Perfect Sound Forever


Photos courtesy of Dixon Coulbourn

by Dave Lang (February 1999)

I was driving home from work today, listening to The Pop Group, when it suddenly struck me as to how influential music can be on your moods and emotions, and how it's so capable of lifting you up when it seems like yet another shitty day of mindless labour and shitawful music has yet again drained your enthusiasm for engagement with the rest of the human race. You see, I work in this big CD distributor warehouse and just about all I hear all day is death metal and techno. Now I have nothing against either genre per se, but they're just not what I want to hear: they simply don't connect with me. They communicate nothing. As my parents would say, it's just a bunch of noise.

So I'm driving home from work, wind blowing in my face, blasting out the Pop Group's awesome Y LP when it hits me: I've always loved this record, it's got such a creepy, angry yet liberating vibe. I'm feeling better now, almost inspired. Hell, I'd have to say it's one of the greatest albums ever! Why has practically no-one ever even heard of it? Why do my work colleagues scream in terror when I put it on the stereo in the warehouse?

The Pop Group are admittedly an acquired taste, yet for those of whom they're the right flavour, they're one of the greatest bands of all time. I first bought Y when I was 20, after years of hearing it being name-dropped incessantly by everyone from the Minutemen to the Birthday Party to Jello Biafra, and it went under my skin instantly like a nasty rash. I mean that as a compliment. I was going through one of my classic uni-student/art-dada/music-terrorist phases at the time (I mean, surely you've experienced that yourself?!), an embarrassing confession, for sure, but the Pop Group was the right music for the right time. They yelled and screamed of injustice and frustration, they spat on the world in disgust, they ranted and raved about Cambodia and The Bomb, and their music was an ungodly, falling-apart mix of dub, Funkadelic, Beefheart and some sort of barely contained dada-esque noise. I was hooked, soon to be obsessed, and whaddya know, here I am 6 years later to tell you about them. So, who were they?

Ready information on the Pop Group is scarce, to say the least. I've not once read a comprehensive article on them so I'll just fill in the gaps and tell you what I know. Featuring five youngsters (we're talking high-school kids here) from Bristol, England, they formed in 1978 and fairly quickly rose to semi-fame, to the point where they supported Pere Ubu that very year on their summer tour. Inspired by everything from Rimbaud and Burroughs to Yoko Ono, Ornette, Last Poets, James Brown, Can and John Cage, The Pop Group's main intention was to go beyond the boring stalemate that most British punk at that point had become, to exceed the musical, lyrical and aesthetic cliches of the genre. You could say they were a classic example of a band that was both inspired by, yet in open contempt of, punk rock, or at least what had become of it.

Signing to Radarscope Records in 1979, a fly-by-night label linked up to Warner Brothers, they released their debut 7", "She Is Beyond Good and Evil." Not the classic it should've been, my advice is to skip the A-side, a dubby, scratchy ode to Nietzsche that sounds a touch too "new wave" to these ears and head straight for the flipside, the aptly-titled "3:38" (it goes for that long), an excellent Can-ish instrumental that's part aggro-dub and part screaming, belching keyboard effects. Somewhat comparable to This Heat's first LP, it still sounds totally ahead of its time. A tough record to find, but well worth it.

OK, now we're onto their debut LP, Y, once again released on Radarscope and one that was finally given a shamefully belated re-release on CD in 1997. If you can find the original vinyl, which ain't easy, snap it up quick because it comes with an awesome, and mighty huge, collage poster with their lyrics and various chilling images of the time (Cambodians, Vietnam Vets, various UK/Irish atrocities) and the curious front cover featuring an African tribesman with the band name messily scrawled to the side of him is frame-worthy. Before I say anything of this LP, I should say that I hope it's the intention of every band that makes a record that they should make a record like this. By that I don't mean it should sound anything like it, but rather that any truly great album should stand up against the test of time, be capable of being picked up years later by a curious potential fan and bowl them over in the process. Y sounds like a late '70's post-punk record, but it doesn't sound dated; its themes, its rhythms, its sense of anger, despair and frustration are timeless. And no, it's not "depressing"; on the contrary the ultimate statement it makes is of a desire to lift its head above the misery it speaks of. From "Savage Sea", a creepy violin/piano opus on side A: "Why should heroes always die in battle. Take the violin, we're exiles".

