The Pop Group @ Supersonic © Martin WardThe Pop Group

Glastonbury

27th June 2015

(Photo © Martin Ward)

Louder Than War boss and frontman with the Membranes, John Robb, scales the highest hill at Glastonbury to witness an amazing gig from a band on fire…

Perched on top of the hill overlooking the seething party mass of Glastonbury sits the dream venue.

The Crows Nest is a gig within a festival. A tiny tent with a bug agenda. A 200 capacity sanctuary for wise old music owls, lunatics and Glastonbury veterans it hosts in conversations and ad hoc secret gigs and is the perfect venue one of the most astonishing gigs I’ve ever scene.

The reformed Pop Group are a band on fire and into their fifties sound fresher and more urgent and compelling than ever. They have scaled this hill at the festival to play a secret gig after a triumphant afternoon in the valleys and are a band whose prayers are fire.

There is some weird trick going on as these veteran groups return after hiatus with everyone full throttle. The punk thing which birthed these lunatic veterans was meant to be about the moment but the best players seem o have turned longevity into an art form and the aptly named Pop group are the killer example of a band who inventiveness and edge has not been blunted by the decades.. Their new album, Citizen Zombie, is a great return after decades and live they twitch with groove and danger.

The packed tent see the band perfectly shackled to a creaking vocal PA and explode into their first song – the still perfectly titled We Are All Prostitutes-  which is fitting in an evening of internet anger of the corporate nature of Kayne West’s headline appearance down the hill typed out with anger on Apple computers and plastered all over Facebook. The irony of these modern times is still so perfectly summed up in a song dripping with frustration of honesty of a band that saw the madness of modern living but were also honest enough to admit to being trapped by it.

Charismatic singer Mark Stewart is still the twitching live wire as the devil’s groove electrifies his stretched out frame that hardly fits in this world let alone onto this stage. He stares maniacally at the audience – one part fairground barker, one part perceptive prophet, one part debonair comedian, with a mixture of leering good humour and the 1000 yard stare of a truth teller with a fistful of romantic poetry and political insight. All at once you can feel the power of his intelligence and his lust for life as did many singers from the post punk era, including the great Nick Cave who should be sending Mark royalties cheques for the debt he owes him.

Summing up the eclectic spirit of Glastonbury perfectly The Pop Group explode into life in the Crows Nest. They are the ultimate post punk band and arguably the perfect distillation of one of the true spirits of punk rock. They were immersed in disco and funk and played them with a punk bite – remember there was no musical template initially in year zero, it was about the attitude and the feeling and the building blocks of musical DNA could come from anywhere. The Bristol based band took black music off the dancefloor and turned it into incendiary blasts that equalled the early Clash for righteous indignation and power but very much on their own terms.

They turn the room into a party and they sound fucking absolutely brilliant.

Every instrument is a perfect building block, Gareth Sagar’s pre Chic clipped funk guitar is frantic, splenetic and dripping fractured funk – he looks so casual as he delivers these sandblasts of electricity, with each line dripping melody and energy locking in with Dan Catsis’s loping, groove heavy bass lines that somehow combine the key eletrikk eccentric of his disco B lines with the post punk melancholy of the the late seventies UK whilst Bruce Smith is one of the great drummers – the perfect heartbeat who makes the perfect look simple.

They make it look so damn easy. Like they are having a jolly,  post gig jam at the top of the hill which it kind of is on one level but this is on another level because they still play with the raging fire and make their songs drip with the intent and righteousness that was at the heart of their sound when they appeared out of Bristol in the post punk fallout.

Their combination of disco and punk – the two key music and cultural forms of the period was a perfect melting pot of cultural ideas that they made their own. This was a music that made your mind and body dance and far from being a period piece now sounds utterly alive, compelling and modern, We Are Time still slips and slides on that great hookline guitar line, She Is Beyond Good and Evil is still chillingly and thrillingly anthemic as the riffs slip and slide against each other like tectonic plates of molten funk fracture.

It’s so rare to see a band at the top of its game so far into its journey. This year’s comeback album Citizen Zombie saw them pick up where they left off with an added darkness and a perfect twist that somehow managed to see the group maintain their position at the front of the pack. It was both a perfect summation of all that made them good then with an added 21st century urgency.

Their debut, Y,  has never dated and is still a perfect template of great ideas that are there for any young group who wants to dare to break the mould. I still remember clearly getting the album all those decades ago – even the cover was brilliant with the clay covered Asuro tribe of Papua New Guinea, known as the mud men, dancing some ritual boogie in the dense forests – a comment on the pagan nature of the music and the stripping away of artifice in some sections of post punk and  key influence on the Slits sleeve for their debut album. The artwork was also a reminder of the communality of mankind – whether it was in the post punk monochrome of Bristol or the still remaining plastic bag free forests of distant lands.

The music was daring and stripped down and invented a whole new world. It was tribal in a sense and revolutionary and was a Pandora’s box of clipped riffs and ideas. The sassy sexiness of funk and disco was married to the collapse and chaos of punk – that daredevil cut and paste of the xerox generation who tore up the blueprint and made their own sound track and their own art of what was left over.

This is what the Pop Group understood by punk rock – they were as enthralled by local punk heroes the Cortinas as they were by the godlike George Clinton’s lysergic, acidic funk or Captain Beefheart’s other worldly blues deconstruction or the fast arriving dub plates or explorations into the free jazz world. From this they created their musical narrative, their own new language that at the time sounded off kilter and strange but now sounds like the perfect pop music making the band’s very name, which was made up as an ironic twist on their abrasive music and somehow seems perfectly apt.

Tonight is a celebration of all this.

A celebration of those early albums, a  celebration of their brilliant comeback and a celebration of taking chances with music, of sharpening the cutting edge, of following your own instinct can be enthralling, invigorating and mind blowing and never ever earnest and dull.

With their existential beat poetry and artist’s eye for love and politics and the Mark Stewart’s powerful presence this is a band that can make the message into rhyme and make sense of the madness. Even the decades old songs somehow sound futuristic and brimful of a life and energy as the hard touring band play them with that perfect mixture of instinctive tightness and seat of the pants risk taking without ever being pop facade.

The Pop Group are the band that put ‘arty’ into party.

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Award winning journalist and boss of Louder Than War. In a 30 year music writing career, John was the first to write about bands such as Stone Roses and Nirvana and has several best selling music books to his name. He constantly tours the world with Goldblade and the Membranes playing gigs or doing spoken word and speaking at music conferences.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I saw them three times that week starting at Ramsgate Music Hall but the setting and intimacy of The Crow’s Nest gig topped them all. The Pop Group are still a massively important and influential band.

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