home * intro * news * jukebox * discography * lyrics * bootlegs * guestbook * offspring * links

The Pop Group
by Mark Sinker
in The Wire - release of Y as CD

No legacy 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).

Bovell was 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.

In ordinary 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.

Thanks to John Eden at Uncarved for the scan of this article.

Press Clippings

The Pop Group