When The Pop Group first came onto the scene in late 1978 they were being hailed in the UK press as one of the saviours of rock and roll, and with good reason as the group’s music made almost everything being created at the time seem old hat over night. The Pop Group’s debut single “She Is Beyond Good and Evil” released in 1979 was an instant classic and one of the landmark recordings of the 1970’s, it was a seething tense piece of aggressive funk/punk/dub/free jazz that demanded attention.
It sounded like nothing in the world at the time of it’s release and gave me the same feeling as when I heard Public Image Ltd.’s first single, it seemed to hint at endless possibilties for rock and roll. The B side “3:38” should also mentioned this was a pulverizing dose of mind-numbing dub that seemed to look ahead to Pop Group lead singer Mark Stewart’s trailblazing work in the 80’s with Mafia. A CD re-issue of “Y” in 1996 strangely omitted this great track from the release, WHY?
Anyway the original release of “Y” opened with a stick of dynamite called “Thief of Fire” which was the group at it’s best, this is a blistering ride through the bushes of Viet-Nam highlighted by Simon Underwood’s funk/dub bass playing, the twin Beefheart guitar attack of Gareth Sager and John Waddington, and Mark Stewart’s shrieking “my face is on fire” vocals, Sager also provides some squealing saxophone in the song’s mid section.
I remember a Melody Maker piece on the group around the time of the release of this album where the band admitted to listening to loads of King Tubby and Ornette Coleman’s “Free Jazz” while they recorded the album, which makes perfect sense.
The next track on the album is a very experimental piece called “Snow Girl” which is driven by some Cecil Taylor type piano, shotgun blasts of guitar from Waddington and Sager and gutwrenching bass slaps by Underwood, Stewart provides a bizarre but strangely catchy vocal.
The next track is the truly frightening “Blood Money” which is a nightmare soundscape where Stewart screams bloody murder in the background, he seems to be screaming about spiders being all over his chest, he sounds like Damo Suzuki on that track on Can’s “Tago Mago” where Damo seems like he’s being tortured, the music on “Blood Money” is thrilling it’s a real meltdown of all the instruments into one, Gareth Sager plays some sax lines that sound like the bagpipe wizard Rufus Harley.
“We Are Time” is my favorite track on the record and comes at you like a commando raid on your brain, this track is truly terrifying and singer Stewart sounds like he is coming out of his own skin, the guitar playing by Sager and Waddington is dazzling. The group then throws you a big league curveball called “The Savage Sea” this one opens with an almost melodic piano and it could almost be a Pop Group ballad!, Stewart is a little more restrained on this number, I think the piano part was nicked by The Teardrop Explodes on their great B-side “Window Shopping For A New Crown Of Thorns” and The Pop Group’s influence can also be felt on the Teardrops other freakout B-side “Strange House In The Snow”.
“Words Disobey Me” is another wildly experimental piece in the style of “Blood Money”. “Don’t Call Me Pain” opens with a sax riff that sounds like it is being played by Traffic’s Chris Wood, on this one Stewart screams “Don’t Call Me Pain, My Name Is Mystery” and who am I to doubt him, the song is wrapped up with a fine free jazz baching track. With “The Boys From Brazil” it’s back to free jazz territory, again Sager’s sax reminds one of Chris Wood while Underwood plays a great funky bass riff, the guitars collide with each other at the end and it is just plain awesome.
The record finishes with a stripped down dirge called “Don’t Sell Your Dreams” where Stewart sounds totally spent and on the verge of collapse, the musical backing is superb, full of space and it reminds me of the Pharoah Sanders group on “Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt” the guitar playing is full on Sonny Sharrock!, the record then just fades quietly into oblivion leaving you feeling totally drained.
After playing “Y” you wonder how the group ever hoped to top it, they never did, but their second album was great as well but just not as good as “Y”, few albums are. The Pop Group finished in 1981 and splintered into groups like Rip, Rig and Panic, The New Age Steppers and most importantly Mark Stewart and Mafia, Stewart really carried the flame from the original Pop Group and much of his work with Mafia is on par with the best of The Pop Group yet his records have been totally ignored.
“Y” is the best place to start to get to know the music of Mark Stewart and company, in my opinion it’s one of the most original and inspiring records ever made.