The Pop Group: Appetite For Deconstruction

Following the sad news of Mark Stewart from The Pop Group’s passing, MOJO revisits our 2015 encounter with post-punk's genre-mashing insurgents.

Mark Stewart from The Pop Group

by Mark Paytress |

Young Mark Stewart cuts a mantis-like figure near the front at Patti Smith’s Hammersmith Odeon gig. It’s October 23, 1976, and the lanky 16-year-old Bristolian, plus pal Simon Underwood, are shortly to wangle an audience with the high priestess of the international punk rock scene.

“We told her, There’s some English punk thing on tonight,” remembers Stewart. “It was The Clash at the ICA. So we dragged her and Lenny Kaye across London.”

The night continued with Smith leaping on-stage to dance and Stewart spellbound in his moment of epiphany. “It was seeing Paul Simonon with those stickers on his bass showing him where to put his fingers,” he says. “That changed a whole generation of us. Now anybody could do it.”

Drinking tea at a table in a corner of an Oriental buffet palace in Poole, Dorset, Stewart, now 54, has lost none of his coltish enthusiasm. Creating Citizen Zombie, the first new Pop Group album since 1980, has been “like watching a golem rise”. He’s incredibly tall, a talker, laughs like Muttley, loves his one-liners (“Did you know Ken Dodd had died?” No. “So diddy?”), and shares secrets with glee.

“The head of GCHQ is a Pop Group fan,” he stage-whispers. So, it seems, is David Bowie, various multinational bigwigs and leading futurologists – not to mention Paul Epworth, the producer of Adele, U2 and now Citizen Zombie. Are the militant misfits of post-punk fashionable at last? “The mutants are taking over!” Stewart declares, “all the whiz-kids and the freaks. It’s weird.”

That’s what people were saying in 1976 when the stickers on Simonon’s bass were emblematic of deep cultural change. But by the time The Clash’s White Riot tour pulled into Bristol’s Colston Hall on May 26, 1977, there were cracks in punk’s united front and Stewart was one of its budding dissidents. “I think I walked out on The Clash,” he admits, scotching the legend that he’d was wearing a jacket made from car seat belts. “It was a pair of trousers made to look like a straitjacket,” he insists, “like a mental hospital thing. But punk had kinda finished by then. The Clash were like Nils Lofgren. The Vibrators were taking in their flares. What was the point of copying someone else?”

Weeks earlier, on April 7, Gareth Sager’s 17th birthday, the nucleus of The Pop Group had their first rehearsal. “It was just me, Mark and Bruce [Smith] in the beginning,” says guitarist/saxophonist Sager, who knew Smith from school and Stewart from “hanging out”. And Stewart and Sager were friends with The Cortinas, whose debut 45, Fascist Dictator, came out that June.

Adding Simon Underwood on bass and second guitarist John Waddington, the newly named Pop Group – not ironic, they insist – crashed The Cortinas’ rehearsal space. They worked up songs they liked (T.Rex’s Solid Gold Easy Action, Jonathan Richman’s Pablo Picasso and Road Runner) or were easy to play (Louie Louie, My Generation). “Gareth and John had some musical experience,” says Smith, “certainly more than Simon and I. We figured it out as we went along.”

One thing The Pop Group didn’t lack was attitude. Stewart, Smith and Underwood had all been part of The Avon Soul Army. “It was a gang of about 150 kids, just before punk, who were into ’50s clothes and funk,” explains Stewart. “We constantly took the piss out of each other. You know, ‘Where did you get those crappy Tesco Tuckers shoes?’ So when we got together in a room, all that came out in the music.”

On October 9, 1977, The Pop Group secured a support slot when The Stranglers came to Plymouth’s Fiesta Club. The headliners’ tour manager,  Dick O’Dell, was impressed enough to take them on. Prestigious gigs in London followed, with The Stranglers at the Roundhouse in November and Elvis Costello at Dingwalls shortly after. In spring 1978, Costello’s label Radar Records – a Warner Brothers’ subsidiary – offered them a deal.

