The Pop Group Are Back and Fighting Against the "Warm Bath of Apathy"
Or so says their founder Mark Stewart. I spent two hours with him and he only told me to fuck off once.
To find out what kind of band The Pop Group were, just take a look at their track lists. Their debut single on Rough Trade was called "We Are All Prostitutes." That was followed by "Rob A Bank" and "Forces Of Oppression" on the album For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder? This was a band of insurgents, who combined agitprop with Dadaism, punk with free-jazz, paranoia with malice. They were led by Mark Stewart, one of the most politically committed figures of the first wave punk movement.
When I meet Stewart at the Clapham Picturehouse’s café, I’m a little apprehensive. This manic giant of a man has been known to give journalists a hard time—see him terrorize John Doran in this interview with The Quietus—but in the two hours I spend with him he only tells me to fuck off once, and even then I’m pretty sure he’s joking. He’s scribbled a bunch of thoughts on the back of a Shredded Wheat packet, things he wants to “drop” into interviews as we join his wild voyage through ideas and history.
The Pop Group are back, with new ideas and a plan to plant a bomb in the heart of the machine. And while Stewart is always looking forward, he also takes me back to Bristol in the early ’70s, where it all began. “I saw the New York Dolls on the TV in England and that virally messed up my mind and turned me into another person,” he recalls. Later on, once he’d spent time with them, he found out that Ian Curtis in Manchester and Bobby Gillespie in Glasgow went through the same thing. “Over the years, I met these kids, and we had all sat down in isolation in some estate in Strathclyde or Wales, and we’d all got a hold of Metallic K.O. by Iggy, some Dolls stuff… it was a rite of passage. There was a shared thing.”
Stewart’s mother had moved into Bristol from the countryside “for the cheap housing.” His best friend at the time was Jeremy Valentine; when the lads were about 13 or 14, they’d spend their days rifling through junk shops, “getting into weird jazz” and playing records. Jeremy started a punk band called The Cortinas and they all went up to the Roxy in London to play. Stewart had his own idea for a band: “I was trying to get a band together when I was 13. I nicked something from the William Burroughs novel The Wild Boys. I had this idea of coming out of a dustbin dressed in a bin liner…” It didn’t quite pan out.
Stewart’s crew were the freak kids in Bristol. He says that when they saw a picture of the Sex Pistols, dressed a bit like them, something changed: “Punk was such an enabler. If there’s not too much going on in the town you’re in, you dream. I dreamt so many ideals into the idea of punk. Seeing somebody in a band wearing the same clothes as you was really, really weird. Nobody looked anything like us, because we were wearing mohair jumpers, like we'd seen Steve Jones wear, to funk clubs in Bristol. Bands were for students. I was 11, wearing winkle pickers, pink pegs, dancing to really heavy funk.”
That picture of Steve Jones, someone from “the same youth tribe,” left Stewart and his gang impatient to see the Pistols, who were banned from playing in Bristol. Instead, they went to Caerphilly. “There was a big Observer piece on the beginning of punk,” he says, “and there was a picture of me wearing in sunglasses at that gig."
Bristol had also become a cultural melting pot. For Stewart—“a funk boy at heart”—and The Pop Group, who melded funk, dub, and punk together, it was vital. “In the 60s, they set up a recruiting station in Jamaica for Bristol Omnibus and a lot of Jamaicans came over. My granddad was really pleased because they 'cleaned their shoes and dressed well'.”
The hip-hop scene in Bristol really took off when The Pop Group brought back underground tapes from New York in the late 70s and early 80s. The Wild Bunch, a soundsystem collective which included members of Massive Attack, Tricky and Milo Johnson (aka DJ Milo), brought hip-hop to the local clubs for the first time. “Me and Grant from Massive Attack have been swapping clothes since we were kids,” Stewart says. “He’s older than me! They used to come to Pop Group shows… Milo was the man. He was the coolest. There was a clothes shop called Paradise Garage, which was owned by our manager Alan Jones, who was in the band Amen Corner in the ’60s, and me and Milo used to go there.”
Bristol’s a relatively small city, so there were fewer divisions. The ghetto and the bohemian areas bled into one. Kids from the estates crashed the hip parties. “You get all this interplay between different people—you still do. The area I grew up in was on the edge of four different boot boy gangs. That gave me the confidence to do anything, because they were 22 and I was 11.”
When The Pop Group formed in 1977, they took punk, the funk they heard in clubs, and the music of Jamaican Bristol and spearheaded it with a political message that hit you like a brick from a St Paul’s estate. The name came from Stewart’s mum—“I think she said, ‘Oh, Mark’s forming a pop group’.”—not from ironic detachment.
They also took the avant-garde stuff Stewart was into, getting in the cellist Tristan Honsinger to play with them. “I hung out with Sun Ra at the North Sea Jazz Festival,” Stewart says, on the subject of the “weird things” he was into. “My girlfriend at the time was a journalist and she was trying to interview him. She phoned me up and said, ‘Mark, you have to come down here, he’s talking the nonsense you’re going on about’. So he told me which planet he was from.” Which planet was it? “Neptunia, I think…”
Almost immediately, The Pop Group were off and running: “We played this little youth club for my brother’s 21st. Immediately, basically because we couldn’t play, we were all playing different songs in the wrong time. But when we came to London, Richard Williams in the Melody Maker thought we sounded like Albert Ayler. We didn’t say anything! We’re experimental? Alright then!”
It only lasted for two albums, 1979’s Y and the aforementioned For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder? in 1980. But the band was raved about (just listen to Nick Cave talking about them here) and brought a furious, questioning political message to their songs. Painful, alienating and frenzied, The Pop Group brought an eccentricity to the music of what Cave calls a “violent, paranoid time.”
When The Pop Group broke up in 1981, punk’s politically charged message was beginning to weaken. But for Stewart, the idea of the political went alongside the broken barriers between audience and performer: “What people don’t understand about The Pop Group is that it’s very, very, very celebratory. We started off as a gang of mates taking the piss out of each other.”
Today, Stewart is still fighting against sliding into “the warm bath of apathy." But he also tells me there’s a chance The Pop Group might actually become a pop group. The idea of mainstream success isn’t abhorrent to him. He says that while the band’s re-launch is, for now, “very bespoke, very Rough Trade,” there’s a chance that things could get massive. If they do, he wants to smuggle his weirdness into the mainstream.
“I speak of these secret agents,” says Stewart, revealing his conspiracy theorist side, “Pop Group fans who are way up in Japanese conglomerates, the guy who does The Simpsons [Matt Groening], the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the labs that are inventing the future. There’s people that have been virally brainwashed that when the time comes… a back door will be opened for us.”
He goes on to say that the cool people he knows were “never holier than thou” about getting involved in the system or being part of the mainstream. “We had this idea of an explosion in the heart of the commodity”, he says and it is intoxicating to think of cello freak-outs finally being a part of the mainstream.
Whether The Pop Group end up playing Wembley Stadium remains to be seen. I’d rather see them with a couple of hundred people but who knows, maybe they’ll be off on a tour of American football stadiums before we know it. And there’s something amazing about the thought of suburban dads from New York to Nevada shouting, “We are all prostitutes… Capitalism is the most barbaric of all religions,” like they’d shout “Tramps like us, baby we were born to run.”
Stream the Pop Group's new rarities collection here:
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