Gig Review: Scritti Politti @ The Roundhouse, 5th February 2016

all photos: John Williams Photography

all photos: John Williams Photography

Stage fright is the elephant in the room for some musicians. For every Jimi Hendrix or Madonna there’s an Andy Partridge or Green Gartside, gifted songwriters for whom live performance never felt like their true calling.

And during the opening moments of this hugely enjoyable – even revelatory – Scritti gig, it all threatened to go a bit Pete Tong before a triumphant turnaround.

Despite his extraordinary, instantly recognisable vocals, Gartside has always been somewhat of a reluctant frontman. He started out almost as the default vocalist in a kind of post-punk collective before an extreme onstage panic attack meant that he didn’t play live at all between 1980 and 2006.

But during that enforced exile, he built up one of the most sophisticated, revered and interesting songbooks in British pop. As with Partridge, the break from live performing brought out the best in him and produced classic albums Songs To Remember, Cupid & Psyche ’85 and Provision.

This relatively rare Scritti gig at the legendary Chalk Farm venue was a celebration of a fascinating career, and Gartside was also committed to explaining (almost) all the whys and wherefores of his craft in often hilariously candid fashion.

Scritti Politti 2

You could forgive a remarkably youthful-looking Green his nerves – The Roundhouse was jam-packed, bathed in subtle lighting and beautifully decked out as an all-seater venue in the round. Just entering the auditorium almost led this writer to give out an audible expletive.

But in a way he should have felt right at home – Scritti’s original late-’70s HQ was just around the corner on Carol Street, and Green also revealed that the Young Communist League and men’s group (‘where we would berate ourselves for being men’!) had also been very near the venue.

But back to the stage fright. Before even a note had been played, Green had major guitar strap issues, finding himself unable to get the damn instrument on as the crowd applauded sympathetically. ‘Oh, sh*t… This is why I didn’t play live for 20 years’, he sighed, looking genuinely troubled.

‘The Sweetest Girl’ finally got things underway, the delicious 1981 single described by Gartside as being his attempt to fuse Kraftwerk and Gregory Isaacs.

He revealed that he had even approached those two to collaborate on the song; when he didn’t hear back from the German techno innovators, he subsequently bumped into their co-founder Florian at a Tito Puente gig (of all things), only to be told by the titular German: ‘I hate reggae’!

Gartside indulged in some spirited rapping during ‘Die Alone’ while ‘The Word Girl’ sounded simply fantastic, causing outbreaks of groovy dancing from the very diverse crowd.

Green revealed that the original vocal may have been influenced by looking out of the studio window and seeing a sheep up to its neck in snow during the song’s recording in 1984.

Scritti Politti 3

A spine-tingling ‘Boom Boom Bap’ was described as an ode to ‘beer and hip-hop’, while the delicious ‘Brushed With Oil, Dusted With Powder’ pushed its claim as the greatest ever Green composition, apparently written on one of Joni Mitchell’s guitars given to him by legendary manager Peter Asher. Green also described how the song was ‘started in an LA hotel and finished in a flat above a dentist in Newport, Gwent’.

The raw, spiky ‘Skank Bloc Bologna’ and ’28/8/78′ (with spoken-word additions from Radio 4’s Harriet Cass) sounded like they could have been recorded yesterday, while the live premiere of ‘Asylums In Jerusalem’ was perfect.

A delicious ‘Oh Patti’ also got its live premiere, and ‘Jacques Derrida’ reiterated how similar Scritti and Prefab Sprout’s soundworlds were in the early ’80s, though Green ended it with a passionate rendition of Jeru The Damaja’s ‘Come Clean’. The closing duo of ‘Wood Beez’ and ‘Absolute’ prompted a further outbreak of dancing in the aisles, perfect slices of digital funk with fine keyboards from Rhodri Marsden.

Minor quibbles: onstage sound issues gave Gartside some serious pitching problems, though typically he was completely candid about this, describing his performance as ‘artfully inept’.

But there was never any doubt about how seriously he took his craft: announcing that the band was about to play a medley of unfinished new songs, a man in the front row let out a giggle, prompting Green to pointedly remark: ‘This is very f***ing serious, sir.’

