One of the brightest synth-pop confections of the ’80s deconstructs the very pop constructs it celebrates. Its layered dance music productions marry the sacred and the profane, its love songs aware that love songs are illusions, and pop music propaganda. But its auteur’s personal and political message is couched in the most glorious pop music.
In 1984, Green Gartside (credited on Cupid & Psyche 85 as simply Green) told the London music rag Smash Hits that, “if you’d played me ‘Wood Beez’ six years ago, I think I’d have spat at it or something.” “Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)” is one of the album’s most dense accomplishments, it’s music bombastic and light, vulgar and soaring, mechanical and human. The dedication to Aretha Franklin speaks to Green’s conflicted emotions about pop music, and to the conflicted emotions in pop music. “It’s the whole question of what pop is,” he told the New Musical Express. “Its relationship to language, power and politics. It’s also a question of music’s transgression and abuse of some of the rules of language. Aretha was singing what are arguably inane pop songs and had left her gospel roots. But she sang them with a fervor, a passion, though I hate to use that word because it’s been hideously tarred in recent usage. To a committed materialist whose interest had come round to language again—perhaps because of a bankruptcy in Marxism to deal with ideology or any artistic community—hearing her was as near to a hymn or a prayer as I could get. Obviously I couldn’t make that point in a three minute pop song.”
But he did. Green’s swooning blue-eyed soul works against the mechanical drum beats and real drum beats. “Wood Beez” has some appropriately wooden beats, but the vocals and synth melodies soar, the bright rhythm guitar line propelling the track through its hit-single contradictions.
Green formed Scritti Politti in 1977, naming the band after a collection of Marxist writings by Antonio Gramsci. You wouldn’t know from their early tracks for Rough Trade that he’d be the genius behind such enduring ear candy. But he always had pipes, and philosophy. Their first album, Songs to Remember, featured an homage to “Jacques Derrida” alongside smart love songs like “The Sweetest Girl.” But Gartside had musical ambitions that he couldn’t fulfill at Rough Trade. While making Songs to Remember he met David Gamson, who with Material drummer Fred Maher released a shimmering synth-pop cover of the Archies’ bubblegum classic “Sugar Sugar.” Gamson and Maher joined pop forces with Green, and the pieces fell into place.
The band recorded three singles in New York with legendary producer Arif Mardin, who had produced sides for Aretha Franklin. These sessions resulted in three of the album’s strongest singles: “Absolute, “Wood Beez” and “Hypnotize.” The album sequencing brings Green’s vision into an album that wasn’t just catchy and danceable but logical. Cupid & Psyche 85 begins with “The Word Girl,” its reggae beat suggesting the high of romance, its rising synth washes suggesting the search for love and almost biblical meaning evident in lyrics like, “How her flesh and blood became the word.” “The Word Girl” was the album’s biggest UK hit, but this is a love song about the lies that love songs tell (“A name the girl outgrew/ The girl was never real).” Flesh and blood leads off the album, but the record ends with the girl who made you forget to believe in heaven in “Hypnotize.” The final words sum up the record and the quintessential pop sentiment: “It’s so hard to tell you that I love you.” Cupid & Psyche 85 has some of the most gorgeous pop melodies of the ’80s in “Absolute” and “Wood Beez,” but Green’s Romeo finally finds them inadequate to express his love.
But this is where Green was wrong. “Perfect Way,” the biggest US single from Scritti Politti’s second album Cupid & Psyche 85, plays on the most basic of love song tropes: “I’ve got a perfect way to make a certain a maybe/I’ve got a perfect way to make the girls go crazy.” But the Welshman’s inventive and catchy wordplay is more personal and challenging than it first appears. The concerns that Green brought to Cupid & Psyche 85 may have gone over the heads of its Top 40 audience. But it succeeds through one of the great means of communication: music, accessible enough to sing along to, dynamic enough for the dance floor. If Green’s lyrics express frustration with pop music, the ambitious production values of this classic album show that he knows of no better way to communicate after all.