Scritti Politti are a British band, originally formed in 1977 in Leeds, Yorkshire, England, by the Welsh singer-songwriter Green Gartside. He is the only member of the band to have remained throughout the group’s history.
Beginning as a punk-inspired collective of art students and squatters, Scritti Politti released several early post-punk recordings on Rough Trade Records before transitioning into a mainstream pop music project in the early to mid-1980s, enjoying significant success in the record charts in the UK and the US. The group’s most successful album, 1985‘s Cupid & Psyche 85, spawned three UK Top 20 hits with “Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)”, “Absolute”, and “The Word Girl”, as well as a US Top 20 hit with “Perfect Way”.
The band’s 1988 album Provision was a UK Top 10 success, though it only produced one UK Top 20 hit single, “Oh Patti”. After releasing two non-album singles in 1991, as well as a collaboration with B.E.F., Gartside became disillusioned with the music industry and retired to south Wales for more than seven years. Gartside returned in the late 1990s, releasing a new album, Anomie & Bonhomie, in 1999 (which included various rock and hip hop influences). In 2005, Rough Trade released the compilation Early, which collected the band’s first releases. In 2006, Gartside released the stripped-down White Bread, Black Beer.
In the mid-1970s, Green Gartside was studying fine art at Leeds College of Art and Design (now Leeds College of Art). The Sex Pistols ‘Anarchy’ tour, which included The Damned and The Heartbreakers, was launched at Leeds Polytechnic on 6 December 1976, and inspired Gartside to form a band with his childhood friend Nial Jinks, and fellow student Tom Morley.
Scritti Politti originally consisted of Gartside as the lead vocalist, Jinks as bass player, Morley as drummer, and Matthew Kay as the manager who sometimes played the keyboard. Gartside and Jinks had gone to school together in South Wales, and Gartside met Morley at Leeds Polytechnic. For their first public performance in 1976, supporting local Leeds punk group SOS, the group went under the name ‘The Against’.
Upon finishing their studies the group relocated to London’s Camden Town around 1977, where they lived in a squat. The name Scritti Politti was chosen as a homage to the Italian Marxist writer and political theorist Antonio Gramsci. The correct spelling in Italian to refer to “Political Writings” would have produced “Scritti Politici”. Gartside changed it to “Scritti Politti” as he thought it sounded more rock and roll, like the Little Richard song “Tutti Frutti”. Alongside other groups of what has been termed the DIY ethic or movement (notably the Desperate Bicycles and Steve Treatment, the latter being associated with the Swell Maps), Scritti Politti released a DIY record titled “Skank Bloc Bologna” (a sort of ode to the traditionally leftist Italian city of Bologna, on their own St. Pancras label in 1978.
To the raw energy of punk, Scritti Politti added a creative spontaneity and a mock-philosophical intelligence in their lyrics, with allusions to intellectual figures such as Karl Marx, Mikhail Bakunin, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, and Jacques Lacan.
“Skank Bloc Bologna” picked up airplay on John Peel’s BBC Radio 1 show, and the band were signed to Rough Trade under Geoff Travis in 1979, making them labelmates with the other Cardiff avant-garde band, Young Marble Giants. Scritti Politti released two EPs in 1979 with singles “Bibbly-O-Tek”, “Doubt Beat”, “OPEC/Immac” and “Hegemony”. “Hegemony” – which Gartside eventually cited as being based on the old English folksong ‘Lemady’ – led to more melodic songs such as “Confidence”, which in turn hinted at the direction the band would take in the 1980s.
Gartside then slimmed the band down to a three piece. The band exhibited an explicit do-it-yourself attitude, which manifested itself in their hand-made record sleeves with detailed breakdowns of production costs, including addresses and phone numbers of record pressing plants, and their own Camden squat address for feedback. They even produced a booklet called “How To Make A Record”, which was given the catalogue number SCRIT 3, and aimed to be a comprehensive guide to recording and releasing a record for aspiring indie artists, based on Scritti Politti’s personal experience of putting out their first three singles independently, plus extra research they’d done on the subject. By the time of the 4 A-Sides EP in 1979, the group had developed a sound described by AllMusic as “scrappy, taut, and forthrightly experimental in style, utilizing abrupt changes, rhythmic displacements, and gritty and discordant harmonies tempered by Gartside’s sweet vocalizing of impenetrably obscure lyrics, vaguely political in sense but temporal and abstract in meaning.
Scritti Politti began planning their debut album in 1979, but the recording had to be delayed when Green collapsed after a gig supporting Gang of Four in Brighton in early 1980. Originally believed to be a heart attack, the cause of his collapse was eventually diagnosed as a panic attack, brought on by his chronic stage fright and his unhealthy lifestyle. Returning home to south Wales at his parents’ insistence for a nine-month convalescence period, Green had plenty of time to think about the direction the band and their music were going in. During 1979 he had already become less interested in the independent music and punk scene and had started listening to and buying American funk and disco like Chic and the Jacksons, American soul like Aretha Franklin, and 1960s British beat music such as the Beatles’ early records.
