“I think it’s important to recognise that hip-hop has a historical and cultural status that’s undeniable, unavoidable, and as big and as strong as any other genre of music. The Beatnuts are as important an influence on my life as The Beach Boys.” Green Gartside
Back in the late ’80s, I clocked a video for Scritti Politti’s ‘Wood Beez’ and promptly decided that Green Gartside was the man. This wasn’t the UK promo, with some hideously dated expressive dancing from punk rock types (the tribute to Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s black power salutes was fresh though) that was Jarman-lite, but a slightly more acceptable, but still dated US-promo. I can’t recall whether it was to tie-in with a 1988 re-release to give the follow-up LP, ‘Provision’ a push.
The track name seemed clever, and the lyrics, depicted onscreen seemed to have a little more gravitas than any Pete Waterman produced tosh. Importantly, the production seemed so genuinely funky. Not just funky for some blue eyed soul wannabe whiteboy, but genuinely so, with a synthesised sheen that was nicely at odds with Green’s expressive vocal range. I was sold on Scritti. Beyond that song title, I sussed the clever integration of structuralist theories and linguistics within the heart-on-sleeve pop sensibilities a lot later.
To shift from residing in a Camden squat making music to sit alongside the work of post-punkers like Pere Ubu to taking early morning phone calls from Miles Davis fishing for ideas is an incredible evolution. And that’s just their first decade. To have worked with Miles, Robert Wyatt, Roger Troutman and Mos Def is proof of a deeply respected and continually shapeshifting vision that’s reflected in Green’s choice of outfits too.
Circa. ’78/”79 – Green and the original lineup’s recordings like ‘Skank Bock Bologna’ might sound a long way from the pristine sheen of what was to come, but equally, that slightly muffled voice feels a great deal more accomplished than the defiantly British D.I.Y. vocals of the era.
The eventual musical evolution isn’t quite as far fetched as say, Penny Rimbaud taking on Ashford & Simpson as Crass producers.The outfits of the time are your standard politicised student attire, subverting a few elements of formality – hair plays its part, and while it’s dwindling, the cut and paste spirit of punk is evident.
Circa. ’81/’82 – After an ‘Off The Wall’ induced musical epiphany, things just got a whole lot cleaner. The Rough Trade release of the ‘Songs To Remember’ LP includes ‘The Sweetest Girl’ with its Wyatt-assisted skank as well as some folky, melodic inclusions.
The philosophies are still overt too. Panic attacks and big hats plus polo necks lead to suits and ties by way of slicked-out peasant chic to visually capture this professional-sound. Shades of casual looks enter here too, but the jelly sandals are not a good look.
Circa. ’84/’85 – Prior to ‘Cupid & Psyche’ dropping, the ‘Absolute’ video captures Green riding the era’s sportswear craze, with what looks like a Nike Windrunner, matching track pants and high tops. It sounds better than it looks. Hair gets bigger, and contrary to his fear of live performances, the sleeve of the LP captures Green in narcisstic mirror stare alongside his newly recruited NYC-dweling bandmates in what looks like a shirt and chinos combo.
The sound gets smoother and the outfits keep formalising. There’s some big coats employed too. Simon Reynolds caught a little flack for his ‘Cut It Up And Start Again’ preoccupation with Scritti, but on the strength of such a remarkable journey in just over half a decade, I’d wholeheartedly back up his statements.
Circa. ’88 – ‘Provision’ might have performed, but ‘Oh Patti’ and ‘Boom’ are superb.Synthetics blended with utter sincerity gives him an edge over fellow UK export Phil Oakey’s Human League and their work with the mighty Jam & Lewis. The video to ‘Boom’ again, seems at odds with the stage fright, until you watch it again and see how uncomfortable/ Green seems.
Big suit, big shoulders and a hat seems to nod to the smooth soulboy look of the time with a hint of the man’s leftist politics. Or he could just really like big hats. Still, you can’t fuck with Marcus Miller on bass. Green rocking a sweat from the adidas Run DMC collection hints at that mooted hip-hop love and what comes next.
Circa .’91 – Preoccupied with the new generation of ragga sounds, sonically this isn’t Green’s best year. “Grrrreeeen! Step up!” shouts Shabba on a cover version of ‘She’s A Woman’ by The Beatles, managing to slaughter more sacred cows in three and a half minutes than many do in a career. It’s hardly essential and the video isn’t great. Nor is a cover of Gladys Knight’s ‘Take Me In Your Arms’ .
From the same sessions a suited and sunglassed cover of Stevie Wonder’s ‘I Don’t Know Why I Love You’ is better, with Heaven 17 spinoff B.E.F. Given the proliferation of cover versions, it’s a good thing that an album from this time netever appeared, but for praising Teddy Riley as a genius at the time and preempting the UK’s summer of ragga by well over a year, Green’s habit of staying ahead of the curve is clear. Pinrolled trousers, Filas and Stussy caps reflect the UK’s look at street level -in line with the sound there’s more than a little raggamuffin to Gartside’s outfits.
Circa. ’99 – That hip-hop habit goes full-blown for ‘Anomie & Bonhomie’ – rock and rap fusions are often ill-advised, but Green’s softly-softly approach works well, apparently informed by the soundtracks to skate videos he copped on London visits from his retreat in Wales. In his early forties, Gartside sports a ruck sack, chin stud, Spiewak tee and shelltoes. The backpacker look – you’ve all been there. While he doesn’t seem to be hiding from the world using a hat, sunglasses are very much present
‘First Goodbye’ is a fantastic record, and while the LP underachieved commercially, especially considering the lengthy gestation, it’s a solid follow-up to ‘Provision’. In 2000, BBC Wales screened a great documentary about the making of ‘Anomie…’ with contrbutions from no less than Harry Allen and Jacques Derrida, plus Defari of all people. It’s worth watching.
Circa. ’06 – After touring as the distinctly hip-hop sounding ‘Double G and The Traitorous 3’, Scritti Politti’s fifth album ‘White Bread, Black Beer’ sees Green on Rough Trade again. The sound feels like a mix of all thats gone before – Brian Wilson harmonies, Run DMC references, beats, guitars and a touch of folk. 1999’s goatee remains, and Gartside seems more comfortable in his own skin than ever before rocking checks, band tees, untucked shirts and ties.
A suit gets broken out, but there’s less hair, and no sign of a hat. Hypsters might clock the W)Taps ‘Philosophy’ sticker on his guitar during the performance of ‘Snow In Sun’ below. In the hands of many, it’s an empty piece of sloganeering, but on the guitar of a man who was friends with the father of deconstruction, TET’s message makes far more sense.