"When we made our fist single Skank Bloc Bologna, when we put all the addresses of the studios and distributors on the record cover, I got a copy back from the drummer (of Henry Cow) saying “please leave making music to those of us who know what we're doing”... And I thought yeah! Result."
Incendiary interview Green Gartside
It's a baking hot Thursday lunch hour, and I'm walking through a packed Vondel Park. You know what parks are like in summer; everywhere one looks there are lounging office workers eating sandwiches, dogs, sullen knots of teenagers doing something incomprehensible with bikes or skateboards, pigeons, exasperated tourists and sun bathers lying inert and oblivious to the press of humanity that swarms around them.
Still, fuck all this hangin' in the park shit. I'm off to one of the adjacent cafes to meet with Green Gartside, front-man and main creative force behind Scritti Politti, one of the very few acts that managed to have a considerable and creditable say in the two very different worlds of independent music and chart success back in the 1980s and 1990s. Green is over in Holland promoting Scritti's new LP White Bread, Black Beer.
Eventually a care-worn but very affable Mr G flops down next to me, and after assurances that I won't rabbit on too long (he's been up since 4am and has yet to complete a full day's interviewing and posing for mug shots) I press the record button...
GG: You were going to take photos?
IN: Well my friend couldn't make it.
GG: Okay, good... I had such a time with a photographer from the Grauniad (you now what I mean – ed), they were doing a feature, and so I cleaned our house up, thinking they'd want to photograph everything in the studio or something. And this photographer guy came; he was fresh back from Iraq I think and he was clearly out of his mind from the experience, he kept yelling, "okay, where's the story, where's the story?" And he didn't want to photograph in the house; no he wanted to photograph in the one place that was a tip, the back garden, with me lying on the floor amongst all this rubbish. And he literally stood astride me whilst I was on my back and photographed me... That was something else.
IN: So Green, let's talk about the new album; after you released Early, White Bread Black Beer seems to be a re-affirmation of what you have been doing since 1982, a clear statement of what you believe is good pop music. Is that fair comment?
GG: Erm, yeah... It was much more of a DIY thing, so in that respect it's got a lot more in common with Early. I did three albums in America and they were completely different, they involved a lot of players and there was a lot of striving for various somewhat intangible things within the music itself... They were somewhat concerned in part with "tickling the public's ear" you know, whereas this is simpler - or a bit more personal. Maybe it's got something to do with going back to Rough Trade.
IN: There are chord progressions on White Bread... that are very reminiscent of Brian Wilson's work.
GG: I think a lot of influences that came out on White Bread... were the bands that I was listening to before punk came out; stuff that maybe didn't come out of my head for a long time afterwards.
Around the time Anomie and Bonhomie came out I was concentrating more on beats because hip hop was still my great passion. So I would lock myself away and make hours and hour's worth of beats. I kept away from all sorts of pop stuff. And eventually Geoff (Travis, head of Rough Trade) said "well, why don't you make an album with you singing?" And you know there came a time where I wanted to hear something different... I can get very involved with one kind of music at a time, so I can easily lock myself away and listen to nine months of just reggae or six months of Beefheart... but I got out of all the hip hop stuff and went back to what I first listened to when I was a kid growing up in South Wales, white bread pop, the stuff you got on Radio 1. And I'd listen to that till John Peel at 11 o clock.
IN: And listening to Peel, you'd wonder, what the hell is that he's just played...
GG: I mean, God... a complete education without you knowing it. Though he never really played any black music. Later he'd play reggae, but he never played black music. I only picked up on it when I went to London and started squatting and punk introduced me to reggae... which introduced me to hip hop and rn'b. And finding pout about that music eventually led me to America to make my last few records.
IN: I've read interviews in which you defended pop music against the "hippie-fied" independent labels...
GG: I was really rude about Rough Trade. I became really angry about the indie movement, the way it became an inward looking institution, it became a style unto itself, with its own silly rules; a lot of which still persists to this day. Plus I was bored with it.
IN: Is that why you got into hip hop? We could throw the charge back at you in that you became obscure on your own terms...
GG: I just wanted to get away. I honestly thought at the time that the move towards pop music was a radical gesture, and I wasn't alone in that. You talk to Phil Oakey, Heaven 17, people like that who were around at the time, they all thought similar. As soon as punks became the new hippies that was it... And then, hip hop at that time was very hard challenging and exciting and I wanted to see what it was all about and what I could do with it.
Also you thought at the same time, let's go off and play at being pop stars. I had the same management at the time as Human League, Heaven 17 and ABC and we all thought we were on some kind of mission. We all thought we were being subversive. We could go to Warner Brothers and get fucking tons of money and baffle them. You'd sit there and talk politics and philosophy and all that, and they'd sit there and go "you guys are fantastic" and give us money. And then we'd go off and make all these expensive records and videos and think we were being subversive and clever. Which was rubbish because once you are on that treadmill... we went and played America and played Dick Clark's show which was the biggest show at the time. And I thought, this isn't funny; we're not playing them, they were playing you. It was awful.
