HIDDEN tracks

Music was Pete Paphides' first love. And at this rate, it will be his last.

Scritti Politti

Sat, 1st January 2011

"There was definitely a point at which, for me, Shalamar usurped Pere Ubu."”

“Oh God. Do I want to see this?” In an empty North London pub, Green Gartside looks on in trepidation as he registers the item I’m pulling out of my bag. On Page 27 of the 1985 Smash Hits sticker album, his younger self lies in wait for him. Just above Billy Bragg and to the right of Bronski Beat, the entry for him reads, “He’s been through it all: angst-ridden independent politico-punk, purveyor of serious pop, right through to black music and current status of hippest of hip-hop crop. Charming, eloquent, stylish and just a little bit pretentious, he wears his hair long and likes his chocolate white.”

You suspect that the Green sticker staring back at his older self would be horrified by the idea that he could be summed up so thoroughly in 45 words. But the ensuing decades have clearly humbled the well-preserved 55 year-old. “That’s spot-on,” he laughs. “I’ve got nothing to add!” Reconciled with his past if not delighted by it, Green has finally come around to the idea of having his best-known songs gathered onto a single CD. Incredibly, prior to the release of next month’s Absolute – The Best Of Scritti Politti, the group formed by Green whilst at Leeds University in 1978 has yet to receive a career-spanning anthology.

If Green had his way, perhaps it would stay like that. One thing that becomes clear on meeting Green is just how ambivalent he feels about looking back. His body language, at times, is painfully apologetic. “I also hear [in those songs] the hubris of someone who really has no place doing this stuff at all.” He isn’t the first musician to emerge from fame’s carousel ride and find himself nursing more insecurities than he had when he went in. But when Green talks about how quickly the whole thing plunged him into misery, it’s hard not to be startled. “Some people might find themselves on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand and think, ‘Yeah, I’ve finally arrived,’” He pauses, runs a hand through his goatee and sips his Guinness. “Personally, I realised that sitting on couches in TV studios in God knows what city, first thing in the morning, talking to people who don’t know who you are, about some record they don’t care about – it eats away, perhaps irretrievably, at your sense of worth.”

It’s startling because, to anyone who had charted Scritti’s ascent from the beginning, it seemed like nothing less than a sensational coup de grace. Of all the groups competing in London’s post-punk scene, Scritti Politti seemed the least likely contenders to cross the gulf into mainstream pop. Their music was dense with theory. The debut single alone, Skank Bloc Bologna, managed to crowbar allusions to neo-Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci, a group of Italian radicals who had sparked recent riots in Bologna and – for good measure – a swipe at The Clash, for what Green saw as their corny “macho gunslingers” image.

Despite decamping from Newport to Leeds, where he studied fine art, Green had kept in touch with schoolfriend Nial Jinks – with whom he had once tried to form a branch of the Young Communist League. When Green completed his degree, it was together with Jinks on bass and dreadlocked drummer Tom Morley that Green hit London, empowered to make music by after seeing Sex Pistols. Unlike Sex Pistols, however, independence was central to Scritti’s worldview. The sleeve of Skank Bloc Bologna featured information for anyone seeking to self-release their own music.

If Green was intrigued by the process of pop stardom, there was no evidence of it discernible in what Green called their “scratchy-collapsy” assimilation of staccato punk and dub-reggae dynamics. Scritti’s sense of shared purpose was compounded by their living arrangements at the time: a Camden squat immortalized on the sleeve of 1979’s 4 A Sides EP. Books and empty beer bottles cover the walls and floor. On the wall is a Soviet flag. Green’s communism was no fad. At the height of his teenage recalcitrance, Green’s mother and stepfather suggested that if the young Paul Julian Strohmeyer, as he was then, thought life was so much better in a Socialist republic, perhaps he should go there. “They got back from the travel agents and said, ‘Well, we couldn’t get you to Russia, but we can get you into Yugoslavia. So, off I went to a remote Communist Party hotel beside this huge frozen lake. I was the only guest there. The main thing I remember is walking across this lake towards a party of beautiful local schoolgirls and thinking, ‘I mustn’t fall over in front of them – which, of course, I did.”

