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“The years have divested this band's music of none of its urgent potency”
The Guardian 2014

The Pop Group’s arrival on the music scene in 1978 caused such a savagely radical commotion, that it can now be seen as one of the most wildly innovative, groundbreaking bands of the whole post-punk era.

Enraged by global injustices, the group delivered scathing political and society-indicting messages aboard an apocalyptic roller coaster, ferociously straddling their beloved influences such as free jazz, conscious funk, heavyweight dub and audacious experimentalism. Theirs was the most confrontational distillation of punk’s original ethos, running riot with unfettered animal instinct in areas only being traversed by the likes of Public Image Limited, This Heat and Throbbing Gristle. Their politically-charged lyrics boasted intellectual influences including Wilhelm Reich, situationism, French romanticism and the beat poets.

The Pop Group was born in Bristol in 1977 out of a disenchantment with punk failing to bust out of its rock origins. Gareth Sager [guitar] recalls, “Having witnessed The Ramones at the Roundhouse in 1976 and then having heard The Sex Pistols, the 16 year-old Stewart [vocals], Sager and Smith [drums] were disappointed with Anarchy In The UK. The energy was great and the attitude all too relatable but the music was still plain old rock, so we formed The Pop Group with the addition of John Waddington [guitar] and Simon Underwood [bass].”

While loudly supporting campaigns such as CND, The Pop Group wrenched back punk’s original mission away from the rock ’n’ roll traditionalism which now seemed to be swamping it, rekindling a militant fire which had more in common with the Black Panthers and the liberated energy of free jazz. “It’s proper end-of-the-world music,” declared singer Mark Stewart.

Finding early gigs supporting kindred spirits Pere Ubu, Patti Smith and This Heat, they progressed very quickly to headlining events such as 1978s Electric Ballroom line up of Nico, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Cabaret Voltaire. The Pop Group’s anarchic live shows alienated many audiences in the grand tradition of early Sex Pistols but was the foremost example of post-punk’s liberating ability to tap into other forms of music to convey a vital message. Later, in 1979, reviewing a Cambodia benefit gig at London University for which the band were supported by Scritti Politti, Nick Kent writing in the NME observed, “They project a very real sense of danger of the sort I've not experienced since the Pistols' 100 Club days. But whereas the Pistols were more into conventional hard rock, The Pop Group are working in territory that is far from orthodox.”

“We wanted to use the energy that we drew from punk and make it more political,” explained Stewart in 1998. "After all the sloganeering of punk, we actually wanted to get actively involved in campaigns; Scrap SUS, the Blair Peach, CND. And the attitude was that if you’re being ‘radical’ with the lyrics, we should challenge the structure of the music, too. Punk was still rock ’n’ roll based, no one was doing what we were doing. I was really into The Last Poets and the Watts Prophets, and the others were getting into free jazz. We were creating a wall of noise for the lyrics to fight against. It was all part of challenging the production process, disrespecting the studio machines. It may look naïve now, but we were hopeful as much as anything else.” The Pop Group donated the proceeds of their first major tour to Amnesty International.

On first recordings such as ‘Genius Or Lunatic’, ‘Trap’, ‘Colour Blind’, ‘Sense Of Purpose’ and ‘Kiss The Book’, which would later surface on their 1980 We Are Time album, Sager explains that the band was “trying in an inexplicably naive manner to combine Patti Smith’s Rimbaud ramblings, James Brown, The Stooges, Roxy Music, T.Rex and classical aleatoric music” .

The Pop Group went on to record a BBC session in July of 1978 for John Peel. Later, ambivalent to Patti Smith, Peel praised her choice of tour opening act, saying “Ah well, I certainly give Patti Smith credit for one thing, she knows a good band when she hears one.” Soon after the broadcast in August, The Pop Group managed to score the first positive review of any Peel Session from Melody Maker and the band graced the cover of New Musical Express.

In March of 1979 they debuted on Radar Records with ‘She Is Beyond Good And Evil’ (declaring love as a revolutionary force) and instrumental flipside 3’38 (both in title and duration), and graced the cover of Melody Maker and Sounds in the same month, following with the release of their first album, Y, in April. They toyed with the idea of John Cale as producer but, as Sager explains, “a meeting with the Velvet Underground maverick ended up with him asleep face down in his spaghetti, which put an end to that.”

 


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With reggae titan Dennis Bovell fulfilling the production role, the album was rightly hailed as one of the great debut albums, an abrasive squall bristling with scorchers such as ‘Don’t Call Me Pain’, ‘Blood Money’, ‘Boys From Brazil’ and ‘We Are Time’. “By now the band was bringing in other influences,” recalls Sager, “including Ornette Coleman, King Tubby, Funkadelic, Debussy, Jacques Brel, Fela Kuti and Steve Reich.”