At times, the band sounded brittle (though they would remain anonymous, there being no onstage introduction from Green), even though roughly 30 percent of the output seemed to be coming from backing tapes. But it really didn’t matter – you couldn’t take your eyes off the stage.

There’s simply no one else like Green Gartside in British music: a 60-year-old man fusing hip-hop, reggae, bubblegum pop, low-fi post-punk and superior synth-funk, and pulling it all together with great aplomb. This superbly shambolic gig very much whets the appetite for an upcoming album on Rough Trade.

Spitting Image: We’re Scared Of Bob

In the ’80s, there was no shortage of pop coverage to inspire conversation in the playground, whether it was Boy George’s first appearance on ‘Top Of The Pops’, Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ video or Matt Bianco being verbally abused live on children’s TV.

Of course it really helped that there were only four terrestrial channels to choose from, breeding a feeling of community and sense of occasion.

But one TV show absolutely guaranteed to get the creative juices flowing and rescue many a depressing Sunday evening was ‘Spitting Image’.

Just a cursory look at a show from its mid-’80s peak leaves one stunned at the craftsmanship and production values on offer, especially as they only had a few days to write, build and shoot each episode.

There were some good musical spoofs too, composed by Philip Pope, fresh from UK comedy classic ‘Not The Nine O’Clock News’ and his parody band The Hee Bee Gee Bees, who even managed a few hits in the early ’80s. 

‘Spitting Image’ also featured some memorable Phil Collins, ZZ Top and Madonna skits, and they even managed to rope Sting in to re-sing this.

But ‘We’re Scared Of Bob’ is full of surprises and surely the best spoof. Its sheer potency is still a shock to the system. You also suspect that Sir Gandalf was watching, so unmissable was the programme in the mid-’80s.

Why isn’t there anything like this around now? Oh, lack of money and talent, probably. A show like ‘Spitting Image’ also highlights the paucity of genuinely interesting musical (and public) figures these days.

Mr Big: Addicted To That Rush

Mr_Big_Self-TitledIn the world of late-1980s US rock, guitar virtuosity was the order of the day.

Eddie Van Halen’s massive popularity had ushered in a huge raft of poodle-haired, fleet-fingered plank-spankers such as Zakk Wylde, Marty Friedman and George Lynch (all of whose playing I’m still yet to actually hear…)

Though I was very definitely a Van Halen man, and also had a real penchant for Steve Vai and Yngwie Malmsteen, I was always much more into people like Scott Henderson, Jeff Beck and John Scofield than the thousand-notes-per-second boys, brilliant musicians though they undoubtedly were.

But then my friend James Broad played me ‘Addicted To That Rush’ by Mr Big. It had the unmistakable whiff of early Van Halen about it, not least with its double-time groove, similar to ‘Hot For Teacher’ and ‘Satch Boogie’.

Guitarist Paul Gilbert was clearly a veritable fire-breather with an incredible facility for high-speed, heavily-chromatic solos, but also had quite an original tone and refreshing sense of humour.

But basically ‘Addicted’ was a flagrant display of muso shock and awe, not just from Gilbert but also ex-Dave Lee Roth bassist Billy Sheehan (how many other HM tracks have had the balls to start with a bass solo?) and drummer Pat Torpey (check out his intricate hi-hat work in the opening section).

The rest of side one from their 1989 debut album was also great. Side two was not so hot though, and I really hated their pop breakthrough (‘To Be With You’).

But there’ll always be ‘Addicted To That Rush’. We’re rollin’…

Tom Hibbert: ’80s Agent Provocateur

Maggie and Tom, 1987

Maggie and Tom, 1987

The PR boom that had swept the music business in the 1970s really hit its stride in the 1980s.

MTV launched on August 1st 1981 and ensured that artists’ images were just as important as the musical package. In fact, a good image and strong video could sell an artist all over the world without any need to play live.

