Scritti Politti, ‘Day Late And A Dollar Short’

Green Gartside

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.

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[20] The Smiths, ‘Panic’

The Smiths © Tom Sheehan

TIME TO TACKLE 1986 AT LAST and we start with Moz, j’en ai mar and litigious chums. But first, a final word on The Beatles. Enjoyed this little exchange in the Past Masters sleevenotes, Brian Matthew interviewing the chaps in 1964 on the release of Beatles For Sale:

BM: I’ve heard it said that a lot of these would make good singles. Do you think there’s any likelihood at all of them being released?
John: You can’t release singles off an LP after the LP’s been out.
BM: A Lot of people do.
Paul: Well, in America they do…
John: Well, they’re different over there, aren’t they?
Paul: In America they do that, but it’s a bit of a drag.

The Beatles were, of course, er, past masters at dishing out the quality singles without recourse (on the whole) to plundering their albums, but it’s become a rare practice. In this sense, The Smiths were one of their last natural heirs, hurling out singles and albums at breakneck speed without repetition – until the record company squeezed everything they could out of Strangeways, Here We Come. ‘Paint A Vulgar Picture’, indeed.

’Panic’ was one of those bonuses. Christ, it was released one month after The Queen Is Dead and doesn’t even appear on it. Throwaway downloads aside, I can’t imagine that happening now. Remind me if I’m forgetting something. Anyway, ‘Panic’ has a taste of will-this-do? about it, but it clangs and saunters amiably and is suitably apocalyptic, if on a provincial scale. Its signature line, “hang the DJ” smells a bit of sniffiness towards burgeoning club culture, but you can prefer to hear it as an early blood-on-the-carpet attack on Simes and DLT. Junior prefers to hear it as “gingerbread man, gingerbread man, gingerbread man”.

Gingerbread or not, she loves it, identifying with the title – “I do that sometimes, don’t I?” – and puzzling over the band members not actually being related. Like half the world, I’m in a Beatles moment right now, but she later makes me switch off Abbey Road to “play The Smiths again”. God, Dad, you’re so square.

The music they constantly play:

The Rolling Stones, ‘Tumbling Dice’

The Rolling Stones

As Beatlemania strikes for the fourth time – yes, fourth: there was that first one, then the chronological single releases in the 80s, then Anthology, now these rather comely remasters – it seems only fitting to gad about playing Stones records.

But what would The Beatles be like if they were still around today? Notwithstanding some high profile deaths, would we be dismissing them for not having had a Top 10 hit since ‘Got My Mind Set On You’? Would we be saying, “Oh, but you have to see them live to understand. Not that they’ve performed since that rooftop gig in ‘69”? Would we be suggesting their last great peak was when Linda supported an addled Lennon on guitar duties in the early 70s?

Mick Taylor was the Stones’ unsung hero as 60s turned to 70s, initially stepping in when Brian Jones was seemingly not fit for the job, and then way too dead for the job. But the man on Exile On Main Street’s ‘Tumbling Dice’ is still Keef, a trademark riff boogie-ing the song along. It’s an easy, devastated rocker, bang-on cool in its barely glued swagger, and the touchstone for all those would-be Stones. Just pick up Primal Scream’s Give Out But Don’t Be Give Up and jump to ‘Call On Me’. “Carbon-copy” implies a laborious step between the two.

Charlie Watts would be pleased in his dotage to hear Junior praising the drums. She goes on to join the gospel backing for the “baaayyy-beh”s, and she and her sister give it the full lungs for the fading “got to roll me”s, swept up in the ecstatic cyclone of soul-soaked seedy rawk.

Partners in crime:

[5] Scritti Politti, ‘The ‘Sweetest Girl’’

Scritti Politti

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.

Politics is prior to the vagaries of science:

[6] Depeche Mode, ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’

Depeche Mode

Junior’s searing assessment of Vince Clarke’s last Depeche Mode hurrah was “Baaa” – which at least makes the sentence rhyme. I pressed further, asking if she actually liked it, and was hit with the hammer blow: “No. I like The Beatles and Girls Aloud.” So we’re closing the blog.

Before I go, I’ll make some grand claims about this irrepressible little number being the Essex root of Detroit techno, and mention how Vince left the band after penning it because he didn’t like the direction they were headed in. Presumably he’d seen Martin Gore’s leather skirt. As he wavered at the door he wondered if they’d like to record his new tune ‘Only You’, but – for better or worse – we were spared Dave Gahan attempting to emote on us. It would’ve been funny at least.

Dear me: I almost forgot The Saturdays, when the poor girls have got at least another couple of months in the public conscious. It’s a breathtakingly faithful cover, somehow tinnier than the original and all for good causes. Will that do?

Slippin’ and slidin’:

[12] John Lennon, ‘Watching The Wheels’

John Lennon and Mark Chapman

Have you seen those Beatles t-shirts for Comic Relief? Is this what it’s come to? Is this what they fought and di…

Let’s not spoil the ending. Junior has one of the shirts, and loves it. She’s now working through The Beatles’ catalogue, always intrigued to know which of them is singing and trying to match her fresh-faced Ringo with the more louche version on her dad’s old t-shirt. When I told her this song was by one of them, she yelled, “Beatles!” and waltzed along to its easy rhythm.

