I guess a lot of people have a John Peel epiphany, and mine definitely came at some point in the early ‘80s when, for no obvious reason, he dug out “She Is Beyond Good And Evil” by The Pop Group.
Within a few seconds I was snared, and hit the ‘record’ button on my cassette player to tape the rest of the track. For over 20 years, due no doubt to some baffling personal incompetence, that taped version was my only copy of “She Is Beyond Good And Evil”: a cranky, next-level dub mix of sorts, with the sound dipping in and out as my recorder compensated for its failing batteries.
It is to The Pop Group’s credit that, nearly three decades on, they still sound as volatile and exciting, at this first London show in a small clutch of reunion shows. Further dates and a new album are being promised, but it may be unwise to expect these things to roll out in a logical fashion: there are, after all, the small matters of Bristolian working practises and infinite layers of political and creative opinion to negotiate first.
It’s a small surprise, too, that the clatter of Cecil Taylorish piano from Gareth Sager that opens the show soon resolves itself into an old song – the thought occurred, on the way to the gig, that The Pop Group’s fierce and enduring ideologies might mitigate against anything so formulaic and nostalgic as the act of playing 30 year old tunes.
The song they’re playing, though, has always had its built-in, self-flagellating ironies, being “We Are All Prostitutes”, which Mark Stewart bellows while occasionally checking lyrics on a lectern and looking like a giant vampiric Morrissey. Stewart’s manic and compelling stage presence is something of a shock, too, for those of us who’ve never seen him before. I guess I’d expected someone stern and paranoid, not one who relentlessly shadowboxes, thrashes a towel around his head, and, during “She Is Beyond Good And Evil”, initiates a kind of carnivalesque breakdown with a whistle.
Stewart appears to be having quite a time of it, or at least is significantly convulsed by his enthusiasms (this fairly remarkable interview gives an indication of where he is, more or less, right now). He is blessed, too, with a band – Sager, Dan Catsis, Bruce Smith (borrowed back from Public Image Ltd) and a new second guitarist – who are, well, slick would be the wrong word for such a skree of noise, but they’re certainly very tight and well-drilled. The idea that Pop Group shows might be a discourse between bandmembers of freeform ideas turns out to be wide of the mark: there’s always the imperative to be a funk band at the heart of what they do.
And a dub band, after a fashion, so the mix has a critical role, too, in translating the playing into something yet more disorienting: a brilliant version of “Thief Of Fire” finds great caverns of echo opening up beneath Stewart, while Sager picks up a soprano sax and blasts wave after wave of tinnitus-inducing interference. Sager is terrific throughout, actually: there’s one wall-of-knives guitar solo in “Colour Blind” that pretty much throws virtually all of the post-punk/punk-funk/no-wave revivalism of the early 21st Century into very stark context.
It’s typical, too, of how The Pop Group’s music is so open-ended that it can revive itself in ways that remain confrontational and imaginative, making for a reunion, and an ongoing interpretation of the notion of ‘punk’, much different to most of their contemporaries. Witness the encore: on one level a good, if not altogether revolutionary, funk jam, but one gradually assailed by obliterating noise and the bullish, oddly jovial presence of Stewart. For a while, he sings into a mic which seems to be turned off; the soundman, perhaps, is so intent on crafting the dub space that he doesn’t notice Stewart has stopped dancing and is trying to join in.
Then the mic gets switched on, and it transpires Stewart is having another go at “We Are All Prostitutes”. Clearly, in spite of everything, here’s a man who loves his work.