We’re very happy we can publish the director’s cut of the interview with Green by Simon Reynolds, published in a shorter version in the Guardian.
by Simon Reynolds
â€œWe went to Marylebone Registry Office, because thatâ€™s where McCartney got married,â€ recalls Green Gartside of his wedding a couple of months ago. â€œWe chose the shortest service, just a couple of sentences, and we didnâ€™t really tell anyone, so we had one witness each. But this pudding of a teenager, with two different speech impediments, officiated, and he read the standard script that goes â€˜thank you all for coming, it means so much to Alice and Green that all their friends and family are hereâ€™. We couldnâ€™t really stop him as he lisped his way through it! But, no, it was a very lovely thing. I think I might even have had a tear in my eye.â€
White Bread, Black Beer – Greenâ€™s fabulous new album and his first release in seven years – is radiant with love and gratitude. The pioneer of the self-deconstructing love song that reveals amorous language to be a delirium of superstitious nonsense, the melodic genius who placed scare quotes inside â€œThe â€˜Sweetest Girlâ€™â€ to indicate his â€œdeeply mistrustfulâ€ feelings about L.O.V.Eâ€¦. has found the One. Turns out she was there all along. â€œWeâ€™ve known each other twenty years, but we havenâ€™t always been together through those twenty years,â€ says Green. â€œButâ€¦ weâ€™re together now.â€
Greenâ€™s life these days may be all conjugal bliss, but White Bread is his most solitary record. Hitherto heâ€™s always had collaborators and creative foils: bandmates Tom Morley and Nial Jinks in the original Scritti Politti, whose fractured postpunk was exhumed for last yearâ€™s Early compilation; David Gamson and Fred Maher with the hit machine Scritti of Cupid & Psyche 85; dancehall ragga stars Shabba Ranks and Sweetie Irie on the brace of 1990 singles that turned out to be Scrittiâ€™s last hits; and a raft of New York rap MCs on 1999â€™s not-quite-a-comeback Anomie & Bonhomie. But White Bread is just Green on his lonesome ownsome, a solo album in effect, even though heâ€™s still trading under the Scritti Politti brand. He played every instrument, sang every note, and produced the whole thing in the downstairs backroom of his house in Hackney. In a weird way, itâ€™s like a return to the do-it-yourself ethos of the early Scritti. Except that â€œthe advent of affordable home-recording technology,â€ Green explains, â€œthe fact that I can get a little 56 channel digital mixing desk in my tiny room,â€ meant that White Bread could sound as slick and phat as Cupid, which cost a fortune and took years to make.
White Bread is different in another respect–itâ€™s the first album Greenâ€™s done where thereâ€™s no concept. By that, I mean a sonic concept (donâ€™t worry, despite matrimony and contentment, Greenâ€™s intellect is intact, and philosophical namedrops, including a reference to Hegelâ€™s Owl of Minerva, still pop up in his songs). Songs To Remember was conceived as â€œan extension and a perversionâ€ of soul and loverâ€™s rock; Cupid was a (hugely successful) attempt to penetrate the American radio mainstream with precision-tooled, state-of-art electrofunk; Anomie & Bonhomie was Green meets hip hop. But White Bread seamlessly weaves together elements of everything Greenâ€™s ever been into and revisits every stage of his nearly five decades-long journey through music. Childhood favess The Beatles are here there and everywhere on the record; T. Rex and the Plastic Ono Band meld on the deliciously stompy anti-Jesus ditty â€œAfter Sixâ€; Greenâ€™s pre-punk passion for folk-rock and traditional English music is often audible in his guitar playing; and naturally thereâ€™s hip hop in the beats and R&B in the productionâ€™s dazzling gloss. â€œItâ€™s far less self-policed in that way,â€ agrees Green, explaining that having a studio in his own house helped because â€œyou can go in and do whatever you want, whenever you want.â€
Thereâ€™s a sense in which thereâ€™s always been a kind of war inside Greenâ€™s music – a conflict between, well, his musicality and his intellectual and political concerns, which were in a sense imposed upon the music. You could hear that struggle at its most ferocious in the DIY-era music – Greenâ€™s innate pop sensibility colliding with his ideologically-driven suspicion of beauty itself as somehow counter-revolutionary, bourgeois in its analgesic and soul-soothing effects. In a 1979 song like â€œBibbly-O-Tek,â€ with its multi-tracked Greens singing different melodies simultaneously and its collapsing rhythms, his compulsion to tamper with conventional structures interfered with but didnâ€™t wholly thwart a pure loveliness of melody and voice.
