This is a monthly feature where classic and cult albums are revisited and reassessed for the modern listener. The only rule is that it must be a critically acclaimed or cult record released before 2000.

The Pop Group – ‘Y’ (1979, Radar Records)

This month’s selected Classics Critiqued  is a post-punk masterpiece that has bemused and divided critics and music fans alike for over 30 years. The Pop Group a four piece from Bristol consisted of Mark Stewart (vocals), John Waddington (guitar), Garth Sager (guitar/occasional saxophone), Simon Underwood (bass) and Bruce Smith (drums), what their line-up lacked in originality was made-up by the melting pot of influences they utilised. An (almost) completely untutored musical collective (Waddington the only trained musician) they burst onto the music scene and made the cover of the NME before they’d ever released a single. Yet the best was still to come as the band cooked up their début album with British dub producer Dennis Bovell.

‘Y’ was released at a time when punk music had become repetitive and had failed to achieve its goals, bands such as Public Image Limited, Wire and Gang of Four were emerging and attempting to explore new paths. The question on everyone’s lips was ‘Where Next?’ The Pop Group answered emphatically ‘everything!’ and unleashed a sound that took on free jazz, dub, reggae, funk and 60’s beat poetry. This monstrous maelström heralded a new era of music outer limits and ‘Y’ served as a prime example of how far the term ‘music’ could be stretched within becoming tuneless. As Bruce Smith told the NME, September 30 1978, “we want people to question as much as possible. All the rules, conceptions, everything…. It’s a question of setting yourself free and not worrying about inhibitions and people saying you can or can’t do that.”

With all these elements flying around the mix The Pop Group needed a steady hand to guide them through recording ‘Y’, someone who understand the band’s hybrid sound and could translate their chaotic live sound into a cohesive and more palatable one on record. Dennis Bovell an experienced British dub producer who also love rock music and had a good grasp of jazz was the man given this job. Bovell recalls the band “were loose and they needed to tighten up. In their own right they’re all great musicians… The thing that was not together about The Pop Group was the guitars. And then Mark Stewart would drift across the frame of the thing. And being near to a seven-footer, and having that kind of voice tone that commanded, ‘You will listen to me’… those were the elements that made it very interesting and made me want to do The Pop Group.” Despite this enviable task the album is incredible well produced harnessing the band explosive grooves and allowing the ‘free’ elements space to roam but not meander. The dub influence is employed throughout but sparingly with the use of space and reverbs, delays and a deep throbbing bass sound the key examples. Bovell even went as far as describing “Simon Underwood and Bruce Smith, they were the Sly and Robbie of the post-punk period – tight”.

The band didn’t only question what was permissible musically but also lyrically, Stewart didn’t believe in “the compartmentalization of experience that places ‘politics’ here and ‘poetry’ over there.” The band cited Rimbaud, Burroughs, and Blake, as much they did King Tubby, Funkadelic and Neu! This poetry was matched with Stewart trademark howl and provocative political subject matter; they were “questioning everything, challenging everything, right down to the core of personal relationships and the relations between the audience and the band.” Stewart described “Thief of Fire as being about “idea of grabbing at something really far away. Finding out about things you thought you weren’t meant to find out about or allowed to find out about, prohibited knowledge. It’s the Prometheus legend, but I twisted it to be about going into the unknown areas. I remember people saying stuff like ‘To be alive is not enough; I want to live. So it was against all the constrictions.” The lack of constrictions applied to the clashing political ideals the band adopted and discussed from “Wilhelm Reich’s libidinal liberation, Antonin Artuad’s threatre of cruelty, Situationism’s revolt against boredom” all this collided and was added to their fiery “Dionysian protest music”. The band viewed themselves as the next in a long line of “politically engaged avant-garde artists” including the Dadaists, the Surrealists through “to 1960’s movements such as Fluxus and Situationism who saw radical art and political revolution as inseparable.”

Such is the uniqueness of The Pop Group’s fusion of disparate genres that there aren’t any bands/artists that could be said to have been directly influenced by the band. In fact, whenever a new band emerges who take on post-punk influences they roll out the same familiar names Gang of Four, Talking Heads, Public Image Limited and Joy Division, The Pop Group never seem to get a look in. However, they have indirectly influenced and had a hand in the creation of the Bristol trip-hop sound. Stewart lived with and mentored Tricky helping him create his first demos and début album ‘Maximquaye’ and was friends with Daddy G of Massive Attack (he is mentioned in the sleeve notes of ‘Blue Lines’ and worked “behind the scenes on “Heligoland”). Another band who Stewart is friends with in Asian Dub Foundation who’ve fused drun’n’bass, dub, hip-hop, Indian music and rock for 20 years and could be seen to carrying the torch that The Pop Group lit with ‘Y’. More recently Italian dance duo Crooker’s remixed the band’s 1979 single ‘We Are Prostitutes’ to much praise from Stewart. This and the rapturous response to the band reformation last year, show this is a band that are still very relevant and may yet produce another incredible statement. Watch this space.

Spotify playlist:

The Pop Group – Y

Advertisements