Agony Shorthand

Tuesday, June 17, 2003
THE STRAIGHT DOPE ON SCRITTI POLITTI…..I was recently exposed to the compleat early works of England’s late 70s/early 80s DIY critics' fave SCRITTI POLITTI. Oh, you mean that horrible mid-80s “new wave/disco” group? Yes, the very same. As it turns out – and I did actually know this already, but am pretending it’s a new discovery – the band started life as arty, highbrow intellectual class warriors with a feisty independent and DIY ethos before drifting into a “moderne rock of the 80s” mode (cash to be made and all that, however miniscule). Taken as a whole, their pre-1983 work is a mixed bag, but man, there are some really fantastic standout moments in their track record that I’ll rank up with the giants of shambling, post-punk independent rock music. And the thing is that these are definitely not grabbers, if you know what I’m saying. Even their best songs – “Is and Ought The Western World”, for instance, or that same EP’s A-side “Skank Bloc Bologna”, had to be spun repeatedly before their brilliance and sardonic charm sank in (I’ve known “Skank” for probably 18 years now due to its inclusion on the classic Rough Trade anthology “Wanna Buy a Bridge?”, but only after repeated recent listening did I remember enough to have the riff stuck in my head).

What’s generated any recent interest at all in Scritti Politti – aside from the fact that elements of the band are still performing under that name – is this relatively recent article on them in Perfect Sound Forever, and more importantly, the inclusion of two early tracks (“Is and Ought…” and “Messthetics”) in Chuck Warner’s Hyped2Death label series dubbed, that’s right, Messthetics. Their earliest records – the aforementioned 1978 debut, the two John Peel sessions EPs and best of all, the loose and experimental “Four A Sides” EP – are quirkily exotic and complex, like fellow travelers The Homosexuals or Beyond The Implode. There's also a real feel that this is a band who understands the vagueries of creating difficult rock music that transgresses the era and will stand the test of time, a la the SWELL MAPS, who were met with only slightly less critical and more popular acclaim than Scritti Politti in their earliest years. I’ll even put in for their 1981 pure pop single “The Sweetest Girl”, which I remember had the NME and Melody Maker critics raving, and which has some very Roxy Music-like shifts in tone and even some cool hypnotic dub elements, but after that it was clean synths, black female backing vocalists, and several UK chart hits. Actually, I take it back – after an awful 1982 white boy soul 45 called “Faithless”, they bounced back briefly with a loping and clever Jamaican-influnced pop record called “Asylums In Jerusalem” (that I only this week remembered that I had owned in high school in 1982!) before heading the way of their new brethren Spandau Ballet and the Human League and what have you. That early stuff is worth exploring if you can seek it out, and if you're still interested, check out this "labour" of love from a dedicated fan, who has transcribed and archived every article he/she could find on the band.