I must have listened to this record nearly a thousand times (I've gotta get that CD reissue one day) and I can still say that it sounds unique, no other record possesses such a bizarre sense of paranoia and loathing. What were these young British teenagers thinking when they made it? There are some obvious sonic comparisons, certainly Pere Ubu's Dub Housing LP of the same period comes to mind, as well as the Birthday Party and the Minutemen (two bands very heavily influenced by Y), yet The Pop Group were all over the place: songs stop half-way through like the band made a mistake, then start again, recording levels go up and down, and instruments fade in and out like a musical collage. At times it sounds amateurish, sloppy, like the Shaggs attempting post-punk, but then everything comes together so tightly on classic moments likes the phenomenal "We Are Time," a song which truly rates as the stand-out of the album, a seven-minute anthem of biblical proportions, that you're left wondering why other parts of the record are such a mess. But it works: from the avant-funk of the opening "Thief of Fire" to the tribal dub of "Blood Money" to the ending coda "Don't Sell You Dreams", a Birthday Party-ish scrape'n'drone featuring a very sparse guitar and drum accompanied by singer Mark Stewart's wailing of the title over and over.

Yet it's also undoubtedly the lyrics to the record that give it such an edge, an edge that was perhaps lost on their subsequent recordings where their sense of outrage became more literal and straightforward in its sloganeering. There's no clear messages given here, no references to anyone in particular and no real finger-pointing; everything is spoken in riddles like they've arisen from the subconscious. Check "Thief of Fire": "When you're stealing from a nation of killers / Do I trust myself? / I'm like a tramp in a cage / Flowers in Moscow / Losers take all / All lovers betray". I'm tempted to rip out the "rock poet" line of baloney here but I shall refrain. However, if I was to use such a line, this'd be the place. Y is a record few know about. One of the most influential records you've probably never heard in your life.

If my sense of chronology is correct, I believe the band then moved to Rough Trade and released the classic "We Are All Prostitutes" 7", undoubtedly their finest single moment. I have a few hundred 7" singles; they're tucked away in a dusty old box and every once in a blue moon I'll have one of those "singles frenzy" days where I'll play a whole bunch of them in succession. A lot of those records are real good, of course, but fer chrissakes, who can be bothered with the things and now that I think of it, when was the last time I actually bought a 7"?! Anyway, not only is this very 7" the one that I ALWAYS spin on a single-frenzy day, but it also gets the occasional spin just for the hell of it. In fact, I'd say it's the best damn 7" I own.

Beefing up their sound considerably - and propping up their political mouthpieces even further in the lyrical department - this is three minutes of pure urban angst channelled through a unique blend of punk, jazz, funk and noise. Starting with a wolloping, distorted guitar for the opening verse, it then evolves into a bizarre funk-disco rant before finally falling apart and collapsing into a chaotic stew of yelling, violin and saxophone. The lyrics? Try this on for size:

We are all prostitutes
Everyone has their price
And you too will learn to live the lie
Consumer Fascism
Capitalism is the most barbaric of all religions

Etc., etc., you get the idea. Subtle it isn't, but then again it never fails to get me fisting the air like a fool come play time, so the job is done. Once again produced by reggae "legend" Dennis Bovell (who also did Y, after an aborted session with John Cale), this li'l sucker clears rooms for all the right reasons. The B-side? Try this for a title: "Amnesty International Report on British Army Torture of Irish Prisoners", which of course is about... well, one guess only. Essentially a bong-hit jazz-noise mess with Mark Stewart quoting the very report in question over the top, it annoys yet soothes, though a far superior "song" version appears on the We Are Time out-takes LP, and for a bit of trivia, the one and only Mike Watt covered this on some Animal Rights benefit record a coupla years back. Sleeve, lyrics, music, content, effort: all a resounding A+.

