Current (2016 – present)
In October 2016 The Pop Group opened the latest chapter in a career of unfettered ambition. In an era where their iconoclastic contention is needed now more than ever Honeymoon On Mars found the band unwaveringly incensed and resolute in their mutative sense of innovation. Reiterating their agitative power it represented a record of characteristic resistance and invention, outlined by Mark Stewart as: ‘a stand against manufactured hate, a hypersonic journey into a dystopian future full of alien encounters and sci-fi lullabies’
The band recruited dub titan and producer of their seminal Y album Dennis Bovell alongside founding member of Public Enemy and legendary Bomb Squad producer Hank Shocklee. Stewart described the results of their collaboration as a ‘double fantasy with our two favourite sonic assassins’ withholding dub’s sense of outlandish futurism and Shocklee’s trademark infractions of noise. An experimental soundclash that signalled an entirely different vision only a year after their acclaimed 2015 LP Citizen Zombie, Honeymoon On Mars was hailed by Dangerous Minds as an illustration of a pioneering band ‘completely reinvigorated by the new’
This sense of bold reinvention was vividly reflected in a series of videos and remixes. First single Zipperface received three distinctive and uncompromising treatments courtesy of Hanz, Not Waving and Goth-Trad, a triumvirate of producers at the vanguard of dub, noise and errant electronics. Meanwhile the video presented a grotesque mindtrip by one of Bristol’s most forward thinking new visual artists Max Kelan Pierce (known for working with Young Echo, Giant Swan and Hodge) Conversely the visuals for second single Little Town by former Jesus and Mary Chain bassist come revered music video auteur Douglas Hart (My Bloody Valentine, Primal Scream, The Horrors) confronted the current state of ‘hidden Britain’.
In 2017, the band released War Inc., the last single to emerge from Honeymoon On Mars. Mobilized by the heavyweight maximalism of Hank Shocklee, the track was as driven, explosive and audacious as anything The Pop Group have ever released.
The Pop Group’s return represents post punk provocation for a contemporary era, a resistant continuation of dissentious intent that refutes the nostalgic comfort of the old for a bracing, contrarian engagement with the new.
Since reforming for a specially curated ATP festival in 2010 – at the behest of Simpsons creator Matt Groening – the band have been industrious in their reactivation. Laying the groundwork for the Citizen Zombie recording sessions the band toured key international festivals and played numerous gigs across the UK, Europe and the rest of the world throughout 2010 and into 2014, a period in which the potency of earlier years was refined and reignited.
Alongside these ongoing live appearances 2014 saw the first in a long line of reissues, beginning with We Are Time, a collection of early experiments classified by Stewart as ‘the teenage Pop Group album’ and Cabinet of Curiosities, a compilation of session tracks, unreleased songs and alternative versions recovered from obscurity and equated to a ‘lost Pop Group album’. In support of these reissues the band completed a 7 date UK tour. On witnessing their final performance at the Islington Assembly Hall, veteran music journalist Richard Williams remarked that the gig: ‘provided evidence of their continuing relevance…they’re actually better at it than they used to be back in the day.’
On Citizen Zombie the band tapped into this propensity for emulation, enlisting the hand of multi Grammy and Academy award winning producer Paul Epworth. Their first studio recording in 35 years, the album’s release in February 2015 reaffirmed the band’s assaultive power with a record fuelled by unfettered studio experimentation. Taking aim with incisive social critique and expansive pop radicalism, it confirmed the band’s undiminished relevance. A necessary, targeted affront to modern apathy; the dystopic pop such volatile times deserve. As part of a conversation with Thurston Moore for The Quietus, Mark Stewart elucidated on what the record represents in the context of the band’s history: ‘We wanted to actually be a pop group and to go on the television shows and to engage with the normal channels as an antidote to the kind of zombification of society…For me, it’s really important to engage – and to engage fiercely’. This is a reformation that realizes a long standing resolve to infiltrate and destabilize the MOR consensus of an unengaged mainstream, by venturing into terrain no one would expect The Pop Group to go to: ‘I think it’s quite important to use the channels at your disposal. To be an explosion at the heart of the commodity.’
In the video for Mad Truth – the first single to be taken from the album – this compulsion found an anarchic counterpart in Asia Argento, who visualised fluoro-strobe rituals, symbolic of ‘a spiritual warfare against a world populated by the living dead’. A seven inch split single which brought together one of Citizen Zombie’s most searing moments (Nations) with a turn from ‘suburban sink estate saviours’ the Sleaford Mods, signalled further proof of the band’s abiding commitment to confrontation and collusion.
Such ambition was matched in the wake of Citizen Zombie’s release as an extensive period of touring ensued, a stretch which included dates in Japan, Australia and America. After appearances in Tokyo, Los Angeles, an acclaimed two night stint in New York and a trip to SXSW, the band then played a seven night run across the UK culminating in a penultimate gig at The Dome in Tufnell Park, London. The event was duly hailed in The Guardian as one which bristled with a defiant edge at odds with ‘a formulaic and depoliticised age’ and one which served as ‘a timely reminder of how rock used to revolt’. By the tail end of Summer a guerrilla gig at Glastonbury’s Crow’s Nest saw Louder Than War’s John Robb declare the band’s second billing at the festival – after an afternoon slot on the John Peel Stage – as ‘one of the most astonishing gigs I’ve ever seen.’ These displays continued as the band took to Europe in the Autumn, with memorably charged performances at Iceland Airwaves, Le Guess Who in Utrecht and Belgium’s Sonic City festival, as part of a line up curated by Preoccupations née Viet Cong.
