Monday 29 November 2010
Sunday 28 November 2010
In the 1980s live tapes were an important form of currency. The advent of tape-to-tape cassette decks made it relatively easy to exchange rare recordings with like-minded souls you might never meet. It was an important way of developing friendships. There was a massive irony in the way that the 1980s also witnessed the advent of the compact disc with its supposedly superior sound when so many of us spent so much time listening to live recordings which were copies of copies of copies of copies of ...
Somewhere around the end of the 1980s I came across a guy called Malcolm Reay. He had a group called Gravy Train, which released a great Rotten/Curtis-sampling single Ever Get The Feeling You’ve Been Cheated? They had some great t-shirts too. Anyway, one of the points of connection between me and Malcolm was a shared love of the early Hurrah! In a fantastic piece of one-upmanship Malcolm being from Newcastle could boast of having seen the group when they were still The Green-Eyed Children, and even had a tape of them playing live back in 1981.
We swapped live tapes as was the way. In particular we shared an obsession with the early Subway Sect, and over the years I’ve cherished a few live tapes Malcolm sent. I’ve still got old cassettes he did for me of ATV, Buzzcocks, and most importantly The Pop Group playing live at the Newcastle City Hall in August 1978 on a mini-tour they did with Patti Smith shortly after that Peel session. This recording of The Pop Group was a revelation. As Malcolm said, it sounded like nothing on earth. Most of the live bootleg recordings in circulation of The Pop Group are of later performances, and so this is something special. And people who have placed particular importance on, say, the recordings of Genius Or Lunatic and Colour Blind on the We Are Time retrospective will love this tape.
I do wonder what Patti Smith’s audience made of The Pop Group. I have to confess to not being a fan of Patti’s music. I enjoyed her Just Kids book, but the music’s always left me cold. I understand the impact she had on lots of people, but she wasn’t for me. I know Subway Sect played a few dates with her earlier on in ’78, and I’ve seen Vic Godard describe her as “a complete cow”. Rob Symmons also referred to those shows in the excellent Phil King articles for Bucketful Of Brains: “There were three nights with Patti Smith and she was horrible to us. We weren't allowed anywhere near the stage when she soundchecked. We were cleared out by her road crew and were not allowed to meet her. We were actually getting quite good then. We were getting good reviews – which hadn't happened before. I was really surprised The Clash having anything to do with her. I can remember when we played the ICA she came up onstage with them. I could never understand why they associated with people like her. A completely different generation we wanted to get rid of.”
It’s funny having such an obsession with old live tapes of Subway Sect, The Pop Group, and so on. Shows I’d never been to. Groups I’d never seen. When you’re not a direct witness it’s easy to romanticise and glamorise an event. As much as I have loved live recordings of these groups and occasions over the years there is a risk I might not have enjoyed the actual shows as much if I’d been there. I mean, watching The Pop Group perform to a crowd of Patti Smith fans, many of whom only knew Because The Night? Who knows?
I lost track of Malcolm for many years. You know how it goes. You will know also how online activities and social networking sites have reunited many a kindred spirit. And I first caught sight of Malcolm again when I belatedly saw a comment on a friend’s site which had a post about Flowers, the lost b-side by Hurrah! It could only have been Malcolm who would write:
“Funny how a group could inspire such devotion for so little reward? Rewind to 1981 and a backstreet venue aptly named The Garage. On the stage a group I’d spotted weeks before walking through the streets of town looking cool as fuck, drainpipe trousers, tie-dyed, bowl haircuts, strangely modern but retro (?) but just as important doing something new. The group I found out to be The Green Eyed Children, and they had that thing I couldn’t put my finger on. Fast forward 18 months to ’82 and Tiffanys nightclub, the flowering is nearly complete, the look (white drainpipes, the shoes/boots, the suede jackets), guitars held high (Hofner, Burns, Jaguar), the drummer with THAT style! Here they were, the lineage that followed the awkward and the strange, Wilko, Feelgoods, Subway Sect, Wire, The Pop Group ... you get the score? The rest is history, but keep looking forward baby!”
It was actually through his YouTube channel that I made contact with Malcolm again. He’d been posting clips of rare Subway Sect recordings with some fantastic memorabilia. As it turned out we’d both been busy getting old live tapes transferred to digital format, like the 1980 Northern Soul Subway Sect set shared on Your Heart Out. Unfortunately, in a timely reminder of the vulnerability of cassettes, a friend’s dog had chewed up his precious live 1978 recording of The Pop Group. You couldn’t make that one up. Thankfully I was able to save the day, once I remembered my copy had been in the safekeeping of Occultation Recordings’ Nick Halliwell ever since he was working on the wonderful Wild Swans salvage project. Nick got it transferred to digital format, and Malcolm has given his blessing to sharing it with the world. And that live recording still sounds like nothing on earth.
Thursday 25 November 2010
“Friday night at the London College of Printing, I wander the corridors trying to escape the crowds. Sure enough, as I had expected, I come upon the same figure. This time I notice that he is very tall and dressed in grey clothes. Mark Stewart, singer from The Pop Group (for it is he ...) is holding forth with the members of This Heat. The range of subjects is diverse, their nature obscure, his manner arrogant, opinionated ...”