band photo
Up next for perusal is the For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder? LP in 1980. Many people like this period of the band better. Myself, I like it all, and this era of the band is, I guess, more "listenable", as their musicianship tightened up to the point of becoming a fairly white-hot avant-funk-punk outfit sounding a bit like a speed-freak version of Ornette Coleman's Prime Time or James "Blood" Ulmer's LP's from the period. The cover denotes a fairly radical change in direction for the band that follows through to their lyrics as well: this time they're pissed off. No more subtleties, no more "poetry", the message is direct. If possible, get the limited-edition LP version of this, which comes wrapped in a huge newspaper featuring various clippings on the atrocities of the day. Also available is a non-limited version with only a basic album sleeve (much easier to find, and much cheaper), or if you're lucky you'll stumble across a Japanese CD that also contains their follow-up LP, We Are Time, though I believe that particular item was deleted a few years back.

You could say this record has a groove; in fact, you could quite easily dance to it. That's my theory. To demonstrate this theory, I once played this at a party at my house a few years ago. Within a couple of songs my brother walked up to me and said, "What the hell is this? People don't want to hear someone whinging about Cambodia and Third World starvation... put on the Ramones!!" Point taken. I still say you can dance to it, though lyrically and thematically this is about as "heavy" as a record gets. Look at those song titles: "Forces of Oppression", "Feed the Hungry", "Justice", "Rob a Bank". Now before you start thinking this is all a little heavy handed and been-there/done-that, think more along the lines of, say, the lyrical populism of the Minutemen or the, dare I say, "Situationist"-inspired lyricism of the Gang of Four than the dour humourlessness of Crass and their ilk (no disrespect to Crass, but you know what I mean). For my two cents, it's the music that matters here, and this is definitely their strong point. Gone is the sloppiness and rampant experimentalism of Y to reveal a tight, disciplined unit that punches out their funk like a punked-up James Brown circa 1970 meets Yoko Ono of the same year.

The musical potpourri contains a mixture of spacious dub ("There Are No Spectators"- now what was I saying about Situationism...), collaged tribalism ("One Out of Many," actually an old Last Poets vocal dubbed over a funky mess), raucous Ornette-ish free jazz ("Communicate"), anthemic agit-punk ("Rob a Bank") and seriously righteous near-disco chant ("Justice," my fave). By this stage the band were playing CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) rallies and generally heeding the call for revolution in no uncertain terms, and whilst this is all respectable behaviour and their music suffered not one bit (like I said, many people prefer this LP over the first) in the meantime, it's the sense of surrealism of the first LP that I miss. Still, for the record, this may be the best place for newcomers to start as it's the most accessible, song-based collection of tunes they released.

Up next is their split 7" with the Slits, "Where There's A Will", that's right, also from 1980. The Slits you know about: the late '70s all-female punk-dub outfit with John Lydon's stepdaughter (strange but true!) Ari Up on vocals, and their contribution is pretty OK, but let's talk about the Pop Group. By this time Mark Stewart and a few others in the band had hooked up with the Sugarhill Gang in New York, the seminal proto-rap ensemble that would later feature on many an On-U Sound record (as would Stewart), their enthusiasm for what was then considered this strange new transatlantic music shines through with a near hip-hop flavour to the proceedings, though all played on real-time instruments of the bass/gtr/drums variety. Actually, a friend of mine claims that the basic riff from this is taken from an old Grandmaster Flash/Sugarhill Gang song, but whatever the hell, it moves along to a very satisfying beat - anti-conscription words and all - and let's not forget how influential The Pop Group were in incorporating this element into their music, especially in 1980. Only years later with the whole trip-hop phenomanon has the world given The Pop Group their due credit as such innovators. Graced with a nice, and yet again, overtly political sleeve ("Fight Conscription," photos of Middle Eastern terrorists), this Rough Trade-r is a pain in the ass to find, but again, well worth it.

This is where things get sticky. Exactly when did The Pop Group split up? I've read 1980, 1981 and 1982. I'm pretty sure it was 1981. 1982 seems a bit late: post-Pop Group happenings were going on by then, and since I've read of gigs by the band throughout the year 1981, I'll assume they certainly hadn't split by 1980. All that said, their last effort, their We Are Time LP, from 1981, is considered a posthumous effort and is indeed a grab-bag effort of assorted demo songs and live tracks. Whilst such a description may lend the assumption of unwanted-dogthrowaway material that isn't worth the time of day, such is not the case here.

