The Pop Group sprung frothing with iconoclasm from dreary Bristol, England in 1978. Typifying the embryonic "post punk" ethos, the band extended the range of DIY outrage past the narrow limitations of rock and roll through Situationist-inspired chaos as well as heavy jazz, funk and dub influences. Comprised of five idealistic, reputedly arrogant teenaged boys, the group quickly made a splash in the UK press, landing high-profile tours with Patti Smith and Pere Ubu.
Despite the fact that their band name would eventually ring totally ironic, the early sound of The Pop Group was indeed still related to pop music forms - a briskly executed blend of melodic, jangling rock over a busy, syncopated rhythm section topped by singer Mark Stewart's delirious howl. The subject matter during their early period tended towards vague, philosophical matters of individualism and injustice in society - i.e. a concerns of intelligent adolescents looking for something greater than what their own surroundings might readily offer. They laid down their first John Peel session in July 1978. The recording engineer at the session, Bill Aitken recalls:
"The Pop Group were the most obnoxious bunch of prats I ever had the misfortune to record. Their instruments sounded bad, they couldn’t play in tune or in time, their act (I refuse to use the word songs) was crap, and like many acts of the punk / new wave era, they were arrogant beyond belief. I remember working hard to get the backing tracks to sound respectable – and when the band came in for a playback the reaction was to inform me by means of a high volume harangue that “You make a shit sound!” The drummer then went on to insist that I make him sound “like David Bowie’s drummer”. I didn’t even bother debating the issue with them. Because they were so bad, they overran the double session. We only just got the backing tracks down by the early hours of the morning, and had to arrange another session for remix. I was pleased, because I was dreading the mix, and hoped that they would not have the time to turn up for the second session. On the remix session, just as I was about to lay down the first track on 1/4″, the band turned up. They asked if they could hear the track before I laid it. The reaction was predictable (“the sound is a load of shit!…. etc). Anyway, as I played the track through again, trying to decode from the bullshit around me anything valid that might help get the recording more to their liking, the vocalist leaned over, pulled up the “lead vocal” fader to levels that were technically overloaded and artistically crass and said – “I want more vocal”.
Who remembers Patti Smith or The Pop Group? Well, who remembers Bill Aitken? Who remembers ANYTHING at this point? Recently the Pitchfork-friendly alt-pop act St. Vincent a.k.a. singer Annie Clark has been performing a faithful cover of The Pop Group's first single "She Is Beyond Good and Evil" live, having even played the song on a recent broadcast of the Jimmy Fallon Show. In a Youtube video from a Texas gig, Clark asks the audience "Who has heard of The Pop Group?" Two or three people cheer (sounding like sycophants, ready to salute anything coming of Clark's mouth) and the rest of the crowd is dead silent. After the song is finished, the audience, as predicted, applauds ecstatically for it, no differently than the songs preceding and following it. Is it a surprise that a large audience of pop-culture addicted sheep haven't dug back very deep into the history of music? No. Of course not. Clark herself was only born two years after the group disbanded, and a fuck of a lot has happened since. It is perfectly evident that a minor, defunct band like The Pop Group might be quickly relinquished to the annals of music trivia. It is conceivable that Annie Clark herself only heard of the group after one of their recent reunion performances at various All Tommorow's Party festival functions. Will the people leaving the St. Vincent show wake up the next day and go listen to a Pop Group record? Who fucking cares! The history of great art is not the history of mass popularity and it was clear that the ultimate destiny of The Pop Group was one of extreme artistic non-compromise.
Obviously the band was ready to overturn the musical establishment and the above sort of heated reaction to their fiery modus operandi was proof positive. The three songs from the July '78 Peel Session ("We Are Time", "Words Disobey Me" and "Kiss The Book") are tightly played and highly musical, especially for such young musicians. The mixing style of the session is indeed a few shades more extreme than the sort of slick, straight-ahead balance a typical BBC session might consist of, but the group would soon push the concept of recording-studio-as-instrument much, much further. Signed to American Warner Brothers subsidiary Radar Records, the first official releases by the band appeared during Spring 1979 including the full-length album "Y" and a single featuring "She Is Beyond Good and Evil" backed with the John Cage inspired noise/dub track "3:38". Produced by renowned Reggae icon Dennis Bovell, "Y" strikes a very tentative chord. In a recent interview with Pop Group multi-instrumentalist Gareth Sager, he intimates that Bovell took the job just to make money and that neither he or the band really knew where the other party was coming from. The end result is definitely a bit of a reverb-drenched, muddy mess, albeit an endearing one. Bovell's experimental, dub-tempered production style adds an alien, disembodied air to the band's more straight-ahead numbers and pushes their experimental soundscapes like "Blood Money" and "Savage Sea" straight into outer space. There's something a bit soft and sentimental both sonically and lyrically about the music on "Y" - perhaps the lads were still feeling a bit positive about their world and its potential?