In 1988 I got the chance to go and study journalism at the London College of Printing, right at the heart of the Elephant & Castle. I suppose I could have gone elsewhere but the LCP felt right. It had more of a punk pedigree than the very few other colleges that did journalism courses. Neville Brody had studied there, for example, and there were all those odd references to the LCP in old articles about The Pop Group. These were, I thought, perfectly reasonable grounds for a 24-year-old to choose an educational establishment.
Unlike Steve Walsh I never encountered Mark Stewart lurking in the corridors, but I did enjoy my two years at the LCP. Some of the tutors had links to Spare Rib and other parts of the pre-punk underground press I’d read about in a Dick Pountain book. I contributed to the college mag, which may have been the first collaboration between Rankin and Jefferson Hack. I learnt some invaluable things too. At the start of the course we had to write a 500 word article. This then would be ripped out of the typewriter dramatically, and we had to rewrite it in 250 words, then 100, then 50. If you keep doing that, it becomes a valuable discipline. I may have taken it to extremes at times, but that’s another story.
One of my favourite extra-curricular activities during my college days was to spend hours in the basement of the Record & Tape Exchange branches in Camden Town and Notting Hill searching through the boxes of discarded singles being sold off at 10p a time. I would hunt through all sorts of rubbish for anything that looked intriguing in the way of old reggae, soul, disco, funk, punk and odd pop. Of course lots of people like DJ Shadow and the Blackalicious guys were doing the same around the world. One of these 7”s I found, by Joe Curtis on the Spiral label, would be the catalyst for an edition of Your Heart Out called The Archaeology Of An Abandoned Soul Single, where I wrote:
“There is a case to be made for archaeology as a political act, as in the uncovering of evidence to support an attack on the status quo, the prevailing viewpoint.
So how did it come to pass that around 1989 I would be rummaging round, scavenging about for lost soul and reggae records in boxes of abandoned singles? Was it surreptitious political activity? An act of defiance against the idea that only what was lauded in the media was worth buying? In a way, yes.
Money at the time was in short supply. The economy was in a mess back then too. And we were in a situation where if you were making ends meet a few pounds for a half decent hip hop or house or underground pop 12” was a real luxury. Particularly if one of the sides was a ropey old remix. Instead you could get 30 abandoned singles at 10p a time. And, apart from the monetary considerations, the element of chance made this option so much more appealing.
There was something more though. A sort of spiritual bond with these rejected relics. I had my own reasons for identifying with these disposed of discs. I was painfully conscious that someone, somewhere, at some time had felt strongly enough, had believed enough, to invest in making these singles come to life. Someone believed these singles could make a difference to the world. And now for whatever reason they were to be found languishing in with the lost.
I felt a perverse pride in discovering the occasional genuine piece of treasure in among these piles of singles. I felt it was poetic justice to pick up a copy of Disco Dub Band’s For The Love Of Money or Horace Andy’s O Lord Why Lord, and later realise the significance of what I’d unearthed. The connections, the links, the stories, the way things fitted together. There was a moral tale here about value. And values.”
Closer to home, this was also a golden age for finding records at boot sales and in charity shops. People had started to buy into the CD culture where vinyl was considered redundant. And you could find all sorts of great LPs for next to nothing in a totally haphazard, wonderfully illogical way. Here too I believe the influence of old articles on The Pop Group, the Penny Reel mod story, and so on, with all their bewildering references had a lingering impact. I can still vividly recall the rush of blood and glow inside that came from encountering such write-ups that contained all sorts of mysterious references, accompanied by a real urge to play catch-up. I still regularly get that dizzy feeling, a sense of excitement, when I come across something on the web where there are all sorts of mentions of music I’m not familiar with, and while it may on some levels be easier to obtain information the hunger to seek out the new is still very, very much a part of me.
There is something of the autodidact in all this, with a voracious appetite for the unfamiliar, hoovering up information haphazardly, with no formal agenda or curriculum to follow. I am still not sure if I should thank The Pop Group and co. for setting me loose on this restless quest, or curse them for turning me into an explorer.
Monday 22 November 2010
Vic Godard and Subway Sect were absolutely central to the Postcard Records phenomenon. This was very much fuelled by the release of the What’s The Matter Boy? LP,in the summer of 1980, and by the appearance of the Stop That Girl single, at the start of 1981. You would be unlikely to find any Postcard press that did not feature a reference to Vic Godard or Subway Sect.
The obsession with Vic Godard, which I shared, had me seeking out earlier copies of Zigzag, which were relatively easy to get hold of. This was how I got to see the Subway Sect feature from September 1977 where the group is pictured standing outside a hairdressers, 'Midweek Jubilee Cut and Blow £2.75' sign in the window, and they look so great: Hush Puppies, the whole mod refugee look, complete with matching sneers. Then in the April/May 1978 issue there was a great article on Subway Sect in Paris by Robin Banks. A cassette of a 1978 Subway Sect Gibus Club performance would be a ‘must have’ accessory in the Postcard era. Robin Banks wrote two other essential Vic Godard features for Zigzag over the next couple of years.
