Trying to get back that feeling that I had in 1982
Someone mentioned the Barmy Army record the other day, and hardly needs an excuse to mention the Adrian Sherwood record guaranteed to stir anyone of a claret and blue hue. The 'Billy Bonds' track on there is definitely a desert island disc for this boy. Perhaps it's not the greatest piece of music, but it evokes such a sense of time and place. And Billy himself seems such a strange figure now. Like my other childhood hero, Trevor Brooking, here was a man who spent over 20 years as a player at one club. Today that seems absurd at a top level within football, outside of the very few big clubs I guess.
Now everyone feels they must move on to further their career. So, a player turns his back on the club that has nurtured his talent and provided the sahop window for them to parade in. In most cases the club finds it hard to resist the urge to cash in, so the player moves and struggles to find their feet at a big club. Suddenly, instead of being the star turn each week, they sit on a bench three weeks out of four, in the hope of playing the occasional international and European fixture. What price loyalty? What price reality? Will some young Matt Le Tissier buck the trend and make a stand? Being claret and blue through and through, I'm praying for Michael Carrick and Joe Cole.
I used to pray for adventurous young groups on small record labels. I used to hope desperately they would resist the allure of major label lucre and stick to taking chances and acting edgy. Inevitably, a young group would feel they needed to move on to further their career. So, the young group would turn their back on the label that nurtured its talents and provided the platform to parade upon. In most cases, the small label would find it hard to resist cashing in, so the group moved on and struggled to keep their identity in the impersonal major label environment. Suddenly, instead of being able to be natural, they yield and are moulded, in the hope of attaining an occasional hit and lucrative tour schedule. What price loyalty? What price reality? In the '80s few bucked the trend and made a stand.
The re-release of Scritti Politti's Songs To Remember brings back the feelings I had in 1982. it is a record I used to hate with a vengeance. Yet I thought, hey, the Cold War's over and I am perhaps a little more broadminded and mellow. So, I gave the man Green another chance, but it still makes my blood boil. It epitomises a state of mind which is so unbearably smug and greedy and reeks of cowardice masquerading as ambition. It is very 1982, and makes me realise I am still on the side of the angels, thank god, crying out with Kevin, Big Jimmy and Al, to burn it down.
Far from being daring digital dancehall, as some suggest, Songs To Remember is ersatz soul, with a veneer of sophistication and learning like cheap, poorly applied make-up. It aspired to be Hall and Oates or Steely Dan, but it's easy now to see it fitting alongside Sting, Phil Collins and George Michael in any casual music collection. So inoffensive, it is positively obscene. It's one of those records, like ABC or Prefab Sprout, that just infuriates.
Did people really think a room full of girlie gospel singers makes a song a soul classic? It's so insulting.
Yet, Songs To Remember could have been so special. Only a couple of years earlier, Scritti Politti were very much seen as wild hearted outsiders, creating a new and strange abstract pop, which seemed to mix reggae, experimentation and Robert Wyatt type out-there vocals which touched upon all sorts of elevated themes. Simon Reynolds wrote a terrific piece for The Wire recently on this phase of the Scritti story. Sadly, those early records on Rough Trade / St Pancras seem unobtainable on CD, but they were mad and magical.
Somewhere they disappeared and then reappeared in 1981 with a track on the legendary C-81 tape from the NME/Rough Trade, which contrary to popular perception was not a collection of purely independent (major players like The Beat, Specials, Buzzcocks and Linx featured) or all new (old tracks by Ian Dury and Subway Sect were on there) music, it's just some great music, full stop. In this context, the new Scritti Politti sounded great. 'The Sweetest Girl' was a lovely, minimalist ballad (though hardly lovers rock as often suggested!) along the lines of what Robert Wyatt was doing for Rough Trade. It suggested great things and hinted at great themes, and fitted in nicely with the idea of a new adventurous middle of the road pop music for an idealised Radio Two. Other like Vic Godard, Aztec Camera, Everything But The Girl, Weekend, The Gist and Pale Fountains were also making pop to rival Radio 2 stalwarts like the Carpenters, Gallagher and Lyle, Astrid Gilberto and Glen Campbell. On the C-81 tape, Subway Sect dedicated Parallel Lines to all who hated Radio One.
Yet, when the new Scritti Politti did emerge they seemed to be jostling for a place on the Radio One playlist. Green unveiled a heavily, processed contemporary funk sound. He seemed to have seen the light on the road to recovery in Wales, and set about distancing himself from the old Scritti. Fair enough, for apart from the great pop vision, they epitomised the scruffy student / squatters / white rasta /new hippy / philosophy quoting type that was so exasperating. The new Scritti though was incredibly arrogant and antagonistic in the manner of many far left types who suddenly discovered 'ambition' in the early '80s.The irony is that the new pop really was the emperors new clothes, and history now tells us the best music was being made by those going in the other direction. Great music was still coming from the underground and unlikely sources, as recent compilations from the Nightingales, Lilliput, ESG, On-U etc have shown. Over in the USA, too, that promised land for the born-again Barthes boys, the most daring disco people like Arthur Russell were looking back here, linking up with Rough Trade. Arthur Baker would find New Order, Grandmaster Flash would borrow lock, stock and locked groove from Liquid Liquid's PiL inspired experiments, and compilations like J Saul Kane's Beat Classics prove the best, early hip hop was being made on a shoestring budget and little more than a few beats and synths like some of the underground 45s labels like Rough Trade made their mark with.
Yet, the likes of Scritti Politti ploughed on with their superslicksterised synthetic soul in the mis-guided belief that this is what pop should be. Songs To Remember came out on Rough Trade, so the blame cannot be laid at the door of major label accountants. But it was the same mentality that was tearing Rough Trade apart, as they struggled to keep up with the demands placed upon them by ungrateful acts. This brings us back to the smaller Premiership clubs as they struggle to keep up with the wage demands placed on them by the likely lads.
Just as, say, any West Ham fan will reel off a list of promising players who have moved on and all but disappeared (Matty Holmes, Danny Williamson, Matthew Rush, Stuart Slater and so on), so the '80s are littered with groups who felt the need to move on but failed to realise their potential, and had uncomfortable experiences, like Orange Juice, Scars, Delta 5, Pale Fountains, and so on. Maybe some like A Certain Ratio and 23 Skidoo are still revered, because of the freedom a smaller label set up allowed. You choose what morals are here.
Lest you accuse me of being a Spartish cottage industry reactionary, I hasten to add I write this while listening to Dexy's Too Rye Ay to purge myself of the clammy feel of 'Faithless' etc. Too Rye Ay still sounds desperate and necessary, and it feels like something strong enough to cope with the anger sparked off by the nauseous Scritti CD. The irony, of course, is it sold so many more copies than Songs To Remember ever did. Which reminds me, does anyone want my seldom played Scritti CD?
© Kevin Pearces 2001