Get your dancing shoes on with The Pop Group's Mark Stewart
The late ‘70s in the UK saw a deluge of explosive music and art colliding, and while not all was good by any means (much was utterly dreadful), some was brilliantly wayward. The Pop Group are one such, and they are doing only THREE shows in Australia in March.
The first is at the Adelaide Festival on Thursday 5th March, the next day they’re in Sydney at the Factory Theatre, and the last gig is at The Corner Hotel in Melbourne (where they will be supported by the rather swish Harry Howard and the NDE). Then, they’re slugging through the USA and back to Blighty to cause more sore feet and body odour. Toting a brand new album "Citizen Zombie" that's relevant and brilliant.
The Pop Group released a striking single, “She Is Beyond Good and Evil”, and the 12” did serious time on the dance floors. See, you need to get that. This is primarily a band with serious stupid energy but with punch-in-the-head lyrics. They ain’t pretty lyrics, and sometimes their delivery is rather huge. If I had a wish list, I’d ask for two live boxes of The Pop Group, then and now. I met one chap recently who’d recently seen them live in the UK, and his eyes went wide and bugged at the memory.
Their first LP “Y” (1979) was one of the three most political albums released that decade (and in that year, Gang of Four’s “Entertainment” and the Human League’s “Reproduction” were a stunning trio railing against a social straitjacket).
The “We Are All Prostitutes” single garnered utter confusion if not hostility (10 years or so later, the useless Spin magazine tried to make the song a target of ridicule, which I thought revealed the magazine’s rather lame worldview). “We are all prostitutes/Our children shall rise up against us/Because we are the ones to blame” is one of the great unspoken fears/ taboo truisms which bang down the ages…you can see it now in the Greek situation, if you must have a modern example.
The Pop Group’s 1980 split single with the Slits, “In the Beginning there was Rhythm" (Silence is a Rhythm Too/ Where There is a Will) was also a demarcation point of sorts.
Finally, it seems, the Pop Group’s LP “For How Much Longer Must We Tolerate Mass Murder?” (1980) was roundly slagged by Paul Morley in the same music rag which lionised them only a few months prior. At the time, recall, as I said earlier, the leather jacketed armies were pillocking about to strict chord structures and were about as receptive as Rockers were to Mods in 1966.
The Pop Group put their lyrics as simply as possible (Morley didn’t like that either) which kinda matched their multiple simplistic layers of music - think Kraftwerk’s simplicity, layer upon layer, and you have an inkling. But imagine if Kraftwerk were still 12-year-old boys, still scoffing red cordial, had never discovered Volkswagens, bicycles or synthesisers but had taken to horns, guitar, funk, free jazz … I may have digressed slightly here.
Ah, yes. Now, this here is I-94 Bar Land, and I know damn well very few of you have ever heard The Pop Group (they thought the name was funny in one sense, but they … er, oh dear … they really did want to be pop stars), and if you did you might not have liked it at the time. Certainly, it was raucous and … the kinda stuff you might not get if you only hear it on record.
Remember how the Sex Pistols drew a line in the sand here in Australia? You either got it, kind of, or you didn’t? And when you saw them in ‘97…suddenly you REALLY got it, because all that juvenile, snarly, schoolboy humour was there…not quite Molesworth ackshirly, but there was that aspect…
There’s no feedback neither (just to warn you) really, just a lot of clever, well-structured rackets (imagine those 12-year-old boys discovering waterslides) which force you to dance, move, push, shove, sometimes cry out and generally make a prat of yourself.
No, see The Pop Group and lose your fucking cool. Just LOSE IT.
Listen, dammit. At the time, to me The Pop Group were a bit like the freedom of expression which punk promised, but denied itself. The leather-jacketed legions (with studs and white painted band names all over) I never quite understood. Safety in numbers. But what was punk’s promise, famously laughed at? ‘To be different’…well, the Pop Group were pre-punk punks but without the idiot aggression, just the sharp, bony intelligence.