The momentum has barely relented since. As part of the closing concerts of Banksy’s Dismaland Bemusement Park, Mark Stewart and Gareth Sager performed a special ‘Noise Set’ with Geoff Barrow (Portishead, Beak, Invada Records) at the controls, repurposing material new and old for a maximalist offensive riven by distortion and dub FX. An expanded ‘Noise Set’ line up was subsequently requested to appear at the latest edition of the BBC6 Music Festival, an event which hailed the art and music of the Bristol scene as well as The Pop Group’s influential place within it. An alternative slant on their live set, these performances have sustained the longevity of their new material, opening it up to different dimensions and maintaining the band’s reputation as an unpredictable, subversionary live force.
In February of 2016 the band resumed a comprehensive reissue programme with the rerelease of their second studio album, For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder? As part of a special event at Rough Trade East, the writer and cultural theorist Mark Fisher, along with the writer, theorist and filmmaker Kodwo Eshun co-chaired a discussion with Mark Stewart and Gareth Sager on the impact and legacy of the album. Fisher prefaced the event with an article in Fact Magazine appraising its status as a ‘samizdat publication in its own right’ citing it’s ‘contiguity of enjoyment and political consciousness…less like a dreary sermon than a strange dream, in which accounts of unconscionable misery and exploitation co-exist with the fugitive compulsions of a febrile dance music.’ The conversation conducted between them and the article penned by Fisher explored and appraised the album’s lasting significance, not only in relation to the time of its release amidst ‘the ruins of Thatcher’s slash and burn agenda’ but amongst a new and equally troubling contemporary era of ‘proxy wars and false flag attacks’.
Accompanying its release came the reissue of anti-anthem and fabled second single We Are All Prostitutes acknowledged by Fisher – alongside For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder? – as equally enduring and exhilarating, a single that discharged a form of ‘scouring, seesawing, seasick funk’ and represented ‘a pied piper’s exit from dominant reality, fired by a fissile compound of millenarian terror and militant jubilation.’ The video, shot at the Electric Ballroom in November of 1979 when the single was originally released, was rediscovered by video maker Chris Reynolds. Initially thought lost and previously unseen, its remarkable restoration heralded a turbulent colour rush CCTV collage, providing a fitting representation of the band’s artful ferocity.
Only a few months later, in May of 2016, the band continued their prolific activity with another renowned addition to their series of reissues. The Boys Whose Head Exploded, an archival compilation lifting the lid on live tapes from 1979/80, brought together brawling versions of songs from the live frontline of a UK appearance and a European tour. Intensely raw and situated within an unstable cauldron of crowd melees and full tilt stage disorder, the collection also brought to light a short feature filmed by Don Letts at Alexandra Palace on June 15th 1980. Retrieved from Letts’ Punk Rock Archives, the rare footage served as another reminder of what The Pop Group have always specialised in, encapsulating the band’s molotov cocktail of punk, funk, free jazz and radical politics at its most artistically concussive.
The Pop Group’s arrival on the music scene in 1977 caused such a savagely radical commotion, that they are now seen as one of the most wildly innovative, groundbreaking bands of the whole post-punk era.
With mystical fire, enraged by global injustices, the group delivered scathing political and society-indicting messages aboard an apocalyptic roller coaster, ferociously straddling their beloved influences such as free jazz, conscious funk, heavyweight dub and audacious experimentalism. Theirs was the most confrontational distillation of punk’s original ethos, running riot with unfettered animal instinct in areas only being traversed by the likes of Public Image Limited, This Heat and Throbbing Gristle. Their politically-charged lyrics boasted intellectual influences including Wilhelm Reich, situationism, French romanticism and the beat poets.
The Pop Group was born in Bristol in 1977 out of a disenchantment with punk failing to bust out of its rock origins. Gareth Sager [guitar] recalls, “Having witnessed The Ramones at the Roundhouse in 1976 and then having heard The Sex Pistols, the 16 year-old Stewart [vocals], Sager and Smith [drums] were disappointed with Anarchy In The UK. The energy was great and the attitude all too relatable but the music was still plain old rock, so we formed The Pop Group with the addition of John Waddington [guitar] and Simon Underwood [bass].”
While loudly supporting campaigns such as CND, The Pop Group wrenched back punk’s original mission away from the rock ’n’ roll traditionalism which now seemed to be swamping it, rekindling a militant fire which had more in common with the Black Panthers and the liberated energy of free jazz. “It’s proper end-of-the-world music,” declared singer Mark Stewart.
