In 1978, Green Gartside was a Welsh streak of piss with a mop of dark hair, sunken eyes and the kind of cheekbones that made you both jealous and worried for his health. A lapsed Marxist and philosophy obsessive, Gartside was a fan of folk and soul and Jamaican music shocked into action by punk. He lived in a squat in North London with his band, Scritti Politti.
Though Scritti comprised only three members on paper ' singer/guitarist Gartside, bassist Nial Jinks and drummer Tom Morley ' its ranks swelled and contracted with whoever hung around to join in the debate. And at the time, everything was up for debate; politics permeated the air the squat breathed. Scritti was less a band than an argument that had broken out at a reggae party.
No one then, not even Gartside himself, could have predicted that Scritti Politti would go on to become a pop sensation. In 1978, both musically and mentally, Scritti Politti was constantly on the verge of collapse. The records Scritti made in its first incarnation, finally collected on last year's essential Early (Rough Trade), are some of the oddest ever cut to cheap, crackling vinyl in the name of do-it-yourself.
Early songs like 'OPEC-Immacâ?� are barely there at all, just an irregular bass pulse and rimshots anchoring Gartside's high, plaintive, haunting voice against the depthless murk of the nothing production. Gartside's guitar sounds like folk music played on rusty garden tools. The records feel like they're being erased, or are unraveling. If most punk political lyrics were comically dogmatic, Scritti's were confused, wracked with doubt. Gartside obsessively picked apart every possible position. All this late-night self-questioning caused him to have a breakdown in 1979 ' something had to give.
To recuperate, Gartside rejected everything Scritti stood for ' musically, anyway. His love of beauty finally came to the fore with the swaying synthetic reggae lilt of 1981's 'The Sweetest Girl.â?� His secret weapon was his marzipan voice. He abandoned the scratchy, awkward music of early Scritti ' and eventually Jinks and Morley ' for smooth R&B. He spent the next few years aiming to top the charts while still writing songs that name-checked philosopher Jacques Derrida and viewed love as a series of language games.
In 1985, Green Gartside was a worldwide pop star with a shock of frosted blond hair that would have Limahl blushing, piercing eyes and those same cheekbones. He had just released Cupid and Psyche 85, made with legendary producer Arif Mardin. The music was exactly what Gartside had been chasing since 1980: gargantuan, glossy dance music that sounded like it cost a million bucks (and probably did). 'Perfect Wayâ?� was a hit just about everywhere, and is the only Scritti Politti song anyone in America remembers, nearly cracking the Top 10.
But Gartside couldn't resist his self-deconstruct button. 'The Word Girlâ?� was about just that ' the use of the word 'girlâ?� in popular music. But whereas Scritti in 1978 would have examined the word 'girlâ?� over cracked and squalling guitars, Scritti circa 1985 did so to music so sleek and gleaming you could eat off it. Gartside made music that 10-year-olds could bounce on their beds to while he wrote lyrics that flirted with poststructuralism.
Scritti's 1988 album Provision was another big hit in the U.K. ' basically Cupid and Psyche redux ' but it was the last time Gartside would bother a chart in America. Despite seemingly achieving everything he ever wanted ' including making a fan of Miles Davis, of all people ' Gartside, after two more singles in 1991, disappeared for eight years. When he returned, it was with 1999's Anomie and Bonhomie, Scritti's only truly bad album. An icky mishmash of booming pop and American indie-rap, Anomie was released to general bafflement, and it looked like Scritti was done.
In 2006, Green Gartside sports a beard and some deep lines from hard living, and he's filled out some with age. And, out of nowhere, here's a new Scritti Politti album, the first in seven years. A smart, understated and brilliant recording, White Bread Black Beer has only been out for a few weeks stateside, but it's already garnered perhaps the best reviews of his career.
Like Cupid and Psyche, the music sounds wholly synthetic, but the feel is utterly different. The cavernous drumbeats and gleaming synthesizers of Cupid are huge and implacable, music for arena-sized dance floors. Despite its denatured palette, White Bread sounds like what it is ' an album made by a man, alone, at home. Listening, you can almost see the late-afternoon sun moving across the floor, hear the hiss of the teakettle blending with the hiss of the drum machine's high-hats. It's wombing, domesticated music.
You may not believe Gartside's voice is coming from a man of 51, that same candied falsetto that would make a young Michael Jackson envious. On tracks like 'Snow in Sun,â?� he revels in it, a nimbus of John Lennon-esque harmonies crafted through Brian Wilson home-studio trickery. This is the first Scritti album to look backward, to be rooted not in up-to-the-minute black pop but in the records Gartside grew up with. His deep love for hip-hop only surfaces in the lyrics; it's probably the only album in the history of the universe that features such a fey, fluttery voice singing, 'Punks jump up to get beat down.â?�
But despite the fact that 'Dr. Abernathyâ?� contains references to both the rap group Brand Nubian and German egghead Hegel, these lyrics are the first Gartside has ever written that begin to strip away the protection of theory, the safety of critique. Much of the album is tinged with personal regret for Gartside's lost years spent drinking the Guinness of the title.
If many American grown folks' mental image of Scritti Politti is flouncing in legwarmers to canned Big '80s beats, they may be surprised by how subdued and even somber White Bread can be.