Forget Where Are They Now--Where Were They Then?

The early years of Scritti Politti's chameleonic career

Even if you're wary of absolute statements, here's one that's pretty hard to deny: Ladbroke Grove, England's Scritti Politti underwent the single weirdest evolution of any band ever. Unless, that is, you can think of another group that started out as squat-living, nerve-scratching clang merchants with lyrics evoking grad-studies textbook postmodernism, proceeded to mutate through a lovers-rock reggae phase, and ended up being the most convincing British pop-soul band of the '80s. Scritti's central figure, vocalist and guitarist Green Gartside, initially came off like Jacques Derrida leading the Monochrome Set, only to turn into a geeky white Smokey Robinson via his Jamaican doppelgänger, Dennis Brown (both crossed with Derrida, naturally). It's as if the Gang of Four had turned into Wham! Not even David Bowie reinvented himself with anything close to that kind of extremity.

But unlike Bowie, Gartside didn't herky-jerk from one style to another. As demonstrated by one hearing of Early, which puts back into print Scritti's first singles for the seminal post-punk label Rough Trade, the band's evolution was even more startling for how natural it was. For one thing, Gartside's sense of pop's pleasure principle is never too far out of earshot, even when he manfully struggles and occasionally succeeds at making actual pop-song lyrics from the likes of "The issue won't go away/Because out in the world/The...market forces play/No wishing, no arty, no grab-it-and-run/Will rid us of this disease" ("Scritlocks Door"). For another, Jamaican skank was part of the Scritti equation from their 1978 debut, "Skank Bloc Bologna," forward, and by 1981's breakthrough, "The 'Sweetest Girl'," Gartside would turn it into the kind of weapon of marketplace seduction that he'd spent his first sides disdaining.

"Skank Bloc" itself remains a startlingly hypnotic record, the sound of twitching insolence finding its groove, with Gartside's tentative two-chord downstrum locking in with Tom Morley's equally skittering offbeats and Nial Jinks's bass line, which sounds like it was filched from a Dub in a Day learn-it-yourself cassette. It's the kind of record that made the post-punk faithful think that they too could start a band--and the kind of record that cuts through dozens of failed attempts at regaining its magic, including several of Scritti's own. Still, even if the first half of Early isn't exactly great, it's arrestingly gawky, like an all-limbs adolescent six months away from settling into his body. By the languid "'Sweetest Girl'," an explicit tribute to soft, soulful lovers-rock reggae that couches a tough-minded lyric ("She left because she understood the value of defiance"), Gartside's sugared the pill so effectively that the title's quotation marks feel even more ironic than he intends them to be.

Since it would be too tidy to end there, Early closes with "Lions After Slumber," the weirdest list song in rock ("My reflection, my eyelids/My fragility, my discretion/My hair, my austerity...My terror and my judgement--Oh! My disguise"). Like "'Girl'," it's here in its original version--spikier than the one that eventually ended up on 1982's Songs to Remember. The earlier stabs seem to thumb their nose at both Scritti's jagged beginnings and at the blissful surfaces Gartside would spend the rest of the band's career pursuing. You can take the pop star out of grad school, but you can't take the grad student out of the pop star.

 
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