That April/May 1978 edition of Zigzag also had a great article on The Pop Group by Steve Walsh, who also wrote the 1977 Subway Sect feature. In the years to come these two articles would be hallowed texts. The Subway Sect feature is the one where they really come out with 'we oppose all rock 'n' roll' angle, and talk about Debussy, Satie and Abba. The Pop Group one is fantastic for the intoxicating sense of Steve finding kindred spirits:
“I find myself sitting in Bristol, in Mark’s bedroom to be precise. I also find myself surrounded by mark, his elder brother Paul (a legend in his own right incidentally ...) and Gareth Sager, the group’s rhythm guitarist. Our main preoccupation is the content of a tape that is being put together for playing at the gig tonight at the University’s Anson rooms. The tape, eventually, never gets played. A great pity. We’d already got tracks by Miles Davis, Booker T., Tom Waits, Charlie Parker, dub, Pierre Henri ... ‘What shall we do next?’ I sift through a record collection containing albums by Ornette Coleman, LaMonte Young, Gavin Briars, and Other Obscure releases ... Did I observe any Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Stockhausen, or were these just names that ‘cropped up’ in conversation? Now careful ... I’m not, I repeat NOT, citing these records as ahem ‘influences’, it’s just my penchant for bare-faced ‘namedropping’ revealing itself.”
It’s tempting to think of Mark E Smith’s line about academic thingies reeling off names of books and bands, but that particular hat never suited Subway Sect or The Pop Group. The Gang Of Four, sure. There was always something a bit too Students Union radical chic about them. But with Subway Sect and The Pop Group there was more of a sense that they just happened to know so much so very young. They were incredibly precocious, but it suited them to be talking nonchalantly about being in their early teens going to see Godard films, going out to funk clubs, going to see the Pistols on their old boneshakers, reading the French and Russian writers, and absorbing a bewilderingly wide range of arcane knowledge. I was totally in awe of them and what they seemed to know.
Subway Sect and The Pop Group have always seemed closely linked. I don’t just mean the “everyone is a prostitute” vs. “we are all prostitutes” thing. Mark Stewart has mentioned how the early Subway Sect was a real inspiration for him. There was also something about the look of the two groups. Lawrence once referred to the significance of the pleated trousers, the vintage Sinatra-style of dressing that the two groups adopted. I hadn’t realised until recently that Steve Walsh also had a short piece in the New Musical Express on The Pop Group, a variation on the Zigzag piece using that wonderful ‘beatniks of tomorrow’ line again. It’s accompanied by a John Spink photo of The Pop Group in a church. In another shot from the same session you get a better sense of The Pop Group wearing the old overcoats the Liverpool/Manchester groups would later become synonymous with.
Steve Walsh was a name I knew from his time with Manicured Noise, a group with the coolest rhythm section around that put out a couple of great punk/disco singles on Pre at the start of the 1980s. I first came across the name in the NME Book Of Modern Music, and then in early 1979 Manicured Noise played with The Pop Group as part of a package tour with Linton Kwesi Johnson (who was also produced by Dennis Bovell) and Mark Perry’s Good Missionaries. Among the venues they would play was St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden, also known as The Actors’ Church. This seemed a wonderfully romantic, un-rock ‘n’ roll setting for a performance, and appealed to my imagination no end. I have no idea if the reality lived up to the idea, though. Sometimes it’s better not knowing.
I remember next coming across Manicured Noise when Kid Jensen broadcast a session by the group on Radio One in late 1979 on his early evening show. I remember having the radio on while doing my homework in the kitchen, and absolutely loving the tracks I heard. I think this was before the singles came out. So coming across Steve Walsh’s earlier writings on music was fascinating. I wouldn’t even be certain it was the same Steve Walsh for many years, but the clues were there with all the references. His articles seemed like the blueprint for Manicured Noise. Now we are rather wiser thanks to the excellent Manicured Noise collection on Caroline True Records, which features that Kid Jensen session I had grown to think I had imagined. It still makes me smile to know that Mark Stewart was very much a presence in the studio when those songs were recorded.
Friday 19 November 2010
The Pop Group finally released a single in March 1979, and it’s hard to believe it wasn’t a hit. It feels like it was. After all, who could resist this pain racked, revolutionary romantic celebration of the girl who is beyond good and evil? It was a wonderful pop moment, and who’d dare doubt the truth of it when Mark Stewart insists: “I’d exchange my soul for her”.
It’s strange how certain groups attract very specific terms of reference, which are strictly adhered to. And yet there is another side to The Pop Group’s sphere of influence. For example, the great pop sound on Beyond Good And Evil inspired Julian Cope to ‘rip off’ its ‘staccato rhythm’ for The Teardrop Explodes’ Bouncing Babies. And Alan Horne of Postcard Records described The Pop Group’s debut as the ultimate punk rock single. His protégés Orange Juice would speak of wanting to be a cross between The Pop Group and Chic. You can certainly sense the influence of The Pop Group on the way the early OJs dressed.
There is, of course, a Dennis Bovell connection between The Pop Group and Orange Juice in that they both used Blackbeard as a producer. I think I’m right in saying that The Pop Group was the first of the punk era outfits to work with Dennis. In interviews there are references to how the group identified Dennis as the person they needed to work with, and how it was one particular track that they’d heard which convinced them of this. It’s tempting to speculate about which track this would have been, but there is a wealth of material recorded by Dennis around 1977/78, on his own, in the lovers rock field, or as part of Matumbi. His own work of the time certainly contains a number of gems and experimental excursions. As a lover of mixing things up Dennis Bovell was, of course, the perfect choice for producer of The Pop Group, but amid all the talk of dub and disco it should be noted the prominence he gives to the guitars on Beyond Good And Evil. They are from the start positively auto-destructive in the Shel Talmy tradition .
