Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Music of Scritti Politti

My favorite album of all time is Scritti Politti’s Cupid & Psyche 85, and my favorite band of all time is Scritti Politti. Because of that, I’ve wanted to write about Scritti Politti’s music (and the man behind the band, Green Gartside) for a very long time now, but for some reason, I found that I could never quite bring myself to do so. It’s like my love for Scritti Politti’s music runs so deep that my mind was unwilling or unable to process that admiration in writing, or to make my affection for their music a more public declaration. So rather than writing the kind of detailed post that I usually write, I figured I’ll try instead to write about finding myself unable to write about Scritti Politti, which will really end up being a meditation on how I came to love the kind of music that I do, along with a few of the reasons why I love it.

I first heard Scritti Politti’s Cupid & Psyche 85 thirty years ago now in 1986, at the age of thirteen, when I was on vacation with my family at a hotel in Florida, on a beach somewhere near St. Petersburg. Also staying at our hotel were two long-haired sisters, about three or four years older than I was, who kept Cupid & Psyche 85 and one other album on constant rotation while sunning themselves beside the hotel swimming pool. (The other album was Robbie Nevil’s 1986 self-titled debut, another record that I still love today.)

From that very first listen — I think the first track I heard on Cupid & Psyche 85 was either “Perfect Way” or “Hypnotize” — I was totally mesmerized by the songs, by their deft beats, sophisticated lyrics, and a sonic sweetness that lingered somewhere between musical generations. I’d been raised on late ’70s and early ’80s pop radio in Cincinnati, Ohio, but the songs I heard those two sisters playing poolside on their boombox changed everything for me. The world in that sunlit Florida air tilted and shimmered a bit, then shifted gradually back into focus.

This happened at a very particular moment in the history of popular music. The playful sounds of synthesizers had recently begun to liberate the idea of who could make music professionally and how. The same young people who’d discovered that loophole then mastered what exactly they could do with those sounds and ventured to see just how far they could carry them. Also, the technological innovation of digitizing music and distributing it widely on compact discs had started to completely revolutionize the music industry and change its game rules for good.

It helped that Green Gartside, the founding force (and voice) of Scritti Politti, was quietly taking stock of all this from across the Atlantic. Sure, the ’80s pop music scene in central London was already off and running, but Green was in love with the innovations of American R&B, a love that explains the reggae-influenced slinkiness of “The Word Girl,” the laidback propulsion of “Absolute,” and the blazing danceclub-on-fire velocity of “Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin).” By the time he arrived at 1988’s equally fantastic album Provision, both Miles Davis and Roger Troutman would also be in the mix on a pair of unforgettable collaborations.

I don’t want to dwell on Green’s go-rounds with the major-label music business or his ensuing semi-reclusiveness, because he’s stayed around, as smart as ever, and made five albums the way that he wanted to make them. (I have a good feeling that a sixth album might be on the way soon, too.) I do want to dwell for just a moment, however, on one of my favorite live concert memories ever, when I got to see Scritti Politti perform here in Boston ten years ago, in November of 2006. I never thought that would happen, especially not after two decades of loving a band who’d remained so low profile. But when a shy Welsh white guy can have a dance floor full of black women over 50 getting down to the bass beats of “Wood Beez,” you know that he’s doing something right.