We’re still guessing nationalities. “I like this one. Is she French?” That’s close enough for me – Keren Ann is indeed French, despite being Dutch/Israeli. She’s lived in France since she was 11, which is the tipping point in anyone’s young existence. I first heard Scritti Politti when I was 11 so it stands to reason. This means I have five years to get Junior out of Kent.
‘My Name Is Trouble’ is smooth, sleek and a velvety warning not to get up to your neck in it with Keren Ann. Which seems a pity because she looks lovely and makes the kind of classic, deceptively drivetime pop that John Grant would make if he was a girl. And indeed does make as a boy. It also understands the importance of solid pop components like verses, bridges, choruses (sort of; the bridge does the heavy lifting) and middle eights, so we all come away feeling pretty satisfied with our lot.
Absolute, the new Scritti Politti best of, begins with the hits, modest on both sides of the Atlantic but big enough, for Green Gartside, to constitute a harrowing commercial breakthrough that meant Top Of The Pops appearances, attention fit for a popstar and – rather more welcome – acceptance from the sort of R&B legends he was loosely trying to ape. These first five songs came from Cupid & Psyche 85, an impossibly precise marriage of perfect pop and blue-eyed soul which opened unexpected doors: notably, the chance to write for Chaka Khan and the odd sensation of seeing Miles Davis first cover one of your songs then, gloriously, guest on one.
My early acquaintance with Scritti was intertwined with the law. I bought Cupid & Psyche 85 with the five pounds (five pounds!) I was given as a reward for clocking the numberplate of a thief making off with a local lady’s handbag. Three years later, I was loudly anticipating Provision at a party – quite the conversationalist, me – as the police turned up to suggest the houses nearby might not enjoy us having a bonfire, draining the EEC cider lake and smoking freight-loads of cigarettes in the field right behind them. They might have softened if they’d known how excited I was about Provision.
Moving on, the 90s dawned with ‘She’s A Woman’, an unexpected collaboration with Shabba Ranks that dumped all Green’s philosophical lexicographical automatic hydromatic games with the word “girl” (i.e. ‘The Word ‘Girl”, ‘The ‘Sweetest Girl”) to go distinctly non-meta with a Beatles cover. It was a blip, in design and chronology, as the man decamped to Wales and hunkered down in beer and darts for a decade before popping up with the candy-pop-meets-hip-hop semi-success of Anomie & Bonhomie, where Green sparred sweetly with Mos Def, Lee Majors et al and generally affirmed some B-Boy credentials. Here it’s reprazented by three of the form plus the gorgeous ‘Brushed With Oil, Dusted With Powder’ that harks back to perfect pop and shines a light on the harmonic dreaminess to come – again – many years later.
That return was White Bread, Black Beer, a curveball Mercury nomination that emerged slowly and shyly in 2006 as Green stepped onto a stage for the first time in quarter of a century under the playful Double G & The Traitorous 3 (Plus 2) sobriquet, to focus group the songs first in a Brixton pub, then in a quasi-residence at The Luminaire. The law butted in again, rather closer to home this time, as I was told I couldn’t abandon my baby daughter to go to Brixton, but I made it to the Luminaire a couple of times to watch these songs jump off the page – truly, from Green’s own music stand. None of WBBB makes it here, likely because of its Rough Trade release; but from before my time, we do get three from Songs To Remember (but no ‘Faithless’…) and the fidgety, complex and in this company surly ‘Skank Bloc Bologna’.
And that’s it – apart from two new songs, the ballad ‘A Place We Both Belong’ and this. I’m not sure how new they are, but for Scrittologists they’re exciting enough for being hook-ups with long-time/occasional SP man David Gamson, not seen since 1999’s Anomie & Bonhomie. ‘Day Late And A Dollar Short’ bounces on squelchy bass, teasing a funk from somewhere on the Scritti timeline between 99 and 06, and a chorus that rises and falls with customary pizzazz and – let’s remember what this blog is meant to be about – makes Junior do the hand jive. According to her, it’s “fun”, Which is a bit of a bloody relief because I haven’t half wasted enough time and text on it.