Significantly if there is one other single that in my mind is inescapably linked, temporally and spiritually, to The Pop Group’s debut it is The Jam’s Strange Town. In the April 1979 edition of the music monthly Zigzag The Pop Group’s Beyond Good And Evil came fourth in the Singles stakes. The Jam’s Strange Town came third. The Staircase Mystery by Siouxsie & The Banshees came second. And Robin Banks opted for Herpes Simplex from the Rosa Yemen 12” on Ze as the winner in a tough old contest. The magazine also had Mars’ 3E in its chart. The cover of that edition featured The Slits, and there was a great Scars interview too.
The first issue I actually bought of Zigzag was in September 1978, when it started to get better distribution and made it to the Lewisham branch of WH Smith’s. The Ramones were on the cover, XTC on the inside, along with a free flexi disc of two tracks from US psychedelic/punk outfits the Thirteenth Floor Elevators and the Red Crayola. Neither of these old groups meant anything to me, but I liked what I heard and got a sense of the historical significance of these sounds. The flexidisc was in fact a teaser for the reissues Radar Records was releasing of the Texan punk legends.
Radar was the company that won the race to sign The Pop Group, and on paper it seemed a good match. They were linked from Spring ’78, and to be honest there were no immediate independent options. Rough Trade, Fast, Factory had yet to have an impact. Radar was certainly one of the more interesting imprints around in the late 1970s, and the label’s catalogue is impressive and varied: Richard Hell & The Voidoids, Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, Pere Ubu, La Dusseldorf, Soft Boys, Yachts, Iggy’s Kill City, Metal Urbain, Tanz Der Youth, Bette Bright, Thirteenth Floor Elevators, Red Crayola (old and new), Shadows of Knight, Electric Prunes, Ray Campi, Mac Curtis. Radar’s Andrew Lauder seems to have been very supportive of and patient with his signings. Around the time the single finally appeared, after a lengthy gestation period, he was quoted as saying: "The Pop Group are not content with being quite successful. They want enormous success. They’re so convinced and certain of what they’re doing that I actually find them awe-inspiring."
The Pop Group was initially indulged by Radar, and allowed to make a case for the single being copyright free. But with the label being wholly owned by WEA there was always going to be trouble ahead. The press gleefully pointed out all the inconsistencies and contradictions of The Pop Group, with such ‘high ideals and crazy dreams’, being part of a major label set-up. And for a change instead of the young revolutionaries being assimilated and neutered, the rebels became more entrenched, estranged and extreme, which made for a lot of fun.
And yet it’s tempting to return to something Bill Drummond wrote, in the lengthy From The Shores of Lake Placid chapter in his book 45, about writing to Seymour Stein when Sire expressed an interest in signing the Bunnymen on a five-album deal, outlining how albums were bringing about the destruction of pop music, and that pop was all about singles. He mentions a personal attack on Stein, telling him “he had released two of the greatest white pop records of the decade, Shake Some Action by the Flamin’ Groovies and Love Goes To A Building On Fire by the Talking Heads, and that creators of such perfection should never have been allowed in the studio again, leaving their respective singles to resonate their wondrous glories for eternity”. He concluded: “Both bands should have been forced to disband instantly”.
Tuesday 16 November 2010
The Pop Group collectively dancing to an old Eric Dolphy tune is the striking image with which Peter Silverton started a front page feature for the music weekly Sounds in March 1979. I certainly didn’t have a clue then who Eric Dolphy was, but I loved the idea of a group grooving away to some mad jazz sounds in their own ‘living space’. The reference to the ghost of Charlie Parker in the same opening paragraph was at least something I recognised from the writings of Jack Kerouac which I was then exploring.
That particular issue of Sounds is one that has remained with me. The Peter Silverton feature on The Pop Group was excellent. The paper used (yet) another shot from the Brian Griffin session on Chesil Beach, and some new photos of the group wearing what looks like (I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet) dragoon-style jackets. The cover mentions what was then the new Edinburgh group, Scars. They would have been just releasing their astonishing debut 7” on Fast Product, and this may have been where Dave McCullough described the sound as The Fall meets the Bee Gees. The same edition featured a particularly enthusiastic review of The Fall’s debut LP, Live At The Witch Trials, by McCullough who was then emerging as the most important writer. Some time later, in April 1980 he would write probably the most important article on The Pop Group and Slits and their relationship with the pop process.
The next time I recall seeing a reference to Eric Dolphy would be a decade or so later in Robert Elms’ novel In Search Of The Crack, a flawed but fun and I suspect forgotten read. In it he has a scenario where his narrator sets off on a train to a lost love, clutching a record wrapped in brown paper. The LP was a gift to his Rose, and was by Eric Dolphy: “a man of grave importance and rare beauty. She looked at it fondly as we talked for a few minutes about jazz. I told her that this record contained an especially sad song, and she touched my arm”. That scene I’m sure was very much in my mind when I did eventually buy a CD edition of Eric Dolphy’s Out To Lunch, which was recorded a week before I was born.