Interview The Pop Group’s vocalist-lyricist Mark Stewart? If I told you I was extremely nervous about doing this interview, with a man you’ve probably never heard of, would you believe me? My Internet had crashed and only came up the morning of the interview, my new iPhone had lost most of its memory and I was…nervous…and it was 7pm at night here and 8.30 am there and Mark’s a scary morning person.
Well, I seem to have wandered a bit, so it’s the usual 50-digit number to call overseas and I fluff it twice, and when I finally get the man on the line (apparently stuffed full of Ritalin or red cordial) he can’t hear me, so I hang up and patiently (almost) patter my way through the digits again and Mark is … quite simply that relentlessly cheerful bloke you meet who suddenly … no, it’s not sudden, but … something in him goes ‘click’ and … he’s up on stage hauling your emotions about, and the band’s making you dance like a dickhead (or in my case, even more like a dickhead).
So, before we start, imagine that Mark’s responses are like small capitals, so he’s not yelling, but he’s loud and excited and full-on and boing boing boing boing … and he’s intelligent and literate and witty and every sentence ends with an exclamation mark. What I like about our conversation is I could be having a conversation with my mate Tim (who once punched Nick Cave in the face and got thrown out of the gig rather swiftly but again I seem to have digressed) and we could be having a bunch of bevvies and discussing the most entertaining way to skin Tony Blair. (Only joking)
There’s a lot I want to tell Mark, even more I want to ask him, and I really find his happiness infectious.
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Mark Stewart: We’re all really excited about coming to Australia. Adelaide! It’s madness! We’ve been trying to work out how to play some of those new songs, the ones we improvised in the studio. You remember being 12 and being really looking forward to a school trip?
RB: Yeah, I know. But there’s a few people who didn’t make it.
(Mark goes quiet for a moment. Then he perks back up.)
MS: But we’re still here, aren’t we? We’ll do it for them.
RB: Did anyone really get the humour of the band at the time?
MS: No! It’s only really coming across now. So many people don’t understand the childish aspect of the band, the laddish aspect. We were mates at a youth club, we played ping-pong together, took the piss out of each other, you know? But by the time we broke up, the humour had frozen, like something out of Ice Age … (yes, Mark Stewart just confessed to watching the kids’ Disney series) … and it all came out again at the reunion.
See, back in the day, us, the Gang of Four, Joy Division, even the Jesus and Mary Chain later, we all looked dour for the camera, you know? And as soon as the camera was gone, we were giggling. We’re still just like kids having fun.
It’s really important to stress that you can be joyous and happy and love life and still be able to deal with heavy shit, you don’t have to be a miserable bastard.
The new album, “Citizen Zombie”, is just great. There’s a lot of savagery, but there’s a lot of sarky schoolboy humour there too. And … is that a chord?
MS: Yes! recording it was great fun! and we’ve learned another chord, a great lost chord!
RB: How did it feel opening for the Stranglers in 1979? [The Pop Group were the only band to open for the Stranglers not to get the ferocious negative reception - their audience (those leather jackets again) were utterly bemused. I expect they were rather stunned.]
MS: The Stranglers were kinda patrons of the Pop Group. I mean, how punk began, everyone was getting into the same things, but in isolation, but when we saw the Pistols, it all coalesced, and we all realised we were getting into the same stuff. All the freaks gathered. And we were a band of outsiders even from that, we were more on our own. We continued to be hyperactive teenagers when everyone else tried to be adult.
I was - and still am - a punk idealist. I think I’m more of an idealist now. Bristol was far from the hub of things, and, you know, there was no-one to tell you what the rules were, so I built up this punk philosophy in my head, which I still maintain. I’m even more of an idealist now. Punk is about defending people’s right and ability to create and have freedom of expression.
A rather shaky RB comments about how Blake’s Innocence and Experience argues that you can’t really go back to innocence after experience … but what I’m hearing is Mark Stewart not only can, he does [if not is]. There’s a bit of a startled silence at this although Mark seems to be in agreement.
