- Artist: The Pop Group
- Year released: 1979 on Radar Records
- Genre: Post-punk, experimental
And the dubious honour of the first review goes to…. Y by the Pop Group!
“The audience didn’t like them. But they didn’t try to stop them. They didn’t shout and throw things like they did everywhere else. They just didn’t know what to make of them.” – An early review of The Pop Group’s performance as support act for The Stranglers.
To kick things off..The Pop Group in a nutshell:
- The Pop Group are a post-punk outfit from Bristol, England who make indigestible music for the masses. They are Mark Stewart (vocals/screaming), Bruce Smith (drummer), Gareth Sager (guitar/saxophone/keyboards) and Dan Catsis (bass). (This is a thinly-veiled warning for people who would like to listen to them.)
- They released Y and For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder? in the late 70s and early 80s, and went AWOL for 35 years (they actually reformed in 2010 but never released any material) before releasing the magnificent Citizen Zombie in Feb this year. (Dear Pitchfork: you can fuck off. Cheers)
If you’ve listened to the album before and thought they were rubbish (which I can’t blame you for), I would like to recount my aural encounter with the Pop Group, so here goes nothing:
A few years ago, I was leafing through a worn-to-death music magazine when my eyes settled on an incongruous image, nestled comfortably among a list of the greatest British indie records of the 80s. That happened to be the album cover for Y.
The cover art was fascinating. Who were these masked people brandishing weapons? (A quick Google search revealed that that the cover was a Don McCullin photo of an African tribal gathering – the band used it because they thought it fitting.) The band’s name, smeared childishly on the side of the cover, only served to enhance the unsettling juxtaposition of the visuals. On the first listen, the music proved wilfully elusive – I could make neither head nor tail of the record, and filed it neatly in my music drive never to touch it again…or so I thought.
Later this year, I was browsing the internet and found that The Pop Group had released an album titled Citizen Zombie, so I idly wandered over to Spotify. Oh my god – what was this? A deliciously meaty rhythm section, served up with funky, fiery guitar licks, and a dollop of political paranoia courtesy of Mark Stewart’s wrangled voice! Every track on Citizen Zombie was fantastic – all the songs never passed beyond the 5 minute mark and you could bop your head along to them (sort of). Had they fulfilled their ironic namesake for once? I decided to revisit Y again, to prove myself wrong.
You know how you listen to a particular album and you go, “Nah, this isn’t for me,” and walk away – but when you revisit the album after some time, or listen to it repeatedly due to obstinacy – you get that Eureka! moment? I had the same reaction with Y. What I’d mistaken for tuneless screams and terrible rhythms were in fact fractured, schizophrenic voices and very complex jazz/funk grooves. The drums often stop, and start again abruptly in another time signature.
After having heard Y several times, I’ve started to listen to Y with a morbid fascination – it’s a bit like hiding behind the bushes, watching half in terror and curiousity, while watching someone commit a bloodcurdling murder. Thief Of Fire starts off with a guitar-y twang and possibly some eerie dragon breathing – before the tape winds up into Mark’s screaming. He cleverly swipes at the higher order (“But who to trust/When you’re stealing from a nation of killers?”) while the trumpet echoes forlornly. The Savage Sea finds the piano at the forefront of the song, tinkling along pleasantly until Mark whispers unpleasantly amidst a sea of reverbed voices. Violins creep up and leave its bloodied stain, and the piano continues its sonata for no one else while Mark’s voice fades out, albeit with resistance. Further down in We Are Time the band starts off with a slice of its pulsating funk. Mark Stewart’s voice – wild-eyed, deranged – his voice taking on a schizophrenic quality – splits and merges continuously until four mini-voices (“I! You! We! ARE TIME!”) merge into one scream on the lyric. Also, I’ve never heard such effective usage of stereo panning. The album wraps up with Don’t Sell Your Dreams, which is disappointing but also a welcome relief. Mark’s voice – half-spoken, half-wild, displays a weariness (too much incoherent screaming, maybe?) not present in the previous tracks – the Joy Division-esque guitar hangs in the air, and the bass mumbles; something unknown rattles along in the background until the track ends with the shuffling of feet and the switching off of the recorder.
The album as a whole is less of a concept album and more of a sensory experience – if you’ve written this album as absolute bollocks, I implore you to try again. However, if you’re new to this album…please approach with caution. If you don’t get it now, save it for another time – one day you’ll see the light, I’m pretty sure!