While Robert Elms is now a much-loved London broadcasting institution, he did once ruffle feathers in his role as writer for The Face and other publications. So when his debut novel was published he wasn’t, to put it mildly, universally respected. Nevertheless even in The Face he did champion some important new music, particularly on the mutant disco/Ze side of things. He was the first person I remember writing about Lizzy Mercier Descloux, and I will be eternally grateful to him for recommending Harry Thuman’s Underwater.
In the book Elms has a character use the line: “There was only one real mod, and he was Lee Daniel’s brother.” This was a direct reference to Penny Reel’s The Young Mod’s Forgotten Story, which started: “In the beginning - or so the story goes - there are only three real mods, and one of these is flecking Lea Davis' brother. Mind you, it is Lea Davis himself who first puts this about in general currency, which means it is not necessary true, as it is known locally and wide that Lea Davis is more than somewhat fond of his brother, whose name is Wayne and who is said to have the best collection of Jimmy Witherspoon records in London.” I’d learn much later that Alfie Wyatt once told Paul Weller about how early mods would dance to John Coltrane’s Olé, on which Eric Dolphy played flute.
Elms’ book makes a case for Tom Waits’ score for One From The Heart, which is fair enough. Tom Waits also features memorably in Glen Matlock’s memoirs, I Was A Teenage Sex Pistol, which were ghostwritten by Peter Silverton. Early on in the Pistols’ career some of the punk in-crowd went to Ronnie Scott’s to see Tom Waits, and Joe Strummer was hustling to get this gang of urchins in for free. Eventually Tom comes to the door in this big Crombie overcoat, and at one point proceeds to take out from an inside pocket of the coat a pint of Guinness with a perfect head on it which he drinks down in one go.
Matlock’s memoirs make for an entertaining read, and there are the occasional revealing flashes that remain with you more than the later, more acclaimed ‘theoretical’ tomes. One of these is where the earliest incarnation of the group is beginning to pay attention to the way it looked, and adopts a mod look with short hair, hush puppies and jeans. Matlock also gives considerable credit to Bernard Rhodes for making them think about what they were doing, and he mentions in particular the lifts home he had from Bernard ‘the teacher’ where they would talk through what they wanted to be and do. And, remember, free jazz was strongly represented in the famous Rhodes/McLaren love/hate ‘which side are you on’ lists.
Saturday 13 November 2010
During the last quarter of 1978 the New Musical Express published its Book Of Modern Music in pull-out weekly parts. For a 14-year-old this encyclopaedia was something strangely enchanting. I kept my copy for years and years until it disintegrated, and I could practically recite certain passages.
To an extent the book revealed some of the mysteries of punk’s origins, but more excitingly it pointed to the future with some thrilling text about what would come next. The weighting of the words would bear little relation to sales. So, for example, Pere Ubu would be prominently placed, and The Pop Group enthusiastically endorsed:
“The flat, no-clues name is designed to mislead and intrigue. Apart from the sharp threads and regular instruments they don’t live up to it in any conventional sense. Rather they seek new ways with old means, cleverly deploying musicianship learned on the job (only one member was remotely proficient at their inception in May ’77) and deliberately using the seclusion from the spotlight that living in Bristol brought them to cultivate fresh sounds from fresh sources. They have no contemporaries and carry few, if any, comparisons, forcing audiences to respond on immediate instincts. It’s a very open music and an unexpected, inexplicable pleasure.”
The New Musical Express had shortly before published its Encyclopaedia Of Rock, but I didn’t realise that until much later. So the Book Of Modern Music reinforced a sense of history really starting with punk. It also mattered a lot that the Book looked so great. This was the imagination of Barney Bubbles at work with his design team. Much as I loved the look of the Book I don’t think I realised who designed it, or understood the significance of it.
I suspect the only designer whose name really registered with me was Malcolm Garrett with his Buzzcocks artwork, which I loved. A little later there would be Al McDowell and Rocking Russian (and the State Arts t-shirts) then most importantly Neville Brody. Oddly I never connected with Peter Saville’s work, even though I loved much of the Factory Records output. I realised there were lots of clever references (partly thanks to the famous Jon Savage feature in The Face on The Age of Plunder) but Saville’s sleeves didn’t excite me.
I’m pretty sure that in 1978 I didn’t know who Barney Bubbles was, even though I had several Stiff/Radar releases he would have designed the sleeves for. Nevertheless I loved his picture sleeve for Generation X’s Your Generation (and still have the 45 symbol on a badge) and the LP cover for The Damned’s Music For Pleasure. I certainly would not have made any connection to his visual tributes to constructivism and op art, Kandinsky and Henryk Berlewi. Indeed it really doesn’t matter if you recognise the inspirations or not.
The graphic designer Andy Martin worked with Barney Bubbles on the Book Of Modern Music, and has referred to his “ability to look backwards and forwards at the same time, whilst always managing to arrive at The Very Point Of Now-ness". His observation gets right to the heart of how pop music/pop art operates. It’s certainly a phrase that could be perfectly applied to outfits like The Pop Group.
The first instalment of the Book Of Modern Music coincided with Barney Bubbles’ makeover of the NME, which was launched at the start of October 1978. In fact, it was the issue after The Pop Group’s cover feature, and this time Ari Up was on the cover. The Slits similarly had yet to release a record. The NME Book Of Modern Music seemed to disappear for years, but a resurgence of interest in Barney Bubbles’ work (largely due to Paul Gorman’s Reasons To Be Cheerful book) has brought it back into circulation.
