Pop Group
(Copyright © 1999 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )

Y , 9/10
For How Much Longer , 8/10
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Summary.
The Pop Group was the quintessential experimental (and agit-prop) combo, integrating elements of jazz, funk, rock, dub and classical music. Their music was revolutionary in word and in spirit. Y (1979), one of the most intense, touching and vibrant albums in the history of rock music, was the outcome of the Pop Group's quest for a catastrophic balance between primitivism and futurism: the new wave's futuristic ambitions got transformed into a regression to prehistoric barbarism. At the same time, the band's furious stylistic fusion led to a a nuclear magma of violent funk syncopation, monster dub lines, savage African rhythms (Bruce Smith), dissonant saxophone (Gareth Sager), and visceral shouts and cries (Mark Stewart). The lyrics celebrated the unlikely wedding of punk nihilism and militant slogans. Both the method and the medium were permeated by an anarchic and subversive spirit. In fact, Stewart's declamation was closer to Brecht's theater than to "singing". Another dose of lava-like anger was poured into the funk-rock foundations by the anthemic rants of For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder (1980). Both albums sounded like assortments of mental disorders. A sound so revolutionary (in both senses of the word) had not been heard since the heydays of the Canterbury school.
Full bio.
(Translated from the Italian by Troy Sherman)

The Pop Group was one of the most radical, complex, original, important, and influential bands of the '80s. The shades of jazz harmonies and political commitment of their music came from a place not far from the Canterbury School of the ‘70s, but the ferocity of execution was unmistakably punk. However, the assimilation of disparate musical idioms, like funk and dub, betrayed the spirit of the new wave. Two musical features clearly separate this group from their peers: the ideology and the primitivism. The Pop Group repudiated the nihilism of punk to embrace noble, humanitarian causes. The Pop Group, instead of the futuristic transformation that much of the new wave favored, leaned towards an anoetic regression to prehistoric barbarism. In essence, this band was the musical equivalent of a bunch of cannibals walking in a protest march.

 

The group, led by singer Mark Stewart, was formed in Bristol, England in 1977 in the wake of the punk explosion. Their first 45 rpm single was She is Beyond Good and Evil/3:38 (1978).

 

The album Y (Radar, 1979 - WEA, 2002) was one of the premier events of Britain’s season of punk rock. The militancy of the group was spectacular. Their music was broken, violent, and anarchic, and this record is filled with gasps of rhythm, hailstorms of chords, and gusts of screams. The commercialism of the funk music included was utterly skinned, torn, and sacrificed at the altar of musical and political revolution. The tracks were held like services in the name of a bold synthesis of African primitivism and urban classical music. The compositions were crude, coming from seemingly primitive and barbaric artists who knew only two forms of expression (dancing and screaming) and only a single theme (the struggle for survival). The album contains a string of bloody and scary scenes, presented in a nuclear magma of rhythms and chords. As that magma unfolds, a mad, psychic tension nourishes each vibration. Disgust and fear make up the tone of the album’s social prosecution, which adds to the ferocious and crushing air of the music. The record is in no specific musical style, and instead it borrows from a jumble of different genres: avant-garde, jazz, African folk. Experimentation, improvisation, and tribalism are vital aspects of both the music and of the social commentary that it aims at. The lyrics are, almost paradoxically, both naive and metaphysical, pagan and political.

The key tracks, Thief Of Fire and We Are Time, contain the most full-bodied funk, while still being aggressive. These songs are modeled on the range of possibilities that comes from the voice of Stewart, which can at times be as ethereal as Tim Buckley’s or as fierce as Captain Beefheart. These two tracks are flamboyant dances of life, set in desolate and prehistoric landscapes (calling horns, pounding percussion, saxophone solfeggio, guitar distortions). These songs are in fact terrible nightmares that marry the most savage and violent instincts of human nature to the soundtrack of a dark, primitive ceremony. Other songs found on the record utilize a sort of avant-garde cabaret, such as the bewitching funk kitsch (reminiscent of Frank Zappa) and dissonant jazz accompaniment of Snow Girl or the classical piano, drunken crooning, and mournful horn of Savage Sea.

