How the Scritti Politti story started in Leeds

Green Gartside, Scritti Politti
Green Gartside, Scritti Politti
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GREEN Gartside has fond memories of Leeds and the part the city played in kick-starting his musical career.

The Scritti Politti singer was studying fine art at Leeds Polytechnic when, in the mid 1970s, the Sex Pistols’ groundbreaking Anarchy in the UK tour rolled into town.

“One night, I think it was in December 1976, the Pistols, The Clash, The Damned and The Heartbreakers came to Leeds Poly and blew the minds of just about everybody there,” he recollects.

“It wasn’t rammed by any stretch of the imagination – there were a couple of hundred people there, maybe – but you had the sense that everybody there that night left feeling that they should form a band or they wanted to be part of something.”

Watching the leading lights of punk inspired Green to form his own band with fellow art student Tom Morley and Nial Jinks, his school friend from South Wales who was also studying in Leeds.

As he recalls, the city’s music scene then, as now, was vibrant. “Between the Poly and the Uni there were wonderful gigs to go to every week. I saw so many great bands there.

“Particular favourites I can remember were Bob Marley and The Wailers and Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band – that was fantastic.

“I promoted some gigs myself at various venues. I put on a band called Henry Cow, who I was very enamoured with at the time.

“I was also very interested in traditional music. I was very much in love with Martin Carthy and the Watersons.

“There were these two old guy lecturers at the university who taught morris dancing. I got morris dancing lessons from them. It was a pretty bizarre sight to see these two old men capering round the room with us.”

He also frequented a Leeds record store whose owner had a generous try-before-you-buy policy.

“He would lend you records. If you liked them you could pay him when you next went in. One of the records he lent me was a Miles Davis album called Get Up With It. I remember him saying, ‘Take this away, I think you will like it’. It was the first Miles Davis album that I owned.”

There was, says Green, “great generosity of spirit and tons of great bands in Leeds. At the time were there was Gang of Four and the Mekons.”

It was on the advice of three girls who were a year ahead of them at college that the members of Scritti Politti headed for London in 1978, hoping to live rent-free. “They found this street in Camden that was all squats,” Green remembers. “The house adjoining theirs was not squatted. We knocked on the door and the old lady and said, ‘Please don’t be alarmed but it’s our intention to squat your house when the council rehouse you’. When that happened we leapt over the back wall from the cemetery at the back.”

Having been an active member of the Young Communist League in Leeds, Green was keen to run the band on egalitarian lines. Old friends and associates were welcomed in Camden, along with “like-minded people that we met in London”.

“We were part of an attempt at communal living,” he reflects. “There was an awful lot of discussion about politics and philosophy and theory that informed what the band did.”

Their early records, such as Skank Bloc Bologna, were “free-form” DIY affairs, “getting away from the hierarchical structures of pop music”; Green, though, “rapidly thought that was a dead end”. Reading Continental philosophy – the work of Jacques Derrida, the French father of deconstruction, was a particular favourite – made him “re-evaluate pop music”. By 1979, he concluded, “indie was boringly, if not to say dangerously, conservative”. Out went a “squawky racket”, in came an unapologetic fondness for pop and lovers’ rock “which is very melodic reggae – that inspired me to write The ‘Sweetest Girl’”.

Scritti’s debut album, Songs To Remember, was a top 20 hit in 1982 but greater success was to follow three years later with a move to New York and a new band line-up. Cupid and Psyche 85 was a worldwide hit, along with the singles Wood Beez, Absolute and The Word ‘Girl’. The records mixed high-production pop with funk, soul, hip-hop, reggae and a dash of intellectualism. Being a fully fledged pop star, however, was “ghastly”.

“It’s very strange that so many people now want to be famous,” Green says. “It’s almost a national malaise. My personal experience of having any degree of public attention sat ill with me. I thought it was unhealthy, vulgar. I guess I should have known I would not have liked it. It made me feel very unhappy.”

He made one more album, Provision, in the America, with guest slots from jazz legend Miles Davis and R&B star Roger Troutman, before he began to feel himself “unravelling”. After being hospitalised with a breakdown, he retreated from the mainstream.

Since 1988 he has released just two albums of new material, the hip-hop inspired Anomie and Bonhomie, which sank without trace in 1999, and the rather more warmly received White Bread, Black Beer, which was nominated for the 2007 Mercury Prize.

Green has no regrets that he hasn’t been more prolific. “I do nothing but consider my very good fortune,” he says. “I had just about enough money made in the 80s. I did not want anything to do with music. I lived a solitary life in Wales for many years – I could afford to do that.”

Now, however, he is making a tentative return to the world of pop. This week sees the release of Absolute, his first career retrospective. “I hate looking back,” he admits. “I never listen to that stuff. I kind of said let’s not do too much promotion.”

Later this year a new album will follow on Rough Trade, the label that released Songs To Remember three decades ago. “I’ve got nearly 200 unfinished songs,” Green reveals. “I realise I’ve got to finish this up now.” Having conquered stage fright five years ago, a tour is also on the cards. “I’m very keen to do that,” he says. “We’ve been talking about that recently.”

Absolute is out now on Virgin Records

duncan seaman