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Sunday, September 08, 2013

Scritti Politti's Perfect Way

How many of you love a classic one-hit-wonder song? I know I enjoy them. In fact, I enjoy them so much that I'm going to use the remaining blog entries in September to feature a group or a singer that could be loosely defined as a one-hit-wonder artist. Oh, sure, they may have released several singles over a period of ten years, and there may have been a couple of chart-toppers in Paraguay, Bolivia, or Botswana that nobody in North America has ever heard of. But for the sake of argument, let's just say that these one-hit-wonders will be artists who have only had one Top 40 hit on the Billboard Charts.

One-hit-wonders are often funny things. One day, you'll hear a song that propels itself all the way to number one on the charts, and it stays there for what appears to be weeks on end, but then after several years, you come to realize that it was their only hit, and you can't help but wonder whatever happened to them along the way.

Some of them became successful in other careers, while others just faded away. I think that could be one of the reasons why I am a fan of one-hit-wonders. Finding out whatever happened to the artists who sang the song and seeing how well they've done since.

One decade that seemed to have a slew of one-hit-wonders was the decade in which I was born. The 1980s seemed to bring us a lot of one-hit-wonders. Right off the top of my head, I can name off Michael Sembello, Nu Shooz, Information Society, Sly Fox, Baltimora, Kajagoogoo, and Mary Jane Girls as having some of the most memorable one-hit-wonders of that decade.

But for today's entry, I'll be featuring a group that came out of the UK which actually couldn't be considered a one-hit-wonder group in their native land. Several of their singles charted, and charted somewhat decently. In fact, it might even be considered a stretch to call them a one-hit-wonder band here in North America, as they had a Top 10 hit on the Dance Charts with a song that had a rather unusual name. Then again, I suppose you can't miss a song entitled “Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)” on the charts, can you? And that's not even the song we're going to spotlight today!

Instead, we're going to feature the song below...the only song this band had to reach the Top 20 on the Billboard Charts in mid-1985.

ARTIST: Scritti Politti
SONG: Perfect Way
ALBUM: Cupid & Psyche 85
DATE RELEASED: June 10, 1985

And here's a funny bit of trivia in regards to this Scritti Politti hit. Believe it or not, it was one of the few releases they had which did better in the United States than the United Kingdom (it only peaked at #48 there).

So, Scritti Politti wasn't “truly” a one-hit-wonder...but shortly after releasing “Perfect Way” in 1985, the band seemed to do a vanishing act, never to be heard from again here in North America.

Whatever happened to Scritti Politti?

(And, for that matter, what does Scritti Politti even mean?)

For the answers to both, I do believe we should have a look at the band's history, as well as the number of releases they had as a band (which was surprisingly a lot more than I believed). We'll also take a look at what has happened to Scritti Politti since, as well as what they've been up to as of September 2013.

The band “Scritti Politti” was founded in the mid-1970s, and the only consistent member of the band to stay through all of its various incarnations is that of lead singer Paul Julian Strohmeyer. But you might recognize him better by his stage name of Green Gartside.

You might be wondering what inspired the colourful name change. Well, the Gartside part came from his mother remarrying a man who had the last name of Gartside, so naturally, Gartside kind of rolled off the tongue a little bit easier than Strohmeyer. But the Green part was inspired by a train trip that Gartside was on to the country of Wales. Whenever he looked out the windows of the train on the journey, all he could see was the green landscape of the open meadows and fields. And somehow he was inspired to name himself after the colour he saw so much of on his way to Wales.

Of course, naming yourself after a colour is nothing new. It did work for Simply Red, P!nk, and The Blue Man Group.

Anyway. Our story begins sometime circa 1976. At that time, Green Gartside had just entered his twenties and was studying fine art at Leeds College of Art and Design when he caught a performance by the Sex Pistols on the night of December 6, 1976. The performance awakened something in Gartside, and he felt inspired to start up his own band with a couple of his childhood friends.

Teaming up with Nial Jinks, Matthew Kay, and Tom Morley, Gartside began the first incarnation of the band which would come to be known as Scritti Politti. The original name of the band was “The Against”, and originally they started off as a punk band. By 1977, the band had relocated to London's Camden Town after graduation and they also made the name change to Scritti Politti, which in actuality was a misspelling of an Italian phrase meaning “Political Writings”. The actual translation is supposed to be “Scritti Politici”, but Gartside elected to drop the “C” and add another “T” to make the name stand out more as a rock and roll name. The name was also chosen to pay homage to Italian Marxist writer Antonio Gramsci.

And to call Scritti Politti a band who did things by the book when it came to releasing a record, well, you'd be wrong. In London's punk scene circa the late 1970s, the trend of DIY records (or “do it yourself” records) were all the rage. Especially for punk musicians who were tired of getting turned down by big named record companies. So, in 1978, Scritti Politti's first single was released as a DIY record under the title “Skank Bloc Bologna”.

