Vic Reeves VS The Pop Group
In 1979, a young Vic Reeves, pumped up on amphetamine, witnessed Mark Stewart's The Pop Group play Glastonbury and had a major epiphany. Now, we re-unite them for a special reflective chat about pills, curry, and punk.
It was a muddy year at Glastonbury in 1979. The festival was still called Glastonbury Fayre back then, there were 12,000 attendees, Peter Gabriel was the blockbuster headliner, the tickets were £5, and the pioneering post-punk band The Pop Group (fronted by Mark Stewart) were about to play for the very first time. In attendance was a young Vic Reeves (real name: Jim Moir) who could be found hopping around the muddy fields charged up on amphetamine and exhilarated by the savage music he was hearing from the stage: a ferocious and unearthly mix of discordant punk, dense dub, propulsive funk – a mutated sound that has since come to define post-punk as a genre.
Stewart and Reeves met at the stone circle that night and would later become friends. Reeves would later become one half of Vic & Bob, one of the greatest British comedy duos of all time, responsible for Shooting Stars, Big Night Out and the invention of the fartridge (half fart, half partridge). The Pop Group would go on to become pioneers of the 70s and 80s, singlehandedly forcing the age of punk into post-punk, influencing Nick Cave, Massive Attack and more on their way to releasing four thunderous albums.
So, nearly 40 years since that fateful night in Somerset, we decided to reunite the pair for no other reason than because The Pop Group currently have a brand new album out, Honeymoon on Mars, and Reeves has an exhibition of his various surreal, psychedelic paintings on show in Kent. Also, we thought it could be an enlightening and surreal conversation about punk, music, art, comedy and anything else their very unique minds wandered to.
Noisey: Tell us about your memories of Glastonbury 1979?
Vic Reeves: We turned up and Gong were on, so we put our tent up in the Gong field. But you'd get out of your tent to go get some lentils and you'd come back and there would be a load of Gong kids rummaging through your stuff, so we moved our tent out of the Gong field.
Mark Stewart: Was that the first time you saw a hippy?
VR: No, but it was the first time I saw you. The Slits were on and I spent most of the time running around the stage on pep pills
MS: Pet pills?
VR: Pep pills – I'm giving it a polite name. It was great. I was 20 then, and remember talking to you on a hill overlooking the whole site.
MS: And you had some sort of epiphany?
VR: That came later. I had a really nice job as an engineer and I was earning a lot of money, testing parts of aeroplanes. It was a good job but I didn't want to do it and I thought: 'I'll go work in a record store. I was in bands at the time, so I thought I'd go work in Our Price. It dropped my wages to next to nothing, but to celebrate that moment I put on "She is Beyond Good and Evil" by the Pop Group. It was one of those moments in life where a single piece of music just makes you feel incredible, so thanks.
Do you remember Glastonbury, Mark?
MS: I do, very clearly. Because we were punks and, not to be rude, we were against hippies. It was a tribal thing; before that it would be like a City or Rovers football thing back in Bristol and people would shout at you "City or Rovers?" even if you didn't have a football scarf on. You also had the skinheads and the suedeheads, but we were smoothies.
VR: I was talking about this recently. When we were kids in the 70s, one week I'd be a smoothie, the next week I'd be a hippy, and then I'd be a funkster. I used to change every week, depending on what I was into. Like if I was into Captain Beefheart one week...
MS: Ah, so you were into Beefheart at a young age? You were a music head? See, I was into the clothes but - and I shouldn't say this - I wasn't really into music. I saw Alvin Stardust on Top of the Pops with a black glove on with a ring on it, pointing at the screen and I thought if I can make a living out of that and I don't have to go and work in one of those aircraft factories like you did then I'm up for it.
VR: Do you know why he wore the black glove?
VR: His name was Shane Fenton and he had blonde hair and his manager told him to dye his hair black to look a lot cooler. So he dyed his hair black, got it all over his hands and it dripped all down his face too so he put on stick-on black sideburns and black gloves to cover up all the dye and that's how Alvin Stardust was born.
Tell us about some of your earliest explorations in music, Jim? I understand you were in an early incarnation of the 80s industrial band, Test Dept?
VR: Yeah, I was living in the squats in Nettleton Road in New Cross, and we used to go down to Millwall where they were knocking all the factories down and get bits of junk and bring them back and we'd make films. I was in art school and I'd save all my money for super8 film so we could make films of Vietnam in the garden. I was living on bread and cider at the time. I was playing bass in the band, and there was a flutist. We all lived in the same house and we did our first gig at Goldsmith's College and I said, "You don't want a bass player in here or a flutist".
