Nine Songs: Scritti Politti
“Come to think of it, I don’t know which genre of music hasn’t at some point or other been massively important to me.”
To say that Green Gartside has a catholic musical taste is an understatement would be putting it rather mildly. In the ‘80s, Scritti Politti had critics reaching for their thesauruses to describe the hybrid of genres on their second record, Cupid & Psyche 85 and landed on the phrase ‘Perfect Pop’. Gartside’s love of music is much broader than that.
Growing up in South Wales, and starved of the cultural stimulus that a curious mind desires, Gartside initially found solace as well as immersion in the world of pop music and its “psychoactive power”. His fascination with the art form started with The Beatles, particularly what he terms as Paul McCartney’s ability to create “White Bread Pop”, but quickly moved on to a restless desire to discover music that challenged him as a listener, a road he’s still on today.
As we speak over the phone on a sunny day in lockdown, Gartside tells me how much he misses a pint in his local. “I haven’t been outside of the house since March, but the pubs will be open again soon, that’s going to be bizarre.” There’s also the disorientating world of Zoom to deal with; Gartside would much rather have a chat over a beer than via a laptop. “I did a Zoom thing with the members of my band the other day and it was kind of awful, because none of us could think of anything to say” he laughs, “Normally if we’re sat in a van together there’s no hinderance to the conversation flowing, but there was something about just staring at them in their little rooms at home. That was weird.”
As we talk through the key songs in his life, which traverse the ‘60s to the present day, there are also key characters and locations in the plot. So we get wonderful moments of becoming friends and collaborating with some of his heroes - including Robert Wyatt, Martin Carthy and Zapp’s Roger Troutman - finding himself in London in the‘70s, when Punk transitioned to Post Punk, the New York of the early ‘80s, when hip hop started to emerge in the clubs and on the radio.
There's also his love of folk, which started when he was a child. Last week, Gartside released his first music in 14 years, covers of the folk singer Anne Briggs’ songs “Tangled Man” and ‘Wishing Well’ “Folk was a huge part of my life. whatever they call it ‘The traditional music of the British Isles’ - which is dreadful - folk music has always been a really big thing to me.”
“So Nine Songs? It is really hard.” At the end of our conversation I ask if there’s a theme that links his choices. Gartside pauses, and then says “Grooves and melodies. It’s either got to get your head nodding or transport you into melodic raptures. Hip hop is antithetical in some ways, because it doesn’t have that tonal centre. With a lot of the other songs here it’s beautiful tunes, but, in its way, there’s definitely a kind of melodic beauty to Young Thug’s “Danny Glover”, it’s unusual in that way, so I guess that would be it.”
As we discuss one of his song choices, a solo cut from Grizzly Bear’s Daniel Rossen, I tell him I interviewed Rossen about his Nine Songs a few years previously, which the ever curious Gartside mentions he’s keen to read. When we get off the phone, I send a link to his PR and an hour later get an email, with a message from Gartside. “At the end of the interview Ed asked me what tied my choices together. I said ‘melody’. I should have said ‘longing’. Can you let him know and thank him very much?”
So there we are, longing, the psychoactive power of music, grooves, melodies and much more besides. Green Gartside’s Nine Songs, like his own music, is a story of an all-consuming and never-ending love affair.
“When I was a kid growing up in South Wales, fairly isolated and completely culturally cut off, nowhere other than in pop music would I have encountered other ways of thinking and being. I wouldn’t have got it from books; there were no books in my house, and nobody talked in my house. You wouldn’t get anything from the local community that would stimulate or challenge. You wouldn’t get anything at school that challenged the set of working-class Tory ideas and values that were around me.
“The attraction of progressively more challenging music was infiltrated by The Beatles’ musical development, and me following them adoringly and wanting to know everything about them as people. I always think about that three years after The Beatles did “Love Me Do” they were talking about Timothy Leary, The Egyptian Book of The Dead and The Maharishi and stuff.
"As a nine-year-old boy who was obsessed with The Beatles, that was important to me. What’s a devoted schoolboy to make of The Beatles doing all that three years after “Love Me Do”? I owe them almost everything I think, my appetite for ideas, their impact was incalculable, immeasurable.