In the post-punk microclimate, Green carried himself like a man who had all the answers. The Camden squat was an amphetamine-fuelled exchange of ideas which attracted musicians and journalists in equal measure. In fact, like many people who build scenes around them, Green was looking for a sense of belonging. Prior to his parents’ separation, he recalls numerous attempts on their part to “start the relationship again” and move to a new area. His late father, a sales rep for Batchelors, was away for weeks at a time. “He would swap his samples with other food reps. When he realised that I had a taste for Tudor hamburger flavoured crisps, he would return with a box of them for me. I’d sit in front of The Man From UNCLE with a pack of those.” His father’s absence was something that the middle-aged Green seemed to touch on in the confessional songs of White Bread Black Beer. The arrogant energy of youth, however, is wired differently. “Marxist analysis gave shape to whatever dissatisfactions I had at the time, be it industrial South Wales, my family or everything else.”

Being a Wittgenstein-quoting commie punk on speed wasn’t without its pressures. “Every weekend, I was out selling the communist paper Young Challenge and getting beaten up. People would just see you and get out of their cars with whatever weapons they had to hand.” A sense of that atmosphere is evoked on one early song 28/8/78. Possibly improvised, but none the worse for that, it unfolds around a recording of Radio 4’s The World Tonight, featuring reports of unrest between rioters and police in Portobello, replete with period references to “scores of loudspeakers pounding out non-stop reggae.”

As a way of life it was unsustainable. That much, at least, must have occurred to Green as he was being rushed to hospital the morning after Scritti supported Gang Of Four in Brighton. What was reported at the time as a “heart attack” turned out to be a severe anxiety attack. Quoted in Simon Reynolds’ Rip It Up And Start Again, Green recalled: “You’re in a hospital bed with people leaning over you asking you what you’ve eaten recently and you realise that you haven’t eaten anything recently. They ask you where you live and you realise it’s a shithole and they ask you when you last slept and you haven’t slept for ages. They asked if I had anything worrying me and EVERYTHING was worrying me.”

At the behest of his mother, Green fled to Wales, where he reconfigured Scritti Politti. After reading the daddy of French deconstructionists Jacques Derrida, he decided that Scritti stood a better chance of subverting pop if they worked within its strictures. Conveniently, he had written a song so bewitchingly memorable that it necessitated that shift. In the canon of early 80s indie music, Rough Trade supremo Geoff Travis describes The “Sweetest Girl” as a “game-changer”. Whatever ironic detachment the titular scare-quotes conferred upon the song – at the time, Green called it “a perversion and extension of lovers-rock” – it was clear that he was no longer in denial of his skills as a popsmith. In the studio where Scritti Politti recorded the single, their first for Rough Trade, Robert Wyatt came in to play keyboards, bringing Julie Christie with him. Robert and [his wife] Alfreda thought that she and I might make a match. But I was too frightened to talk to her!”

On the finished recording, Green’s voice seemed to have climbed a register, perfectly complementing the honeyed keyboard oscillations of a guesting Robert Wyatt. “The strongest words in each belief/Find out what’s behind it,” sang Green on the song. This was as near as he would get to telling us that he still hadn’t found what he was looking for. “It was meant to be a duet between Kraftwerk and Gregory Isaacs,” recalls Green. “Gregory Isaacs’ management were keen, but years later, in New York, I went to see Tito Puente with Ralf [Hutter] and Florian [Schneider] from Kraftwerk. I brought it up, and I remember them saying that they hated reggae.” On Scritti’s 1982 Rough Trade debut album Songs To Remember, the tectonic shift in Green’s outlook was made manifest on Asylums In Jerusalem and, in particular, Rock-A-Boy Blue. “Don’t they want to make the money/Don’t they want to be The Beatles?” he sang on the latter. “It was both a finger pointing at myself and elsewhere,” he says now.

As far back as his final days in the Camden squat, Green’s problem was that, increasingly, the music exciting him wasn’t beset by the sort of conflicts to which he subjected himself. “PiL’s Metal Box had just come out, but the radio was playing It’s A Love Thing by Whispers and…” For a second, words fail him. “I can’t tell you how great that record sounded to me. It blew my mind. There was definitely a point at which, for me, Shalamar usurped Pere Ubu.”

