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The Pop Group Are A Pop Group – “We Are Time” & “Cabinet of Curiosities”

The Pop Group
We Are Time / Cabinet of Curiosities
Freaks R Us

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Listening to the recent brace of Pop Group reissues, in this case We Are Time and the oddsy-sodsy Cabinet of Curiosities (technically not a reissue but a brand new 9-track comp but leave it off, would ya?), a couple of self-evident truths come to mind. One is that, in that time of sharply-purposed irony – We Are Time was first released in 1980, following 1979’s debut Y – any band that called themselves ‘The Pop Group’ was most assuredly not one (and yet perhaps they actually were in the most demotic meaning of that word? Hmmm), and the other is that your correspondent was to some degree a fool back then, a young man in thrall to Magazine and Wire and countless others but cowed by the prospect of The Pop Group and their reputedly ferocious leanings. Such intimidation, I’ve long come to realize, was absolute codswallop. Deep down inside the sonically trenchant trenches of The Pop Group pulses an indomitable spirit, fierce and fearless and, as it happens, immutably funky. They are the Pere Ubu-infected, savage snip of a cousin to the Gang of Four if the Leeds lads, much as I love ’em, had put as much aesthetic muscle into Captain Beefheart and Funkadelic as they had Antonio Gramsci.

Birthed in Bristol in 1977 by singer Mark Stewart and guitarist Gareth Sager and sharing a similar anti-consumerist, question-every-assumption ethos of said Gang if with a bit more bite to their bile, The Pop Group, then and in retrospect, quite arguably represent the core nubbin of the post-punk approach better than anyone possibly excepting The Slits. Utilizing schizoid dub plate impetus, disemboweled funk lunges, sideways jazz riffs and whatever else they could extract from the fringes of the exploding inevitable zeitgeist and then extruding it all with a careening display of compositional tightrope-walking into frantic, often lurching but – as is now obvious – always cohesive slabs of mayhem that spun your dizzy head mercilessly until you cried uncle and submitted to the crippling mightiness of it all, The Pop Group basically ripped a new one in the vinyl consciousness of the day. It was as if James White had chanced upon a visceral tribe of insatiably-appetited aliens that dined on the very expansion of thought itself and whose only mode of expression was to dance on a never-dying bed of coals while telling you what it felt like. This was the theater of the honestly absurd written loud and large on the nerve-endings of your soul where you couldn’t let go but hell that was immaterial anyway since, once in its clutches, none but idiots would care to escape.

Do not for one second think that I’m being hyperbolic here.

 

What’s insane, while at the same time somehow not surprising, is that four of the ten tracks on We Are Time – the incendiary, slightly breathless “Thief of Fire” that must’ve taught the Birthday Party a thing or two, “Genius or Lunatic” with its smooth groove sides that still manage to slice one in ribbons, the lurking mania of “Spanish Inquisition” with its take-no-prisoners rhythmic clench, and the title track that begins like a friendly Sunday afternoon before gloriously disfiguring itself and trampling all concept of time and calendar even as its beating heart stays true – were recorded live, with none of the luxury of overdubs or re-do’s or tape manipulation. Straight through the board and into your ears, those four tracks alone posit The Pop Group as one of if not the bravest of the many brave combos operating at the time. This is experimentation with no filters and no second chances, and the fact the band charge past simply nailing it and burst further into a state of spontaneous manic transcendence says just about all you need to know about them.

Splayed, splenetic, incomparable and incorrigible, The Pop Group took risks by capturing them inside however many bars were required then releasing them back into the wild. That they were capable of distilling their many fritzing agitated parts into moments of luring pop hypnosis can only be ascribed to something akin to inherent genius. Even as ‘willful’ is an adjective you can’t reasonably avoid with this band – and my, why would you? – there are, in the end, no neat boxes in which to store The Pop Group. “Colour Blind,” with its easy-loping rhythm, its light, head-nodding glitter of guitar that’s a bit Orange Juice being safe as milk and the agreeable presence of a constant cymbal tap, would seem near-tamed compared to, say, the Stooge-y punctuation of “Trap,” were it not for the sinister insinuations that inhabit both lyric and voice, Stewart in his quaver on the edge of a quiet breakdown, which soon enough happens anyway as the track gives way to a finely-contained chaos around its chorus. The song’s┬árapturous, rigorous live treatment included on Cabinet of Curiosities, along with others over there, only cements the impression that here was a band that didn’t straddle so much as jam together the virtuosic with the innate, in-the-moment blown-apartness of a feral free jazz ensemble standing amid shards of glass with firecrackers and bottle rockets going off all around them all the time.

 

‘Accessible’ for The Pop Group came tough and challenging and some version or another of astutely hellbent, but for those that stick with it – and ain’t this pretty much always the case – the rewards run toward the ecstatic. Just stand your ground, “dancing without moving” as Stewart yelps in “Colour Blind,” and the nervously animated savant sound that is The Pop Group sound will swerve toward you, maybe menacingly, perhaps erratically but always in a way you can’t take your ears off of, and break itself down to its constituent parts with a peristaltic grace, the beautiful difficult thing, all layed for you. Cabinet is stuffed with such offerings and all but one are relative rarities.

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That one is the disturbed funk bass bomb “Where There’s A Will” that was their side of a split 7″ with the Slits in 1980 and sounds like ConFunkShun waking up on the tower block dole in the first year of Thatcher and finding out their freak has suddenly developed a dark grey grit and grime. It’s quite possibly the steeliest, most unflinching expression of proletariat determination imaginable and certainly the funkiest. Beyond this we get the until-now unheard “She Is Beyond Good and Evil” as produced by Roxy Music’s Andy Mackay, who may have been seeking a way out of the growing sheen and morass of Manifesto and whether he found it or not is anyone’s guess but it is the case that this version sports a noticeable applique of gloss that neither hurts nor enhances what remains the gateway drug to the Pop Group experience, prescribe at will; we get a Peel session that runs from a fractured and definitive “Words Disobey Me” through a pleadingly jagged “Don’t Sell Your Dreams” and into a resonant take of “We Are Time” that utterly shatters any doubts as to this band’s abilities in a live setting, their collective-spontaneity gene glowing and radioactive; we get a bracing, exploded-view version of We Are Time‘s “Amnesty Report” (here with a “III” appended) that’s got a twinge of gargled industrial-strength avant-delica about it that charms from the fringes. Most tantalizing, we also get two previously unheard songs, “Abstract Heart,” a somewhate more loosely-coiled Pop Group work-up that ropes in and braids together a Trout Mask Replica outtake and, I swear, a mid-song instrumental passage that’s blues-rock-centric with a Fillmore feel, and the far more desperate, sclerotic slice of writhing straitjacket funk called “Karen’s Car,” recorded in Finland and rife with a trapped emotional panic, claustrophobic and dark and lashing out, wrapped in an aural barbed wire, the band by this point whittled down to their fervent essence, a quartet of flinty-edged refugees from the post-punk wars (Stewart and Sager with second guitarist John Waddington and drummer Bruce Smith) flailing out their freedoms in a foreign land. Take a crescent wrench to the fatal fatalism of PiL’s “Poptones” and tighten it until its hinges fuse and you have some sense of the track’s eleventh-hour intensity.

Alive with an angered hope, straining at the tethers with a peasant’s heart and a revolutionary’s seething intellect, grounded in – and shot through by – the restless foundational funk that unites us all, The Pop Group, upon reappraisal, are indeed the most accurately named band there’s ever been, and this fool is cured.