"He got slagged of a lot for Ram, so that’s one reason for choosing something from it, but it’s a fabulous pop record and “The Back Seat Of My Car” is a wonderful listen. Melodically it’s pretty exquisite, harmonically, the chord changes, the arrangement, the orchestration… I mean, what’s wrong with it really? Of that school, it would be a near flawless example of what I call ‘White Bread Pop’. Not disparagingly, but when it comes to that kind of white bread pop music, McCartney and Brian Wilson wrote that chapter, they wrote that book.
“It’s really McCartney’s melodic and harmonic sensibility that’s a bedrock for me. I never bought that whole ‘John was the rebellious one and McCartney was the sop’, because A, that didn’t interest me and B, I don’t believe it anyway, but there we are. Ram is a great pop album, it’s a fabulous pop record. The lyrics may make you wince in places, but then they should, it’s pop music.
“I could have chosen a Beatles song, and it probably would have been a McCartney Beatles’ song. For me and people of my vintage, everything started with The Beatles; the whole psychoactive power of music was unleashed for me by The Beatles.”
“The Beatles had given me this taste for challenging listening. As much as they’d given me an appetite for ‘big P’ pop music, they also gave me an appetite for music that challenged the orthodoxies of what you heard on Radio 1, which was the only thing I had to listen to as a kid.
“I first heard Robert when I was at school, either on the John Peel show, or some kid at school would have had a Soft Machine album. By the time Peel came around, I was really up for challenging music and Soft Machine really were a fucking challenge for me, because they had a jazz background - Pharoah Sanders, Mingus, Ornette Coleman and stuff - and that was completely alien territory. They had saxophones and organs, and I still find saxophones and organs two very difficult things to deal with, but I fell in love with it because it was tough going.
“Robert left Soft Machine and formed a band called Matching Mole, and along with The Faces they were my favourite band. When I was fifteen and I saw that The Faces and Matching Mole would both be appearing at that years’ Reading Festival. I was living with my Grandmother at the time, because I’d been thrown out of the family house. I remember nicking one of my Grandmother’s dresses, I don’t know why, I wore it over a pair of loon pants and I went to the Reading Festival and saw Matching Mole and The Faces.
“The whole experience of that festival changed me greatly, but Robert’s melodic sensibilities, his incredible, liberating inventiveness, the beautiful synthesis of jazz and pop influences and his ability to transcend those, and the stuff he did with his voice made him a massively important figure to me. He played on ‘The "Sweetest Girl"’ and I’d met him a bit before that, when I asked Geoff Travis to hook us up. I took him to see The Clash and I visited him at his house.
“I remember years before that, John Peel told his listeners that Robert had fallen out of a bedroom window and was in hospital. They didn’t know he was paralysed, and Peel asked if anyone was interested in writing to him, and he would take the letters to Robert in hospital. When I met Robert all those years later, he still had the letter that I wrote to him. Him and his wife Alfie went and found it, which was incredible.
“He’s definitely a candidate for greatest living Englishman in my book and just a massively important bloke. I was looking at some footage on YouTube yesterday of Robert playing in France, at the Théâtre De La Musique in 1970, which is really worth a look. He does some fantastic stuff with his voice that’s way ahead of its time. It’s got saxophones and organs on it though, so beware!
“He changed my life and he was a massively important man to me. I had to have “Sea Song” in here, it’s very beautiful and it’s something that I can return to time and again - it’s got everything. He’s got a really fabulous melodic sensibility as well, which is not quite like anyone else’s and the lyrics, which were written by his wife Alfie are really odd, but really poignant.
“I go back and listen to Rock Bottom and those strange and beautiful songs quite often. The whole thing has such a distinctive character and atmosphere; it knocked me for six when I first heard it. I think almost all of his work hasn’t been dimmed with the passing of time for me, and that’s quite something.”
“When I was about fourteen, I was consumed and enthralled by pop music and I thought I had pretty sophisticated taste. This new kid came to our school in Wales from Gravesend in Kent. He was English - which made him pretty exotic - and he had incredibly long hair, so I gravitated towards him. He was Niall Jinks, who became the bass player in the first line-up of Scritti Politti.
