The Pop Group: Where There’s A Will…

pop groupPunk’s tributaries reached far and wide post-1976. Save country and classical, there was barely a music genre that wasn’t affected by it (someone should write a book about the number of early Pistols, Ramones, Clash and Damned fans who went on to form bands).

But one of the most singular and unclassifiable collectives to emerge from the punk boom was Bristol’s The Pop Group, who just for a few years fused all their passions – reggae, dub, free jazz, funk, Erik Satie, Beat poetry, Dadaism, Situationism – into a gloriously chaotic unit.

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I don’t know a better band for annoying the neighbours. At their best, The Pop Group sound a bit like an avant-garde jazz band trying and somehow failing to play like Chic with a psychotic politician screaming over the top, all passed through Adrian Sherwood’s dub effects. But they are pretty damn exciting in small doses and offer textures that are genuinely surprising. I usually turn to them as an antidote to the Ed Sheerans and Ellie Gouldings of this world. They also came up with some of the best cover artwork of their era.

The Pop Group emerged from a gang of West Country teenage music fans called The Bristol Funk Army who apparently would wear zoot suits and brothel creepers and listen to heavy ’70s funk. Meanwhile, vocalist/lyricist and Last Poets fan Mark Stewart was getting a serious political awakening, hellbent on documenting his research into consumerism, nuclear power and US foreign policy.

The band’s lifespan was pretty brief, limited to two albums (the debut Y was produced by UK reggae legend Dennis Bovell) and three classic singles – ‘She Is Beyond Good And Evil‘ (not about Thatcher, according to Stewart), ‘We Are All Prostitutes‘ and ‘Where There’s A Will’, which was released as a double A-side with The Slits’ ‘In The Beginning There Was Rhythm’ in March 1980.

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They apparently lost thousands of pounds of revenue by mainly playing benefit gigs for Cambodia and Scrap The Sus (stop and search law). It was a very volatile time and they definitely put their money where their mouth was – they once even had to do a benefit for themselves to raise some cash! Their last gig before an amicable parting of the ways was the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament benefit in Trafalgar Square on 26th October 1980 in front of 250,000 people.

Mark Stewart spent the rest of the ’80s pursuing a fascinating solo career, of which much more later, while Gareth Sager and Bruce Smith formed Rip Rig & Panic (later featuring Neneh Cherry on vocals), and Smith has also been PiL’s drummer since the mid-’80s. The Pop Group’s sound has also been massively influential on a host of punk/funk bands over the last 20 years or so including Radio 4, Primal Scream and LCD Soundsystem.

And guess what – they are back among us again. They released a superb comeback album in 2015 – Citizen Zombie, produced by Adele helmer Paul Epworth – and have played live fairly regularly since 2011. It’s a pleasure to report that the rage and weirdness are very much still there.

But back to ‘Where There’s A Will’. This recently unearthed clip has become a favourite of mine (I love the studious Belgian host attempting to make some sense of this insanity), an antidote for anaemic, safe music everywhere. Not even Chris Morris could have come up with anything more grippingly bizarre.

For much more about The Pop Group and early ’80s music, check out Simon Reynolds’ excellent ‘Rip It Up And Start Again‘.

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Six Great ’80s Album Openers

vinyl-goldSequencing an album can be a real headache but it’s surely one of the dark arts of the music business. One thing’s for sure: the lead-off track is key. You know the old A&R cliché – ‘You gotta grab ’em from the first bar!’ But sometimes quiet and enigmatic can be just as effective as loud and arresting.

Repeated listening and nostalgic reverie possibly cloud the issue but it’s almost impossible to imagine some albums with different opening tracks. Revolver kicking off without ‘Taxman’? Rubber Soul without ‘Drive My Car’? Pretzel Logic without ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’? Unthinkable.

So here are six of my favourite album-openers from the ’80s:

6. Phil Collins: ‘In The Air Tonight’ from Face Value (1981)

Love or hate Phil, no one can deny this is one of the killer intros. He programmes his own ‘Intruder‘ beat on a Roland CR-78 drum machine, adds some slabs of heavy guitar, some moody chords (in D minor, the saddest of all keys…) and chills all and sundry.

5. Yes: ‘Owner Of A Lonely Heart’ from 90125 (1983)

A blast of sampled Alan White drums (later co-opted for Art Of Noise’s ‘Close To The Edit‘) and we’re away! Trevor Rabin’s gargantuan power-chord intro became an MTV mainstay and gave the prog-rock survivors their only US number one single. But, arguably, they shot their load too early – the rest of the album never comes close to this lavish opener.

4. Simple Minds: ‘Up On The Catwalk’ from Sparkle In The Rain (1984)

I’m a sucker for drummer count-ins and this is one of the best. There’s a lovely contrast between the unproduced timbre of Mel Gaynor’s yelp and stick-clicks and the subsequent blizzard of gated drums and Yamaha CP-70 piano in the classic Gabriel/Lillywhite/Padgham style.

3. Tears For Fears: ‘Woman In Chains’ from The Seeds Of Love (1989)

A less-than-great song from a less-than-great album, but messrs Olazabal and Smith weave a rather delicious, Blue Nile-influenced intro that promises great things, before Phil Collins’s stodgy drums and some chronic over-production buries it in bombast.

2. PiL: ‘FFF’ from Album (1986)

‘Farewell my fairweather friend!’ bawls Johnny over a cacophony of gated drums (played by jazz legend Tony Williams, fact fans) and angry guitars. Well, hello!

1. The Blue Nile: ‘A Walk Across The Rooftops’ from A Walk Across The Rooftops (1984)

Another one that asks, ‘Hang on, is there something wrong with this CD?’ Subtle synths ruminate in near-silence before some found sounds (coins being inserted into a slot machine?) and a lonesome trumpet gently prod a classic album into life.