It’s hard to be ungrateful when it comes to seeing Scritti Politti play live. After singer-songwriter Green Gartside retired from the stage completely in 1980, retreating from the world to write the sublime white reggae album Songs To Remember (and remember, kids, they were always much better at it than The Clash or, dare I say, UB40), in one sense we should just be pleased that he’s anywhere near a stage, living and breathing 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 Bush Empire, really weren’t, and that’s troubling. Perhaps we expect too much of our heroes. Or maybe we just expect to hear the songs that we fell in love with, rather than the ones Green wants to play with his assembled band of enthusiastic amateurs who happen to be his neighbours in Hackney and share his taste in music. Whatever, the artist-fan stand-off seemed to grow with every call of “Jacques Derrida!” from the back that met with a hip-hop cover (however accomplished) or some new material from the “lo-fi” album White Bread, Black Beer.
Begrudging Green the right to play a majority of his (admittedly pretty good) new album, that he clearly sees as the strongest expression of where he is at right now, along with some hip hop stuff he really likes, may seem unfair. The result, however, is an up-and-down, patchy set that veers wildly from the gentle The Boom Boom Bap (from White Bread…), to the oddity of playing a song such as “Hands Up” (by Brooklyn hip hop artist and Gartside collaborator Mad Skills), with its refrain “put ya muthafuckin’ hands up”. Green might be enjoying himself (although it’s not clear that he is), but is anyone else?
It’s not as if the songs from Cupid and Psyche can’t cut it, either. When they play Wood Beez it sounds as fresh as a daisy and it is a joy to see it brought to life for the first time twenty years after its release. Occasional forays into the interesting but disappointing album Anomie and Bonhomie, where his love of “beats” triumphed too often over his love of a good tune, don’t quite cut it in the way a rendition of Perfect Way or Hypnotize might, but they’re a stronger live proposition all the same. However, he makes us all feel slightly bad about wanting him to play this stuff by prefacing them with “this is a very old song” in a mixture of embarrassment, apology and perhaps resentment at having to pander to the crowd.
It is true that songwriters – Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen – can and will challenge their audience and perhaps, in an artistic sense, it is their duty to do so. I can’t quite make up my mind if I like the idea though since, selfishly and perhaps nostalgically, I want Green to fulfil a teenage fantasy and play the songs that meant so much to me 20 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 thing is that, with Gartside now 51, it is almost like seeing a baby take its first steps – or possibly a crash victim learning to walk again – which you have to encourage and support, lest the impulse to do so leaves him. Green has himself said that this is a first phase, as he gets comfortable with being Scritti Politti again. Teasing a performance out of a stage-frightened Green is a project all fans need to rally to, to keep this show on the road and make it a lot better.