MS: You pushed out the flutist?
VR: I pushed myself out. I thought the band didn't need it, that they just needed some tape sounds and...
MS: Wow, Vic Reeves invents industrial! Well, I was the first person to button my shirt up before A Certain Ratio or Ian Curtis. Ian saw me at the Russell Club with my grey shirt buttoned up.
VR: There are a lot of things I've invented but I don't think I can beat buttoning up your shirt!
Vic, did you always want to be a pop star? You ended up with a number 1 single, was that something you set out to do?
VR: Yeah, I think so. I was in bands but it never really went the way I wanted it to go. I wanted it to go like what Mark did with the Pop Group, but I never ended up being there – I always ended up being somewhere that I didn't want to be.
Mark, was mainstream success ever part of the plan for The Pop Group?
MS: It depends on your definition of mainstream success, but I'd rather be an international underground activist. Also, like back in the day going to a Throbbing Gristle gig – and this is something The Pop Group gigs now have come to represent – it was like a church for freaks and the audience were more important than the people on stage. That was the good thing about punk: it was enabling.
VR: I think the key thing from that time as well was people's desire to invent something. It was about taking something and twisting it and making it your own. Like I would go and get carrier bags in the summer - and this was a terrible thing to do - and then cut the bottom off and wear them like a vest.
MS: Ahh, bin liners...
VR: No, not even bin liners, just carrier bags. It made me so sweaty, it was terrible. I used to go to Oxfam and buy the biggest old blokes trousers I could find, and one day I sat on a wall with some chewing gum on and someone stuck a fag packet on the back, so then I just stuck fag packets all over my trousers. As ridiculous as that sounds, it was just about making something new and not buying what already existed and was out there.
MS: Being DIY. My good friend and hero Mike Watts from the Minutemen always says, "Don't listen to us, make your own band". I think before, being able to express yourself was a bit of a class thing, only the higher middle class were allowed to do that. Then going to see The Clash and all of a sudden my mates, my proper lad mates, were all forming bands. Before they were just glassing each other and now all of a sudden they're listening to African music.
VR: When we were first in bands we were influenced by Throbbing Gristle and we wanted to do something like that. My granddad died and he left me £300 and I bought a sax and I wanted it to sound like Throbbing Gristle meets Captain Beefheart – that's how I wanted my band to sound. Although, we changed the name of the band for every single gig so nobody could follow us and no one could like us.
MS: What were the band names?
VR: Rum, Dig Me I'm Django, Bobby and Jackie Charlton's Eerie Mansion... all the names were shit.
Vic, didn't you also advertise music in the back of NME under the name International Cod?
VR: Yeah, I did. I made a cassette. I can't tell you what's on it, but someone has it somewhere. I was also in another band that didn't have any name at all – we just had two flasks on stage with curry in them. So we thought: nobody knows what we're called but they'll know we smell of curry. The idea was people would go, "Oh, I liked them. I don't know what they were called but they smelt of curry." Anyway, it turns out that night we were really shit.
Is music a big part of your working relationship with Bob Mortimer, Vic?
VR: It always has been. When we started doing Big Night Out in the 80s, it was always our thing that we didn't know anything about comedy. Everyone else was doing politics, but we were a comedy troupe that came out of art school, so then we ended up being on the front cover of NME every week
MS: Because you were referencing music?
VR: Yeah, that's what our reference points were, so that's where it all came from.
MS: From that era you were taken seriously by the indie kids then?
VR: Yeah, our audience was pretty much like your audience, but now it's just a sea of balding heads.
You're both still very active and creative now but are you guys nostalgic at all?
MS: I don't think about the past. We're talking about it now for context because we grew up around the same time, but I never think about yesterday.
VR: I don't think you can ever avoid nostalgia, but don't use it for a tool. I always think about what can I do that's never been done before, rather than use nostalgia to make something new.
What does the future hold for both of you beyond your immediate projects?
MS: I think we're going to adopt some children. OK magazine are going to pay for us to go to Disneyland and get married.
VR: Then we'll move into a tent together.
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The Pop Group play the following UK dates:
Thur 17th - The Globe, Cardiff
Fri 18th - Wardrobe, Leeds
Sat 19th - The Deaf Institute, Manchester
Sun 20th - Think Tank, Newcastle
Tue 22nd - The Portland Arms, Cambridge
Thu 24th - 100 Club, London