"You don't have to be lobotomised in order to make pop music." Green Gartside, as told to Ian Birch, Smash Hits, November 12, 1981
"As people cast round for the right new sound, anything became grist to the pop mill. Jazz, Latin, northern soul, funk, Euro-disco, African, Indian and Chinese musics were all variously used as ethnic spice to enliven the staples of mainstream pop... It all added to the confusion of a restless, rowdy, eclectic and ultimately brilliant year for white pop music. In 1981 there seemed to be only one rule: don't stand still." from Like Punk Never Happened, Dave Rimmer, 1985
This is torture. You do know that. Torture. Choosing just one track to represent a year like 1981. It's not just the freight of my own history that I'm carrying around here (though, heaven knows it's weighing me down. I don't have to scream "this is my youth", do I?). It's the fact that pop music - in the widest meaning of the word - seemed so potent, so charged, so thrilled at its own possibilities - at that point in time.
All those squeaky, crunchy new synth sounds - just listen to that "beow" that kicks off the Human League's Love Action, or the submarine sonar on The Associates' Q Quarters. All those white boys (and girls) embracing black sounds (and you may find yourself chanting "Bohannon, Bohannon, Bohannon"), all those horns (I love a bit of brass on a record).
1981 is the year when rap starts making a dent in the mainstream, the year when Laurie Anderson covers an aria from a French opera and turns it into an eight-minute looped slice of minimalism that targets American militarism and, get this, takes it to number two in the charts, the year when New Order are looking forward and Dexy's are looking back, the year when a 16-year-old Roddy Frame wrote a song so good, so emotionally epic, that he never needed to write another song in his life and he'd still be immortal, the year that the Specials took the nation's temperature in Ghost Town, the year Siouxsie made her best record, the year when even Spandau made a good record, the year I fell for Kim Wilde.
So what to do? All I can do is tell you a love story.
In 1982 I met a girl. She had a shaved head, a sailor's vocabulary and a record player. We would go back to her room to listen to it. Dexy's, Simple Minds, ABC, the stuff that you listened to if you were young and listening in 1982. Now and again, though, she played me this record from the year before. The cover bore the title "The Sweetest Girl". In quotation marks. It also had the group's name and the legend "London Tokyo New York". The design aped - not that I would have known this then - the packaging of Dunhill cigarettes (everyone I knew smoked Embassy Regal). It sounded - there's no other word for it - beautiful. The girl was beautiful. And maybe the two things fused in my head...
In the late seventies Green Gartside was a squat-based theoryhead who quoted Althusser and Wittgenstein, and whose band's name was a homage to - or maybe a corruption of - the title of a book by the Italian Marxist political theorist Antonio Gramsci. Scritti Politti made band decisions via communal debate and produced a kind of scratchy, fractured DIY noise on record until a mixture of anxiety attacks and too many drugs sent Gartside home to Wales to convalesce. He started listening to soul music and reading Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida and a new Scritti Politti emerged as a result, a band who were interrogating and investing the idea of the love song (those quotation marks matter), who realised that to make a difference you had to be noticed and to do that you had to be pop, but also wondered if you could be pop on your own terms.
He was not alone in this. The turn of the eighties saw a number of voices rejecting the hairshirt puritanism of punk, its musical rigidity and giving in to sweetness, justifying the move by the notion of "entryism", the idea that you could smuggle complex ideas into the culture via the seduction of the music. You can hear all of this at work in "The Sweetest Girl". It's as if all that theorising and politicking has just ... liquified.
It starts with the hiss, sigh, echo and whisper of a drum machine, and then keyboards - played by Robert Wyatt, no less - and bass make it blossom as Gartside's high croon kicks in. The result is white boy lover's rock that decays into dub at points as Wyatt's organ notes begin to ripple like water and sound ricochets through the mix. (This may be just my wonky ears but the song it most reminds me of is Kate Bush's Delius (Song of Summer) which also plays with/on synths and keyboards and also made its appearance in 1981.)
What's the song about? That's a mystery. The lyrics are intriguing, enigmatic. It's about love and the cultural construction of the idea of love (I think). It's feminist in intent ("She left because she understood the value of defiance") and, unfortunately, all too prescient ("When the government falls/ I wish I could tell").
Was it pop enough? Not in the end because it only managed to get to number 64 in the charts. Others would steer the "New Pop" idea onto Top of the Pops (as we'll see next week). It would take Scritti Politti a move to a major label and America to become the pop star he now wanted to be. But he'd never make anything as rich and strange as this.
And the girl? She's still here. And she's still beautiful.
Kids in America, Kim Wilde
Spellbound, Siouxsie and The Banshees
Ceremony, New Order
Everything's Gone Green, New Order
Pull Up to the Bumper, Grace Jones
Homosapien, Pete Shelley
Genius of Love, Tom Tom Club
O Superman (For Massenet), Laurie Anderson
Once in a Lifetime, Talking Heads
Tears are Not Enough, ABC
Under Pressure, Queen and David Bowie
Ghost Town, The Specials
The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on The Wheels of Steel, Grandmaster Flash
It's Going to Happen, The Undertones
Julie Ocean, The Undertones
New Lace Sleeves, Elvis Costello and the Attractions
Shack Up, A Certain Ratio
Reward, The Teardrop Explodes
That's Entertainment, The Jam
Love Action (I Believe in Love), The Human League
White Car in Germany, The Associates
Papa's Got a Brand New Pigbag, Pigbag
Mama Used to Say, Junior
Chant Number One, Spandau Ballet
We Could Send Letters, Aztec Camera
Pretty in Pink, The Psychedelic Furs
Plan B, Dexy's Midnight Runners
Don't Make Me Wait, Peech Boys
NME Single of the Year Ghost Town, The Specials
Best selling single 1981 Don't You Want Me, Human League