Finding early gigs supporting kindred spirits Pere Ubu, Patti Smith and This Heat, they progressed very quickly to headlining events such as 1978s Electric Ballroom line up of Nico, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Cabaret Voltaire. The Pop Group’s anarchic live shows alienated many audiences in the grand tradition of early Sex Pistols but was the foremost example of post-punk’s liberating ability to tap into other forms of music to convey a vital message. Later, in 1979, reviewing a Cambodia benefit gig at London University for which the band were supported by Scritti Politti, Nick Kent writing in the NME observed, “They project a very real sense of danger of the sort I’ve not experienced since the Pistols’ 100 Club days. But whereas the Pistols were more into conventional hard rock, The Pop Group are working in territory that is far from orthodox.”
“We wanted to use the energy that we drew from punk and make it more political,” explained Stewart in 1998. “After all the sloganeering of punk, we actually wanted to get actively involved in campaigns; Scrap SUS, the Blair Peach, CND. And the attitude was that if you’re being ‘radical’ with the lyrics, we should challenge the structure of the music, too. Punk was still rock ’n’ roll based, no one was doing what we were doing. I was really into The Last Poets and the Watts Prophets, and the others were getting into free jazz. We were creating a wall of noise for the lyrics to fight against. It was all part of challenging the production process, disrespecting the studio machines. It may look naïve now, but we were hopeful as much as anything else.” The Pop Group donated the proceeds of their first major tour to Amnesty International.
On first recordings such as Genius Or Lunatic, Trap, Colour Blind, Sense Of Purpose and Kiss The Book, which would later surface on their 1980 We Are Time album, Sager explains that the band was “trying in an inexplicably naive manner to combine Patti Smith’s Rimbaud ramblings, James Brown, The Stooges, Roxy Music, T.Rex and classical aleatoric music”.
The Pop Group went on to record a BBC session in July of 1978 for John Peel. Later, ambivalent to Patti Smith, Peel praised her choice of tour opening act, saying “Ah well, I certainly give Patti Smith credit for one thing, she knows a good band when she hears one.” Soon after the broadcast in August, The Pop Group managed to score the first positive review of any Peel Session from Melody Maker and the band graced the cover of New Musical Express.
In March of 1979 they debuted on Radar Records with She Is Beyond Good And Evil (declaring love as a revolutionary force) and instrumental flipside 3’38 (both in title and duration), and graced the cover of Melody Maker and Sounds in the same month, following with the release of their first album, Y, in April. They toyed with the idea of John Cale as producer but, as Sager explains, “a meeting with the Velvet Underground maverick ended up with him asleep face down in his spaghetti, which put an end to that.”
With reggae titan Dennis Bovell fulfilling the production role, the album was rightly hailed as one of the great debut albums, an abrasive squall bristling with scorchers such as Don’t Call Me Pain, Blood Money, Boys From Brazil and We Are Time. “By now the band was bringing in other influences,” recalls Sager, “including Ornette Coleman, King Tubby, Funkadelic, Debussy, Jacques Brel, Fela Kuti and Steve Reich.”
With Underwood replaced by Dan Catsis of Glaxo Babies, The Pop Group made its first incendiary statement for the Rough Trade label that autumn with the dissonant primal roar of We Are All Prostitutes c/w Amnesty International Report. The A-side featured a guest appearance from free jazz cellist Tristan Honsinger, who had played with the likes of Cecil Taylor and Derek Bailey.
The single was followed by March 1980’s For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder?, the band’s first release on their own Y label in partnership with Rough Trade. The album saw the funk element upped to red alert, displaying the influence of On The Corner period Miles Davis. The urge to skin and sacrifice their sizzling skeleton grooves with free jazz skronk on tracks like Communicate and Blind Faith, put the band in a similar orbit to James White & The Contortions, while other highlights included the anthemic Forces Of Oppression and the reggae infusion of There Are No Spectators.
That same month, The Pop Group shared a 45 with The Slits, contributing the fractured future-funk of Where There’s A Will, described by Sager as “The group’s best attempt to mix a message with a groove plus some real free playing. If you are really unhinged you may be able to dance to this.”
The aforementioned We Are Time, named after one of their most infamous onslaughts, followed later that year. The limited set rounded up unreleased early gems like Trap, Genius Or Lunatic and Colour Blind. Stewart reflects on these seminal early recordings, “The Pop Group was mutating so fast right from the start that it was crucial to document those first experiments with this compilation. We Are Time is really ‘the’ teenage Pop Group album. It’s full of defiance and the material demonstrates the band’s staunch independence and our really early DIY ethic before the studio became another instrument.”
After the blinding supernova that was The Pop Group imploded, its members went on their respective creative paths. Mark Stewart’s solo career saw him pioneering further new genres, initially on Adrian Sherwood’s On-U Sound label with The Maffia (The Sugarhill house band). Further solo releases followed on Mute through the eighties and nineties and more recently on Future Noise Music and Freaks R Us. Stewart and Bruce Smith also participated in the New Age Steppers collective, while other TPG spin-off bands included Pigbag (Simon Underwood), Rip Rig And Panic (Gareth Sager, Bruce Smith), Float Up CP (Sager, Smith), Head (Sager), Maximum Joy (Catsis, Waddington) and Public Image Ltd (Smith).