Pop Group

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Y , 9/10
For How Much Longer , 8/10
Citizen Zombie (2015), 5/10
Honeymoon on Mars (2016), 4/10

(Clicka qua per la versione Italiana)

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 my original Italian text by Troy Sherman and revised by Paul Bemo - contact me if you'd like to further proof-edit )

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 Ď70s, 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 band 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 band, 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 main events of Britainís season of punk-rock. The militancy of the group was spectacular. Their music was wild, violent and anarchic, proceeding by gasps of rhythm, hailstorms of chords, and gusts of screams. The commercialism of funk music was here utterly skinned, torn, and sacrificed at the altar of musical and political revolution. The tracks unfolded like ceremonies in the name of a bold synthesis of African primitivism and austere urban 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. Indirectly, they also composed the ideal soundtrack for 21st-century humanity. The album unleashes 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 albumís sociopolitical prosecution, which adds to the ferocious and crushing aspect of the music. The> 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 Buckleyís 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 recordís 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. Donít Call Me Pain is opened by the neurotic and hypnotic sax of Sager, which is guided by Stewartís 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. Donít 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 groupís second single, We Are All Prostitutes, is a ďBrechtianĒ 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.

The CD reissue of For How Much Longer adds unreleased material.

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 Stewartís 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 (Papaís 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).

Aware of the avant-garde musicians of the USA, in particular the neurotic rock of Pere Ubu and the acid-funk of the Contortions, the Pop Group were creating a dazzling synthesis of aggressive forms of music. The ultimate meaning of this exotic and primitive musical mega-fusion is the fresco of a humankind beset by dramatic contradictions and headed towards a form of technological progress that ultimately only leaves mass destruction behind it.

(Original text by Piero Scaruffi)

Pop Group reunited after 35 years for Citizen Zombie (2015), which inevitably sounds a lot less ferocious but nonetheless contains attack songs like the obsessively percussive Citizen Zombie and The Immaculate Deception. The danceable undercurrent of their anthems moves to the fore in S.o.p.h.i.a. and Mad Truth, which does not sound like the old Pop Group at all. Then came Honeymoon on Mars (2016), which completely watered down their original sound. Rarely are reunions good ideas.

Dennis Bovell remixed Y as Y in Dub (2021), basically a dub version of the original.

Mark Stewart died in 2023 at the age of 62. John Waddington also died in 2023.

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