At the same time, the tabloid press had cottoned on to the power of music biz celebrity; columns like Bizarre and The 3am Girls, both of which featured in The Sun newspaper, were huge successes and reiterated that the public’s appetite for showbiz stories knew no bounds. PR and tabloid journalism were in their heyday, and they could make or break a career.

So thank goodness there was a writer like Tom Hibbert around. He cut through the PR schtick and exposed the chancers, pretenders and prima donnas of the ’80s for what they were, and in the process wrote some of the most pithy and hilarious music articles of all time.

With his shoulder-length hair, ever-present fag/pint, disarmingly faux-naif style and penchant for obscure psych bands, he was always going to be more comfortable in the late-’60s than the preening mid-’80s (apparently he only really rated Iggy Pop, Jerry Garcia, Syd Barrett and Ray Davies from the ‘pop’ world).

Q Magazine, Issue One, October 1986

The first issue of Q, October 1986

Later, with his work on Smash Hits and particularly Q Magazine, he invented a whole new, much-imitated lexicon of music journalism. He would begin pieces with expressions like: ‘Phew, rock’n’roll, eh, readers?’

David Bowie was rechristened as The Dame, Cliff as Sir Clifford Of Richard, Paul McCartney as Fab Macca Wacky Thumbs Aloft and Freddie Mercury as Lord Frederick Lucan Of Mercury.

The gentle p*ss-taking was quite a change from the reverential Melody Maker/Sounds era. When commissioned to write a biography of Billy Joel, Hibbert apparently wrote most of it about Joel’s almost totally unknown psych band, The Hassles, and dismissed the rest of his career in the final chapter!*

Tom hit his stride writing the notorious ‘Who The Hell Do They Think They Are’ articles in Q which generally exposed and belittled the more gullible, self-important celebs of the ’80s, usually from the world of music. He was given a right bollocking by Jerry Lee Lewis after one too many questions about The Killer’s rivalry with Elvis:

‘Don’t nit-pick me, boy! You mention Elvis to me again, you keep digging me about that and I’m gonna kill you, so help me God!’

Ringo_Starr_(2007)

He pulled off a similar trick with Ringo, ignoring instructions from the PR and asking repeated questions about The Beatles. Mr Starkey could contain himself no longer, bawling:

‘You’re talking sh*t!’

Tom also elicited some seriously weird recollections from Chuck Berry and Yoko, and managed to nail topless-model-turned-pop-star Samantha Fox, Bananarama, Bros and Gary Glitter with his disarming, give-’em-enough-rope-to-hang-themselves style.

He flew to Brazil and tracked down notorious train robber/friend of the Sex Pistols Ronnie Biggs, and – perhaps predictably – got along quite well with him.

At the height of Q’s popularity in 1987, Tom was given the dream gig: an audience with Thatcher. She obviously thought this would be a golden chance to woo the nation’s ‘youth’ but came nicely unstuck when she gleefully revealed that her favourite singer was Cliff and favourite song ‘(How Much Is) That Doggie In The Window’. You can read the interview here.

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Tom also interviewed actor Rupert Everett in 1987, at a time when the thespian was trying to reposition himself as a credible pop singer. Hibbert’s preamble to the interview ran thus:

He wears the soiled leather jacket and the shades (on this drab and rainy day) of the rock star, but his attempt at the street-damaged look is foiled somewhat by the poise and delivery of the effete and English ac-tor. Close your eyes as he talks and you might imagine him to be dressed in a velveteen smoking jacket, and that it were a delicate ebony cigarette holder he was chewing on rather than a lettuce and tomato sandwich…

Later interviews with Status Quo, Boy George, Roger Waters, Television and Jonathan Richman make me chuckle to this day, and some of them are in this collection.

Son of esteemed historian Christopher Hibbert, Tom was born and brought up in Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire. His early career involved writing for home-improvement periodicals and playing guitar in a few unheralded bands.

Sadly, Tom died in September 2011 at the age of just 59, his rather unhealthy lifestyle finally catching up with him. But as John Lydon told Tom during a Q interview in 1995, ‘You’re rather squalid, but I enjoy that. Ha-ha-ha-ha!’

*I need to verify that…