“I couldn’t keep him on the label,” remembers Geoff Travis. “It was clear that if we were going to do him justice, we would need expensive videos and production values that would have bankrupted Rough Trade.” Having been a catalyst in The Human League’s transformation into chart-conquering pop stars, manager Bob Last was enlisted to do the same for Scritti Politti. By the time Virgin swooped, Jinks and Morley were out of the picture. Replacing them were New Yorkers: drummer Fred Maher and Green’s longest-serving associate, keyboard player David Gamson.

The history of pop is littered with indie bands who talk a hit record only to sign to a major and find the whole thing more difficult than they could have imagined. Now, with the resources of Virgin at his disposal, it was time for Green to action his theories. Gamson remembers the sessions for what became Cupid & Psyche 85. “We were working with all the best musicians, in the best studios with the best engineers. It was amazing… and since [Green] was the one with the chequebook, he was running the sessions.”

For Green, the reality was altogether more daunting. Having studied the credits on the soul and R&B music that was now consuming him: David Frank of digi-funk pace-setters The System; bassist Marcus Miller (Miles Davis, Luther Vandross); and, tell you what, wouldn’t it be great it R&B deity Arif Mardin produced the whole thing? When Green shudders at the hubris of his younger self, this might be the sort of thing he has in mind. And yet, Mardin gleefully jumped on Scritti’s new demos. Whether he was overly concerned with their deconstructionist lyrical approach is less clear.

Years later, it’s sobering to think that, even as a generation of pop fans saw a pyjama-attired Green atop satin sheets in the video to Wood Beez, the slide into a state of permanent fear was under way. “It began when we recorded the album,” he recalls, “I simply didn’t know that was how you put together these sorts of records, with such a level of sophistication. You’d have a respected session player like Paul Jackson Jr suddenly saying, ‘Do you think I should lean back on the sixteenth after I play that note?’ I freaked. It suddenly dawned on me that I was way out of my league.”

Wasn’t there anything that could help him through in the short term? “Well… cocaine, but that always made me sing out of tune. I drank a lot.” For all of that, Green – now resident in New York – had aced his big idea: a record that simultaneously celebrated and critiqued the music it sought to emulate. On each of its big hits – Wood Beez, Absolute, The Word Girl and Perfect Way – Green sounded like he had unlocked a secret portal to Platonic pop-love. Surely, that, if nothing else, was a comfort?

“It actually leaves you feeling uncomfortable,” he says. “Stevie Wonder said he liked the album, which was nice. But then you doubt how much of it you could claim credit for, because you had Arif Mardin and all these brilliant players.” For Green, a lack of entitlement permeates almost every memory of success. Paul McCartney was a fan, but – recalls Green – “when he and Linda invited me to go and see Buddy – The Musical, I was too frightened to get back in touch.” Over in America, where Perfect Way was breaking, Miles Davis recorded a cover of the song for his Tutu album. “I ended up at his apartment one day,” recalls the singer, “He spread out a selection of his paintings and said, ‘Which one would you like?’ I couldn’t take one. It felt like a test. Like, ‘what if I pick up the wrong painting?’”

Nevertheless, Green and Davis’s friendship lasted long enough to see the latter play an exquisitely plaintive solo on the first single from 1998’s Provision, Oh Patti (Don’t Feel Sorry For Loverboy). The Patti in that song is a friend of Green’s then-girlfriend Alys. And the Loverboy, who “wants the world to love him/Then he goes and spoils it all”? Green half-smiles, “That’s pretty easy to work out, I think.”

Faced with the prospect of climbing back aboard the promotional treadmill, he skidded to a halt almost at the first hurdle. In a television interview with Paula Yates, an anxious Green explained that pop stardom has been fun… but once you’ve seen that happen, you’ve seen it, so you have to look for your rewards elsewhere.” Years later, he recalls, “I would go to Browns and hang out with George Michael a lot of the time. Did George seem happy by comparison? No, I have to say, he didn’t. We’d have dinners there. Adam Faith would be around too, offering business advice. And, of course, acid house was just exploding. I had just come back here from having lived in America, and it was like, ‘What the fuck is happening?’ I remember going to a warehouse party with Leigh Bowery, and thinking, ‘I’m sorry. I’ve no idea what you people are doing.’”