By November 1979, any residual sweetness or reticence left was extinguished by the excoriating "We Are All Prositutes" single, released on burgeoning independent UK label Rough Trade. Bassist Simon Underwood - who would go on to found the more mainstream white-funk unit Pigbag - had been replaced by the more agitprop-minded Dan Catsis, who also played in the punk/funk/experimental band Glaxo Babies. "We Are All Prostitutes" begins in a jumble of vocal muttering from guest artist Tristan Honsinger, before the band slices into a caustic, angular funk groove wound tightly around thin guitar cacophony, synthesized hand claps and Stewart's irate, distortion-clad vocal sloganeering. Chaotic outbursts of saxophone, organ and cello appear at random moments and fight the other instruments for space in the dense mix. The Pop Group are now truly playing as if their lives depend on it and this sound is exhilarating. The b-side "Amnesty International Report on British Army Torture of Irish Prisoners" is a fascinating instrumental track beginning with a colorful, Beefheartian tattoo from drummer Bruce Smith and ending in a free improvised threnody over which Stewart morbidly intones a brief, atrocious vignette of political dehumanization. The piece is absolutely dense with detail and dread. This is the sound of a band ready to burn everything to the ground.
The Pop Group's second album "For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder?" appeared in March 1980 on Rough Trade. For some reason this insane, iconoclastic dervish seems consistently overshadowed by the (barely) more "accessible" debut. The first album is tentative, lazy and unfocused, whereas the second is a sharply edged shank of desperation, lashing out wildly in a uniform frenzy of rabid idealism. A gauntlet is immediately thrown down by the haunting black and white cover art featuring two naked children sharing an innocent kiss in the scorched earth of the Third World. Perhaps this is the greatest, most romantic metaphor for the mission of The Pop Group: young and doomed children trapped in a world they didn't make, trying to find a single glimmer of hope in the darkest situation possible. Contained in the original issue of the LP was a series of large newsprint posters chalked full of more bleak agitprop collage, emblazoned with the irate lyrics of the songs contained. Mark Stewart's focus on "For How Much Longer" encompasses nightmarish images of anguished Cambodia, human rights violations, stealing from the rich, police brutality, pop culture as an accessory to genocide and social indoctrination. The Pop Group were clearly no longer about "fun". They were willing to make polarized, simplistic manifestos about the human condition and that is exactly what makes this music so utterly powerful. It is morose, astringent and relentless on every level, drunken with anger and impulsive incoherence. "For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder?" is the sound of a band that didn't care if their message "dated", but sought to live each day as its last on the brink of possible nuclear armageddon.
"For How Much Longer . . ." opens with a slice of audio verite of what sounds like Indonesian monkey-chant, or kecak, which starts slow in iteration and builds into a frenzied constellation of voices from which the volcanic rhythm section of Catsis and Smith explode into "Forces Of Oppression". During the blistering funk assault of "Forces", Sager manically switches between abrasive guitar and wah-wah-injected reeds, interjecting skronk and squeal at odd, disruptive intervals. Taped snatches of a TV news report play at one point. There is an amphetamine-fueled thinness to the production here, which contrasts greatly to the soothing lushness of "Y" - it's fair to assume The Pop Group lorded over producer Dave Anderson in order to achieve this strained, unique sonic result. One of the most defining features of the sound is Bruce Smith's piercing, penetrating drumset tone, particularly the acid slashing of his high-hat accents.