In those days, Scritti were the postpunk undergroundâ€™s leading theorists of a wilfully fractured style of rock that Green dubbed â€œmessthetics.â€ The group championed the DIY notion that â€œanyone can do it,â€ an egalitarian principle that incited all manner of slender talents to pick up instruments and put out 7â€ singles of barely-music. â€œOn one of the early songs, â€œPAsâ€, I even sang â€˜good tunes are no better than bad tunesâ€™,â€ Green chuckles. â€œA devoted fan told me he had heard the line as â€˜good shoes are no better than bad shoes,â€™ which led to him neglecting to buy any decent footwear for an unfeasibly long time! But itâ€™s true, I was mistrustful of melody as representing something that we were against.â€ But tunefulness â€œalways did sneak in,â€ and now, with White Bread, itâ€™s as though Green has stripped away all the extraneous conceptualization, leaving just the pure gift for melody and harmony–something that really comes from the same place as a figure like Paul McCartney. Musical beauty is the mystery that we–meaning critics and musicians–talk around endlessly. And Green, a member of the Young Communist Party and an art school educated theory-fiend, was better at talking around the subject than almost anyone this side of Brian Eno.
White Bread is different to anything Green has done before in another way: itâ€™s highly personal. Until now, his love songs have had an eerily depthless and depersonalized abstraction; they were about love rather than in love, treating it as a system of metaphysical language, Roland Barthesâ€™ â€œloverâ€™s discourseâ€. Hence â€œThe â€˜Sweetest Girlâ€™â€, with its urge to find â€œthe strongest words in each belief/and find out whatâ€™s behind themâ€, or â€œThe Word Girl,â€ an auto-critique that Green wrote when he realized how many songs heâ€™d written featuring â€œgirlâ€. But the language on White Bread has a new concrete-ness and specificity (plenty of visual images and place names) that suggests his writing now draws directly from real incidents and interactions in Greenâ€™s life. â€œIâ€™ve always disliked confessional songwriting,â€ he says. â€œBut Iâ€™ve allowed myself more space to move around in lyrically this album than I ever have before, including not feeling uncomfortable about making quite specific references to myâ€¦ self.â€
If Greenâ€™s yet to write a song entitled â€œAlysâ€, sheâ€™s in these songs. Take â€œSnow In Sun,â€ a shatteringly pretty tune redolent of â€œTicket To Rideâ€, where the epiphany of seeing snowflakes falling on a sunny winter day makes Green ponder â€œhow brave you are/and how come I have strayed so far/and why everything came apart. â€œThat came from a train journey I took to Wimbledon to see my girlfriendâ€™s–now wifeâ€™s–father, Chris Wilkinson, perform in a play,â€ he explains. It turns out that Green originally met his future bride through his friendship with Heaven 17– as teenagers the group had all been involved in a Sheffield youth theatre group called Meatwhistle run by Wilkinson and his wife.
â€œSnow In Sunâ€ also contains the promise â€œyou will never need to doubt me/thereâ€™ll be something good about me/soon.â€ As much as itâ€™s the rhapsody of someone reborn through true love, White Bread is threaded with leitmotifs of shame and unworthiness, intimations of crisis and stagnation. Itâ€™s well known that Green spent most of the Nineties bunkered in a cottage in the village of Usk in Wales, tinkering with hip hop beats for a few hours a day but devoting most of his energy to drinking in local pubs. But there was a smaller lull in the years after Anomie (which underperformed in the pop marketplace), years similarly (mis)spent wandering the pubs of London. â€œThereâ€™s so many of them,â€ Green notes wryly. â€œJust got to tick them off.â€
From its title down, White Bread, Black Beer is riddled with references to booze and, here and there, powders of various sorts. â€œMrs Hughesâ€ alludes to â€œsmall paper packages washed down with ginâ€ and confesses â€œIâ€™ve been a bad, bad manâ€¦ done some very wicked thingsâ€. â€œDr. Abernathyâ€ acknowledges a weakness for excess: â€œI donâ€™t quite see/the stop light, the turn rightâ€. The first single off the album, â€œThe Boom Boom Bap,â€ contains the line â€œIâ€™ve got bellywash blood in my heartâ€ –an oblique allusion, Green explains, to a genetic disposition towards hard drinking–but itâ€™s mostly about being a junkie for hip hop. One verse consists entirely of the song titles from the first Run DMC album, while the title itself is named after hip hopâ€™s bass-boom and syncopated breakbeats. According to Green, the songâ€™s about the thin line â€œbetween being in love with something and being unhealthily addicted to itâ€. Most direct of all is â€œLast Time I Lookedâ€, a brilliant slice of folk-rock secreted on the B-side of â€œThe Boom Boom Bapâ€, perhaps because of the line where Green sings about how youâ€™ll find him languishing â€œby the tree of cocaine, in a river of beer.â€ Less blatantly, the gorgeously eerie ballad â€œPetrococadollarâ€ seems to be a snapshot of some kind of breakdown: â€œI tried having thoughts/But they donâ€™t obey meâ€.