“He brought three things with him from Gravesend which changed my life, one of which was Marxism - his family were all old-time Communist party people, and I’d never met a Communist before - and he liked jazz and folk. I couldn’t really get along with the jazz at that point, but I started listening to a lot of traditional folk music and going to The Newport Folk Club, in a terribly insalubrious pub, down the docks.
“I listened to tonnes of it, but of all the singers and guitarists I heard, my favourite was Carthy. I sang at some folk clubs when I was about fifteen and I would just copy Martin Carthy really. You’d get there early doors, when there was about three or four people in the room, and get up and sing a Martin Carthy song in a Martin Carthy style, which was a bit pointless.
“I went to see him whenever I could. I say I kind of stalked him, but I really did. I think I became something of a nuisance to him, because I was always turning up to any gig I could get to, even if it meant travelling a long way, and wanting to hang out with him and talk to him. We know each other now, but back then I was just a fucking nuisance.
“I could have chosen anything from any of his records but “7 Yellow Gypsies” is a beautiful example. It’s a magnificent tune, it’s got mysterious lyrics and the guitar playing is thrilling. His choice of traditional tunes has always been exquisite, his guitar playing is phenomenally groovy and his voice is one of the greatest in popular music. Martin’s another candidate for greatest living Englishman. He’s still gigging and I go and see him whenever I can. I’ve done a couple of gigs alongside him and he’s one of the greatest voices and one of the greatest guitarists in the world, I reckon.
“I was talking to him about his vocal styling. It changes through the albums, and for want of a better word, his vocal ornaments and mannerisms became more pronounced in a way, which I really adored. He looks back at it now and thinks he went a bit far, but for me, it’s those idiosyncrasies, that’s what it is, the vocal idiosyncrasies are just magical. I adore him. He’s that big a person to me.”
“I’ve always loved Joseph Hill as a lyricist and the opening lyrics to “Work On Natty” are “It’s a fact that I was born, grown and schooled, in this ticklish ghetto.” I’ve never known what a ticklish ghetto was, but I remember saying recently that his lyrics are like The Old Testament, cut up William Burroughs style. He’s a great lyricist.
“I did Fine Art at Leeds and after seeing The Pistols, The Damned, The Clash and The Heartbreakers, I reformed Scritti, came to London straightaway and opened up a squat. I started mixing with other punks that we’d met, and Reggae was what punks listened to almost exclusively.
“When Culture’s album Two Sevens Clash came out in 1977 that was a hugely important record to lots of us. It’s an acknowledged classic, with the arrangements, the production. outstanding rhythms, beautiful melodies and sometimes strange melodies to accommodate Joseph Hill’s bonkers, but beautiful lyrics. It was just fabulous.
“For a long while after Two Sevens Clash I listened almost exclusively to Reggae and I bought shit-tonnes of the stuff. The next Culture record that I got was a bootleg called Africa Stand Alone, which is possibly their greatest record. In those same sessions they recorded “Work On Natty” and it’s astonishing. It’s got one of my favourite basslines ever and it’s kind of faultless.
“I saw Culture a bunch of times and they were always awesome live. It’s another record that’s undimmed by the passing of time. Its power is undiminished.”
“The other music I “discovered” in inverted commas, in the post-punk years was funk. I’d grown up with a culture and a music whose black origins were largely obscured to me.
“There was only Radio 1 to listen to when I was a kid and apart from some Motown in the daytime - which I didn’t really get - there wasn’t much black music being played. John Peel didn’t play black music really, to be honest. I was thinking the other day about that 1972 Reading festival that I went to, it had Genesis, Status Quo, E.L.O and The Faces, dozens and dozens of bands and there was only one black artist, Shuggie Otis.
“Much in the way that Reggae was a staple listening of Punks, Post-Punk’s found funk. That was the whole No Wave, the Post-Punks couldn’t play the funk for shit, but it was essential. I started listening to funk properly in 1979, and then on a trip to America to see my parents in 1981, in the taxi from the airport Roger Troutman and Zapp’s version of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” came on and I thought it was amazing.
