RADAR SCAN 14 CD
by Mark Sinker
in The Wire - release of Y as CD
has been so squandered as that of the brief, ill-starred collaboration
between The Pop Group and reggae producer, Dennis Bovell: as if
no one dared grasp what had been done. But then, no record's conditions
of creation could be less easy to imitate: digital mixdown makes
instant what would have taken weeks using tape-splice.
I know we're
supposed to acknowledge that Adrian Sherwood has carried the torch
of headfuck dub into the 90s; that On-U Sound embodies the spirit
of the New Age Steppers, who evolved out of the milieu round The
Slits and The Pop Group as they fought with Bovell to conjure
up a radical-primitive, black-white, mud-children's punky reggae.
But it's nonsense. Sherwood's made some great records in his little
art ghetto, but they tend to cling around quite a safe species
of daring. He works with highly disciplined backing players, enticing
his favoured chaos at the mixing desk. The Pop Group were smart
enough to allow Bovell -- well-practised in the chart-bound wiles
of Lover's Rock, reggae's brilliant bubblegum -- to make a structure
from whatever they came up with. Then they let let themselves
go as wild -- deranged, distorted, brink-running -- as they possibly
could (Y's greatest achievement may have been to devise a context
where Mark Stewart's wino-prophet roar doesn't sound foolish:
"Don't call me pain!!!" That's all right, I had
no intention to).
as baffled by these hateful arty madmen as they were perhaps frustrated
by him. While all instruments and voice are allowed to career
through individual soundworlds large and small (to drop out, explode
back in, balloon into extreme distortion, flash side to side),
a groove is constantly, almost casually maintained, and maintained
against The Pop Group's calls for freedom from all possible discipline.
Every characteristic of bass, guitar, sax, piano, drums or shouting
is suddenly, utterly changed from moment to moment -- every characteristic,
that is, except their rhythmic interrelationship. This
one concession to the producer's own craftsman's pride results
in a masterpiece of fragmenting terror, with its uniquely delirious
sense of mutating perspective.
rock, no conscious forebear exists apart perhaps from Zappa --
whose approach is (as always) buried in a mulch of 'ironic' jokes
-- and The Fall (most notably "Spector Vs Rector", recorded
in 1978, a full year before Y and included on the second
side of the great Dragnet). Both -- with strong artistic
logic -- broke with the standard rock-mixture practice, which
was to spend time corralling all varied textures and noises together
into a single implied studio space (Pink Floyd spent countless
bland millions achieving this in Dark Side of the Moon).
All three work consciously and consistently to undermine the notion
of unity as a required artistic goal, the PG/Bovell project most
of all, using its multiplicity to dramatise the limits of funk's
'on the one'.
In 1979, the
battle was on to see if punk would take hold, or pass. The Pop
Group wanted it to pass: they hated it, as an insufficiently radical
movement obscuring -- among other things -- their own shining
originality. Because punk was against production values and improvisation,
the group were absolutely in favour of both. They talked about
bebop, beatniks, Cage, Stockhausen, James Brown, Baudelaire --
and total artistic control. They wanted to take the pissed-off
among rock's audience and prance off together into a creatively
noble, existential-political, electric jazz poetry (or some zone
of similarly piffling arrogance). Studio electronics and judicious
musique concrete tape edits should have been forced to
confront raw bodyfunk, and raw bodyfunk to deal with free jazz.
Except that once they'd crashed through the outer walls of punk
prejudice, they fell, like many before them, for the notion that
electric pop had nothing of consequence to bring to radical jazz.
They stopped listening to their own past: a reviewer had praised
Y as a violent coming together of [Miles Davis'] On the Corner
and John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, but The Pop Group refused
further exploration of either, and lost the chance to establish
their world-historical contribution.
As to Y's
reconstitution as a CD, well sadly, the indescribably odd belch
that formerly opened proceedings now occurs after the slightly
laboured (though magnificently titled) "She is Beyond Good
and Evil" ("Western values mean nothing to her"),
the single added to the LP. A slight adjustment from the original
vinyl running order doesn't solve the original release's one failing:
that towards the end of side two, energy flagged. The naggingly
grabby little riffs dissipate a little too often into freeform
ambience, and despite fabulous individual moments, even Bovell
can't inject enough considered intelligence into the greeting-card
angst: "Nothing is impossible when you're living on the
brink"; "We fear what we do not understand",
"Please don't sell your dreams!!!". The next
record would be For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder?,
the sort of priggish hustle that turned people onto Haircut 100,
for better funking, and a more humane worldview.