Saturday, December 2, 2017


Have Scritti Politti ever appeared in these pages? I don't believe so and that is a shame. They were, and indeed still are, a fine band, if sometimes unfairly lumped in with other flotsam and jetsam of the 80s, even if their sound is almost the epitome of all the studio tropes of that era, gated drums and stabbed synths. But, look below that exquisite candy coat of production sheen and there is a whole lot more going on. This song wasn't the first or only hit, there having been several more ahead of it, at least on my side of the pond, but it was the biggest in the US, a number 11 in 1985.

So who, or what, were Scritti Politti? Most people would agree that Green Gartside is Scritti Politti, the creator, influence and writer, sole standing presence throughout the history of the band. A lanky and somewhat serious young man, originally from Cardiff, at school, aged 14, he founded a branch of the Young Communist League, enthusiastically embracing Marxism, the ideology and imagery leaking through into his lyrics, even if the practicalities of living such a life later waned. The dawn of the punk era was manna to such thinking, all self-conscious espousal of the trappings of fame and a do-it-yourself ethos extinguishing the earlier expectations within the music scene; of polish, practice and perfection. So, in contrast with the counter-intuitive, even ironic polish of later work,  the first recordings were primitive and sparse, like this, P.A.s, from 1979. Watch the vid to see how every bit of the process was in-house and self-made, from the sleeves to the distribution. Hell, they even wrote a booklet on how. Unfortunately the struggling artist starving in a garret does not fame or fortune make, and the lifestyle prove disruptive to Gartside's health, a collapse on stage necessitating a tactical retreat to South Wales. During this time he gradually morphed his tastes from spiky guitars to the the soul and funk of Star and Motown, suddenly realising that pop didn't have to be pap. And, whilst he cast aside some of his political idealism, certain aspects remained. How many commercial breakthroughs stem from a diligent thesis on the theory, studiously researched and jotted down in student notebooks?

The lightbulb moment came with The Sweetest Girl, a digital remaster of the original demo which features above. Another (and still) devotee of the Marxist cause, one Robert Wyatt, is on piano. The familiar style is already present, chopped keyboard motifs and a slightly dubby rhythm, if here clearly programmed. But it was his voice, a clear and pure higher register croon, embalming the listener, that is the most striking feature. The boy can sing! Although distribution difficulties delayed the eventual release, Songs to Remember, the 1982 LP, was a substantive UK success, but Gartside was again disillusioned.

Again it was black music that was giving new motivations, this time the emergent rap and hip-hop scenes. No small coup was it then when he came to the ears of veteran producer Arif Mardin, who effectively relaunched the band as a slick and subtle dance act. I love the fact that the opening salvo, Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin), was produced by the producer of Aretha Franklin. Cupid and Psyche 85 is one of the consummate releases of the decade. I wholeheartedly love it, a listen of any of the tracks instantly spinning me back to times of mullets and shiny suits rolled up to the elbow. A minor dent in the US charts, as was the next single, The Word Girl, with its more overt reggae influence, it wasn't until Perfect Way broke that America really caught ear of Scritti Politti. Staying sure to this style, if expanding on all the the jazz-funk slants, 1988 brought Provision, another jewel of, now, Gartside's own production, along with now firmly cemented band member, Dave Gamson. Also featured on the record was, of all people, Miles Davis, who had himself separately covered Perfect Way, making for a second time round success. His appearance makes for one of the most exquisite brief appearance of a trumpet in popular music, as below.

So where now for SP/GG? True to pattern came another period of reflection and reconstitution in his homeland, effectively retiring for 7 years, ahead of 1999's Anomie and Bonhomie, hip-hop now dictating the main thrust. If honest, I here found myself losing my hitherto staunch patronage, although 2006's White Bread, Black Beer went some way to draw me back, being also a return to the more politicised statementing of his early career. There was now also a return to touring, after a 25 year hiatus, Gartside now sporting a beard and other trappings of conventionality, as befitting his elder statesman persona. But the voice is unchanged, remarkably, as this brief clip from this year can show.  I have yet to catch him/them but live in hope, the UK summer festival scene awash with the indian summers of seemingly every band ever.

A final aside are the extraordinary dual folkie side-projects that Gartside has embarked upon, appearing in many a Joe Boyd curated tribute show to the likes of Nick Drake and Sandy Denny. With little apparent influences showing previously, even Boyd himself was surprised by the knowledge and respect given by Gartside to this material. This is a guise within which I have witnessed him play, a shy quiet giant in a green corduroy suit and silver whiskers. Wonderful stuff to finish with. (This clip is 5 years earlier, but it looks the same suit!)

Here also is a wonderful short that gives a bit more of the backstory to this enigmatic man/band.

Find all these recordings and more here......