(Okay, seriously...where the heck did Scritti Politti get their song titles from?)

Skank Bloc Bologna” was never really considered a worldwide success. I couldn't even tell you if it even made it into North America because I've never even heard the song. But over in the UK, the song did receive some airplay on John Peel's BBC One Radio show, which actually helped Scritti Politti sign a record deal with Rough Trade Records. The band also secured a gig touring around with the bands Gang of Four and Joy Division (the latter would come to be renamed New Order following the May 18, 1980 suicide of founding member Ian Curtis).

However, it was during this tour in which Greer Gartside realized that he had a problem...a big problem that likely thwarted their success in North America. While he was on stage performing at a gig in 1979, Gartside experienced trouble breathing and had chest pains. He thought that he was having a heart attack, but what really happened was that he had a panic attack brought upon by stage fright. Gartside's stage fright prevented him from touring and promoting the band's records and in hindsight, it was a double edged sword. Because Gartside was extremely nervous on stage, it became increasingly difficult for the band to put themselves out there.

And yet at the same time, while Gartside was in recovery from the incident, he was inspired to change the sound of the band. While he was in recovery, he listened to a lot of music that was coming out of R&B sound in New York City circa the early 1980s, and as it so happened, the decision to incorporate some of those elements into Scritti Politti's new songs turned out to be a good one.

In January of 1981, Scritti Politti recorded a demo of the song “The Sweetest Girl”, and when it was officially released as a single later that year, the song earned rave reviews. Even “The New York Times” ranked the single as one of the ten best singles of the year. Funny thing is that for a song to be ranked as one of the best, it certainly didn't chart very well. It peaked at #64 on the UK charts, and didn't place on the Billboard Charts at all. But I suppose that not everything that is critically acclaimed is considered to be popular. Though, in defense of Scritti Politti, it took almost an entire year for the song to be released globally, in which case, the song never really had much of a chance to make a real imprint on the charts. Here, I'll post a link to the song below...let you have a chance to hear it.

Luckily in the United Kingdom, the band managed to have some success with their debut album, 1982's “Songs to Remember”. The album sold very well in the United Kingdom, and Scritti Politti soon found themselves in high demand in their native land. Greer Gartside even had the opportunity to record a duet with Annie Lennox, which would later appear on the Eurythmics' “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” album.

But in the United States...their claim to fame wouldn't come until the year 1985. The same year that “Perfect Way” was released.

And, you know what? I think if I were to compile a list of my favourite Top 25 songs of the 1980s, “Perfect Way” would easily make the Top 10...maybe even Top 5! From the very beginning of the song to the end, its use of synthesizers combined with a funky beat and Gartside's whimsical vocals made it stand out against all of the other similar sounding bands.

Certainly the music video got a lot of airtime on MTV. The song was played on many Top 40 stations straight through 1985 and 1986. It remains a top requested song on many 1980s themed radio stations, and for a brief moment in the sun, Scritti Politti had notoriety and fame in America.

Unfortunately, in America, fame could sometimes be fleeting for musical artists who aren't American born. And certainly that was the case for Scritti Politti.

But, darn it if they didn't try. If you've ever seen the Madonna movie “Who's That Girl” (which I'm guessing isn't many of you), Scritti Politti contributed the song “Best Thing Ever” on the soundtrack. It's hard to miss, given that Madonna occupies half the album, but give it a listen. It's not a bad little tune.

And, Scritti Politti still had some steam left inside of them circa 1988, when they released the album “Provision”. In the United Kingdom, the album did extremely well, peaking at #4 on the UK album charts. In the United States, it peaked at #113. Ouch. But after downloading a few of the songs from “Provision” onto my iPod, I have to say that the album should have done a lot better. And it's not as if the songs didn't chart in the United States. The one below did...even though it only peaked at #53.

Scritti Politti would continue to release albums well into the 1990s and 2000s, and although the albums themselves were creative and critically well-received, fans weren't as interested in the albums as they once had been, and seemingly, Scritti Politti faded into obscurity.

But as long as Green Gartside is alive, the Scritti Politti name will live on. And when he's not recording music for himself, he's helping other artists by writing songs and dueting with them on their own projects. He co-wrote a couple of songs for Kylie Minogue, produced songs for Chaka Khan, and has even worked with Elvis Costello.

And perhaps the best part about Green Gartside's contributions to music is that he is no longer interested in having a #1 hit, or making albums just because a record company tells him to. He would rather make music at his own leisure because he genuinely enjoys it.

Now isn't that a “Perfect Way” to live?

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