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The Secretly Influential Scritti Politti

A Primer On The Synth-Pop Legends

On March 21, 2018

Scritti Politti are one of the major yet most under-recognized influences on today’s pop music. The British band led a groundbreaking run in the ’80s as captured on their 1985 album Cupid & Psyche 85 and 1988’s Provision. The songs on both full-lengths pummel through your body. At the same time, each one is a high-ceilinged edifice to walk around and relish in its rich texture and design. They’re simultaneously verbs and nouns: As forces, inexorable; as architecture, immovable. While the lyrics themselves—the ornate, cunning poetry of frontman Green Gartside—penetrate your limbic system, the group’s music is a language in and of itself. And their descendants have proven that the originators speak it best.

After catching Neon Indian’s first London show around the time of their 2009 debut Psychic Chasms, Gartside introduced himself to frontman Alan Palomo to compliment him on his work. “I don’t know if he knew who I was or anything,” he claimed in an interview. This could’ve been a safe assumption, except every other review of Neon Indian’s latest album turned out to be a Scritti comparison. Along with Neon Indian, the permeation of Gartside and company’s influence can be heard in the 1975, Hot Chip, Carly Rae Jepsen, any artist endeavoring to make pop music at 120 BPM where every drum-beat is gated reverb and every melody is as sinewy as it is bubblegum. Naturally, the descendants come short of fully capturing their predecessor’s sound. Perhaps it’s Scritti’s synth-melodies—each one so concrete and finely carved you can sit in them like a throne—that artists have had a tough time replicating. Then there’s member/producer David Gamson, whose instrumental contributions are not just infectious but unconscionably precise and dauntingly multi-timbral. Scritti’s importance in the history of pop music is made even more undeniable by Gamson’s later production credits, which include Kesha, Charli XCX and Kelly Clarkson.

Scritti began as a Marxist collective that gathered at the squat where Gartside was living in Camden, North London. While he and two others were actually playing the music, “the total membership of the collective, which regularly gathered for formal meetings, was as high as twenty,” Simon Reynolds writes in his book Rip It Up and Start Again. “The idea is that substantial decisions about what the group is doing are made by a larger number of people than actually pick up instruments at present,” Reynolds quotes the singer as having said in a fanzine interview.

Also during this time, Gartside was becoming more cognizant of the limitations to the group’s particular mode: post-punk. From Gartside’s perspective, his genre peers were “decadent and disengaged” and solely “arty for artiness’s sake,” according to Reynolds. Gartside was irked by how these bands were complacent with writing basic chord progressions at the same tempo every song, the core motifs which make punk music accessible to inexperienced musicians in the first place yet tend to limit it to that level of amateurship. In reaction, the seemingly most punk thing to do was to make un-punk music—to rebel with complexity. Scritti Politti became a hyper-refined, synth-inflected R&B troupe. Gartside was still singing about radical philosophical concepts, now veiling them in a soft, wispy cadence.

1982’s Songs to Remember found them in a liminal stage, but Cupid & Psyche 85 heard their bonafide transformation. By this time, Scritti were a new trio-lineup featuring Gamson and drummer Fred Maher; in addition, the original collectivism had been exchanged for major label-management. The stylistic shift, catalyzed in part by Gamson’s pop virtuosity, came during “a point at which, for me, Shalamar usurped Pere Ubu,” Gartside once said. What separated Scritti from fellow synthpop bands at the time was how they had such a strong grasp on R&B, while others were far less adept at taking cues from that genre. The 1985 album was their pop breakthrough at home in the UK and here in the U.S.

“The Word Girl,” which hit the No. 6 spot in the UK but never charted the Hot 100, is glitzy, luscious reggae grounded by a sauntering bass-synth line, the melody of which manages to be sing-songy like a nursery rhyme and byzantine all at once. A few lines into the first verse, Gartside sings, “A word for you to use / A girl without a cause / A name for what you lose / When it was never yours.” The track is a subtle critique of how pop music fetishizes women as lyrical subject matter: A man singing hooks and choruses often venerates a love interest, but really he’s singing about a concept of that love interest, distilling a woman to his self-made symbol of a woman. If it seems a little too #performative and #malefeminist of Scritti for making this sort of critique, their aim was broader than addressing the gender-related issue.

Semiotics along with semantics are part of Gartside’s admiration for Ludwig Wittgenstein, who analyzed these topics in his work and was deeply concerned with the limitations of language. Scritti downgraded the meaningfulness of language to a random sequence of vaguely interconnected political ideas on their early post-punk track “Is And Ought The Western World.” But on Cupid & Psyche they gave this Wittgensteinian approach more pop palatability. “I don’t like to to write too autobiographically because that annoys me,” Gartside said during a 1988 interview prior to the release of Provision. “I like a sort of superficial sheen [to my lyrics] so there’s no edges to really catch onto other people’s experiences or expectations.” His songwriting approach was tactical and utilitarian, in which he focused on which words both sounded the nicest and conveyed the nicest connotations, in order to achieve that “superficial sheen.”

