It’s hard to be ungrateful when it comes to seeing Scritti Politti playlive. After singer-songwriter Green Gartside retired from the stagecompletely in 1980, retreating from the world to write the sublime whitereggae album Songs to Remember (and remember, kids, they were always muchbetter at it than The Clash or, dare I say, UB40), in onesense we should just be pleased that he’s anywhere near a stage, living andbreathing in our direction.
Except I can’t help thinking that the few hundred fans, of which I am one, that failed to fill the Shepherd’s BushEmpire, really weren’t, and that’s troubling. Perhaps we expect too much of our heroes. Or maybe we just expect to hearthe songs that we fell in love with, rather than the ones Green wants toplay with his assembled band of enthusiastic amateurs who happen to be hisneighbours in Hackney and share his taste in music. Whatever, the artist-fanstand-off seemed to grow with every call of “Jacques Derrida!” from the backthat met with a hip-hop cover (however accomplished) or some new materialfrom the “lo-fi” album White Bread, Black Beer.
Begrudging Green the right to play a majority of his (admittedly prettygood) new album, that he clearly sees as the strongest expression of wherehe is at right now, along with some hip hop stuff he really likes, may seemunfair. The result, however, is an up-and-down, patchy set that veers wildlyfrom the gentle The Boom Boom Bap (from White Bread…), to the oddityof playing a song such as “Hands Up” (by Brooklyn hip hop artist andGartside collaborator Mad Skills), with its refrain “put yamuthafuckin’ hands up”. Green might be enjoying himself (although it’s notclear that he is), but is anyone else?
It’s not as if the songs from Cupid and Psyche can’t cut it, either. Whenthey play Wood Beez it sounds as fresh as a daisy and it is a joy to see itbrought to life for the first time twenty years after its release.Occasional forays into the interesting but disappointing album Anomie andBonhomie, where his love of “beats” triumphed too often over his love of agood tune, don’t quite cut it in the way a rendition of Perfect Way orHypnotize might, but they’re a stronger live proposition all the same.However, he makes us all feel slightly bad about wanting him to play thisstuff by prefacing them with “this is a very old song” in a mixture ofembarrassment, apology and perhaps resentment at having to pander to thecrowd.
It is true that songwriters – Dylan, Bowie,Springsteen – can and will challenge their audience and perhaps, inan artistic sense, it is their duty to do so. I can’t quite make up my mindif I like the idea though since, selfishly and perhaps nostalgically,I want Green to fulfil a teenage fantasy and play the songs that meant somuch to me twenty years ago.
At the moment we don’t seem to have the Scritti Politti we want or need,but it’s probably the only one we’re going to get for now. The strange thingis that, with Gartside now 51, it is almost like seeing a baby take itsfirst steps – or possibly a crash victim learning to walk again – which youhave to encourage and support, lest the impulse to do so leaves him. Greenhas himself said that this is a first phase, as he gets comfortable withbeing Scritti Politti again. Teasing a performance out of a stage-frightenedGreen is a project all fans need to rally to, to keep this show on the roadand make it a lot better.