Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Story Behind Scritti Politti's Mysterious Lover's Rock Hit "The Sweetest Girl"



The convergence of punk and reggae and punk and ska in the late 70's and early 80's resulted in some significant musical experiments in which punks and post-punk bands experimented with the sound of reggae and dub in particular: Most of the key 2-Tone bands played covers of 60's ska songs. The Clash played reggae covers and collaborated with Mikey Dread. The Slits worked with reggae producer Dennis Bovell (who invented Lovers Rock) and The Ruts recorded the reggae song "Jah War" releasing it on UK reggae band Misty In Roots record label.

While the punk adoption of reggae covers soon became a regular musical occurrence, one of the most interesting takes on reggae had to be the Scritti Politti song "The Sweetest Girl," which Rough Trade label head Geoff Travis described at the time as a “game-changer.'”

Starting out as a post-punk band with a left-wing political agenda (the band name means political writing in Italian and is an homage to the Italian Marxist writer and political theorist Antonio Gramsci), they abandoned rock and a number of their band members for reggae, a genre Gartside heard on the London pirate radio station Dread Broadcasting Corporation. In 1981, Gartside wrote a lilting reggae ballad called “The ‘Sweetest Girl’ ” (note the quotes), which he intended to be recorded as a duet by Gregory Isaacs  and Kraftwerk. (“I got a positive response from Gregory,” Gartside later said, “But I went to see Tito Puente with Kraftwerk in New York, and they told me they didn’t like reggae. So I ended up doing it myself.”)

If you've never heard the song, it begins with the hiss and whisper of a drum machine, and then the bubble of lilting reggae keyboards - played by Robert Wyatt  - and bass bring it to life as Gartside's croon kicks in. The result is white boy lover's rock that descends into dub as Wyatt's organ notes begin to ripple and dub echoes ricochet through the mix.



What's the song about? That remains a  mystery. At first it appears to be tribute to a sweet couple before Green goes off on a subversive tangent and sings one of pop music's most unusual couplets: "Politics is pride too, vagaries of science/ She left because she understood the value of defiance."

Released on the Rough Trade label, "Sweetest Girl" became Scritti Politti's first song to chart, peaking at #64 on the UK music chart, and was cited by The New York Times as one of the ten best singles of 1981.  Madness recorded their own version of the song for their 1985 "Mad Not Mad" album.

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