“Perfect Way” hears this approach in action; this was their biggest hit in the U.S., peaking at No. 11, but it failed to crack the Top 20 back home. It’s fast-paced and packed with techniques known for accomplishing clear sonic pronunciation, such as hocketing and counterpoint. It avoids melodic stasis by hurdling between distant keys, shifting between the verses and choruses. The morphology in Gartside’s lyrics reflect the track’s bent for upbeatness, sharpness and precision, as his opening line exemplifies: “I took a backseat a backhander I took her back to her room / I better get back to the basics for you.” His repetition of “back”, conflated by the accumulated connotations (nightlife, youth, sex/hookup culture), elicits a rush of total energy and urgency. Scritti developed and followed a meticulous formula for honing in on pure emotion, here warranting a track impossible not to have fun and let loose to.

While Gartside claimed an aversion to writing autobiographically, he’s actually quite self-referential on the band’s next album, Provision: a reckoning with major label glamour and privilege, as well as what the trio anticipated to be an imminent lack thereof. Like Cupid & Psyche, their 1988 follow-up went Gold in the UK. Yet for some reason it bombed in the U.S. If it seemed like Warner Brothers did a lackadaisical job with promoting or generally supporting the final product (so much that it peaked at No. 113 on the Billboard 200), Scritti certainly did take advantage of the means of the record label in assembling a superhuman roster to help craft Provision. Marcus Miller, who helped with Cupid & Psyche, was back on bass, and the band called upon Zapp’s Roger Troutman to provide his classic talkboxing. Other recruits included jazz trumpeter Chris Botti and percussionist Bashiri Johnson.

But the most surprising appearance of all was Miles Davis. The trumpeter enlisted Marcus Miller for his 1986 album Tutu; a fan of Scritti as well—turned onto them by his producer Tommy LiPuma (and likely aware of Miller’s most recent work at the time)—he covered “Perfect Way” on that same album. His zeal didn’t stop there. Calling up Gartside constantly at odd times of the night about collaborating eventually prompted “Oh Patti (Don’t Feel Sorry For Loverboy),” the lead single from Provision. This is the closest they’ve come to a proper ’80s power ballad—saccharine as per usual, this time with the air of melancholy obligatory to that timely stylistic mode. “Oh Patti” cracked the UK Top 20 but didn’t chart in the U.S. It’s been considered maudlin schlock because it capitulates to a fad (the power ballad), “a welter of bland ’80s pop conventions” as one writer posits. That doesn’t automatically qualify it as musical Marshmallow Fluff, though. Scritti’s distinctive sharpness and melodicism are clearly present, comprising the unshakeable foundation which houses Miles’s beautiful, mood-indigo solo at the climax.

Provision is very loosely a concept album about a generic squandered teen romance. There are themes of locality and nostalgia on “First Boy In This Town,” and Gartside directly references his past self on “Overnite”: “When I was 17 / There was a world to know about,” he sings, while background voices whisper, “Tell us about it Green.” But “Oh Patti” sticks out the most in comparison. The other songs refer to a vague conception of a teenaged Green Gartside; and the album’s lead single does so, while also sounding like a partial allegory on Scritti Politti’s career up to that point. Certain lines recall the fact that Scritti ditched their grassroots and leftist theory origins in exchange for the pop music industry’s corporate framework—more simply, that they sold out. Whether it’s intended third-person or not, the chorus is noteworthy: “Don't feel sorry for lover boy / He wants the world to love him / Then he goes and spoils it all for love.” There’s marked regret over a past yearning for something glorious and out-of-reach.

If Gartside’s lyrics only nebulously call back to Scritti’s trajectory, then the creative choices behind Provision are more revealing of self-awareness. For one thing, there’s how the band got some of the world’s best musicians to play on the album, which could’ve merely been passively OK’d by the label because of the success of Cupid & Psyche 85, though it simultaneously reads like a fuck-it: The trio foresaw that this album wasn’t going to get the full promotional support it deserved, so they went all out however they could—without compromising the final product’s quality, of course. While it finally and unfortunately determined for them one-hit-wonder status in the States, the album extended their success back home, even though they wouldn’t release another one until 1999, called Anomie & Bonhomie.

For all the sturdiness their music exhibits, Scritti’s storyline lacks in it: full of ups and downs and glaring self-contradictions. With Cupid & Psyche 85 they hoped to possibly integrate philosophy into pop music and inspire meaningful conversations in that sector. By Provision, they realized it was reformist wishful thinking. Thinking about symbolic venues, their legacy hasn’t been the symposium, as they might’ve intended at first; rather the dance club, their natural habitat all along. Philosophers such as Wittgenstein, Marx and Jacques Derrida might seem like the keys to understanding Scritti Politti’s language; but focusing on the euphonious syntax of synths, rhythm, counterpoint, hocketing, R&B-savviness, etc. makes for a rich, immersive understanding of their language, too. While their influence has mainly been musical—as heard in The 1975, Neon Indian and so many other of today’s most popular artists—it’s tough to say whether that kind of influence is more important than an ideological/philosophical one, or vice-versa. As embodied by Cupid & Psyche 85 and Provision, the sheer complicatedness of that interplay itself, between music and ideology, defines the band’s essence.

Profile Picture of Eli Zeger
Eli Zeger

Eli Zeger has written for Noisey, Van Magazine, Real Life, Hyperallergic, DownBeat, and others. He loves his guitar and cat!

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