With Underwood replaced by Dan Catsis of Glaxo Babies, The Pop Group made its first incendiary statement for the Rough Trade label that autumn with the dissonant primal roar of ‘We Are All Prostitutes’ c/w ‘Amnesty International Report’. The A-side featured a guest appearance from free jazz cellist Tristan Honsinger, who had played with the likes of Cecil Taylor and Derek Bailey.

The single was followed by March 1980’s For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder?, the band’s first release on their own Y label in partnership with Rough Trade. The album saw the funk element upped to red alert, displaying the influence of On The Corner period Miles Davis. The urge to skin and sacrifice their sizzling skeleton grooves with free jazz skronk on tracks like ‘Communicate’ and ‘Blind Faith’, put the band in a similar orbit to James White & The Contortions, while other highlights included the anthemic ‘Forces Of Oppression’ and the reggae infusion of ‘There Are No Spectators’.

That same month, The Pop Group shared a 45 with The Slits, contributing the fractured future-funk of ‘Where There’s A Will’, described by Sager as “The group’s best attempt to mix a message with a groove plus some real free playing. If you are really unhinged you may be able to dance to this.”

The aforementioned We Are Time, named after one of their most infamous onslaughts, followed later that year. The limited set rounded up unreleased early gems like ‘Trap’, ‘Genius Or Lunatic’ and ‘Colour Blind’. Stewart reflects on these seminal early recordings, “The Pop Group was mutating so fast right from the start that it was crucial to document those first experiments with this compilation. We Are Time is really ‘the’ teenage Pop Group album. It’s full of defiance and the material demonstrates the band's staunch independence and our really early DIY ethic before the studio became another instrument.”

After the blinding supernova that was The Pop Group imploded, its members went on their respective creative paths. Mark Stewart’s solo career saw him pioneering further new genres, initially on Adrian Sherwood’s On-U Sound label with The Maffia (The Sugarhill house band). Further solo releases followed on Mute through the eighties and nineties and more recently on Future Noise Music. Stewart and Bruce Smith also participated in the New Age Steppers collective, while other TPG spin-off bands included Pigbag (Simon Underwood), Rip Rig And Panic (Gareth Sager, Bruce Smith), Float Up CP (Sager, Smith), Head (Sager), Maximum Joy (Catsis, Waddington) and Public Image Ltd (Smith).

The group reformed in 2010 and have been playing key international festivals and gigs (including All Tomorrow’s Parties events, a New Year’s Eve show in London with Sonic Youth, Off Festival, Primavera, Summer Sonic and Celtic Connections), declaring “There was a lot left undone...We were so young and volatile. Let’s face it, things are probably even more fucked up now than they were in the early ‘80s...and we are even more fucked off.”

The Pop Group’s influence is far-reaching. They were admired by their contemporaries and have been acknowledged as influential by successive generations of artists such as Massive Attack and St Vincent. Their original material still explodes with an incandescent spirit and energy, to which many current bands aspire. The reformation has rekindled embers which had never gone out, flaming up in a new world which is even more deserving of their assault than back in the day.

“It’s one of those moments when the cogs of your mind shift and your life is going to irreversibly change forever”
Nick Cave on hearing The Pop Group for the first time.

“Without The Pop Group I don’t know what The Minutemen would have sounded like”
Mike Watt

“The Pop Group’s life was brief and fierce. Begun in 1978, collapsing in 1980, the Bristol teenagers' insertion of black funk, free jazz, dub and political protest into post-punk seemed, like much of the era's music, to be a doomed experiment. And yet, with each passing year, the influence of The Pop Group and its leader Mark Stewart grows.”
The Independent 1998

“Cited as a key influence by Nick Cave and Primal Scream these wilfully discordant Bristolians unleash an exhilarating mash up of polemical lyrics, funk rhythms, free jazz and dub reggae with a tightness and ferocity that would challenge bands half their age.”
**** The Times 2014

“When the Pop Group close with the tremendous We Are Time, it's with the sense of a band that could and still ought to light a fire under guitar music's conservatives.”
***** The Guardian 2014

THE POP GROUP: ORIGINAL U.K. DISCOGRAPHY

SINGLES

She Is Beyond Good And Evil / 3’38 [Radar ADA 29, ADA 29(T), 1979]
We Are All Prostitutes / Amnesty International Report [Rough Trade RT 023, 1979]
Where There’s A Will (c/w In The Beginning There Was Rhythm by The Slits) [Rough Trade/Y RT 039A/Y1, 1980]

ALBUMS

Y (Radar RAD 20, 1979)
For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder? [Rough Trade/Y Rough 9/Y2, 1980]
We Are Time [Rough Trade/Y Rough 12/Y5, 1980]

THE POP GROUP: PERSONNEL

Mark Stewart (vocals, lyrics)
Gareth Sager (guitar, saxophone, clarinet, piano, organ)
Bruce Smith (drums, percussion)
John Waddington (guitar, bass guitar)
Simon Underwood (bass guitar)
Dan Catsis (bass guitar)

   
 

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