One of the few ‘other’ places that the NME Book Of Modern Music is mentioned as a whole is on the Caroline True Records website. CTR is a label that has made monumentally important recordings by Manicured Noise and The Prefects available. These two groups are both mentioned by the unidentified journalists, though it’s tempting to guess who wrote these words about The Prefects:
“A Birmingham group formed in March 1977. Their music is as bleak, cynical and loveless as their personalities, with a perverse humour. Their relationship to orthodox rock music is tenuous, at the closest a horrendous doppel ganger parody. At its best their music can have a frightening, pulsating intensity. Suspicious and arrogant, they have no friends, want none and despite creating an evolving sound, their potential for recognition is limited.”
Extract from The NME Book Of Modern Music courtesy of John Kertland/Caroline True Records
Wednesday 10 November 2010
At the end of September 1978 the New Musical Express ran a bold front page feature on The Pop Group. This was an outfit with no product to promote. And there was no other ‘selling point’ on the cover other than the striking photo of Mark Stewart from the Brian Griffin session. The pitch and tone of the feature, written by Paul Rambali, was very much about The Pop Group providing a timely antidote to the fizzling out or betrayal of punk rock. In other words, if punk had disappointingly descended to a level where Gen X were living the louche life, models on each arm as they walked through airports, then something like The Pop Group was needed to get us all using our imaginations again. The suggestion was that The Pop Group had the potential to realise punk’s promises. It was all incredibly exciting, disorientating; and I remember reading it over and over again, trying to decipher its mysteries, meanings, reference points, and instructions.
So, for example, while it would take many years to catch up with a copy of the incredible Leggo Dub LP which it mentioned The Pop Group played, a particular quote attributed to Bruce Smith would speak directly to the 14-year-old me and remain very much in my mind down the years: “Yeah, you’ve gotta keep learning and keep discovering and keep going forward all the time.”
The following summer Paul Rambali would have another front page NME feature, on a little known group called Joy Division who would shortly release their debut LP. It was again another article that generated a real sense of excitement. Again, it helped no end that the (Kevin Cummins) photos of the group in shirts and ties accompanying the interview were fantastic. Joy Division did not really look like any other group. And if the bassist’s beard was a little difficult to accept, the haircut of guitarist Bernard (Albrecht, as he was then known) more than made up for it.
Rambali wrote that the sound of Joy Division “owes nothing to the after punk cult of the amateur. If it's pop, that's purely accidental”. He compared the group to early Subway Sect. About a London performance, he noted: “In front of the intimate stage, though, a gaggle of about a dozen or so modern boys staked out their territorial rights like there was some sort of conspiracy afoot. Minions were dispatched to fetch the pints. The space stage front was jealously guarded. Their spick and span muted green tribal colours set them apart from the otherwise dowdy crowd. They had come, heaven knows where from, for Joy Division.”
Coincidentally, that issue of the NME came out the week I was on holiday in August 1979, and again the Joy Division feature was studied endlessly while I was away. A little earlier, that April I’d been on a short school trip to France, and early one morning while waiting for our ferry at Weymouth I’d bought a copy of the New Musical Express, which was studied even more closely throughout that long journey and for a long time after. This was the mod ‘bank holiday’ special edition, which featured an article on the new mod groups plus two more that examined some of the original mod legends.
The first of these was reggae writer Penny Reel’s The Young Mod’s Forgotten Story. It was on one level an entertaining Colin MacInnes-esque short story about the early mod lifestyle in London. To a new generation whose imaginations had been piqued by the mod collage on the inner sleeve of All Mod Cons, however, it was a revelatory text, filled with mysterious, intricate detail about music, clothes, people, books, locations and lifestyles. It made my head reel in the same way that the arcane names in articles about The Pop Group would excite. Penny Reel’s references would be gradually unravelled over the years, and among those who swore by that article was Brian Kotz, singer with Back To Zero. Many years later he told the Jack That Cat Was Clean site how, for him, there was the added attraction of his brother Alan actually knowing the faces and places in the story.
The other article in that NME mod special was by Paul Rambali, which Brian remembers being co-written by C.P. Reeves who was in The Dyaks, and who a month after the NME special edition appeared with journalist Roy Carr on the mod revival edition of the London Weekend Show talking about the original scene, repeating the story about the mod down at Brighton pulling out a shotgun to protect himself and his leather coat.
C.P. or Chris Reeves remembers: “Paul (Rambali) and I hung out from I think the late 70s and would indulge in some goofing off. I recall telling probably highly florid stories about the mod days and people’s attention to detail regarding the look etc. Paul being a natural typewriter rider got in there, and the NME agreed to include it in that edition.”
Chris would later release a wonderful one-off single on Y Records, the genuinely eclectic and extraordinary label run by The Pop Group’s manager Dick O’Dell. “We had an offbeat collective called the Hat Between at the end of the 70s. Paul was around at that time and liked a version of the song Dining at Dzerzhinskys, and suggested a guy called Michael Zilkha in New York and his Ze label to put it out. However it never happened and we ended up putting out the version you heard on Y.”
Photo of Mark Stewart by Brian Griffin. Copyright 1978. Used with permission.