“Roger formed Zapp in Ohio with his three brothers in the late ‘70s as part of that whole P-Funk scene. I became a huge fan of Roger’s and invited him to play on Provision. Being with him was a complete honour, he had a beautiful sense of melody and an incredible sense of funk. He was the funkiest human being I ever met. Just to be with him in the studio, you’d play him the backing track you wanted him to work on and he’d sit with a talk-box in his mouth, a Moog keyboard and a rubber tube taped up to a little speaker and that was how he did the talk-box thing.
“He was animated with the funk and with the syncopation. His whole body was looking for the pocket and finding the places, he was a syncopation machine, somebody who was absolutely suffused with it. He was impeccably funky, it was sublime being with him as he built his parts up with the talk-box and he’d have ideas the whole time. He’d be singing into the talk-box and he had to keep taking it out of his mouth to get the spit out of it and get it back in his mouth before he sang the next line.
“It was an amazing thing to be sat next to him when he was doing it. My partner in Scritti then, David Gamson, went on to do another record with Roger, but then Roger got murdered by his brother, so that was a very sad ending.
“So Ruff, so Tuff” is a blissful example of his work. I was going to say it always makes me happy, but it does a lot more than that. With the music of the black counter-culture, there’s still so much to it to discover and to think about. It fascinates me, it’s wonderful, and the funk became a hugely important thing to me. Learning to feel the funk and becoming transfigured by it was a major life event and Roger was a key proponent in that.”
“I knew about Daniel from Grizzly Bear, and before that he was in a duo called Department of Eagles, who were great. They were the kind of band that turn up from time to time, to reassure you that there’s still wisdom and beauty to be found in the world of pop music, and there’s bands like Deerhoof who still manage to delight me when they come up with stuff.
“Apart from his involvement in those two bands. I don’t really know much about Daniel. I’ve read interviews with him and he’s only made that one solo EP, Silent Hour/Golden Mile. From his interviews you know he’s a smart guy and he’s got great taste and everything, but when I heard that EP, again, it was one of those things that knocked me for six, it’s just a beautiful, beautiful piece of work.
“I think “Saint Nothing” is up there and close to the best work of Brian Wilson, whose music has been immeasurably important to me for all my life. Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson wrote the book on white bread pop music and I definitely think there’s a Brian Wilson influence in there, but Daniel’s got a voice and melodic sensibility all of his own. It’s magnificent and it just doesn’t leave me.
“I don’t have musical nostalgia or anything, I’m always looking for the next thing. Every day I’m looking for something new to listen to. I don’t spend time, like a lot of my mates or people of my age do, where you get in the car with them and they put on some old piece of shit from when they were kids. That really depresses me, but with “Saint Nothing”, I don’t want to be without it. I love that it’s lyrically opaque; you’re not really sure what he’s singing about, but it’s deeply affecting and it’s just a magnificent piece of work.
“I’d love to meet him, and I wish he’d made some more solo music, definitely. I love his solo music.”
“Ultrasonic Studios 1972 Live was recorded in front of a small audience for a Long Island radio station. I don’t know how or when I first heard that record, but I would have been drawn to it because I was a big fan of Lowell George, who had a band called Little Feat. Many people might not know them, but they were a genre defying, country, blues, boogie, R&B… I don’t know what they were really.
“I first heard Little Feat on John Peel, like most of the stuff that was important to me. He played a track from Feats Don't Fail Me Now and I remember getting the bus into Newport town centre to see if I could find a copy of the album.
“There wasn’t a dedicated record store, there were only two places where you could buy albums in Newport, WHSmith and Boots the chemist. Neither of them had it, but you could order albums from Boots, at the pharmacy counter. You’d go up to the counter where they did prescriptions and ask, ‘Can I order a Little Feat album please?’ And then two weeks later you would get onto the bus into town and pick it up.
“I loved Little Feat until Lowell George’s overdose, so I got to hear this record through that. It’s the kind of song that I think I once would have hated, which is interesting to me. It's written by a couple of professional songwriters and in some ways it doesn’t really diverge from a pretty orthodox, perhaps even pedestrian, country style song template, but in some way I credit it with awakening me to the power of the traditional, commonplace songwriting, or whatever you might call it. Even predictable songs can be exquisite, and in some ways it is a predictable song, but it is exquisite.
