Music Features

The Pop Group - We Are Time & Cabinet Of Curiosities

In late August, I listened to four-string punk maestro and ex-Minutemen Mike Watt interview Mark Stewart, vocalist for the profoundly seminal Bristol-based post-punk abstraction, The Pop Group.  The interview was for Watt’s podcast, The Watt From Pedro Show, and during a rather caffeinated and somewhat erratic exchange, Stewart related that while punk “gave us the energy to smash down doors and have a go at anything,” with post-punk “anything was possible” and that it was “like a new kaleidoscope.”  Although he expressed somewhat of a distaste for genres, he made very clear that distinction and lamented somewhat that “not a lot of people took that opportunity, but for me punk was a really enabling, political… it was like a new world really."

To have discovered an album like Y back in 1980 must’ve been something, (I turned four that year, so my chronology sort of denied me that experience).  The Pop Group, easily one of the most influential, albeit under-recorded, (or most heavily bootlegged), bands to emerge from the post-punk scene at the height of the era, cultivated a distinct blend of punk-inspired dub, funk, dance and free jazz that wore its politics without apology.  With their twisted commentary and astute culturally enriched appropriation of other sounds, The Pop Group, (who were making anything but Billboard fodder), challenged audiences and really took advantage of the ideas initially promised by punk’s proposed limitlessness.  The band recorded two studio albums before its dissolution, the aforementioned Y and its follow-up, For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder?.  Although Rhino Records tackled Y in 2007, reissuing the album as a CD with one bonus instrumental (3:38), For How Much Longer… remains out of print along with the also greatly sought after Radar Records compilation, We Are All Prostitutes

But, thanks to the band’s recent PledgeMusic campaign, The Pop Group has released a reissue of its 1980 compilation, We Are Time, along with a 9-track rarities collection, Cabinet Of Curiosities via Freaks R Us.  Having successfully funded the projects while gifting band swag and other ephemera to incentivize donors, the assumption is that this will be the first wave of reissues hopefully resulting in the eventual reboot of those other titles.  For now, though, the band’s very limited catalogue has expanded to include obscure demos, rare singles and live tracks. 

The subversive disposition of the band was not exhibited through the flagrant or loud outward protest of authority or societal conformity via sloppy blues riffs, distortion, finger gestures, outlandish costumes, tattoos or make-up.  Instead The Pop Group’s true value was in how it communicated with its audiences, their political discourse packaged in a sound that synthesized a multicultural and societally varied array of musical dialects.  In this way, they could possibly relate to more than one demographic and reach beyond the unfortunate and often narrow confines of punk music.  They were also maybe more dangerous than most bands of the punk persuasion for this very reason, that they knew no boundary and pushed themselves musically.

We Are Time had originally been released through Rough Trade/Y Records, but hadn’t been released domestically in the U.S.  For me, this is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to hear Colour Blind, a stroke of rhythmic art rock excellence that’s become one of my favorite songs from the band.  With the exception of live versions of the titular We Are Time and Thief Of Fire, both of which were included on Y and certainly offer a glimpse into the intensity of The Pop Group's live performances thirty plus years ago, the compilation provides a veritable wealth of rediscovery (or in my case, discovery).  The rapidly conceived dub lean of Trap, the minimalist funk of Kiss The Book, the enthralling dance-fueled bass riffs that propel Amnesty Report and then the ghostly vocal harmonizing and spare piano notes that blister the otherwise sleek machinations at work in Sense Of Purpose perfectly demonstrate the genius of The Pop Group, groove being the essential component to every eccentric note the band generated, which in every case span the length of an FM pop standard.

By comparison, the Cabinet Of Curiosities release offers variations of mostly familiar material: John Peel Sessions of Y tracks like Words Disobey Me and We Are Time, a previously unavailable version of She Is Beyond Good and Evil, which was produced by Roxy Music’s Andy Mackay, and a few other rare points of interest and live inclusions.  The super-caustic funk number Where There’s A Will had been originally released as a split single The Pop Group had shared with The Slits, (it was also released on the We Are All Prostitutes comp in 1998), and for this track alone the Cabinet collection is worth investigating.  Hearing Where There’s A Will, its marriage of groove and improv’d saxophone howling above the rhythm, you wonder if No Wave saxophonist James Chance ever cited the track as influential.  Also fascinating is the live version of Don’t Sell Your Dreams the band had performed at Bristol in 1978, as it is completely different than the one the band recorded for Y maybe a year later.

A mostly percussive free jazz piece called Amnesty Report III is one of the more experimental and weird selections to make the cut, a playful and strange layering of sounds and rhythms at work that invoke some allegiance to Captain Beefheart.  Similarly, We Are Time has a spoken word piece titled Springer, which also brings to mind the throaty, oft-rambling prose found throughout records like Trout Mask Replica and Lick My Decals Off, Baby.  While the more refined numbers in whichever iteration’s been made available herein offer incite into the molding and manicure of what would eventually become the finished tracks we know and love, this freer, more overtly avant-garde experimentalism is under documented with this collection.  It’s possible that other tracks like Amnesty Report III simply don’t exist, in which case it’s an unfair point to make.  But, the fact that this sort of rampant experimentation had been recorded does excite curiosity. 

The last track of the Curiosities comp is Karen’s Car, a previously unreleased spoken word account of union activist Karen Silkwood’s mysterious demise in 1974.  Performed live in Helsinki in 1980, the track is comprised of a cyclical bass rumble and a frantic hi-hat rhythm, Mark Stewart shrieking, “HOTTER THAN A THOUSAND SUNS!” as guitarist, Gareth Sager, wildly scrubs through his solos, producing this thorny patch of heightened distress.  It’s an excellent narrative as it’s both unsettling and constant; protest through anxiety, demonstration through recitation of facts. 

Before he concluded his interview with Stewart, Mike Watt said, "I don't even think the Minutemen would sound like the Minutemen without The Pop Group.”  Confirming the band’s importance in the evolution of his own musical identity, Watt’s admittance is one of many.  The Pop Group’s dismissal of convention has kept them a vital component in the expansion of the punk idiom, the band’s adherence to its own methodology a lesson in finding new ways to create.  While I doubt this collection will do much to fortify the band's already seminal legacy, having newly available Pop Group music that isn't priced to unattainable heights is a good thing and one hopes that these releases would reinvigorate interest in the band, potentially leading new generations to find worth in what they'll hear.