Sunday 7 November 2010
The Pop Group’s session for the John Peel radio show was recorded in early July 1978, and first broadcast in early August of that year. I don’t think I caught it when it was first aired, so it was probably one of the times when it was repeated that I first got to hear The Pop Group. I remember being impressed. I recall wanting desperately to like the group, and there was a sense the music was only one part of a whole significant thing. I knew The Pop Group was important, so I probably wasn’t going to admit I didn’t like the session. But I really was fine with it. If this was to be the future, then yeah I was on the side of the future. I certainly didn’t find The Pop Group difficult or inaccessible. This was pop, yeah-yeah.
The Pop Group’s Peel session did provoke some strong reaction, though. The Teenage Kicks site, which preserves the Peel legacy, recently featured The Pop Group’s session and referred to the memoirs of BBC engineer Bill Riley who rates it as ‘the worst session ever’. His account of recording the session is hilarious, pompous and a useful reminder of how music and attitudes in the punk era really did horrify some people. His views on the legendary first Slits session also make for a riveting read. In the booklet accompanying the Ostrich Churchyard compilation on Postcard Records Edwyn Collins tells a somewhat similar tale of when Orange Juice recorded its first session for John Peel in October 1980. It’s worth remembering that at that time Postcard’s Alan Horne set himself up in opposition to Peel the alternative establishment figure.
Despite the (occasional) patronising ‘producer as patrician’ or ‘paid technician’ approach, the Peel sessions invariably captured young groups early, in a way their own record companies failed miserably to do. In the book The Rock Snob’s Dictionary the authors send up this way of thinking: “Yeah, the Gang Of Four’s first album was okay, but it couldn’t touch the energy of the Peel sessions”. Irony is fine, but that statement was spot-on. The Dictionary was co-edited by Steven Daly, who had been the drummer in Orange Juice. Many people thought the same thing about Orange Juice’s Peel sessions and first LP.
The John Peel show and in particular the sessions really were an important part of my life between, say, 1978 and 1982. What was played on the show would form a major part of the conversations at school the following day. Where listening to the shows was an illicit pleasure, songs heard in session would be fleeting flashes of brilliance and strangeness that were never matched by later ‘official’ versions. There was no file sharing in those days, but a lot of cassette copying went on. And it was on cherished tapes that The Pop Group session lived on.
There were three songs on that session by The Pop Group. For years I thought I might have missed out on a track, as there were usually four songs to a session, until Wire’s Crazy About Love pop epic of late 1979. I don’t think I really realised until recently that the song We Are Time was almost eight minutes long. It doesn’t outstay its welcome. The Pop Group understood dynamics even early on. In journalism they talk about the importance of the killer opening. The Pop Group instinctively grasped that. Kiss The Book, for example, started with the fantastic line: “Searching for love in the library of a ghost town”. The Peel session version of that track would later surface on the We Are Time retrospective on Y/Rough Trade along with a variety of live tracks and demos. The Slits’ complementary volume features a recording of Sister Ray/Rock ‘n’ Roll Even from The Clash’s White Riot tour where in a communal moment with Subway Sect and The Prefects there is the chant of “No more rock ‘n’ roll for you” which Orange Juice would soon incorporate into their Poor Old Soul.
The Prefects and Subway Sect are brilliant examples of groups whose reputations grew through an alternative economy where Peel sessions were shared extensively. It’s impossible to measure the rate of exchange of tapes, but these groups’ BBC recordings had a life beyond the official music industry. It is easy to over-sentimentalise the Peel legacy, but impossible to underestimate his impact, for example on those too young or too remote for the ‘live’ circuit. He did play a lot of rubbish and had incredibly dangerous influence. But there is no escaping the fact that his shows in the punk era provided a context where what would now be considered ‘weird’ music strangely became the norm, and where the bedroom experimentalists had as much chance of being heard as the major labels’ latest heavy investment. It was, ironically, the major labels’ pricey productions that became the ‘difficult’ listens.
Thursday 4 November 2010
It was a photo of The Pop Group that I first fell in love with. I knew absolutely nothing about the group, but found the picture mesmerising when I came across it. It was a shot of the five members sitting around on some rocks, looking like they were discussing something quite deep. They were dressed predominantly in white, and looked fantastic. It was all so unlike anything else that was around at the time. There was something about the shot that suggested the image had been appropriated, as though they had taken a particular look, from another time and another place, and made it their own.
This would have been late July or early August 1978. Or could have been. The memory occasionally plays tricks. But I do remember being on holiday, spending hours reading the one edition of Sounds, the music weekly. I was 14 at the time. I seem to recall (my favourites)The Jam being the main article, with the photos featuring Paul Weller in three-button leather jacket and striped shirt as featured on the A Bomb sleeve. The shot of The Pop Group was featured in a news item about their John Peel session, which was about to be broadcast and was considered to be ‘important’. This may all be horribly wrong, but I do recall spending ages then and later studying that photo of The Pop Group. I cut it out and kept it in a scrap book for years.
I would never have been so attracted to The Pop Group if they had not have looked so brilliant. It was the same with Jack Kerouac as a writer. In fact it was no coincidence that I saw The Pop Group photo just as I was beginning to get to grips with the beat writers and the existentialists. Instinctively I made a connection. I am not sure why.