The record’s sound is extremely dense, almost messy, and it is full of embroidered notes, which are rough and vehement, passionate and lyrical, and, as always, barbaric. While the rhythm section pounds with a furious funk beat, other instruments cry like hounds, angry and forgetful. The songs vibrate, desperate and frightened, tense with spasmodic screams. They spread into concentric echoes in an arcane and obscure "wasteland". Vocal acrobatics (Stewart), dissonant sax (Gareth Sager), funky bass (Simon Underwood), napalm guitars (John Waddington), and a constant percussion (Bruce Smith) rage without mercy, turning the songs into long conversation pieces that resemble free jazz jams as much as they do rock songs. The harmonic texture is horribly disfigured in Blood Money, in which the rhythm of disco becomes excited, and demented screams and all sorts of dissonant sound events take hold. In Words Disobey Me, a delusional voice accompanies an unwinding tangle of guitar hallucinogens and random dissonances. Don’t Call Me Pain is opened by the neurotic and hypnotic sax of Sager, which is guided by Stewart’s equally hypnotic voice through a maze of paranoid chants. The seizing summit of their tribalism is The Boys from Brazil, which spits Amazonian verses of daily reflections of existential despair into a throbbing mess of supersonic distortions. Don’t Sell Your Dreams is the records dreamy finale, ripping the music away as if in a long scream of pain.

The world evoked by this music is raw and hermetic. It is a world of ruins inhabited by savage cannibals, which can be interpreted as both a vision of post-apocalyptic humanity, or, even scarier, a vision of current humanity, equally barbarous and ferocious in current capitalistic metropolises. Y is an extraordinary cross between a psychoanalytic session, a psychedelic trip, and a pagan reportage about musical truth. The sound of the Pop Group, especially on this record, reflects the anxieties and depravity of modern society.

 

The group’s second single, We Are All Prostitutes, is a “Brechtian” declamation with a free-form background. For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder (Rough Trade, 1980) is more heavily funk than the previous record. It builds solid rhythmic carpets on which the band has a chance to relax and twist the explosive anger of the songs. The anthem Forces of Oppression and especially the hypnotic Feed the Hungry are the archetype. The usual torrent of noise and anarchic verbosity takes over Blind Faith and the title track. There Are No Spectators takes from reggae, and criminality and trumpets permeate through Communicate and Rob a Bank. The record utilizes heavily wind and percussion instruments, and a dogged rhythm accompanied by unhinged keyboards is repeated from the beginning to the end. It is music made, as with the last record, through syncope, screams and noises, and a collapsing sound wiped out by high-voltage discharge.

 

Rocco Stilo wrote on the CD reissue of For How Much Longer:

 

The interesting part of the reissue is that the CD recovers the valuable unpublished material of the group, originally from 1980, released as a limited edition “promo LP” under Rough Trade. Two of the ten pieces were previously released (We are Time and Thief of Fire), but the other eight tracks were never officially published. This inclusion of rare and unreleased material is what makes the reissue attractive. The eight songs that were received from the promo LP are: Trap (4:17), consisting of volcanic and furious rock'n'roll riffs tacked on to an obsessive rhythm, whose sound spans a yearning for liberation; Genius or Lunatic (3: 51), in which Waddington shows a surprising propensity to indulge in a melodic theme; Colour Blind (4:05), perhaps the most successful composition, with a more sober mixture of singing and guitars, less funk, but still prone to improvisation; Spanish Inquisition (3:21), which accumulates distorted guitars, saxophone shouts, and maniacal screaming, is in line with the most congenial issues of the group; Kiss The Book (2:48), which is in a slightly more conventional key; Amnesty Report (2:41), which is a tragic text of complaint against Amnesty International that is screamed ans spasmodic; Springer (1:09), which is a short, quirky, and Dadaistic duet exercise between sax and vocals, bordering on nonsense; and Sense Of Purpose (4:24), which is a piece that denounces the inhuman nature of modern science, introduced by piano and then developed by continuous parts of the instruments that are alternated in the foreground.

 

Within three years the band had seen its end, but this dissolution brought about four new, separate, and important musical happenings spawning from the divided Pop Group: Rip Rig & Panic, Maximum Joy, Pig Bag, and Mark Stewart’s solo career. Simon Underwood, the bassist, created Pigbag, and indulged in fanfares and marches set to a hard instrumental beat, African percussion, clarinet, and jazz horn sections (Papa’s Got a Brand New Pigbag, 1982).

 

Maximum Joy were formed by vocalist and saxophonist Tony Wrafter Janine Rainforth (of Glaxo Babies ), and later augmented with ex-Pop Group members John Waddington and Dan Catsis ( Stretch , 1981).

 

As the overseas avant-garde musicians were creating their art, in particular the neurasthenic rock of Pere Ubu and the acid-funk of the Contortions, the Pop Group were creating a dazzling synthesis of music by storm. The ultimate meaning of this exotic and primitive musical mega-fusion is the fresco of humanity, beset by dramatic contradictions and headed towards progress, which ultimately only leaves mass destruction.

Pop Group fu uno dei complessi piu` radicali, originali, importanti e influenti degli anni '80. Le tinte jazz delle armonie e l'impegno politico dei testi lo facevano avvicinare alla scuola di Canterbury degli anni '70, ma la ferocia dell'esecuzione era inequivocabilmente punk. L'assimilazione di idiomi come il funk e il dub tradivano anche lo spirito della new wave.

