scritti Mark 2, which is the Scritti of Cupid & Psyche. The original Scritti was formed when I was studying fine art in Leeds and nearing the end of my degree when the Sex Pistols and the Clash, the Damned, and the Heartbreakers played at my college. It sounds all too hackneyed, cliched and predictable, but that evening really did change my life.
I had thought that maybe I would leave Leeds and go to the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. That was about the only place in Europe at the time that was taking popular culture seriously as a subject of study. But I saw the Pistols and the Clash, and I just wanted to be in a band. So the very first line-up of Scritti was hugely influenced by the Clash, but by the time we got to making our first record, “Skank Bloc Bologna,” we were a kind of what’s now called post-punk. We made what I called a kind of scratchy collapse-y pop music.
The habit that I had through both Marxism and being, for want of a better word, a student interested in conceptual art — thinking of the most creative thing I could do in the late ’70s at art college was to question the nature of fine art. That carried on as a practice into thinking about music and the assumptions that hierarchically privileged certain genres of music over others. I began despairing of the slide back into the kind of turgid, torpor of rock that indie was. When Indie got big, capital I Indie, by the end of the ’70s, I was thinking that the more interesting music was the less critically privileged music. The idea that rock music or jazz or blues were more worthy … through reading Derrida, I learned there’s no more transparent medium for expressing an inner truth than pop music, for argument’s sake. I was addressing my peers, drawing attention to those historical assumptions about the privileges of different genres of music that made me want to make big P-pop music.
For a while you were a squatter. What is the day-to-day life like for a squatter?
GARTSIDE: We were squatting in a small terraced house in Camden on a street of squats. It was a very impoverished time, and it was an incredibly exciting time. It was very violent in London at the time. There were constant running battles on the street with the far right, the National Front, British National Party, skinheads, that kind of thing. One was regularly attacked on the streets just for being a punk. I carried a knife at all times. It was rough, it was violent, it was incredibly vibrant.
You were making DIY singles at first, and on the 4 A-Sides liner notes, there’s a complete breakdown of the production process, including studio and manufacturing costs. Fast forward a few years later, and you are in some very expensive New York studios recording Cupid & Psyche 85, working with studio pros like David Gamson, who you worked with so many times, and Paul Jackson Jr., who played on Thriller and was in David Letterman’s house band at the time. Did you have any moments of, “I used to live in a squat. How am I here?”
GARTSIDE: I’m prompted to remember that I spent much of that time making that album with a stomach-churning sense of inadequacy and unbelievable anxiety and a lack of confidence, but it was the record that I really wanted to make. I wanted to make a point of making pop music. I’d had the terribly good fortune of being introduced by Geoff Travis from Rough Trade to David Gamson. He thought that David and I would get along, knowing that I wanted to make, for want of a better word, a contemporary, R&B-inspired pop record. David had the sophistication, the understanding, the empathy. It was a terrifying time, and I did feel completely out of my depth, being only a year or two out of post-punk, but absolutely convinced that this was what I wanted to do.
When namechecking Immanuel Kant or using the word hermeneutic, do you feel like you’re getting away with something?
GARTSIDE: No, not at all. You’re always aware of the fact that you could and should be doing better. I thought any attention given to me for any reason was deeply ill-deserved, and I would never have felt happy or comfortable with anything that I’ve done. I certainly wouldn’t have had any moment of self-congratulation anywhere along the way.
You’d previously had success with “The Sweetest Girl,” but Cupid had multiple UK hits, and for a while you were a bit of a celebrity, and even a pin-up. Did you enjoy any of that at all? Do you get any validation that you were good from that experience?
GARTSIDE: No, I hated it, absolutely hated it.
I’m sorry to hear that, Green.
GARTSIDE: I had a little breakdown and I went back to Wales and I wrote this thesis, an argument about why the move to pop was the most interesting gesture that we could make, and all the reasons for it, drawing on other post-structuralist writers and all the band read it, and I think they were persuaded it was a good idea, but it did kind of engender the collapse of that first lineup.
And out of that, the second lineup was born. There were many reasons, from the outside as I was, to find that process interesting politically, culturally, creatively. But there was an awful lot of bullshit and stuff that felt degrading, stuff that felt ill-deserved. I felt very, very uncomfortable with it. I’d already had one kind of breakdown with the first line-up of Scritti, and I think it precipitated another. So I had another spell away from making music for a long time.
So there is pop success, and that’s one thing. But it’s a whole other thing when one of your songs is covered by Miles Davis, the greatest musician of the 20th century. What did you think when you first heard that he had covered “A Perfect Way“?
GARTSIDE: I was generally like, “What was that again?” It was extraordinary. All I was thinking was like, “Well, how the hell did Miles hear this?” When we invited him to come and play, it was an extraordinary experience working with him, and an extraordinary experience visiting him at home as well. I was expecting him to come surrounded by an entourage, but he came completely alone. I was very, very frightened about what it would be like, but he was very gentle and introspective, and he was very gracious. He was a little elliptical in his practices and reasoning, perhaps. As it was for me, the experience of working with Roger Troutman from Zapp, who was someone whose music I had long adored and was terribly keen to work with him, and he was another person whose character and musicianship was phenomenal.
So you took a long break after Provisions and you’ve been open that you had to seek treatment for your anxiety and other mental health issues. I remember when I was growing up, people would say “Why is Eddie Vedder whining about being famous? Being famous looks awesome.” But then you learn that, actually, being famous is probably not good for your mental health under the best circumstances. No pressure, Green, but what do you feel comfortable talking about why you’ve had to take these breaks and why you couldn’t tour for a long time?
