I’m looking forward to seeing Scritti Politti live at the Roundhouse in a few weeks time. They are one of my favourite bands. Their albums are rare (5 in 33 years) and their live shows equally sporadic. That said, I’ve loved each one their LPs, starting with “Songs to Remember”. It was a formative part of my youth and there is most probably a “Songs From The Dungeons” somewhere in there.
Green Gartside, their one constant members, singer and songwriter, has been promoting the Roundhouse show recently on 6 Music. In doing so, he mentioned his encounter with another one of my favourites, Miles Davis.
Davis had recorded Scritti’s “Perfect Way” on his 1986 “Tutu” album. The album got panned at the time but I really liked it then and still do. It is very much of its time, particularly in the sound of the drums and keyboards. If you can listen with fresh ears, it is an album with immediate tunes yet a sense of drama. I would be the first to admit that isn’t up there with any of his classic albums (“Kind Of Blue”, “In A Silent Way”, “ESP”, “Nefertiti”, “Bitches Brew”, “Jack Johnson”, “On The Corner”, “Sketches Of Spain” etc), but is by no means without merit.
I especially loved the cover, featuring fantastic photographs of Davis by Irving Penn. Penn was a Vogue photographer who had shot Audrey Hepburn, JFK and Al Pacino amongst others. He also specialised in wonderful still life images. Miles arrived at the studio and Penn tried to engage in Miles when he arrived at the studio but failed. He asked Miles to remove his jewellery and concentrated on Miles’s hands. The photos of the hands are quite incredible, showing the musician stretching as if playing his instrument.
Green wasn’t aware of Miles’s intention to cover his song until after “Tutu” was released. It wasn’t unusual for Miles to perform contemporary pop hits in the 80’s. He had done versions of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” and Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” on recent LPs.
In 1988, Scritti released “Provision”, three years after the very successful “Cupid & Psyche 85” album. It had been a tough album to record and sounded like it was a true product of the decade, with icy blasts of crystalline keyboard all over the place.
It appears that Scritti’s people talked to Miles’s people and the trumpet player was scheduled to come to the studio to record a trumpet solo for the album’s first single “Oh Patti.” Green was expecting Miles arrive with an entourage but instead he turned up on his own. The trumpeter was incredibly nervous, fidgeting at the hair net that he was wearing. The band went through the chords to the song with Miles and he laid down his track.
I would have found it nerve wracking. Miles had a fearsome reputation and didn’t suffer anyone, fools or otherwise, gladly. The Scritti boys took it in their stride.
Let’s just remember both parties position in the musical pantheon at the time. Miles was probably the most famous jazz musician in the world and certainly recognised as one of the towering influences on 20th century music, jazz or otherwise. He was wealthy, had won multiple Grammys and was pretty much the coolest cat on the block. He was the epitome of sophisticated moneyed music legends. Green Gartside was the son of a Cardiff Cup-A-Soup salesman from Wales who had, less than 10 years earlier, been living in a squat in Camden, espousing a communist manifesto.
Green struck up a relationship with Miles and went around his place a few times, no doubt swooning over Miles’s fantastic art collection. Not long after Green moved back to the UK and Miles took to calling him in the wee small hours to discuss potential collaboration projects. Nothing more came of it and Miles passed away in 1991.
The song was released as a single and reached 13 in the UK charts. It was the start of the long curve back to a more cult following. No Scritti single has got higher in the charts since then.
In the 6Music interview, Green felt that that he was aiming for “artfully banal” in the lyrics but only achieved banal. I think he’s being hard on himself. Scritti always went out of their way to match intellectualism with bubblegum and largely succeeded. I agree that “Oh Patti” skips the long words that he was so keen on working in to his songs (“Pharmacoepia” for example from “Boom! There She Was” anyone?). It’s a sweet song and it is complemented wonderfully by Miles’s solo. The tune’s simplicity is affecting though and the melody has a real sense of unrequited yearning.
“Oh Patti” is apparently about a friend of Green’s who worked in a North London gift shop (she still does according to the interview). It suggests that she and Green once had a brief fling which ended on good terms and Green is assuring her that he’ll be alright and that she needs to look after herself.
And don’t feel sorry for lover boy
You know he wants the world to love him
And then he goes and spoils it all for love
The concert at the Roundhouse is in the round in advance of a forthcoming album, possibly even in 2016. Something to look forward to indeed. Green doesn’t like digital synthesiser on the record but it is a lovely ballad and Miles’s solo fits perfectly. They’ll be performing the song live for the first time at the Roundhouse, although they still haven’t worked out who has the unenviable task of filling Miles’s red patent alligator shoes.
In doing research for the blog, I came across the track below. This is by the Modern Saxophone quartet and shows how Miles’s material from that era can really swing. They even tackle the track without a trumpet!