Due tratti li separano nettamente dai loro coetanei: l'ideologia e il primitivismo. I Pop Group ripudiano il nichilismo dei punk per abbracciare nobili cause umanitarie. I Pop Group trasformano l'anetico futurista di gran parte della new wave a favore di una regressione alla barbarie preistorica. I Pop Group sembrano un branco di cannibali che sfilano a un corteo di protesta.

Il complesso, capitanato dal cantante Mark Stewart, si formo` a Bristol nel 1977 sull'onda dell'esplosione punk ed esordi` con il primo 45 giri, She Is Beyond Good And Evil/ 3.38 (1978).

L'album Y (Radar, 1979 - WEA, 2002) fu uno degli eventi di quella stagione. La militanza del gruppo era plateale, esibita tanto dal vivo quanto negli inserti dell'album.
La loro musica era scomposta, violenta, anarchica. Procedeva per sussulti di ritmo, grandinate di accordi, folate di urla. La funk music piu` commerciale veniva scorticata, dilaniata e poi immolata all'altare della rivoluzione. I brani si svolgevano all'insegna di un'audace sintesi di primitivismo africano e musica colta urbana. Erano ballate barbare di esseri rozzi e primitivi che conoscono soltanto due forme di espressione: la danza e l'urlo; e un unico tema: la lotta per la sopravvivenza. Implicitamente erano anche la colonna sonora ideale per l'umanita` del duemila.
L'album contiene una sequenza di scene spaventose e sanguinarie, presentate in un magma nucleare di ritmi e accordi, mentre una forsennata tensione psichica ne alimenta le vibrazioni. Schifo e terrore il tono dell'accusa, furibondo e maciullante il piglio della musica. Lo stile e` un caos di stili, attinge a piene mani dall'avanguardia, dal jazz e dal folk africano. Sperimentazione, improvvisazione e tribalismo si scoprono facce della stessa eversione in musica. I testi sono naif e metafisici, pagani e politici. I brani chiave, Thief Of Fire e We Are Time, i funk piu` corposi ed aggressivi, modellati sulla gamma prodigiosa di possibilita` della voce del leader, ora etereo Buckley ora feroce Beefheart, sono reboanti ballate di vita, ambientate in desolati paesaggi preistorici (richiami di corno, martellare di percussioni, solfeggi di sax, distorsioni di chitarra), incubi terribili che sposano gli istinti piu` selvaggi e violenti della natura umana alla colonna sonora di oscuri cerimoniali primitivi.
Altri brani ricordano gli sketch di un cabaret d'avanguardia, come il funk maliardo con filastrocca kitsch alla Zappa e accompagnamento jazz dissonante di Snow Girl o il classicismo per piano, canto ubriaco e corno funereo di Savage Sea.
L'involucro sonoro e` estremamente denso, per quanto disordinato; ricco di appunti e di ricami, per quanto grezzi e veementi; lirico e appassionato, per quanto barbaro. Mentre la sezione ritmica martella con un funk indiavolato, gli altri strumenti incalzano furenti e scordati. Il canto vibra, disperato e atterrito, teso con urla spasmodiche sul magma della vita, e si propaga ad echi concentrici in quella arcana e tenebrosa "waste land". Equilibrismi vocali (Stewart), sax dissonante (Gareth Sager), basso funky (Simon Underwood), chitarre al napalm (John Waddington) e un percussivismo incessante (Bruce Smith) imperversano senza pieta` lungo brani-conversazione che assomigliano piu` a delle jam di free jazz che a delle canzoni rock. Il tessuto armonico e` orrendamente deturpato in Blood Money, sul cui ritmo da discoteca si accaniscono urla demenziali e ogni sorta di eventi sonori dissonanti; in Words Disobey Me, un delirio vocale che si sdipana in un un groviglio di chitarrismi allucinogeni e di dissonanze casuali; in Don't Call Me Pain, aperto dai barriti ipnotici e nevrotici del sax di Sager che guida Stewart in un dedalo di cantilene paranoiche. Il vertice epilettico del loro tribalismo assatanato e` The Boys From Brazil, che sputa versi della jungla quotidiana in riverberi di disperazione esistenziale dentro un caos lancinante di distorsioni supersoniche. Don't Sell Your Dreams e` lo slogan finale, un sottovoce onirico squarciato all'improvviso da un lungo urlo di dolore.
Il mondo evocato da questa musica cruda ed ermetica e` un mondo di rovine abitato da selvaggi antropofagi, che puo` essere interpretato come una visione sia dell'umanita` dopo la catastrofe finale sia dell'umanita` attuale, altrettanto barbara e feroce nelle metropoli capitaliste. Straordinario incrocio fra seduta psicanalitica, viaggio psichedelico, messa pagana e reportage di musica-verita`, il sound del Pop Group riflette le ansie e le turpitudini della societa` moderna.