White Breadâ€™s odd blend of joy and despondency suggest that the album documents both Greenâ€™s (literally) wasted years and his rescue through the love of a good woman. Green, new to the album-as-autobiography game, prefers to describe it more abstractly, characterizing its themes as â€œaddictions and utopias, longings and loss.â€ When I ask if he thinks heâ€™s an addictive personality, he emits a strange stammering gurgle of discomfort, then admits â€œYes, is the short answerâ€, before adding with slightly forced brightness, â€œBut Iâ€™m perfectly well!â€
Greenâ€™s clearly in no hurry to join todayâ€™s soul-baring gossip culture, where stars turn their deeply mundane sagas of dissolution and cleaning-up into elements of the sales campaign for their new product. Then again, some of the references on White Bread are bizarrely autobiographical. Take the song â€œMrs Hughes.â€ Itâ€™s named after an old teacher of Greenâ€™s. â€œI was ready to leave school as part of a political statement about education or something, but she told me to stay and do my A-levels. But she didnâ€™t say â€˜youâ€™ll do brilliantlyâ€™, she said â€˜Iâ€™m sure youâ€™ll do okay.â€™ Which stunned me, the idea that I would do only averagely. I didnâ€™t like the sound of that!â€
Itâ€™s a revealing anecdote. In the early part of his career, Green came across as super-confident in his own pop genius, but it was pretty clearly the brittle sort of self-belief that masks insecurity. The long exile in the Welsh countryside, and the shorter period of inactivity this decade, were partly responses to the blows to his confidence caused by the commercial shortfall of 1988â€™s Provision and 1999â€™s Anomie. â€œWhat will bring you to complete inertia is fear of the prospect that if you make a record, write a book, or do whatever, youâ€™ll get shot down in flames,â€ Green admits. â€œAs long as you do nothing, youâ€™ll get neither praise nor condemnation.â€ He talks of having been able to sustain â€œa kind of limbo existenceâ€ (thanks to â€œhaving earned a few bob in the Eightiesâ€) where he didnâ€™t have â€œto risk how awful disapprobation might be. Generally, other peopleâ€™s opinion of me has been an unhealthily large concern.â€ His struggle to resist this tendency to withdraw from the rough-and-tumble inspired one of the best tunes on the album, â€œRoad To No Regret,â€ which he describes as â€œa stop-running-away kind of song, really.â€ Consulting a sheaf of lyrics heâ€™s had printed out to help him get through live performances (which he recently resumed after a gap of 26 years and still finds nerve-wracking), Green reads the relevant lines: â€œjust another drink, another cigarette/if you never play your cards youâ€™ll never lose the bet.â€
Flicking through the pages, Green also notes recurrent references to â€œabsent fathersâ€¦ the word â€˜daddyâ€™ or â€˜fatherâ€™ appears in about five or six songs.â€ His biological father departed the domestic scene early in Greenâ€™s childhood. â€œThereâ€™s obviously something going on there, but Iâ€™ve no idea what yet! But it wouldnâ€™t, I guess be too difficult a conclusion to leap to that the approbation thing and the absent father is maybeâ€¦ oh, I dunno, itâ€™s too convenient a leap, maybe.â€œ
Green claims â€œIâ€™m not one for regretsâ€ but that seems more like a wishful statement of how heâ€™d like to be. In an interview we did in 2005, he talked about having â€œa terrible memory, because Iâ€™ve trained my memory to be ruthlessly poor. Cos Iâ€™m best served that way. All memories are bad, really. Memories of good things are bad, because theyâ€™ve gone, and memories of bad things are bad because they were bad things. I donâ€™t like remembering anything, and Iâ€™ve become really good at that.â€ The final song on White Bread, â€œRobin Hood,â€ ends the album on a ringing note of be-here-now positivity, something achieved by jettisoning the past and the future, nostalgia and dreams of a brighter tomorrow. In one breath, Green declares â€œall prophecy will failâ€, in the next he vows â€œIâ€™ll never go back.â€ But he says this is not specifically about the slough of self-doubt and drowned sorrow that suspended his career and stalled his talent. â€œItâ€™s that Bob Marley thing, remember? An NME journalist went on the road with Marley. They flew into Miami, checked their bags at the hotel and then went to the soundcheck. And afterwards the journalist said â€˜Are we going back to the hotel now?â€™ and Marley said, â€˜No, weâ€™re going forward to the hotel.â€™ I always liked that.â€
Simon Reynolds is the author of Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-84 (Faber & Faber). More information about the book, in which Scritti Politti is a pivotal and extensively discussed band, at the Rip It Up site, which also features a interview with Green Gartside around the Early anthology. The early Scritti Politti track â€œPAsâ€ appears on Rip It Up compilation out now on V2.