I wrote an entire feature on just the music from the year 1985. In that article, I write about the seemingly unending list of great music that just happened to be released that year, as varied as the Smiths’ “How Soon is Now” single to Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs. Those two, plus the Jesus & Mary Chain, the Cure and the Replacements are gimmes for any list from 1985, as stated earlier, one of my favorite years in music, but I was surprised to find that I was the only Treble writer to vote for Scritti Politti’s Cupid & Psyche 85. This album was in constant rotation on my cassette deck that year, though I wouldn’t understand its power and influence until many years later.
If you’re scratching your head as to just who Scritti Politti is, here’s a quick primer for an act that’s had almost more of an interesting life outside of the spotlight as in it. Green Gartside, a stage name for Paul Strohmeyer, was a politically-minded art school student who became inspired by the punk movement, started his own band, and gained the attention of enough people through his own philosophical and politically charged songs to gain a spot on a tour with Joy Division and Gang of Four. Unfortunately, Green, as he was sometimes known by only the one name, had massive stage fright (much like Andy Partridge of XTC or Cat Power), couldn’t perform, and had his first heart attack at the age of 23. After a few years of struggling to make that work, the other band members eventually left, leaving Green on his own to chart his own musical path. He was inspired by the music coming out of New York City at the time, tried to record a failed and unreleased record with Nile Rodgers, then eventually put together a series of singles which became the landmark Cupid & Psyche 85.
This album was a breakthrough at the time, but can also still be played today without any anachronistic dangers. Every song still holds up today as one of the best pop records ever produced. Green, as he is simply credited in the liner notes, has a voice that one critic has stated is “eternally 14 years old.” Green’s childlike feminine voice is a wonder to behold, and coming from a guy who’s 6’6″, it’s even more amazing. Add to that some of the first sampling ever to be used in popular music, and you’ve got a recipe for an innovative record.
The first song on the album, “The Word Girl (Flesh and Blood),” played on Green’s use of language and wordplay, writing a song about how the actual word `girl’ is used in pop music and how it objectifies women, all set to dub reggae keys and bass. Here’s a sample:
A name the girl outgrew
The girl was never real
She stands for your abuse
The girl is no ideal
The song became a big hit in the UK, but it wouldn’t be the only one. “Absolute” wasn’t one that hit the charts as big as some of the others, but is definitely one of the standout tracks, using the methods of sampling and sound manipulation that Green had become fascinated with. “Perfect Way” was the huge hit in the US, and it’s easy to hear why. Various loops and studio wizardry add to a sonically dense and exciting mix, but it is Green’s vocals, way with words and delivery that make this song stunning. Green gives us a salvo from the very beginning with
I took a backseat, a backhander
I took her back to her room
I better get back to the basics for you
The other hit in the UK, and one that I definitely remember hearing on the radio in 1985, though it didn’t chart in the US is the divine “Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin).” The cribbed hip-hop sounds from songs at the time like Newcleus’ “Jam on Revenge” take on whole new meanings in this pop love song. Again, Green gives us some witty lyrics such as “There’s nothing I wouldn’t do, including doing nothing.” He takes the idea of a `would be’ lover and changes it to `Wood Beez,’ then adds a chorus of praying (like Aretha Franklin) that simply sticks in your cranium.
It was quite a big step away from the political and philosophical songs of his post-punk beginnings, and a smaller step away from the literary and lyrical presentations of his past, but Scritti Politti indelibly left their mark on the world of pop music with Cupid & Psyche 85. Some may say the music sounds dated today, but the production is solid, and Green’s vocals are so smooth you can spread them on a bagel. Every once in a while I’ll break this one out and attempt a horrible falsetto, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t fun to listen to and try.