As regular readers of Jukebox Junior know, I often find myself wondering, “What would Green Gartside say?” Today, I was listening to ‘Lean On Me’ and noticing how Withers’ vocal melody slavishly follows each note of the verse, and it reminded me of the Scritti Politti brainiac’s criticism of Arcade Fire: “The melodies stick too closely to the chord changes.”* Now, I know this isn’t exactly the same, but, well, what would Green Gartside say, I wonder?
I find those verses tentative, as if Bill’s shy about offering his shoulder. It’s sweet. This could get bogged down in sentimentality, but over all ‘Lean On Me’ feels sincere. It’s anthemic without showiness.
What would Junior say? “10 out of 10. And 10 out of 10 for the Cheerios too.” She’s seen too many Come Dine With Mes.
I imagine 1981 was an exciting time for a properly sentient pop being. For me, everything was new yet everything was normal, but for the seasoned listener the sands were shifting – punk was gone, disco was (almost) gone, new wave was evolving, everyone had a synth and they were gonna use it. Who knew how it would all turn out? There were atrocities to come as the ‘80s took wing, but New Order, Pet Shop Boys, Juan Atkins, Derrick May, Phil Oakey, Arthur Baker and other visionaries showed technology could be handled with care and flair.
We find Green Gartside on the cusp, edging away from the dubness of early Scritti Politti singles to find a polished white soul sound wedged somewhere between lovers rock and dreamy new romanticism. Later his music would become so polished you could barely stop it slipping off the turntable, but there are still rough edges here: Robert Wyatt’s creepy, shimmering keys; mild echo and fizz; loose structure. Ever the philosopher, Green sings about the ‘sweetest girl’ through the prism of political theory – too detached to be romantic, too sweet to be dry.
Although there are still shouts for The Beatles from the back of the car, Junior concedes she likes the song, eventually asking me to turn it up. “Scritti Lippy” as she calls them – combining her twin passions of chapstick and not listening properly – can be a bit sticky for some, but she’s got a sweet tooth.
Even the irredeemably naff can be saved by the right muse – and po-faced bundle of pop aggression Mutya Buena must be the right muse for anyone. Up until this point, Groove Armada had only shown a facility for grindingly predictable beats, rubbish gimmicks, chill-out mogadon and anaemic tunes, but Mutya awoke some deep-buried wit and invention, and a great dance-pop hit was born.
Splashy, fizzing synths (think DeBarge, think Chaka Khan, think Scritti Politti’s ‘Wood Beez’ and all that) give the music its zip and Mutya’s Catherine-Tate-a-like Jafaican drawl (“Ah feel fine. What about you? I betcha been crayin’, I betcha been goin’ around town layin’”, if you catch my drift) gives it attitood, while the Armada boys themselves (I picture them as a dull Adam and Joe) provide a glorious, catchy chorus to cement the song’s place in the year’s Top 20. Just a touch more bass would’ve put it even higher.
“Is that who has replaced me? What a diss!” had the conspiracy theorists rubbing their hands at a perceived smack at Amelle Berrabah, the beleaguered new Sugababe, but it was just a scorned ex-girlfriend type of thing. Probably. Anyway, the biggest “diss” came from Junior, who turned the CD player off after a few bars. At the second attempt she offered some headbanging to the chunky beats, but the moment had passed.
It’s the last song of the night, the bride and groom are long gone and we’ve kicked our legs to ‘New York, New York’ and swayed to ‘The Power Of Love’. A familiar, skipping bassline starts up, with the fiddles in close attendance. The dancefloor is flooded with hardy revellers, linking arms in the auld tradition. One lad stands scowling at the side, he’s had a good night but this strikes a sour note yet again. Doesn’t he like the song? He bloody LOVES it.
How did it come to this? A visionary work struck an unexpected note with the public, sold way over a million and became the wedding/school disco standard, danced along to by a pissed-up crowd who’d normally claim to dislike it but find it a “laugh” in a champagne haze. It cheapens it, steals its wit, strips its pathos.
How did it come to this? Kevin Rowland was no callow youth; Dexys had already had one Number One, had already released the best album of the decade and had already tried a couple of styles and line-ups. 20 years later, apparently free of his cocaine mania, Rowland was in full confessional mode, claiming culpability for all manner of sins. He said he stole the raggle-taggle gypsy style of ‘Come On Eileen’ and beyond from former bandmate Kevin Archer, who’d formed the Blue Ox Babes and played Rowland some demos. Whatever, Archer didn’t have the extra spark to turn ideas into tunes. Rowland ran with it and the rest is history. Blue Ox Babes were painted as Dexys copyists in the press and the rest is, er, history.
