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Long awaited reissue of classic debut album
on 19 April 2007
It is wonderful to see the Pop Group's classic debut album `Y' finally reissued, since it hasn't been very widely available since the 1990s and even then it was as an expensive import (see the similar `We Are All Prostitutes'). As the sleeve notes demonstrate, the Pop Group were different to a lot of their peers - though they are similarly tagged with other post punk associated acts.
In a recent interview surrounding the reissue of Y, Gareth Sager dismissed bands they're associated with from the era, stating that to him Joy Division and Gang of Four (`Gang of Bore' according to him!) were just rehashes of Idiot-Iggy and Dr Feelgood. Listening to `Y', Gang of Four sound very rock compared - `I Found That Essence Rare' kind of proto-U2 and a bit anthemic. The Pop Group aren't very rock at all, while they had relatives in the Slits (at one point sharing a drummer and both bands having their debuts produced by the legendary Dennis Bovell), the latter had a quirky pop element. The Pop Group pursued a minimalist dub sound, influenced by the blues/sound systems parties they went to and their self trained playing, alongside a more experimental sound as they were citing acts like Cecil Taylor, The Last Poets (who contributed to `For How Much Longer Can We Tolerate Mass Murder?'), 70s-Miles, Ornette Coleman, Beefheart & Can.
`Y' is a punishing, dubby aural assault - though Mark Stewart's lyrics aren't quite as hectoring and polemic as his later work (to be fair he did say that the titles would have made more sense with a question mark on the end, seeming less pious, when interviewed around the `Kiss the Future' compilation). `Y' is one of those albums like `Trout Mask Replica' or `Philosophy of the World' that you need to have your wits around you to cope with - it might seem a seasick mess of dub, hollering and sax, but stay with it and the record becomes very compulsive.
Stewart's vocals on the classic single `She is Beyond Good and Evil' (a very different remixed/remodelled version is found on the Soul Jazz compilation `In the Beginning There Was Rhythm') predict the early vocals of the late Billy Mackenzie on `The Affectionate Punch' and `Fourth Drawer Down.' Nick Cave has often cited the Pop Group and Mark Stewart, so a track like `Thief of Fire' sounds like Nick Cave fronting a more freeform version of Public Image Ltd circa `Metal Box.' If you like that dub sound of PIL, you should love `Y' - though The Pop Group are closer to the `Chant'-end of that era of Lydon and co.
A lot of this record sounds wonderfully extreme, no surprise that they were cited by Richard Edson - the original drummer of Sonic Youth (who was also in Konk) - in the sleeve notes of last year's reissue of SY's debut e.p. The Pop Group and the bands they spawned (notably Pigbag and Rip Rig & Panic) were all about the rhythm and sat well with the emphasis on funk, jazz and rhythm prevalent in the NY No Wave and Mutant Disco scenes. Check out last year's Konk compilation on Soul Jazz to compare, and see NY acts like ESG, Liquid Liquid, and early Was (Not Was). The Pop Group have also been cited by Massive Attack - the claustrophobic dub inflections clearly a model for the darker side of trip hop, e.g. `Mezzanine', `Pre-Millennium Tension.'
`Y' also reminds me in feel of `New Picnic Time' by Pere Ubu, since it undercuts the expected rock elements in post punk by slipping into avant-garde modes. The piano-inflected `The Savage Sea' is as demanding as certain Robert Wyatt records. In fact, the Pop Group are probably as difficult as certain Faust or Henry Cow - though `We Are Time' is kind of catchy, no guitar solos, just pure riff - and made me wonder if it influenced Franz Ferdinand's `The Dark of the Matinee'?
The rest of the album sounds like a freeform dub take on the territory the Birthday Party explored on their 1980 album `Prayers on Fire', the Melbourne band were quite scathing about most UK bands when they relocated here in 1980, but always loved the Pop Group! Stewart's screams etc towards the end anticipate his own directions when backed by the Maffia on a series of classic solo records including `Learning to Cope With Cowardice' and `As the Veneer of Democracy Starts to Fade.' Stewart feels vocally a peer of the uncompromising Genesis P Orridge for much of this record, which is fine by me! This Rhino reissue is also aided by the presence of the b-side to `She is Beyond Good and Evil', `3:38' - which is `She...' reversed backwards and processed into a dub version - giving the LP a circular quality it didn't have before.
`Y' remains a key album of that era and one that certainly stands up today, though for me the free-jazz/Funkadelic collision that was `We Are All Prostitutes' - a song found on the `Kiss the Future' and Rough Trade `Post Punk 01' compilations. It's great to have a lost classic like this readily available and budget priced these days, `Y' one of those extreme joys standing the test of time. Hope the rest of their back catalogue and other projects get the reissue treatment too...