“I don’t really know anything about Bonnie Raitt, but she’s acknowledged to be the bollocks in her field. Lowell George was doing a little harmony on that tune and playing a bit of guitar, but it surprised me how so deeply affecting that traditional kind of songwriting, that American, almost conservative style of professional songwriting - which I’d always railed against - how powerful it could be.
“It makes my wife cry, so if I play it I always get told to shut the door to my studio. She’s not someone that gets easily moved to tears, but Bonnie Raitt sings the fuck out if it, it’s amazing, just stunning. It’s a surprisingly stunning piece of work and I do play it surprisingly often, so it’s definitely there in my list of favourites.”
“Although I listen pretty much exclusively to hip hop - or I am at the moment - I’ve got an unbroken love for the riffy rock music that I loved when I was a teenager. The first band I ever went to see live was Free, at The Paget Rooms in Penarth, to a very small audience of about fourteen or fifteen people. I got the singer Paul Rodgers’ autograph, which is possibly the only musicians autograph I’ve ever been bothered to get.
“I still love Free and that kind of riffy, rocky, post-blues, whatever it is. A few years ago, when I was Djing at 6 Music and I went through a phase of Ty Segall, Thee Oh Sees, Kurt Vile, King Tuff and being into that niche of stuff. It was a fun phase, but Black Moon Spell is a masterpiece, it’s King Tuff’s masterpiece and it’s been near at hand for me ever since, It’s a faultless piece of heavy, T. Rex’y heaven and it’s indispensable. What a fantastic fucking record.
“He played at The Moth Club in Hackney the year before last and I was sick, so I couldn’t go. It’s an example of a whole genre of music that I still love and I play it all the time. I played it the other day, my wife was out in the garden, but I was playing it loud enough to draw her back indoors and she was stood in the studio with me headbanging away. That record makes us both very happy.”
“Arguably, I’ve spent more time listening to hip hop than any other genre of music over the years. It’s kind of interesting, because on the one hand, the thing that I love most about pop music is melody, but I loved hip hop from the get-go. The noise, the beats, that distinct lack of tonal melody, the lack of sentimentality or hyperbolic pop excitement. It wasn’t all the little chord changes with their nice resolutions with a little sugary melody on top. It was a whole different challenge.
“I first got into hip hop in New York in the early ‘80s. I was in New York, I’d seen DJ Red Alert at The Roxy and listened to his show on Kiss, but the real, deep love, started with Run-DMC when I heard “Sucker MC’s” on the radio. It was just Rap and a DMX drum machine, but it changed everything. It’s hard to explain just how shockingly powerful it was, but in the same way as Punk and Reggae, hip hop just blew me away.
“There are dozens and dozens of hip hop tracks that are important to me, but Thug’s “Danny Glover”, which came out about five years ago, changed everything as well. Thugga’s voice is slow and I think that probably has a lot to do with how much codeine cough syrup Thugga was enjoying. That whole Atlanta trap, drinking Lean kind of sound and that codeine cough syrup craziness is magical. And with the 808 Mafia beat, I think it’s the apogee of Trap music, it still sounds fresh.
“It reignited my passion for hip hop and it led to me spending much of the last five years making beats, getting up every day looking for my latest fix of new stuff and trawling through sites, although a lot of the sites are falling by the wayside at the moment.
"All the work that I’ve been doing has yet to be released, but whenever this new album is coming out, there’s quite a lot of it that would have some kind of debt to what they call Trap music. I might take it in completely different directions, but Thug and “Danny Glover” ignited that passion. Lyrically it’s a bit suspect, as most of that stuff is, but that’s a whole other conversation.
“Some records you remember absolutely knocking you off your feet and “Danny Glover” is a magnificent record and part of something that’s massively important to me. It had fantastic production from 808 Mafia, it was a big influence on me and it’s an important record. It was a milestone record in Atlanta contemporary hip hop.”