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‘.

Working Week: Does Jazz Go Into Pop?

Simon Booth, Juliet Roberts and Larry Stabbins of Working Week

Simon Booth, Juliet Roberts and Larry Stabbins of Working Week

I’ve just had the pleasure of writing the liner notes to a really good new live album by Working Week, possibly the premier jazz/pop band of the 1980s.

It got me thinking about why jazz has totally disappeared from the charts and why the first half of the ’80s seemed the perfect time for jazz and pop to co-exist, especially in the UK.

Here an excerpt from the liner notes:

‘Does jazz go into pop? Judging by the current music scene, the answer would appear to be an unequivocal ‘no’, but, for a golden period in the early-to-mid ’80s, it seemed as if the two styles could happily co-exist. Artists like David Sylvian, John Martyn, Hue and Cry, Elvis Costello, Kate Bush, The Rolling Stones, Sting, Danny Wilson, Swing Out Sister, Joe Jackson and Everything But The Girl smuggled some cool chords into the charts introduced the pop audience to players of the calibre of Kenny Wheeler, Harry Beckett, Lester Bowie, Michael Brecker, Ronnie Scott, Eberhard Weber, Sonny Rollins, Guy Barker, Kenny Kirkland and Branford Marsalis. Sade, Carmel, The Style Council and Matt Bianco’s fusion of jazz and pop wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea but all of them had big hits. The Stranglers’ ‘Golden Brown’ was a jazz waltz (with a few bars of 4/4 thrown in) which got to number one!

The advertising and TV industries played ball and a full-scale jazz ‘revival’ was underway, documented in classic 1986 documentary ’10 Days That Shook Soho’. Courtney Pine and Miles Davis shared space on the UK album chart, Wynton Marsalis made the cover of Time and you could even catch Loose Tubes, Tommy Chase and Andy Sheppard on primetime terrestrial TV. DJs Paul Murphy, Baz Fe Jazz, Patrick Forge and Gilles Peterson packed out Camden’s Dingwalls and the Electric Ballroom and young hepcats were dancing to Cannonball Adderley, Roy Ayers, Donald Byrd, Art Blakey and Lee Morgan.

Dancers at Dingwalls, London, 1988

Dancers at Dingwalls, London, 1988

Though older British jazzers such as Stan Tracey, Keith Tippett and Mike Westbrook (and some younger ones too) naturally viewed this latest revival with some suspicion, at least it was a relief from the extremely precarious ’70s when rock, funk and fusion almost subsumed jazz. The old guard hung on, gigging in the back rooms of pubs, picking up occasional free improve shows in Europe or moonlighting in West End pit orchestras. But then punk came along, and it affected more than just disenfranchised young rock fans – its DIY ethos breathed new life into jazz too. Bands like Rip Rig + Panic and Pigbag made huge strides in engaging a youthful, receptive audience. Pigbag even made it onto ‘Top Of The Pops’…twice!

But it was Working Week, co-founded in 1983 by saxophonist Larry Stabbins and guitarist Simon Booth, who really typified the successful fusion of jazz and pop in mid-‘80s. Formed in 1983 from the ashes of jazz/post-punk outfit Weekend (whose ‘The View From Her Room‘ was a confirmed early-’80s club classic), initially Working Week was almost the de facto house band for the emerging scene, with the infectiously exuberant IDJ dancers often joining them onstage. Brit National Treasures™ Robert Wyatt and Tracey Thorn duetted on classic single ‘Venceremos – We Will Win’ which briefly made an appearance on the UK singles chart in late 1984. The accompanying album Working Nights, featuring other Brit jazz legends Guy Barker, Harry Beckett and Annie Whitehead and produced by Sade’s regular helmer Robin Millar, reached a sprightly number 23 in the UK album chart soon after…’

Read more in the newly-released Working Week live album recorded in May 1985.

Much more on the ’80s London jazz/dance scene to come.