Green came to the conclusion that “you don’t have to be lobotomised in order to make pop music. It’s a real passion to make it” and that making pop music didn’t mean selling out punk’s principles or dumbing down: “I think the politics of punk does survive. There are a whole lot [of] people who aren’t happy to make pap but want to make pop. They understand that what sells means something. It finds a way into people’s hearts in a way that independent music never did.” He explained his reasons for abandoning the band’s original “do-it-yourself” philosophy to Smash Hits in November 1981.
Gartside recorded a demo of one of his new songs, “The ‘Sweetest Girl’“, in January 1981, and the song was included on the C81 cassette compilation obtained with tokens from the March issues of NME. The song – which features Robert Wyatt on keyboards – received strong reviews. It was cited by The New York Times as one of the ten best singles of the year, but the track did not get a wide release for ten months, by which time momentum was lost, and it only achieved a minor placing in the UK Singles Chart at No. 64. The single was later covered by pop band Madness, with their version reaching No. 35 in the UK singles chart in 1986. Drummer Tom Morley departed Scritti Politti in November 1981.
The debut album, Songs to Remember, was released on Rough Trade in August 1982. Displaying Gartside’s previously hidden reggae influence, it was a critical and commercial success, reaching No. 12 in the UK Albums Chart. One of Rough Trade’s most unlikely success stories, the album became their biggest selling release to date. Also during this period, Gartside recorded a duet with Annie Lennox on the Eurythmics track “Wrap It Up”, for their Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) album released in early 1983.
Collaborating with veteran producer Arif Mardin, David Gamson and Fred Maher, the first recording to emerge from these sessions was the single: “Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)“. Released in February 1984, “Wood Beez” was an immediate UK hit, peaking at No. 10, and was also successful in Australia, charting at No. 25, and in New Zealand where it reached No. 26. A series of intricately programmed dance/soul-style hits followed, including “Absolute” (UK No. 17), “Hypnotize” (UK No. 68 and No. 43 on the US Dance Charts) and the reggae-styled “The Word Girl“, which became Scritti Politti’s biggest UK hit single, climbing to No. 6 in May 1985.
In June 1985, Scritti Politti released their second (and most successful) album, Cupid & Psyche 85, with songs produced by Arif Mardin and performances by numerous session musicians. The LP was a Top 5 hit in the UK and also sold well in the US. In addition to the four already released singles, the album included the song, “Perfect Way”. It was only a minor hit when released in the UK (No. 48) but it became the band’s biggest US single, peaking at No. 11.
The personnel for the Cupid and Psyche ’85 album differed from that of their first album, and featured keyboardist David Gamson and ex-Material drummer Fred Maher, both of whom would collaborate with Gartside on songwriting and production duties. Arif Mardin would also produce three songs for the album. Stylistically, the songs on the album feature dense timbral counterpoint (in fact, nearly every song on the album), using synthesizer chords and effects (as well as “real” instruments), programmed largely by David Gamson, creating a style that they would refine in their next album. In the US, “Wood Beez” was re-released as the follow-up single to “Perfect Way”, but it only managed to hit No. 91 (it had previously hit No. 4 on the US Dance Charts in late 1984).
In 1986, Gartside and Gamson wrote and produced “Love of a Lifetime” for Chaka Khan, which appeared on her Destiny album. The same year they also collaborated to write the title track for Al Jarreau’s album, L is For Lover.
In 1987, Scritti Politti appeared on the Who’s That Girl soundtrack with the song “Best Thing Ever”. This track also appeared on the next Scritti Politti album, 1988‘s Provision, which continued Gartside’s development into synth-funk as well as reggae and other styles. The roster of session players became even more notable, including contributions from Roger Troutman, Marcus Miller and Miles Davis, who performed on the single “Oh Patti (Don’t Feel Sorry For Loverboy)”, a UK No. 13 hit. However, although the album charted in the Top 10 in the UK (No. 8), it did not match the commercial success of Cupid and Psyche ’85 in the US, stalling at No. 113.
Miles Davis covered Scritti Politti’s song “Perfect Way” on his 1986 album Tutu. Davis also appeared on the track “Oh Patti (Don’t Feel Sorry For Loverboy)” on the band’s album Provision.
There are references to Scritti Politti’s “sugar coated pop” sound on Max Tundra’s Parallax Error Beheads You. Tundra said that he welcomed comparisons with Scritti Politti.
Kurt Feldman (The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, The Depreciation Guild) stated that the band’s music is a major inspiration for his work. The influence is especially prominent on the album Afar, released under his Ice Choir project.
80s Studio albums
- 1982 Songs to Remember
- 1985 Cupid & Psyche 85
- 1988 Provision