We Are Time features various live versions of songs from Y, such as "Thief of Fire" and "We Are Time" - both of which sound excellent and powerful, especially the latter, which emphasises their most obvious Beefheart/free jazz leanings with sax going mad - several never-released live tracks ("Genius or Lunatic," "Spanish Inquisition"), and numerous previously unreleased studio efforts ("Kiss the Book," "Sense of Purpose," "Trap," a different version of "Amnesty Report," all of which are exceptional and worthy in their own right of being released as "official product"). Curiously, many of these tracks were recorded in 1978, though they sound vastly different to the sort of material that wound up on their debut LP. Musically, everything moves along in the same direction set by the For How Much Longer... LP: a tight, angular unit steeped in punk, dub, free jazz, funk and Beefheart. Musically, such references have almost become a cliche in this day and age, as every band and their mother go on about their deep love for Miles Davis and Stockhausen and Lee Perry and whoever else, but context is the point here.

The Pop Group were not following a well-trodden blueprint, they were helping to create it. Sure, there were contemporaries like The Fall and Pere Ubu who were mining similar territory, or obvious roots in their sound like the Last Poets, Ornette Coleman and Red Crayola, but it was their unique synthesis of these influences, coupled with their sense of naivety, commitment and passion that makes The Pop Group still stand out today. There were other exceptional bands of the day that combined radical politics with inventive music, whether it was done in a surreal manner like the Swell Maps or in an overt manner like the Minutemen, and brilliant as both of those bands may've been, there's a certain undecipherable angle to The Pop Group's work. Their lyrics, their sounds, are presented in riddles not merely for the sake of being "artistic." Rather, they beg you to decode them.

Don't call me pain
My name is mystery
Don't call me pain
This is the age of chance
Don't call me pain
Being afraid is power

- "Don't Call Me Pain" (off the Y LP)

I'm not here to dissect their discography and give a blow-by-blow description of their "career". All that is interesting, but it doesn't compare to the unique power that their recordings possess. Some music has a truly mystifying quality, like it was borne from another planet, and no matter how many times you listen to it, whilst it may instantly CONNECT, you still can't sort out the puzzles it presents. What do the cryptic lyrics on the Pop Group's debut LP mean? Why the amateurish cover, huge collaged poster and awesome mess that is the music contained within? I'm no closer to "figuring out" The Pop Group than I was when I first heard them. But what is there to resolve? I feel like one of those thousands of kids who'd sit around for hours trying to decipher what Dylan was saying on Highway 61 or Bringing It All Back home back in the '60's.

I saw Dylan play live here earlier this year and he made perfect sense, so maybe if I'd seen The Pop Group live back in 1980, like many others did, on one of those classic post-punk bills featuring the likes of Pere Ubu and Nico, would they make perfect sense to me now? Would they actually hold any fascination for me? Wouldn't I just consider them another one of those cool post-'78 agit-punk bands that was one out of many? Sometimes mystery can be one of the best qualities about a band. Mystery surrounding The Pop Group is becoming less so: now it's been widely written on what a huge influence they were on the "trip-hop" scene of Bristol; how guitarist Gareth Sager had a child with Neneh Cherry and his subsequent success with Rip, Rig and Panic; we read of drummer Bruce Smith's long tenure with Public Image Limited; and then we hear of singer Mark Stewart's seminal solo records and his long-time involvement with the On-U stable of artists.

I'm glad they're finally getting some well-earned respect; posthumous noteriety can't "take them away from me," as we often feel when our of our favourite bands gains a wider audience, because their music will always mean so much to me. It's not just the sense of anguish and intensity of their records that's appealing - after all, such feelings are most often the last thing I want to experience when listening to music. I'll leave the constant desire for overwhelmingly "intense" sounds up to the death metal/noise crowd; rather, it's the feeling of connecting with other minds. It's literally exactly that: communicating. Maybe I just heard their records at the right time in my life - that's often the case with one's favourite music - but I can honestly say that The Pop Group's music is now permanently implanted in my mind: I can't rid myself of what I've heard. Their music is scorching, unrepeatable, timeless and essential.

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