GARTSIDE: Well, I’m not at all embarrassed to talk about it, but I find myself very … it still makes me uncomfortable. When people who are privileged enough to have enjoyed success and some degree of assured material comfort or whatever else, and people who put themselves in front of the public, but then to whinge about it is … yeah, that grates a little. I wouldn’t make a meal about it, but I would simply say that I’m kind of astonished that there are people who are ever at all comfortable with the business of making themselves famous. I can’t imagine why anybody would want to put in all the work that that demands, all the compromises it demands, all the debasement it demands, all the belittling.
What was going on in your life between the long break between Provision and Anomie & Bonhomie?
GARTSIDE: There was no band. I split up with management, I split up with the record labels, I split up with my partner. I didn’t want to see anyone, and I didn’t see anyone. I went to live a solitary life in a cottage in the countryside in my native Wales. I would see one or two old school friends for a beer and a game of darts a few nights a week. The rest of the time I would walk around the countryside. I had all my musical equipment in a room in the cottage, but I didn’t want to see that equipment, even. It’s strange, if I opened the door to the room where all the gear was, even the smell of guitars and synthesizers would make me feel ill.
The only music that I was happy to listen to then was East Coast hip-hop, which had become progressively more important to me over the years. I would occasionally jump on the train for a solitary trip to London or Bristol to buy vinyl. I loved DJ Premier so much.
Much in the same way that I wanted to know what it felt like to make big-beat pop music — this is silly, but I wanted to know what it felt like to make a Premier beat, or how he went about it. And so that’s slowly how I got, piece by piece, the equipment back out of the music room and started programming beats. My sister lured me back to London, by which time back in the countryside I’d gone back to listening to John Peel, as there was no other radio station to listen to. Which meant that I was listening to guitar music again, as well as hip-hop, towards the end of my time in Wales.
So I’d written a bunch of songs with therapy and drugs and just the boredom, I guess, of being so isolated. I had a handful of songs and I got in touch with David again and said, “You know, I’m sort of emerging, and would you be up to being involved in making another record, and this is gonna be a very different kind of record.” It was a pop record, but it wasn’t a Top 40 pop record. It didn’t have its sights in that direction, it was just expressing some interest in influences that I’d had in that time in Wales. And then we made that record, with Me’Shell Ndegeocello and Wendy Melvoin and Abe Laboriel Jr, and that was a very, very happy time.
I don’t think anybody particularly heard it. The week it came out I had a very unhappy relationship with a new manager at that time, who was massively ineffectual. And the week it came out, Geoff Travis, who I hadn’t spoken to for years, got in touch and said, “I think you made a really good record, but you’re on the wrong label, with the wrong management, and I think you should come back to us.” And I was just so relieved to get that call. I think that record was super personal. If it served one great purpose: It got me back to Rough Trade.
Did it help with your anxieties at that point, that you were not as high profile or as well known as you were a few years ago? Did you enjoy that better?
GARTSIDE: Yeah, I did enjoy that better. I cannot overestimate how important Geoff Travis and Rough Trade have been to my life. He kind of helped get the very first Scritti records made, he put the second version of Scritti Politti together effectively, he came along when Anomie & Bonhomie came out and intervened, and then it’s not long after that he suggested to me that, having not played live for 20 years, maybe I would like to try. He basically put a studio in my house, and so I made some demos — very, very personal demos. I think Geoff said, “Well, those demos sound great as they are,” and that became the album White Bread Black Beer.
It got me a Mercury nomination, and he said, “Well, would you like to try and play live?” And in the Windmill, a little pub in Brixton, under an assumed name, I did play live for the first time in 20 years with a group of people I’d met in my local pub here in Hackney in Dalston. None of whom were professional musicians. The bass player, Alyssa, was the woman that worked behind the bar, who had never played a bass before. It was a bit like back to basics, and I loved it because these people were friends, not professional musicians, and there was a great sense of camaraderie, and the sense of starting something anew, a sense of being happy again with childhood influences. I found that playing live, the pleasure of it did outweigh the terror. And so I’ve been able to play live more since, which is actually, you know, a great, profound pleasure. I’m fortunate to have a great band and have made many friends as a consequence of that.
Moving forward a bit, I have made unbelievable amounts of music since the last record, way too much music that I could ever retain in my head. There are like, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of songs that I’ve got unreleased. Geoff Travis and Beggars Banquet, they’re all increasingly — well I was going to say, patiently waiting on me to finish it. I need to start music every day in my life, otherwise I’ll go insane. And I love the business of starting writing things and I hate the business of finishing things.
Do you think any of this stuff will ever get released?
GARTSIDE: Yeah, unquestionably. I’m the last person ever to have much confidence in myself. But one thing of which I’m totally certain, in all these hours of music that I’ve made: This stuff is better than anything else I’ve ever written lyrically or musically. I mean, absolutely. Significantly better.
You’re as young as you feel.
GARTSIDE: When I get this record out, much in the same way that you get applauded if you can boil an egg if you’re in the entertainment industry in this country, if you’re out of your 60s and still going… the Times called me an alternate national treasure. I’m thinking that I could actually maybe deserve that title, when this stuff comes out, if I don’t blow it.
The reissues of Cupid & Psyche 85 and Anomie & Bonhomie are out 8/13 via Rough Trade. Pre-order them here.