The same image of The Pop Group on the rocks was used elsewhere, in other music publications, and photos from the same session were used in the cover feature the New Musical Express ran in September 1978. It was a bold move to put a group who didn’t even have a record out on the front page, but there was a real buzz about The Pop Group at the time. There’s another great group shot on the same rocks, where this time Mark Stewart is standing with his back to the camera, looking very brooding. On the cover he’s got this fantastic ‘50s look which is partly an evangelical menacing Mitchum in Night of The Hunter and part haunted teenage heartthrob with dishevelled pompadour.
Over the years so many people have written about The Pop Group having an ironic name. One look at these 1978 shots would prove that this was rubbish and dangerously wrong. This was a group that at the time paid particular attention to its image, had a very defined and unique look, was incredibly photogenic and knew it. They had presence and persuasion, and wanted to use it. You can still see it in those photos.
These immortal images of The Pop Group were taken by Brian Griffin. He remembers that the shoot took place on Chesil Beach, near Weymouth in Dorset, and that it was an idea of Dick O'Dell, their manager. He also recalls the group was “so young and shy.” Images from the session were used in Brian’s book, Copyright 1978, a collaboration with the legendary Barney Bubbles, which he self-published at the time.
There are many reasons why the name of Brian Griffin will be familiar to music fans. Among these will be his cover photographs for the (four proper) Echo and the Bunnymen LPs, which it’s tempting to say have had a more lasting appeal than the records. In Bill Drummond’s book 45 he describes Brian Griffin as “a photographer and film-maker who understands power.”
So what was the power of those 1978 photos of The Pop Group? Part of it is to do with the fact they look like a group, or better still a gang which is something Mark Stewart does keep coming back to in interviews about how The Pop Group developed out of shared interests, going to the same clubs, and so on. The best groups do have that collective identity thing going on.
Photo of The Pop Group by Brian Griffin - Copyright 1978. Used with permission.
Monday 1 November 2010
The Pop Group’s first live performances in almost 30 years were announced in July 2010. Among these were a couple of shows at The Garage in Highbury, which somehow didn’t suggest quite the sense of occasion needed. Nevertheless I was pleased to see The Pop Group would be back in action.
The recent revival of interest in all things post-punk had very much put The Pop Group’s name back in circulation. On the dubstep scene there was a lot of admiration for the work of Mark Stewart with the Maffia, Adrian Sherwood and On-U Sound. And Gareth Sager had only recently made a fantastic LP for Creeping Bent. So cynically it could be said it was a good time to get back together. But The Pop Group’s return was never going to be straightforward. It was always going to be more about unfinished business, rather than riding the revival chariot, given the personalities involved. After all, Mark Stewart and Gareth Sager had never taken the easy options in their work since The Pop Group split. And it seemed unlikely they could change their approach.
The idea of going to see The Pop Group in 2010 did not really appeal, but the return did make me think a lot about what The Pop Group meant to me, and the part it has played in my life. In particular, I began to think long and hard about the impact The Pop Group had on me as a kid in 1978. This was in part prompted by the appearance of a new website devoted to The Pop Group which proved to be a goldmine of old press cuttings. It was through the music press that I first found out about The Pop Group, and that was a tremendously important thing. That may sound daft, but I know I’m not alone in thinking that.
There had been an earlier site dedicated to The Pop Group, lovingly ‘curated’ in America by Dixon Coulbourn before his tragic death. Dixon had started the site because there were (in 1997) so few things on the internet about The Pop Group. This was at a time when there was very little interest generally in the post-punk era, and information was hard to glean. You would, for example, try to look up something about Ze Records and Manicured Noise and find something you’d written yourself.
In 2010 The Pop Group’s return was newsworthy, and a few articles and interviews began to appear. Among these was a Mark Stewart feature in The Quietus, a well-connected London-based online ‘rock music and popular culture’ magazine. I was genuinely excited when I saw links appearing for the interview with Mark which The Quietus ran in early September 2010. But it was immediately apparent that something had gone horribly wrong. I understand John Doran is the editor of The Quietus' site, and a trained journalist, but his Mark Stewart interview is a mess, and a sadly missed opportunity.
It is a feature in desperate need of editing, ironically. Even more oddly, Doran plonks himself right at the heart of the feature, while making a case in the comments for “the age of the cult of the all-important, conquering music journalist” being over. He also states that “at the end of the interview Mark gave me a big hug and told me I had exactly what I needed”. Mark was right, and had played his role to perfection. The Quietus writer just did not have a clue what to do with the raw material.
Was it absurd to be angry about a piece of poor journalism? It’s a fair question. There are a lot of more important things to get worked up about. And it’s only my opinion. The comments on the article were largely favourable after all. I was prompted to reassess the articles about The Pop Group that had stirred my teenage imagination more than 30 years ago. Was it mere misplaced sentimentality to feel so strongly about something from my own youth? Perhaps, but there is no denying the impact that articles about The Pop Group had on me in 1978, and the strange directions they indirectly sent me off in. It just seemed very unlikely The Quietus’ coverage could have the same effect. It’s a very different world in 2010 than it was in 1978, and I don’t want to perpetuate certain prevailing, lazy and largely inaccurate myths about a golden age of music journalism. But the thing about The Pop Group and me won’t go away.