I’ve got a pretty small bucket list of “never seen but wish I had” bands and artists. Some I never will because of mortality (Miles Davis primarily), some because of inter-band politics (Talking Heads spring to mind) and the remainder I’m ever hopeful. But at least after tonight, there is one less on the list – Scritti Politti.
I love Scritti and their approach to music making. They go for quality not quantity and many more musicians could do with taking a leaf out of their book. Every album is an event and represents a progression from what’s gone before, even if their production rate is glacially slow.
This was the third and final of our “in the round” gigs at London’s Roundhouse. It’s been mixed pickings so far. Matthew E White was a qualified success. Let’s just say Mulatu Astatke wasn’t and leave it there. I approached the Scritti gig with a real sense of excitement though. The beauty of their wide and varied repertoire and the scarcity of their gigs meant that there is no such thing as a typical Scritti setlist. Green Gartside has become quite the everyman too. He has moved from the pop theorist in the post punk days operating out of the London squat scene through a glittering career in the eighties and now as a broadcaster with the BBC on 6Music.
The radio connection generates a story in itself. Back in 1978, Scritti had booked some studio time to record a John Peel session. Lacking vocals for one of the tracks, the studio engineer recorded the Radio 4 programme being broadcast at the time. It was the news read by Harriet Cass who is still working at the station. She wasn’t aware until relatively recently that her voice had been used and was enthusiastic enough to record a new version for the Roundhouse gig. You can here a little bit more about the track here.
The evening was really a trip back to where it started for Green. In the late seventies, Scritti were squatting at Carol Street in Camden, less than a mile away from the Roundhouse. The band’s membership was fluid. Green commented
The idea is that substantial decisions about what the group is doing is made by a larger number of people than pick actually pick up instruments at present
Here’s a shot of the inside of the flat from their debut LP “4 A-sides”. It illustrates the chaos that their cohorts lived in. It is at odds with nuanced precise sound that Scritti arrived at less than ten years later and which brought significant success.
The dichotomy (there’s a Scritti-esque word for you) was further emphasised by the highly stylised cover art for the “Cupid and Psyche” material which was very much about desirable objects tempting conspicuous consumption.
The band took their DIY workshop style ethic and questioned everything. It was hard work being them. They signed for Rough Trade and released their debut LP, the truly wonderful “Song To Remember.” I’ll come back to that and the marvellous follow up “Cupid and Psyche ’85” another day.
The gig was did very much bring into focus those early years. Straight out of the blocks with “The Sweetest Girl”, there was plenty of material from all parts of their career but especially the Camden squat period. Green mentioned his trips to the men’s group organised by the Young Communist’s Party, where he and his colleagues would “berate themselves for being men.”
Green was a perfect host but it was evident that the stage fright he previously suffered from manifested itself in him being a chatterbox between the songs. His nervous energy propelled the evening and generated a pot of goodwill such that the few technical issues that occasionally plagued the set simply created opportunities for the crowd to encourage the band even more. He told some tall tales, about convincing Kraftwerk to cover “The Sweetest Girl” with Gregory Isaacs only to meet them and find out they “hated reggae”. There was one particularly lovely tale, whereby he was in America and being managed by Peter Asher (Jane’s brother) who had looked after many stars of the seventies including James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt and Bonnie Raitt. Green was in Los Angeles and supposed to be writing songs but was without a guitar. Asher dropped by and lent him a guitar that belonged to “Joni” – I think we can guess which Joni that was. Green couldn’t handle LA and ended up finishing the song he started on the said guitar in Caerleon near Newport. The song in question was “Brushed With Oil, Dusted With Powder” and the version at the Roundhouse was beautiful and tender.
It was one of the happiest gigs I’ve attended in a long time. The crowd were willing Green and his three bandmates on. The setlist pushed all the right buttons with the material from “Cupid & Psyche” going down particularly well.
The gig was pleasantly ramshackle whilst maintaining a residual degree of quality. “Oh Patti” was played for the first time with a young trumpeter picking up Miles’s part with a lovely solo played with a Harmon mute. Harriet Cass was sat just along from us and clearly enjoyed the version of “28/8/78”. The band even played some unreleased songs. Green is a serial starter but appears to struggle to finish things, hence an “Abbey Road” style medley of new songs which worked brilliantly. The encores consisted of new material. Here’s hoping that new album arrives soon.
I particularly enjoyed “The Boom Boom Bap” from the last LP. Here’s a clip from a gig at one of my favourite venues, the Lexington. It shows just how Green has retained that honey sweetness to his vocal – truly beautiful.
In summary, it was a beautiful evening. Dinner with old friends before the gig and a charming and memorable performance from Scritti. Oh and the sound wasn’t bad either.