IN: You've always had a love hate relationship with music as a medium, and there's a flippant side to you that comes over in your records. You've said things like "the politics is in the beat", or "the politics is in the structures of the song". Are you playing musical games with yourself?
GG: Some of the time, and there's nothing wrong with that. People have asked me about the new album and asked me what's going on with the lyrics. For me virtually every line on this album has a reference on it, and I'm afraid you'd have to be me to get it really. But that's fine in itself as when I grew up I never understood what the best pop music was anyway. I'd no I idea what Beefheart was singing about at the time. And I thought that was good in that it made you think. Lyrically there are quite a lot of references to hip hop in White Bread... On Boom Boom Bap I end the song singing each track title off the first Run DMC album, and not many people would pick up on that. It keeps me amused certainly and there's nothing wrong with that Richard.
IN: No, no, certainly not! It's interesting that, like many artists you are trying to create your own language however difficult it is. And the end art isn't between you and the record but with the listener and the record. And their misconception of what you do is always more interesting...
GG: I see it completely as a creative continuum between the artist and the listener and the meaning doesn't reside with the CD. And that's good.
IN: Another thing I'd like to pick up on which I always found strange was your love of Henry Cow. After all, there you are in Leeds with Gang of Four... and yet, to quote Julian Cope, you liked a "lame bunch like Henry Cow". What was all that about?
GG: Henry Cow was one of the last things I liked before punk. I remember having a row with them about punk. When I first went to Leeds I put gigs on for them. I liked them because they were difficult to listen to, lots of time changes, noise... and I liked the fuck off stance they had. And part of me still likes all that stuff. I haven't given vent to all that stuff yet. Though in saying that... I've experimented with that stuff before. At the end of the first Scritti's gigs we'd do an improvisation on stage, which could go into that territory. But yeah, Henry Cow, they were hard and difficult. But then there was punk which just blew everything else out of the sky. In fact the drummer from Henry Cow (the band used to crash at my house when I put their gigs on), I remember the drummer saying to me, what the fuck is this punk bullshit? When we made our fist single Skank Bloc Bologna, when we put all the addresses of the studios and distributors on the record cover, I got a copy back from the drummer saying "please leave making music to those of us who know what we're doing".. And I thought yeah! Result.
IN: And yet what always amuses me about punk is the thought of Lydon listening to hippy music like Beefheart and Can to the exclusion of all else all through 1977... and bands like Can and Faust were far more punk than most punks.
GG: Yeah! Absolutely! I always thought that Syd Barrett should have happened after punk, he'd have been more comfortable with punk.
IN: You've been in the music business long enough to see a lot of changes. You've accused the independent music business of being elitist, but now, with the music business smashed apart it seems to me to be ever more elitist and fragmentary. Does the state of the music business now affect the music an artist makes in the same way it did when you started?
GG: Of course it does, but it has a number of interesting effects. One of which is it is very difficult to gauge the musical spirit of an age any more. There is no spirit of an age anymore. And I am surprised that we are not further down the road of pop music ceasing to be a profession. The pop musician is a fairly recent phenomenon. I think that due to the huge pluralism of things in the music industry, I can't really see the function of the pop musician being anything like it is in thirty years time; which is good! And all the questions about music's power and worth will be asked again in a new context, which is great, and I like it.
IN: Normally we ask an artist to furnish our readers with an eccentric image, so is there anything you can give is which our readership can then plat into an interesting shape?
GG: Years ago I was going to South London to do some bizarre cable radio show – and this is bizarre - I was going across the Thames on a train, and I remember looking down and thinking that I saw a giant creature coming out of one the buttresses of the bridge and it was so vivid... I might have been going mad at the time. And this image has stayed with me all this time. And I have no idea what it was.
IN: There's a Robert Graves poem about a South Walian monster coming out of the sea, which immediately springs to mind (the poem, incidentally, is Welsh Incident).
GG: God, yeah, about Criccieth, that's the place mentioned in the poem!
IN: That's it. From the sea caves of Criccieth yonder.
GG: I was taught that by my English teacher Mrs Hughes, who is mentioned in... and I remember struggling with that poem. That's erm, very interesting that you should have brought that up.
The interview draws to a natural, rather stupefied silence. I leave Green Gartside slightly freaked out by that mild dose of telepathy and head towards the station in a bit of an ethereal haze; the perfect mental condition for listening to Scritti Pollitti as a matter of fact.
Words: Richard Foster.