If post-punk was the more eclectic love-child of punk’s grand misfire, The Pop Group – a name so loaded with irony that it could well have overshadowed the group’s actual body of work – were the group that isolated the political dimension of the art form they were birthed from and set it to one of the most vibrant, essential and ferociously diverse musical backdrops ever conceived.
Jagged guitars, churning funk basslines, dub echo and whining not-quite-jazz horns made The Pop Group drift rapidly away from supposed peers like PiL, but it was singer Mark Stewart that really set this group apart from the rest. His vocals were wild, antagonistic, agitated and bitter, delivering epithets and slogans that belonged on a picket line, a battle cry for the disappointed, disaffected and fundamentally fucked-over by an establishment that was supposedly there to support them. Only Nick Cave’s crazed vocal stylings in the contemporaneous Birthday Party came close to Stewart’s looming presence, and Cave never dared go near politics, even at his most pissed off.
1980’s ‘For How Long Must We Tolerate Mass Murder?’ was the second Pop Group album and one that's languished out of print for far too long. Regarded as a lost classic, it's not hard to see why it has achieved legendary status. Sonically more wild and free than its predecessor, ‘For How Much Longer…’ features infectious tracks like the maddeningly funky ‘Justice’ and the wobbly dub paranoia of ‘There Are No Spectators’ (presaging some of Stewart’s more urgent cuts with On-U Sound’s Adrian Sherwood as The Maffia) as well as thunderously intense noise blasts that simultaneously evoke early Cabaret Voltaire’s proto sampling and Laibach’s political rigour. ‘Rob A Bank’ might take the prize for the most obvious call to arms, but it's ‘Communicate’, with its harrowing, freeform James Chance sax wail that really stirs the blood.
This is not an easy listen, and that's a good thing. 35 years on, it's perhaps difficult to fully comprehend the abject disappointment and political failings of the time unless you were there, but one listen to Stewart’s howling, feisty intonation on opener ‘Forces Of Oppression’, or the 1978 single ‘We Are All Prostitutes’ that's been tacked into the centre of this set, and you can kind of understand what all the fuss was about. This is noise music as pure political statement, and it's hard not to think that our ability to stand up and register out dissatisfaction – even with supposedly radical statements like the Occupy movement – has all become a little soft and ineffectual with the passage of nearly 40 years.
Words: Mat Smith / @mjasmith
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