"Feed the Hungry" follows at a slower tempo, bolstered by persistent tom-tom rumble, envelope filtered wah-bass and jags of reverbed feedback and guitar noise. Subtle layers of piano arpeggios bubble behind the track. The band is operating from a premise of RHYTHM AND NOISE: the symmetry of their flinty, forceful grooves are constantly rendered lopsided by the various aural violations from Sager and tandem guitarist John Waddington. Over the top, Stewart continues to essay on the vast discrepancies between classes. "One Out Of Many" is an experimental track largely built upon noisy free improvisation laid over the stunning 1972 proto-rap recording "E Pluribus Unum" by The Last Poets. The band is so disinterested in the limitations of their format that they have gone so far as to feature someone else's recording as their own! Obviously this is out of total reverence, as The Last Poets' wrathful decree mirrors the same kind of outspoken radicalism The Pop Group aspired to. "Blind Faith" continues the sort of speedy hate-funk as the opening track, featuring cacophonous organ clusters, more lashings of intense guitar skronk and a thrilling tempo change in the middle section before suddenly crossfading into a chiming, seemingly unrelated coda of guitar harmonics.
The title track is a sinister funk workout which wouldn't seem out of place on a '73-'75 era Miles Davis record if it weren't for Mark Stewart's impassioned bellowing, rising and falling in unruly shifts of volume over the top. The piece is more spacious than any of the previous ones on the record, all of the instruments taking turns dropping out to reveal haunting spaces of electronic ambience before horrific plagues of noisemaking blast the listener once again. At the end of the track a burbling synthesizer strolls through the stereo field as Stewart succumbs into a defeated whisper, trailing off into a tomb of final silence. "Justice" follows in a relatively bouncy mode as Stewart demands, "Who guards the guards? Who polices the police?" He demands political justice for the use of excessive force by the men who control the Western world on a local and international level and posits that someday they might come knocking on our doors if we don't act out. Mark Stewart, then in his teens, was obviously trying the best he could to utilize the music as a platform for social consciousness, as confused and pretentious as it can seem. This extreme idealism could only come from a youth and it is potent and unguarded in its effect.
"There Are No Spectators" is a downtempo, reggae-like construct, washed in delay and reverb, with scraping violin touches and some pained falsetto from Stewart. Bruce Smith leads the track with the kind of ticky-tacky African-influenced percussion colors he would also use when doing double-duty in the ranks of the seminal punk-cum-world band The Slits. Ultimately, Smith was the musical linchpin around which the Pop Group's music revolved. His endless theme-and-variation approach to rhythmic pulse is hyperactively ingenious, making everything he recorded early on into a sort of garrulous drum concerto. His manic fills and offbeat accents are a constant source of surprise on the Pop Group recordings and helped transform what might have been rote post-punk into something truly special. Stewart proclaims "Escapism is not Freedom!" He's right. Whereas the band may have begun as a trojan horse, trying to infect the pop scene with their revolutionary virus, eventually they became so radical on every level it pushed them out of the mainstream straight into the fringes. People use entertainment as a salve, but at this point The Pop Group are preaching to the converted, a gaping sore on the face of complacency.
"Communicate" is a wild slice of harmolodic improvisation probably influenced directly by Ornette Coleman's 1976 recording "Dancing In Your Head" (Horizon Records). It has the same sort of tumbling melodic bass, repeated melodic fragments and quarter-note stomp factor as the original, but the obnoxious saxophone squealing, found tape inserts, synth
The Pop Group did not gain a wider audience through "For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder?" How could it have? It was completely uncompromising, brutal, dissonant and frenzied. This is rarely what the average person wants from their "entertainment". What they succeeded in was creating great art, unlike anything before or after it. The band went on to issue a split single with The Slits as well as an excellent compendium of live, demo and outtake recordings called "We Are Time" (Y Records, 1980). "Where There Is A Will There's A Way" (from the split) and "Amnesty Report" (from "We Are Time") both sound like they came from the same sessions as "For How Much Longer . . .", as a bookend to this particular saga.
During 1980, the group continued to tour Europe as well as playing a show in New York. The swansong of the band came in late October 1980 at a huge outdoor show protesting cruise missiles at Trafalgar Square in London with Killing Joke headlining. Stewart split off from the group to pursue his political interests for a while before re-emerging a few years later with his more electronic/production based group Mark Stewart and the Maffia. Sager and Smith focused more on the purely musical end with their long-running free-jazz tinged group Rip Rig and Panic (which later morphed into Float Up CP) which featured a rotating cast of characters including Neneh Cherry. Waddington and Catsis went on to form the mild punk/funk combo Maximum Joy.
The band (minus John Waddington) has played numerous gigs in the last few years and is threatening a new album one of these days. Of course the reincarnated Pop Group could never match the fully-adrenalized, hormonal eruptions of their prime, but it should be interesting to see how relevant they can be in the midst of this modern milieu. Hopefully they have some new insight or outrage to add to these decrepit new end times. Youth is not everything.