By Neil Cooper, The Herald, Glasgow
When Gareth Sager formed his first band The Pop Group in 1977, little
did he know some 20-odd years later that their debut record, 'She Is
Beyond Good And Evil,' would be looked upon as seminal by an all-new new
wave of bands in thrall of all things 'Punk-Funk'. Neither could he have
predicted the musical dynasty they, and his next band, the free jazz
inspired Rip Rig and Panic, would spawn across the next two and a half
decades of wayward genius. Lazily dubbed in the mid-90s as the 'Bristol
sound' or 'trip hop,' the legacy includes such moody luminaries as Neneh
Cherry, Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky.
Then again, given the year zero heat of the moment that gave rise to The
Pop Group's urgent, earnest polemic in the face of the day-glo tabloid
cartoon all things 'punk' had become, neither would Sager have guessed
that his new album, 'The Last Second Of Normal Time,' would sound as
swoonsomely sweet as it does.
Released on the Glasgow based Creeping Bent Records and recorded under
the collective name of C.C. Sager, it's a glorious mish-mash of skewed
guitar instrumentals, loose-fit waltzes and words to the wise care of
former Katydids chanteuse Susi Hug, who at one point obliviously croons
the chorus of ceilidh favourite, 'Mairi's Wedding.' There's also retro
sci-fi warbling on 'Edinburgh 1960,' and the even more nostalgia tinged
'Porthmadoc 1926's impressionistic piano twinklings.
All a far cry from the days when Sager and his appositely named Pop
Group wailed like men possessed. Their musical melting pot of scritch-scratch, bare-bones guitars, primitive dub shadings via reggae producer
Dennis Bovell's echo box clatter, and provocative song titles culled
from Nietzsche and, on 'We Are All Prostitutes,' frontline leftist
pamphlets, set the template for multi-cultural noise to come. To both
the uninitiated and the partisan, it was a wonderful mess, sounding not
unlike a very English riot going on.
"We were born in a car going to The Roxy," Sager recalls of a drive to
London's legendary punk venue. "It was that easy then. It was more about
shared ideas than whether you could play or not, then within three
months you'd have a full page spread in NME."
Galvanised as they were by the scene's latent energy, The Pop Group were
already chiselling out their own manifesto.
"We'd grown up listening to James Brown and Alex Harvey," Sager says of
his influences, "and were already bored with The Ramones kind of thing,
and moved on to jazz and John Cage. We'd decided we were different, and
that we were the next step. We even started dressing in grey as a
riposte to all the bright colours, just so's we could identify with our
own little gang. In a way we were rebelling against the rebellion."
When it was clear the revolution had run out of steam and The Pop Group
finally fell apart, ex members indulged in a myriad of projects,
splintering off into disparate and altogether jaggier musical corners,
from Pigbag, who charted with the eminently danceable and much sampled
'Papa's Got A Brand New Pigbag,' to the just as horny Maximum Joy. Pop
Group vocalist Mark Stewart, meanwhile, hooked up with the rhythm
section from the influential Sugarhill Gang, newly christened The
Maffia, aka Tackhead.
The ever contrary Sager created Rip Rig and Panic, taking the bulk of
his old band into equally eclectic, if altogether more frivolous, upbeat
territory, embracing shades of what would go on to be called 'World
Music' into an often bonkers brew of freeform freak-outs and
trustafarian dancehall racket.
Rip Rig and Panic took their name from a piece by saxophonist Roland
'Rahsaan' Kirk. It was through their 15 year-old vocalist, however, that
they ended up working with a real live jazz legend, trumpeter Don
Cherry. As well as featuring Ari Up of The Slits, their some time singer
was Cherry's daughter, a gifted teen named Neneh.
"Don ended up doing this mad tour with The Slits and Neneh came with
him," Sager recalls. "Then she ended up singing with us. It was all
After three albums, RR&P morphed into the eminently more honed and toned
Float Up CP, again with Cherry on vocals, before she sassed her way into
the charts with the emancipated mainstream soul of her 'Raw Like Sushi'
"Good on her," Sager says. "I think it's brilliant, cos I could never
have done anything for her that was that commercial."
Of late, Sager has been guesting on guitar with Edinburgh's The
Nectarine No 9, whose maverick leader Davy Henderson was thrashing his
way through his own first band, the Fire Engines, at much the same time
as The Pop Group. Maybe such shared musical malcontent and natural
kindred spirithood was down to Sager being born in the capital, only
being decamped to Bristol by his parents when he was 10. Either way, the
pair of boundary-hopping songwriters, knee-deep in eclectica, only met
when Sager was crashing and burning through the extremes of his late-80s
"For some reason," he recalls, "we always had this really rabid, manic
following in Edinburgh," and that turned out to be Davy and all his
mates who'd been in The Fire Engines, or else went on to join The
Nectarine No 9. Me and Davy connected, cos what he says is really
inspiring. He's got a real passion for what he does, and about what
other people do as well. They're the one really happening rock group
around, who prove you can still do it once you're past the age of 25."
Like The Nectarines, CC Sager - "it's the initials of one of my sons" -
aren't hemmed in by a fixed membership policy, 'The Last Second Of
Normal Time' retains the more flexible, Liberty Hall approach of jazzers
who've learnt their chops, with floating members stepping in and out of
view as and when required.
"I'm much happier with that collective approach," he confirms. "You're
not pushed into a corner. Because of that there's room for improvisation
on the new album, but it's done in a more cohesive, understandable way."
Last week saw Sager dipping his toe into live waters at Optimo, one of
the hippest left field nights in Glasgow. Tellingly, the week before the
club played host to The LCD Sound System, the production brains behind
many of the young pretenders moulded in Sager and The Pop Group's image.
"It's a bit weird," Sager puzzles, "cos we were always quite extreme,
and you wonder why it's taken all this time for people to listen to it.
Still," he muses, "they're there now."
The Last Second Of Normal Time, out on Creeping Bent now