‘Come On Eileen’ is hugely ambitious. Strings, tin whistles, banjos, pipes, and pianos should make a folk song, but end up with a rousing piece of power pop. Sheer bombast allows Kev to sneak in some racy lines, while at the same time hiding some beauties, “moved a million hearts in mono”, “beaten down eyes sunk in smoke-dried faces”. It was a revelation until it was a cliché. I guess that’s the way things go.
Of course I’d like my daughter to love my favourite single. She stood in front of the stereo, palms face down on the coffee table in “let’s see if this is all you’ve cracked it up to be” style. I could handle her snubbing Bowie, The Jam, Scritti Politti, even Girls Aloud, but this, this is different. She dances. All the way through. And she doesn’t link arms with anyone.
I asked Junior to type up her own comment on this and got “bvgyijuhh”, and my glasses stolen for good measure. Green Gartside would’ve deconstructed this, intertextualised it, restructuralised it and turned it into a shimmering pop tune, glossy surfaces and candyfloss heart belying the cold intellectualism.
I reckon that’s what he did with ‘Wood Beez’. It doesn’t mean much but it sounds clever. What it is is the most brilliant white funk track to come out of the decade, zipping along a skyway of scratchy guitars and keyboard flashes, loosening ever more until he’s exchanging shouts of “schizo” with the backing vocalists and just keeping from breaking down before the last chorus.
I finally caught his disguise show a couple of weeks ago – under the name Double G & the Traitorous 3 (Plus 2), he’s playing his first gigs for 25 years or so – and it was brilliant, of course. He seems to be treating the gigs as rehearsals for the new album (the fifth in those 25 years), which sounds like something to get excited about already. Two more shows at the Luminaire in March, pop fans.
An unremarkable record from a band some way past its peak, hurtling headlong towards the nadir of ‘Cherish’. It has a nice, sunny intro, and I remember admiring its 7” vinyl goodness in the lane on the way home from WH Smith. Also in the paper bag were singles from Scritti Politti and OMD. It was the Easter holiday. I don’t have much to say about this.
Junior ate banana porridge, which will probably linger longer in her memory.
A short postscript. Played this last Tuesday for Junior’s half-birthday, but shelved any review. Today, of course, it’s Martin Luther King Day, the result of Stevie’s schmaltzy yet warming musical campaign. Was the day inaugurated purely on the strength of this song’s message? Or is that apocryphal?
I remember Junior kicking her legs along to this, still buoyed by the superlative Scritti Politti tune. She wasn’t rolling over from back to front – because she did that for The First Time this morning – but she was happy. Her mother just rolled her eyes. My record selection can be a touch literal.
A worthwhile song, then, but one that accelerated Stevie’s wholehearted embrace of gloopy sentiment. It means most to me as a play-out to a sweet episode of Northern Exposure, no stranger itself to the gloop.
You can call them Double G & the Traitorous Three (plus two). This is a timely indulgence, because I found out on Sunday that Green Gartside played his first gig in 20 plus years the previous night, in a pub in Brixton and under that assumed name. I reckon Junior’s mum would’ve let me go, if I’d known. Drat. On the upside, there will be more gigs and a new album to boot. It’s only been six years since the last record, so he’s clearly on turbo thrust now.
This is the first record I played today, on Junior’s half-birthday. A typically Scritti meditation on the meaning of words and their “abuse”, and the warmest dubby sound. Now, I’m never going to find fault in any of their work, and Junior seems no different. She windmills her arms, smiles and blows an appreciative raspberry. There’s no more reliable indicator of baby satisfaction. She seems comfortable in her six months, and in the breezy lovers’ rock flow.
I bought the Cupid & Psyche 85 album with the five pounds a lady gave me when I foiled the theft of her handbag. I was a 13-year-old vigilante warrior. I bought it on cassette, the cassette got chewed up; I replaced the cassette, this also got chewed up. Exasperated, I swapped this for the LP. And a couple of years back, I bought it on CD. That’s dedication.