A towering middle-aged man in lime green trainers and a double-denim ensemble of the finest American work-wear modestly assumes his position upon the expansive stage of the cavernous Brixton Academy; his expertly cultivated facial hair hovering only inches away from a microphone. ‘This,’ he self-effacingly announces in his still unmistakably South Wales burr, a wry smile momentarily passing across his lips, ‘is a very old song’. Unsullied by the passing of time – in keeping with the almost eerily youthful appearance of the singer himself – ‘The Sweetest Girl’, remains one of the finest songs of the 1980s, or of any decade, a honey-drenched exercise in eclectic, self-assured pop magnificence; its creator, Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside, one of the genre’s most fascinating maverick figures and to this day, the possessor of one of the finest white soul voices that this nation has ever gifted to the world.
Green and I may not share the same taste in footwear, or tragically (for me, at least) the same vocal majesty, but one thing we do have in common is the same grey, concrete, alma mater; a large South Wales secondary school at which he had once attempted to form a local branch of the Young Communist League (‘succeeding’ in recruiting only a single member) – an inspirational coincidence that initially presented itself to my teenage peer group heavily shrouded in rumour and anecdotal improbability. Improbable, given that at the height of the 80s ‘new pop’ phenomenon, a laboratory-clean futurist manifesto for a younger, better future, not a single teacher, nor a single daily assembly, sought to celebrate or even acknowledge the stellar commercial and artistic success of its most identifiably successful former pupil. The limitless possibility of the pop form may well have been captivating and entrancing the nation’s youth in an unshackled and aspirational manner like never before, but its status as a life choice, as an ambition, as a career, was not one that came endorsed by the Welsh Joint Education Committee.
Instead, our sole curriculum-approved exposure to pop culture consisted of an inexplicable and bizarrely unfocused don’t-do-drugs-you-fucking-mugs lecture by the actor and writer, David Kossoff. His son, Paul, the virtuoso guitarist of hoary rock hod-carriers, Free, had died of heroin-related complications in 1976, and had in the intervening years ascended to the status of denim-clad rock Dionysus. The senior Kossoff, had thus taken it upon himself to counsel the contemporary new pop generation about the sinister all-pervading influence of hard drugs via the questionable means of leather waistcoats and flared denim. Yet not one of my music-obsessed classmates had any idea who Free were, and though we were understandably impressed by the fact that Kossoff senior, lawlessly and uninvited, had taken it upon himself to light up a rogue cigarette in the assembly hall at the point at which his son’s iconic image was flashed up on a big screen, this was the point at which his core message was ultimately lost upon us.
Paul Kossoff sported the joyless, earnest expression of musty rock classicism – a mind-set diametrically opposed to the prevailing and irreverent pop revolution of which Scritti Politti represented the vanguard – and an unkempt mess of unruly, long hair. These were ruthless cultural times and the one-time rock god was accordingly and immediately deemed a hippy, an avowed cultural foe, a sepia-tinged irrelevance. Much like Gartside himself, who was first encouraged to pick up an instrument after seeing Sex Pistols at university in Leeds on the infamous ‘Anarchy’ tour of 1977, and whose embryonic band were themselves forged within the confines of the highly politicised West London squatting scene, the gnarly inspirational roots of punk proved once again that, having taken hold, their lasting influence ran unfathomably deep.
Though Scritti Politti’s latest incarnation has been invited to open for Welsh brethren Manic Street Preachers, the most recent of Gartside’s numerous musical collaborators, the lavish pop abundance packed tightly within the confines of their lamentably truncated set rapidly makes a mockery of their incongruous second-string billing. A shimmering hit-rich parade of Gartside’s fascinatingly dissident cultural evolution, the heartfelt appreciation of tonight’s suitably beguiled audience pouring further belated and much-deserved scorn upon the short-sighted churlishness of the one-time cultural directors of the Croesyceiliog Comprehensive School.
Putting longstanding teenage recriminations aside, it’s the KRS One-referencing ‘Boom Boom Bap’ I’m primarily here for though; the opening song on Scritti’s most recent album, the Mercury-nominated White Bread, Black Beer, a beautifully personal and compact collection of stripped-down, soaring Pet Sounds-style grandeur. Introduced by Gartside as ‘a song about my twin passions of hip hop and beer’ – ‘The brewski point was calling / I got belly washed blood in my heart’ – it forms the cornerstone of a captivatingly beautiful record underpinned by a rich seam of intimate contemplation and artistic reflection, the singer having temporarily relocated to the South Wales heartland for the period of its (home) recording, and the resonant reconnection with childhood haunts that such a move inevitably entails.
Though a huge critical success, the album almost predictably failed to make the commercial breakthrough that it justly merited – though to many of its loyal band of devotees it remains Gartside’s finest work. The writer’s deep love of black music in its myriad forms resonates throughout. A sincere and lifelong love affair that has consistently set him aside from the opportunistically shameless cultural appropriation of many of his one-time pop peers. Never a band to be constrained by the self-imposed artistic straightjackets of those whose output was frustratingly stifled by the self-imposed fear of ever being labelled a ‘sell-out’ (an ironically hippy notion in itself), Scritti went from cutting up a Lenin text and juxtaposing it with Lee Perry’s ‘Baffllin’ Smoke Signals’, to embracing the emerging New York heartbeat of synth-funk and electro in only a matter of a few short years. The hits – and the hits, ‘Wood Beez’, ‘Absolute’ et al, were huge – nevertheless retained a unique melodic incongruity, their flawlessly slick production values retaining a subtle semblance of the uncompromising DIY ethic at the band’s nascent core for those sufficiently open-minded enough to lend them their ear.
Gratifyingly, the Gartside of 2014 has lost none of his mercurial nonconformist spirit, none of his heavenly vocal gift, none of his swagger. As he gazes out across the Brixton Academy, at the rapidly burgeoning audience that congregates before him, the ‘bar room boys and belles’ of his songs who have temporarily sacrificed the short-term allure of alcohol for a heavenly hit of pop inspiration, he ponders the consistent dilemma at the core of his creative output: ‘Pop reggae, and post-modernism. A marriage made in Heaven? Or in Hell? You decide.’
Illustration by Dean Lewis