“The first demos [Radar boss] Andrew Lauder got were things like Colour Blind, which were similar to where early Joy Division were coming from,” says Sager. “You could tell we were wearing grey. They’re austere, intense.”

With the confidence that major label backing brings, the band’s ambition rocketed. “We started grooving along like Funkadelic,” says Sager, “and throwing in a bit of Stockhausen.”

Reggae, R&B and jazz, plus Avon Soul Army faves T-Connection and The Fatback Band, entered the Pop Group mix, while Mark Stewart brought a Bowie influence – “He opened my eyes to stuff: Jean Genet, The Factory, Burroughs, Kirlian photography…” – and a passion for Patti Smith’s Piss Factory and Television’s Little Johnny Jewel. “Somebody ranting French poetry over a mad minimal beat!” he exclaims. “What the fuck?! Can you do this? The clash of guitars on Little Johnny Jewel, and that line about a ‘chest full of lights’ – that blew our minds.”

“The Pop Group want enormous success,” Radar’s Lauder told the press. “We did,” agrees Sager today, “but only on our terms.” They claimed they were “the beatniks of tomorrow”, but found a niche of sorts, supporting Pere Ubu and Patti Smith. In October 1978, they headlined a night at Camden’s Electric Ballroom, supported by Cabaret Voltaire, Nico and Linton Kwesi Johnson. With ’79 in sight, they were figureheads for a new anti-rockist tendency. But still there was no record.

“Knowledge is a nutrient. I can’t just talk about cars and girls.”

Mark Stewart

“Our fantasy was to have John Cale produce and Dennis Bovell to engineer,” says Sager. “But Mr Cale was slightly worse for wear when we met him, so that didn’t happen.”

After trying out Roxy Music’s Andy Mackay, they plumped for rising Bajan reggae producer Bovell, and when She Is Beyond Good And Evil appeared in March 1979, it sounded totally without precedent: a single-round brawl fashioned from funk, feedback and dub tricknology; a hook that punched in staccato triplets; and, on top, Stewart’s grave, cavernous howl.

The latter says Bovell unlocked a “supernatural element” in the band’s work. “I don’t know how it happens and I wouldn’t want to control it,” he explains, “but I grew up in a tradition. My grandmother was a clairvoyant and every Sunday she’d get out this card table and we’d do table-rapping – one for yes, twice for no…”

Debut album Y, released in April, was a paean to those ‘other forces’. The cover image of the Mud People of Papua New Guinea suggested an atavistic counterbalance to Western ‘civilisation’. What Stewart calls the “alchemical brew” within – a Molotov cocktail of distressed rock, floppy funk primitivism and Stewart’s symbolist yells, all pushed to the limits by Bovell’s dub deconstruction – was equally other. Only Pere Ubu operated in any- thing resembling similar territory.

The “electric cavemen” transformation, to lift one of Stewart’s more conventional couplings on the record, was by not universally applauded.

“One minute, The Pop Group were brilliant innovators,” complained Sounds’ Giovanni Dadamo, “the next, just pompous little shits with a fat deal and nothing to say.” Less than two months later, the “fat deal” had been abruptly terminated. A matter of principle, Sager insists: “We realised that on Warners we were aligning ourselves to a massive conglomerate,” he says. “That kind of freaked us out – not knowing where their money was coming from. That’s when the paranoia kicked in.”

At the same time, Stewart’s politics were heading rapidly leftwards. “I got radicalised by what was happening in Bologna with the Autonomist groups,” says the singer, referring to the Italian post-Marxist arts-and-direct-action movement. His well-thumbed volumes on De Nerval and Mallarmé dropped to the bottom of the pile. Now, CND and Amnesty International campaign literature dominated his mindscape. “Knowledge is a nutrient,” he says. “I can’t just talk about cars and girls. I still open the curtains each morning and see a world where millions are starving because of Western greed. I don’t understand why nobody else sees it. So you have to go in and get your fists dirty, fight for your point.”

With Autumn ’79 approaching, there was plenty to fight for. Having played a ‘Bankruptcy Benefit’ for themselves in July, The Pop Group considered releasing some old demos to stay afloat. “You also had cruise missiles, the Cold War, Thatcher,” says Dan Catsis, who’d recently replaced Simon Underwood. “Everyone was on edge. And we were plugged into the Zeitgeist.”

