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4 B Sides: A Look At Scritt Politti's Early

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Dusted's Jon Dale takes a look at Early, a newly released compilation of Scritti Politti singles and sessions.

4 B Sides: A Look At Scritt Politti's Early

”Conventionally a retrospective exhibition is taken as an occasion for the artist to present his [sic] work to date as a reified, ‘logical’ whole, and as an opportunity to demonstrate that he has progressed. That one should be offered such an opportunity at all suggests the achievement of a certain currency in art world chit-chat, usually based upon the journalistic acceptance of ‘early work’ rather than upon the significance of current activities. Consenting artists sit Jack Horner-ish in the corners of society, proudly exhibiting mouldy plums.”

    – “Retrospective Exhibitions and Current Practice: A Recommendation for Optimistic Amnesia,” Art & Language

The negotiations that academia undertakes to try to account for or discuss music are complex, fraught, and often gauche. A comprehensive map of the terrain is outside the bounds of a record review, but one of the central obstacles is the ‘ineffability’ of music, the perpetuation of an ideological presupposition that music is beyond language. Subcultural studies of music privilege fashion and style to the detriment of music itself; musicology responds with dry formalist renderings of each piece of music. Much of cultural studies’ engagement with music is strong on affect but that often misses the material aspects of the piece or genre of music under discussion. It’s no surprise that back in 1978, while he was busy problematizing entire areas of musical creation, commodification and consumption, Green Gartside of Scritti Politti found himself leaning on art criticism to make his points. If, by the late 1970s, art as formal investigation was largely a desiccated and dryly self-referential practice, then perhaps music was under threat from the same ossification. The cluttering of music with art discourse and the power games played by music made Scritti Politti’s project tough. How do you begin to articulate a continually provisional music that manifests a critical engagement with other music, the discourse surrounding music, and the wider socio-political ramifications of certain ways of engaging?

Listening back to Scritti Politti’s first three singles, compiled on Early, you are reminded (or perhaps shocked) that back in the late 1970s and early 1980s these issues were almost commonplace in England’s burgeoning post-punk underground. The complicity of post-punk groups and the music press brought Marxist theory, sociology and cultural studies into the music weeklies. The groups involved, for their own part, manifested their interests plainly (Gang of Four), obliquely (The Raincoats, This Heat), or bang-on direct (Scritti Politti.) The 11 songs from Scritti’s DIY period work as critiques of politics, culture and ideology: further, Scritti Politti’s structures – faltering, scattered, scrabbly – manifest the critiques of their lyrics. Moreover, if their lyrics are observational, then this is based on lived (or, at the very least, read) experience, as opposed to detached observation.

Scritti Politti’s first single, “Skank Bloc Bologna,” saw the group coaxing teasing folk rounds around an earth-bound dub motif, with Gartside’s voice – shifting between colloquial and plummy, leaning on the essential Englishness of the voices of the Canterbury scene, ‘singing it like you talk it’ – edging around the music. The lyric parallels Italy ’77 with England ’78 – as Simon Reynolds has noted, the great strength of Gartside’s lyrics is their balancing of the quotidian with wider political and theoretical issues. The ‘blander’ moments of his lyrics, his mentions of Clearasil, Tesco’s, Persil, home life, and debts, would exist in other music as observational, full of untapped potential. By linking the simple experience of daily indecision with the essentially arbitrary nature of signification and the problems of being spoken by the language one speaks (as happens in “Doubt Beat”), Gartside slips criticism into his songs in a manner that’s almost dogmatically self-reflexive.

That approach is most blatant on their Second Peel Session 45. (The first Peel Session remains commercially unavailable, although you can find it on Soulseek if you search hard enough – it is worth hunting down to hear a primitive version of “Doubt Beat,” and the startling “Humour of Spitalfields.”) This is Scritti music at its most improvised and dilapidated – you can hear the buckles and seams in songs like “OPEC-Immac,” which shifts between documentation an inter-group argument and Gartside’s plaintive ”fourteen nations and they’re all producing oil” lyric, while musicians Niall Jenkins and Tom Morley coax rudimentary, shifting patterns from their instruments, unleashing occasional hot blasts of dirty noise. “Messthetics” – a non-anthem if ever there was one – swings at the education sector, but it most importantly acts as self-acknowledgement – ”messthetics is all that we know, oh, we know what we’re doing, we know how it sounds.”

By the third EP, 1979’s 4 A Sides, Scritti are beginning to resolve the musical tensions of their practice. One could imagine that a song as blue-eyed and edifying as “Confidence” would have been near-unthinkable given the forbidding discourse of Scrit circa 1978. If anything, “Confidence” displays a sense of the appropriate: Gartside’s one song from this era that explicitly addresses gender performance and personal relationships is set in plaintive tones, juxtaposing the world’s ‘monotony’ with the ‘monogamy’ of the held body, Laddish ‘clubs of boyhood’ set against unveiled intimacy (or the disavowal of intimacy) ”inside these bedroom walls.” Each song here short-circuits the ‘ineffability of music’ by manifesting the song as an entirety, with each element ‘coloring in’ the other, songs that are in turn heartbreaking, fractured, circular, or feverish. Too feverish, at times, if Gartside’s eventual collapse after supporting the Gang of Four in mid-1980 is anything to go by.

Scritti re-emerged in 1981 with “The ‘Sweetest’ Girl,” included on Early as a sign of things to come. It’s as though the modern-day Gartside couldn’t bear to think of these early singles as anything other than a slightly embarrassing rites of passage. In his liner notes, he claims that it all “sounds like some anti-produced labour of negativity, kind of structurally unsound and exposed, by design and default… I found it evocative of extraordinary times and a bit winceworthy.” Well, that would imply that there’s no real pleasure to be found in these songs, and that doesn’t square with my response at all, a deep, affective joy at hearing music that engages with and exemplifies its internal contradictions. And while the lover’s pop of “The ‘Sweetest Girl’” is undeniably gorgeous, it sounds a little… out of place? Out of time? - At least in comparison to the rough edges and feverish pleasures of earlier songs like “P.A.s.”

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Early is the nature of the release itself. Disregarding economic functions, compilations generally predicate their existence on either wistfulness for earlier days or the shoring-up of a group’s ‘importance’ in the scheme of things. Compacting extensive histories into one package, compilations only allow for the most superficial re-evaluation of an artist’s oeuvre. Built into their structure is a safety net of chronology and selectivity. But when you’re dealing with a group as fraught as Scritti Politti, who were insistent on engaging in a dynamic body of ideas – and who would have thought the “gallery walls” nature of the compilation absolutely suspect – compilation is anathema, vaguely heretical, even. Then again, if the sole function of Early is to present a set of options – a way one could make music, a (provisional, by necessity) model for engagement, a criticism of the paucity of ideas exploded and risks taken by modern music (damn-near in its totality), then…

”Anyone who can present his own activity as if its production had not entailed transformation of his social/productive function (presumably because it hasn’t) can’t have much to offer… as a basis for continuing dialectic.”

    – “Retrospective Exhibitions and Current Practice: A Recommendation for Optimistic Amnesia,” Art & Language

”In the final minutes I can definitely hear one place, one voice, one life being left and another being entered – blimey!” – Green Gartside

By Jon Dale

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