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The Pop Group

Bristol had been somewhat remiss in the world of rock music… even with “pop groups” per se; ROBERT WYATT, STACKRIDGE and EAST OF EDEN the only pre-punk pretenders from the large English city to compete with the prog dinosaurs en route via the capital. In 1977/78, as punk-rock either evolved or drifted into new wave and other territories, the city’s claim-to-fame was rebellious combo The CORTINAS; their guitarist Nick Sheppard, a school-mate and acquaintance of singer Mark Stewart. As freaky and cult as they come, The POP GROUP will always be widely acknowledged as laying the foundations for a fertile Bristol music scene, which would subsequently spawn such revered artists as The BLUE AEROPLANES, MASSIVE ATTACK, PORTISHEAD, TRICKY, FLYING SAUCER ATTACK et al.
Loose connections maybe, but when said Stewart formed The POP GROUP (alongside guitarist/saxophonist/keyboardist Gareth Sager, guitarist John Waddington, bassist Simon Underworld and Bruce Smith), a new phase was underway, as witnessed with fellow Bristolians GLAXO BABIES, and subsequent POP GROUP off-shoots MAXIMUM JOY and RIP RIG + PANIC. They just didn’t know it yet.
Inspired by punk’s nihilistic energy and influenced by everyone from ROLAND KIRK to CAN and LEE PERRY, The POP GROUP harnessed their competing forces into a funky but defiant howl of rage at newly-elected PM, Margaret Thatcher, a la 1979’s debut single `She Is Beyond Good And Evil’. Issued on Jake Riviera’s newly-established Radar imprint, the track was hailed as one of the most innovative releases of the post-punk era.
Not prepared to fit the song into their landmark debut album, Y (1979) {*9}, the DENNIS BOVELL co-produced record presaged the primal intensity of The BIRTHDAY PARTY with spontaneous layers of visceral Magic Band noise, militant lyrics and tortured vocals underpinned by CHIC-style bass-lines and dub dynamics. Shooting from the hip, `Thief Of Fire’, `Snowgirl’, `Don’t Call Me Pain’ and `We Are Time’, terrified the listener into submission, uncompromising in their stark, skeletal free-improv. Punk-rock was declared dead at this point.
NICK CAVE, for one, was irrevocably changed after witnessing The POP GROUP in full flight, confessing (early 1999) on Channel 4 that the seminal `We Are All Prostitutes’ was among the most “violent, paranoid” protest music he’d ever heard. By this point, Dan Catsis (of GLAXO BABIES) took over from the PIGBAG-bound Underwood; a second Rough Trade 45 `Where There’s A Will…’ (shared with their own Y Records and split with a SLITS track) shot into the indie Top 10 lists. A second album, FOR HOW MUCH LONGER DO WE TOLERATE MASS MURDER? (1980) {*7}, was, if anything, even more intense, hardly helping widen the band’s limited appeal; check out `Forces Of Oppression’, `There Are No Spectators’ and their LAST POETS collaboration `One Out Of Many’.
But something had to give and, inevitably, it all ended in tears; the band subsequently embroiled in legal wrangles after the release of the sprawling bootleg-like (part-demo/part-live/part-session) set, WE ARE TIME (1980) {*6} – mostly recordings from 1978.
While Smith had found extracurricular time playing for said SLITS (until their demise in ’81), he and Sager joined forces again in the NENEH CHERRY-fronted RIP RIG + PANIC; Stewart went on to work with the On-U Sound posse, issuing records as MARK STEWART & The Maffia (and later solo in his own right), while Waddington and Catsis formed the aforementioned MAXIMUM JOY.
Fast forward three decades, The POP GROUP re-surfaced for live appearances. And one thought that would be that, especially when a touted album (`The Alternate’) never quite got off the ground. Bolstered by healthy sales of CD re-issues and a few compilations, Stewart, Sager, Catsis and Smith, quietly – if that’s the right term – finally delivered that elusive third set, CITIZEN ZOMBIE (2015) {*8}, a record-breaking 35 years since their previous fresh studio outing. Produced by Paul Epworth, Stewart’s vox-tones gel and gluten-y like PERE UBU’s David Thomas, while their GANG OF FOUR-meets-BOWIE/CHIC bass-lines, alternate on the schizoid back-to-back pairing of the title track and `Mad Truth’ (also throw in `Nowhere Girl’). Finding treasures within the paranoid cells of the set with every listen, `The Immaculate Deception’ and `s.o.p.h.i.a.’ were probably the band’s most accessible records ever; their catchy hook-lines both cathartic and cerebral. That distinctive Catsis dub bass thump, and/or the off-kilter rhythms of the poetic `Nations’, a POP GROUP that embraced obtuse melody with manic manifestos, couldn’t be all wrong.
Augmented by the respective dream-team appearance of producers Hank Shocklee (from the rap/hip hop world) and Dennis Bovell (dub master extraordinaire whom they’d worked with many moons ago), The POP GROUP crept back into our consciousness and psyche by way of 2016’s HONEYMOON ON MARS {*7}. Stewart, of course, had plenty pent-up politics to purvey, and with his furious fire of volcanic visceral, his echoing howl on the likes of `Instant Halo’, `City Of Eyes’, `Little Town’, `Heaven?’ (and more besides), the backing of his agit-prop cohorts sounded more chaotic and futuristic than anything of this retro universe. Uneasy listening and not for the faint of heart – but that’s good isn’t it?
© MC Strong 1997-2003/GRD series // rev-up MCS Feb2015-Nov2016

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