We talk for a moment about the sterility of telly in the seventies; I mean in the UK there was only these mannered crime shows, occasional insane comedy like the Goodies (Monty Python was only repeated in 1978, by the way) and the very occasional half-reasonable music on the box. Three channels, I think, at the time, and mostly tosh. Or what felt like three. (These days we all have seventy channels and it’s alltosh).
RB: Was it really seeing the Dolls on telly which caused so much of a reaction?
MS: Yes! The Dolls were that one moment of my generation - Christ, I sound like Pete Shelley - who are in bands, where everything came together. The Old Grey Whistle Test was late night ‘70s telly, filled with boring prog rock bands doing solos with five keyboards, you know. Suddenly there was this weird glam rock band from the USA with some guy wearing a spaceman’s helmet! Then the next week, the Dolls clambered onstage wearing drag … I mean the energy being transmitted across the screen was just phenomenal. It was full-on, the realisation that my life’s dull, it’s a grey and boring world out there and I’M HAVING SOME OF THIS!
RB makes an ill-advised comment about the possibility of the band attending a party in Adelaide…
MS: Great! we came out of parties! we were playing parties before we really were the Pop Group! We’ve been playing Dolls songs in rehearsals, “Pills” and “I Wanna Be Your Dog”…
I caution Mark that I will be howling for these later in the set…
MS: It’s the funniest … I don’t look back at things … If there’s a good bunch of people in the room, and they’re having a blast, I go off. There’s nothing more exciting that encountering exciting, vivid people… I feel like the boy whose head exploded…
RB mentions the Pop Group’s influential aspect, does he know that they were a significant influence on The Birthday Party and Nick Cave?
MS: Yes. Because he told me. After The Pop Group folded we all went into different things (Pigbag, Rip Rig and Panic, the Maffia etc etc) including Maximum Joy, and one day this scraggly bag of misfits turned up, Tracy Pew, Nick Cave and Anita Lane … and we got along really well and we’ve been mates ever since. Mick Harvey, same thing. I mean you don’t dash up to someone and tell them how wonderful they are, but when you’re on a night ferry with Mick Harvey and he starts playing She Is Beyond Good and Evil…
[I should point out that, apart from the Pop Group’s obvious influence, along with Pere Ubu, on the Boys Next Door’s Hee Haw-ish period, have another look at the film clip for “Nick the Stripper” …and have a look at the (earlier) clip for the Pop Group’s “She Is Beyond Good and Evil” … but I must emphasise, there’s a huge difference between mimicry and influence…]
MS: It’s wonderful how cool music like ours can get to Brazil (there was an all-girl band in Brazil who were heading in a similar direction) and Australia and influence so many people, all still hungry for cool stuff.
RB enquires if Mark has the Albert Ayler box set, “Ghost”, but he groans and says he really must as he keeps hearing great things about it…
MS: We really see ourselves as a part of a great musical community, and if we can be a battering ram for people to gather behind, that’s great. Yes, we have a five year plan. We’re not going anywhere.
RB: (feebly, rather exhausted) Thanks for your patience…
MS: I’m your mental patient.
* * * * *
Just so you know, then, you can get their current three LPs and essential T-shirts at: http://www.thepopgroup.net/shop/
“Citizen Zombie” is the new CD and it’s a cracker. Howls at the moon, furiously dancing feet, quite a few giggles and you might have it. Dig your first listen here; http://www.thepopgroup.net/cat/news/
“Cabinet of Curiosities” is a new compilation of striking bits we would’ve killed to have in the day and are pleased to own and play now. “We Are Time” (2014 re-release) was also a compilation of odd tracks … and they’re both killer.
Thursday 5th March: Adelaide Festival
Tickets from bass.net.au, phone 131 246 or in person from the BASS Box Office @ Adelaide Festival Centre
Friday 6th March: Sydney, The Factory + Kim Salmon & Leanne Cowie
Tickets from factorytheatre.com.au, phone 9550 3666 or in person at all Ticketek outlets
Saturday 7th March: Melbourne, Corner Hotel + Harry Howard & The NDE
Tickets from cornerhotel.com, phone 1300 724 867 or in person at the venue Box Office