"An arbitrary succession of more or less irritating sounds"

Monday, 18 February 2008

Value of defiance

Hard to capture now the almost shocking impact of the NME's C81 compilation tape back there in 1981 (well, on one deeply reverential teenage NME reader, at least, & quite possibly a few more...). Simon Reynolds has called it "post-punk's swan song", apparently, but that doesn't quite get the shift to a more diverse &, crucially, poppier aesthetic that this little £1.50 (& two coupons) tape encapsulated.

Which would, in turn & in time, lead to the whole mutant disco/punk-funk genre - particularly once house & Ecstasy had allowed a critical mass of earnest British white boys to loosen up & even deign to get on to the occasional dancefloor. New Order's career is a neat summary of this arc, as many people have pointed out.

Anyway, the C81's best track - & one that exemplifies the shift to a new pop sensibility at the start of the 1980s - is its first, Scritti Politti's The "Sweetest Girl".

Readers born into the digital era's luxury will have no conception of how insanely difficult it was then to hear non-chart music, even with two hours of John Peel a night. Often you had to guess what it might sound like on the basis of NME reviews. But by reputation Scritti were deeply unlistenable - tunes not really being the point for crusty Marxist squat-punks (though in fact Green had his falsetto going even back at the time of Skank Bloc Bologna's one-riff guitars & thrashed cymbal...).

So dishing up one of the most perfect pop songs of all time was fairly unexpected. For a raincoated gloomster, it made moods other than anguished Joy Division-ish melancholia possible for music & opened the door to other C81 delights, such as D.A.F, Josef K & even James Blood Ulmer & Linx.

Girl's effortlessness & lightness owe a lot to its delicate little drum machine track, dubby echoes & piano vamp (by Robert Wyatt, allegedly). Note how it smuggles in semiotics & self-referential meta-criticism ("The sickest group in all the world - how could they do this to me?") under the cover of its gorgeous vocal.

AMG call it "peerless block of lovers rock-inspired synth pop". Certainly, nothing in Green's long & - after a bit of a mad hiatus - ongoing career was ever as good.

You can get it on the Early compilation or on Songs to Remember.

C81s aren't easily come by, but try eBay.

Bonus track: the harder but also pretty sublime Lions After Slumber.

Check out the Scritti obsessives site bibbly-o-tek.

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