The moment he “bailed” came soon afterwards. Filming in Brixton for Provision’s second single Boom! There She Was, Green succumbed to what he describes as “a complete breakdown. Some doctors were called in and I ended up in a hospital in Chelsea.” He left. Not just the hospital, but the entire machinery of his life. “I split up with the missus, split up with the management and went to live on my own in Wales.”

Usk, to be precise. Surrounded by the Brecon Beacons, “in striking distance” of old schoolfriends, Green “drank the months, if not years away, playing darts.” In exile, the only music to which he listened was hip-hop. Lured out of hiding in 1991 by Martyn Ware’s B.E.F. project, he recorded a version of The Beatles’ She’s A Woman alongside Shabba Ranks. Green remembers the ragga star “rolling into the studio mob-deep, with guns, everything. His manager Clifton ‘The Specialist’ Dillon would physically get a hold of Shabba while Shabba was on the mic and thump him so he could feel the rhythm.”

Britpop came and went. Did he miss being a part of it? “No. I didn’t like it. [Damon] Albarn annoyed the fuck out of me, although, in retrospect, all I can say is that Blur are much better than I thought they were at the time.” Throughout the whole period though, Green never stopped writing – which meant that when Virgin approached him about delivering a new Scritti album, he had one already written. After Provision, Green and Gamson had, in the latter’s words, come to “hate each other’s guts”, but a decade apart made the recording of this record a more harmonious affair. Recorded in L.A., Anomie & Bonhomie stands partly as Green’s love letter to hip-hop. One of two scintillating funk excursions on the record, the Mos Def-abetted Tinseltown To The Boogiedown radiated a carpe diem vitality that had hitherto eluded anything bearing the Scritti imprint. Other songs – First Goodbye; Brushed With Oil, Dusted With Powder – finally saw Green relax his self-imposed songwriting rules and draw upon the adversities that had made him.

Did Anomie & Bonhomie’s commercial failure bother him? “Not at all,” he says. “Failure has never bothered me as much as success.” If Green’s 1990s were about dismantling the framework that had made him so unhappy, his 2000s have been about building one in which Scritti Politti can exist without exerting an unacceptable toll. His return to London saw him re-sign to Rough Trade and marry Alys, the designer who had stayed by his side throughout the 80s. Her influence on the homespun intimacy of 2006’s White Bread Black Beer is palpable – not least in the eye-mistingly beautiful confidences of Locked and Snow In Sun.

It would be lovely to say that Green has found peace, but other songs on the album – in particular Road To No Regret – suggest he isn’t quite there yet. When I ask him if he has been in touch with early Scritti cohorts Jinks and Morley, he says, “They appear in my nightmares, but I have no idea why.” For all of that, recent years have seen him slay some long-standing demons. Ahead of the album’s release, an unadvertised gig in Brixton marked Scritti Politti’s first show since the night which precipitated that full bodily anxiety attack in Brighton.

“The way he’s done it,” says Scritti Politti’s current keyboard player Rhodri Marsden, “…is by surrounding himself with musicians who were just as terrified as he was.” Marsden himself got the call after he happened upon Green by chance in his local East London pub. “It’s important to him,” says Marsden, “that Scritti exists as a social unit as a group. Going to the pub has always been as important as rehearsing.”

On receiving a Mercury nomination, Green remembers “being in New York, getting an early morning call from Geoff Travis and being chuffed to little mint balls.” Travis says that his “primary role is to restore Green to his rightful place in the pantheon of maverick British songwriters.” His point is well made, not least in the light of an emerging tranche of bands – These New Puritans, Liars, Les Savy Fav – whose year-zero seems to be the “scratchy-collapsy” wave of creativity that incubated the young Scritti. For all of that, there’s no point in asking Green to appraise their worth. It’s hard enough for him to appraise his own work, although he will say “there are quite a few currently celebrated bands that sound like going back in time and sitting through an afternoon of demos at Rough Trade.”

Two magnificent new songs on the new Scritti CD see Green reunite with Gamson. On A Day Late & A Dollar Short, the whip-smart pop science of Cupid-era Psyche receives a 21st century update; whilst On A Place Where We Both Belong, the multitracked tones of Green beseech his estranged lover to come back and make a home with him. What would the young punk ideologist have made of it? “He would have found it mawkish,” says his older self. “Of course, I understand why he felt that way. As long as he stays in 1980 and I have no wish to go back there, that’s fine. We can happily coexist.”