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Leftovers: Two Words: Empty Pages

purchase [John Barleycorn]

I was on the road when SMM did the Two Words theme back in late July, so I couldn't contribute. There aren't too many people these days who are able to take a few weeks off with no internet connection, but that's what I religiously do once or twice a year, often in July and August. Yes, I've got a smart phone that <can> connect, but when you're roaming in another country, you end up wanting to severely limit your connectivity due to the cost.

Take it from me, there's something cathartic about truly logging off. Forget connecting to the Internet, I don't even answer the phone. Overseas call? ... It just costs too much.

Cost it is, then. Penny-pinching, frugal, thrifty, parsimonious, miserly. Whatever.

This 2-word song <Empty Pages> didn't come to mind back in July - it is a leftover from Thanksgiving: John Barleycorn being one of my first thoughts about the Thanksgiving harvest. The album falls in the prime of Winwood's years. Yeah, Steve Winwood still does a very credible vocal and decent tickle of the 88 keys, but there hasn't been much composition since ... way back then.

Empty Pages, on the other hand, is a classic example of Winwood's sensibilities: the keyboard solo has a light touch and the melody is unforgettable. I think they call it ... classic. The right notes in the right place. Light notes. The song kinda trips along (if not the light fantastic, it's the rock alternative).

Following the  John Barleycorn album, the band headed off their own ways - each to his own. Winwood headed first to the short-lived Blind Faith and for some reason, like a moth, circles back around again and again to Clapton.

Heh! If they showed up again in my neighborhood, I wouldn't miss it - saw them together in Blind Faith in Seattle 1970 and then again in Istanbul in 2013?.  Me? Like a moth to the fame, it's worth every hassle each time. Whether they're alone or together.

Way back in 2010 SMM blogger bwrice (!?)  posted about this song under the Discoveries theme. The music for that link no linger resolves, so - although I repeat a previous SMM post, I am also bringing it up to date so that you can once again actually listen to the song.

And  a promo from the new album:

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Leftovers: Large Numbers—A Million Miles Away

The Plimsouls: A Million Miles Away

I’m kind of surprised that no one has ever written about this song on Star Maker Machine. Although someone did write about a different song with the same title.

This is one of those songs that you had to have heard, many times, if you listened to the kind of radio in the 1980s that I suspect most writers on this site, past and present, listened to. It is simply a great example of power pop, a genre that I love, and which I have written about often. (Strangely, while writing this, I’m listening to King Crimson’s Larks’ Tongue in Aspic, about as far away from power pop as you can get). It often appears on lists of best power pop songs, sometimes in the top position, and on other lists of great 80s songs.

The Plimsouls were essentially a one-hit wonder band led by Peter Case. Case had previously been in another short-lived band, The Nerves, with Jack Lee and Paul Collins, who are best known as the original performers of “Hanging On The Telephone,” before breaking up. Lee, who wrote “Telephone,” is mostly remembered as a songwriter. Collins went on to form The Beat, sometimes known as Paul Collins’ Beat, to distinguish them from the band known in America as the English Beat. And Case, after the Plimsouls, embarked on a solo career, mostly in the Americana area. Despite the generally lack of commercial success for these bands, they are considered to be influential in the new wave/power pop world.

“A Million Miles Away,” for all of its inherent quality, would probably have been ignored if it hadn’t been featured prominently in the iconic 80s movie, Valley Girl, in which the band appeared, playing the song, and another, in a bar.

Luckily, it wasn't.

Leftovers (Down): Down to the Waterline

Dire Straits: Down to the Waterline


Dire Straits burst on the scene in 1979 with a combination of literary lyrics and incendiary playing. Sultans of Swing seemed to introduce Mark Knopfler as the newest guitar god, so some listeners probably overlooked the fact that the song also invoked a powerful sense of place, and sketched memorable characters in just a few lines of lyric. Down to the Waterline was the followup single, and the guitar playing here is still pretty fiery. But the song is also a powerful reminder of Knopfler’s talent with words. This time, the song describes a series of passionate stolen moments with a strong sense of the here and now. But the last verse reveals that these were a series of memories, despite their immediacy. That shift in perspective is a feature that is often found in the short stories of the masters, and Knopfler does it with only as many words as are absolutely needed.

Over the years, Knopfler would show that he had no desire to be a guitar god. He is still widely admired by his fellow players, but the fireworks disappeared starting with the third Dire Straits album, Making Movies. The literary quality of his lyrics, however, was a constant, first with the rest of the Dire Straits albums, and then throughout Knopfler’s later career as a solo artist. Even a song like Money For Nothing, with its lowbrow narrator, is a powerful evocation of character. All of that talent as a writer was on display from the beginning, and Down to the Waterline is a fine example.