Il secondo 45 giri del gruppo, We Are All Prostitutes, e` un declamato "brechtiano" su sfondo free-form. For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder (Rough Trade, 1980) si rifa` piu` massicciamente al funk, costruendo solidi tappeti ritmici su cui possono distendersi e contorcersi la rabbia dirompente del canto e le pennellate d'isteria dei fiati. Le ballate-anthem Forces Of Oppression e soprattutto l'ipnotica Feed The Hungry ne sono l'archetipo. Il solito torrente di baccano e male parole gronda da Blind Faith, dalla title-track, dal reggae There Are No Spectators, dalle fanfare criminali di Communicate e di Rob A Bank, con gran spreco di fiati e percussioni, con l'ostinato di basso ripetuto dall'inizio alla fine e le tastiere scardinate. E' una musica fatta piu` che mai di sincopi, urla e rumori, un collasso sonoro falciato da scariche di alta tensione.

Rocco Stilo scrive della ristampa su CD di For How Much Longer:

L'interesse della ristampa risiede nel fatto che il CD recupera del prezioso materiale inedito del gruppo, a suo tempo lanciato come «promo LP» a tiratura limitatissima, nel 1980 dalla Rough Trade. Ora, se due dei dieci pezzi li conosciamo già (We Are Time e Thief Of Fire), per quanto allora si debba rilevare che fu appunto nel promo la loro collocazione iniziale, gli altri otto non vennero mai pubblicati sui dischi ufficiali del gruppo. E non si tratta affatto di materiale di scarto, bensì di brani validi, che rendono particolarmente appetibile questa ristampa (che sotto la sua più recente edizione, risalente a quest'anno a cura della Progressive Line, recupera One Out Of Many, assente dalla prima CD edition del 1996, a cura della TDK; mentre la ristampa di Y recupera invece il singolo She is Beyond Good and Evil). Gli otto brani recuperati dal promo LP sono: Trap (4:17), vulcanico e indiavolato rock'n'roll imbastito sui riffs ossessivi della ritmica, col finale lasciato alla chitarra, che spazia in un anelito liberatorio; Genius Or Lunatic (3:51), con Waddington che sorprende nella sua propensione ad indulgere in un tema melodico; Colour Blind (4:05), forse il tema più riuscito, l'impasto più sobrio del canto e delle chitarre su climi un po’ meno funk, ma sempre inclini all'improvvisazione; Spanish Inguisition (3:21), coacervo di distorsioni chitarristiche, strepiti al sax e urla maniacali, in linea con le tematiche più congeniali del gruppo; Kiss The Book (2:48), in chiave leggermente più convenzionale; Amnesty Report (2:41), testo tragico di una denuncia di Amnesty International, urlato e spasmodico; Springer (1:09), brevissimo, bislacco e dadaistico esercizio duettato fra il sax e i vocalizzi, al limite del nonsense; e Sense Of Purpose (4:24), un testo denuncia del carattere disumano della scienza moderna, introdotto dal pianoforte e poi sviluppato sui continui ricambi degli strumenti che si alternano in primo piano.

Nel giro di tre anni il complesso si era gia` esaurito, ma dal suo scioglimento trassero origine quattro formazioni che se ne spartirono l'eredita`: Rip Rig & Panic, Maximum Joy, Pig Bag, e quella di Mark Stewart. I Pig Bag del bassista Simon Underwood indulgevano in fanfare e marce strumentali per battito disco, chitarra funk, percussioni africane, clapping e sezione di fiati jazz (Papa's Got a Brand New Pigbag, 1982).

Maximum Joy were formed by vocalist Janine Rainforth and saxophonist Tony Wrafter (of Glaxo Babies), and later augmented with ex-Pop Group members John Waddington and Dan Catsis (Stretch, 1981).

Attenti tanto alle avanguardie d'olte-oceano, in particolare al rock nevrastenico dei Pere Ubu e al funk acido dei Contortions, quanto ai "mostri" del passato (gli psicopatici, come Buckley, i licantropi, come Beefheart, gli schizoidi, come Hendrix, gli arrabbiati, come Peel, e i guerriglieri, come gli MC5), i Pop Group hanno dato vita a una sintesi allucinante della musica d'assalto.
Il senso ultimo di questa mega-fusion esotica e primitiva e` l'affresco di un'umanita` attanagliata da drammatiche contraddizioni e tesa verso un progresso che sovente significa soltanto sterminio di massa.

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