‘Watching The Wheels’ was the third and final single from Double Fantasy, and the second posthumous release. It’s unbearably poignant in hindsight, and perhaps too much for a world that had done its mourning, reaching No.30 in the UK chart. He’s relaxed, singing of his comfort in semi-retirement (and bemusement at those who would call him “lazy”), “no longer riding on the merry-go-round” – and, so wastefully, he certainly wasn’t. It’s a very pretty, very Lennon tune, drifting along on his favourite chords; a far cry from the angst of Plastic Ono Band, which I listened to on the way in to work this morning, yet just as defiant.

Aged eight, I took his death badly. Lennon was an integral piece of my pop jigsaw, which began and ended with the back cover of Help!, and it felt as if a pivotal figure had gone just as I was getting to know him. It’s almost too trite, but as he signs off here with “I just had to let it go” it feels like a goodbye.

[20] Tom Tom Club, ‘Genius Of Love’

Tom Tom Club

This is a hindsight Top 20, taking place a year before I started buying my own records and making my own tapes and obsessing over Duran Duran and the Top 40. 1981 was the year my sister began to record the chart rundown, introducing me to the wild sounds of Landscape and, erm, Alvin Stardust. Up to this point, all I knew were Beatles and Boney Ms, ABBAs and Brotherhoods Of Man. Now we had a dead Beatle and a declining, rended ABBA.

Partners in rhythm Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz were no longer satisfied with merely pushing the very corners of rock’s envelopes in Talking Heads’ engine room – or perhaps David Byrne and Brian Eno left no elbow room – and Tom Tom Club was the joyous diversion. Mixing funk, bags of funk, with pop, rap and world music, they revealed a sunnier side nowhere brighter than on the glorious ‘Genius Of Love’. It’s a tribute to a spiffing boyfriend wrapped up in loyal dedication to their funky forebears, and in a nice piece of symmetry has become one of the most sampled records – seized upon by trailblazers from Grandmaster Flash to, yes, Mariah Carey.

‘Genius Of Love’ locks into a groove, but Junior ain’t for dancin’. Apparently her baby sister “doesn’t want me to,” which is an impressive bit of inter-sibling communication – and we thought all they did was laugh at each other. But what does she think of the song? “I don’t like it; it makes me sad.” I’ve got it all wrong.

[2] Marvin Gaye, ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’

General consensus paints this as the perfect pop record, but it’s dark, isn’t it? It’s not sunshine and ‘Modern Love’, the way Alphabeat – say – like to wield their pop brushstrokes, and it doesn’t dip into the conventional verse-chorus toolbox to create a Beatley nugget. The chorus is a natural conclusion to Marvin’s prickly, paranoid, wrenched and broken verses, like an outpouring of resentment and sorrow from a man who’d spent so many bars trying to contain it. The arrangement is thrilling, gut-churning, creepy and persuasive and Marvin’s high notes whack the message home. It’s a towering distillation of soul music’s ability to draw you in, leaving you sympathetic yet implicated.

Junior cuts to the heart of the matter: “Where’s honey?” Marvin has all too clear an idea where she is. “Who’s singing?” “It’s Marvin Gaye, the man on Daddy’s t-shirt.” Clearly I have to go and get the garment, a double print of Marv’s face in black and red. Junior points to the red face, “Is that honey?” An intriguing thought, that the great man may be sobbing over his alter ego’s betrayal – but you can’t make that stick. The song’s too raw to be playing games. That’s for Honey, Honey.

[7] Blue Mink, ‘Melting Pot’

Having praised Junior’s sense of rhythm recently, I might be forced into a rethink. She approached Blue Mink’s signature anthem for racial harmony with a selection of leaps that were way off tempo – but as the ‘Mink might say, it takes all sorts. In fact, a shout-out to berserk spacehopper kids would hardly sound out of place with the rest of the lyrics.

‘Melting Pot’ eases in with some churchy piano chords, setting the tone for a spiritual piece that would carry far greater weight if it wasn’t so terribly gauche. The “melting pot” is self-explanatory, but the recipe is pure 1969, pure pre-PC. “Curly black and kinky, mixed with yellow chinkies,” goes the jarring line. Ah. Well, there are better ways of putting it. Turning out “coffee-coloured people by the score” is a happy conclusion, but they – potentially – offend enough groups along the way.

We mustn’t be too harsh, because the sentiment is fair, and the song as a whole is a fine, post-Beatles-go-to-India, cod-religious rabble-rouser. The rag-bag session musos who made up Blue Mink attack it with a gusto that is infectious and life-affirming. It bowls along with a naïve charm, and maybe that’s what Junior was aiming for as well.

[10] The Beatles, ‘Something’/’Come Together’

It’s 7.21 in the morning and Junior is wearing pink fairy wings and carrying a plastic wand that makes a “magical” sound when you bash it against the furniture. ‘Something’ has, well, something of the fairy dust about it, representing the blossoming of George Harrison’s songwriting shortly before it came to full fruition on cruelly overlooked triple solo album All Things Must Pass. It was written for his then-beloved Patti Boyd – who would shortly hand him in for Eric Clapton when he wrote the inferior ‘Layla’ for her.

‘Something’ is stately and meditative with a masterful middle eight and gorgeous strings. Junior drifts around in fitting manner.

Its partner ‘Come Together’ is a Plastic Ono Band record in all but name. A bluesy strut with the coolest throwaways – “walrus gumboot”, “mojo filter”, “toe-jam football” – it’s a nonsense but a convincing one all the same. Great organ, woozy guitar a sense that The Beatles could still be on their game. Junior is now roaring like a lion and showing her claws – showing the contrast between the songs too.

A No.4 hit. The game was up.