No record captures that better than We Are All Prostitutes, a slab of revolutionary disco 
released on the Rough Trade label in November ’79. “Sometimes a song feels like it has a life of its own and captures a moment in time,” says Bruce Smith. “Prostitutes was one of those.”

But behind the apparent unity of anti-capitalist rant, divisions existed. Days later, it was [prematurely] announced that Mark Stewart would be leaving after recording a second album. He wanted to find “another way of doing it, something outside the whole music thing”.

“It did get polarised,” Smith concedes. “As Mark became increasingly politicised, Gareth was leaning towards this jazzy, improvisational approach.”

A communal trip to The Hague on July 14 crystallised their dilemma. “We’d all gone to see Sun Ra at the North Sea Jazz Festival,” says Sager, “and for me it was mind-blowing. It had all the freshness and excitement of early punk. Everybody was excited about it, including Mark. But as we were getting more wild, he was left thinking, How do I fit into this?”

“I can’t improvise,” Stewart admits. “I’m not that bloke from Can.”

Two songs on For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder?, released in March 1980, don’t feature Stewart at all. But elsewhere his message is heard loud and clear, rammed home by titles like Forces Of Oppression, Feed The Hungry and Justice, if slightly undermined by the band’s decision to produce themselves, resulting in an oddly tinny sound. “I could hardly sit in the same room with it at the time,” says Catsis. During the sessions, Sager had an idea. 
“I said to Mark, Can’t we write a positive song?” So they did. Where There’s A Will There’s A Way turned out to be a final hurrah, the last in a hat-trick of extraordinary 45s, the one where all The Pop Group’s James Brown and electric Miles fantasies collide in a Sugarhill Gang-inspired commotion.

If, as Sager insists, the album marked “the end of our teens”, the single, split with The Slits’ In The Beginning There Was Rhythm, suggested a brand new start. It was – but not for The Pop Group, who bowed out on October 16, 1980, at a huge CND rally in Trafalgar Square. “In my mind, we’d split up long before then,” says Sager. “We were going in so many different directions.”

“As The Pop Group’s set finished, I played a version of Jerusalem with loads of my Jamaican mates,” says Stewart. “I’m a rhythm head. I didn’t see any problem. I didn’t realise anything had changed.”

In short order, Sager and Smith re-emerged with riotous, Roland Kirk-inspired jazz-punkers Rip, Rig & Panic, featuring a teenage Neneh Cherry, as Stewart mined a deeper, electro-dub vibe with his group The Maffia. Meanwhile, The Pop Group slipped into legend, a touchstone for new purveyors of wild intensity like Nick Cave’s Birthday Party, Minuteman Mike Watt and Sonic Youth. Above all, The Pop Group blazed a trail for the so-called ‘Bristol Sound’. Arguably, it’s Stewart’s old flatmate Tricky (“I pushed Tricks on stage and got him to sing!”) who’s the true inheritor, alchemising The Pop Group’s discomfiting, claustrophobic soundscapes for new audiences.

Back in the Chinese buffet palace, Mark Stewart is still courting controversy. He sticks up for Bono in the face of U2’s current army of detractors (“It’s the politics of envy”) and David Cameron (“I thought the way he explained that immigration speech to dunderheads was all right”), before switching to more familiar terrain.

“Mallarmé’s got this concept of ‘misreading’,” he says. “What people don’t realise about The Pop Group is that we’re not some dour, morose post-punk band. She Is Beyond Good And Evil is celebratory. People really go off the chain at concerts! That was my lifetime ambition – to have some brilliantly uplifting music with something vaguely interesting said on top.”

As he gathers his bags in readiness for a long pre-Christmas flight, Stewart turns and says, “You know when we’d all play at different speeds and journalists thought we were trying to be experimental? It was naivety. I didn’t know who Captain Beefheart was. But – sshhhh! – we kept quiet.”

It was the only time they did.

This article originally appeared in MOJO 257.

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