WINTER OF DISCONTENT

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The Pop Group: We Are All Prostitutes (Radar CD)
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Simultaneous to the release of new tracks by Mark Stewart (featuring re-mixes by Alec Empire etc.) this CD draws tracks from an earlier phase of Stewart’s recording history. Though more widely acknowledged for his uncompromising collaborations with renegade hip-hop musicians like the Sugarhill label’s Keith LeBlanc and Skip McDonald, the Pop Group, famous for their politically motivated funk-combo work, show, in retrospect, just how such cut-up, scratch-fest classics as the auto-dissolving Veneer of Democracy came about. Just as a track like Hypnotised, drawing on strains of 80’s synth-pop and melding it to activated electro beats and disjointed mixing, inflects music with Stewart’s political vehemence, so too, tracks like the Pop Group’s caustic We Are All Prostitutes, set a complacent, consumptive disco on a collision course with an agit-prop punk. Although the tracks on this CD are not as indicative of the impending and ‘untimely’ presence of techno as, say, New Order or Throbbing Gristle, Stewart’s screeching and informed hatred of capitalism may have set the tone for the political inflection of techno to be a more abstract, non-vocalised form of protest as, after Stewart, there seemed to be no other resonant and contemporary way to verbalise oppression in the form of a song. Such tracks as Forces of Oppression and Justice, drawn from the Pop Group’s second album, How Much Longer Can We Tolerate Mass Murder, illustrate how Mark Stewart took the protest song to didactic and almost self-impaled extremes. Tied in with this, in the shadow of an eager dissemination of political information, there is the occasionally audible nadir of political commitment as faith, where the absolution of militancy (“action to back up belief”) can lead in the direction of an inactive purity or towards a desperate isolation.. There’s no escape: “self-abolishment mirrors its opposite – an omniscient dogma of things” [1]. This dangerous and necessary paradox, perhaps expressible as a tension between group responsibility and individual guilt, is a definite vector of the Pop Group’s music, and it may have influenced Stewart’s decision not to re-release this material until now. I wonder also, given Stewart’s earnestness (a bit of a dirty word in these ironic and dumbed-down times) and the way (a little like Joy Division’s Ian Curtis) that he sings with a prostrate and infectious sincerity, whether or not, as a singer, he considered himself a little too exposed. The operative element here is, amidst the rejuvenating strains of funk and the forcefield of anger, that Stewart’s concern to politicise his listeners carries with it, in the guttural tones, an immixture of anger and despair that seems to point away from the catharsis of punk towards the uncategorisable emotion of a reflexive propaganda. As it says at the end of the reproduced lyrics to We Are All Prostitutes, to be read just at the moment when the track is collapsing into a cello cacophony: “at this moment despair end and tactics begin”.
With this CD it’s possible to play-out along such lines as these and hear Mark Stewart as wracked rather than wrecked: check how, at the end of Prostitutes, he intones the word “hypocrites”, repeating it until it gets stuck in his throat like some anxiety-induced vomit. Stewart’s Pop Group lyrics stress just this sense of personal responsibility (“There are no spectators/You participate…”) as it collides with idealism and as it perhaps, if we follow the activities of other Pop Group members into outfits like Pig Bag, Maximum Joy and Rip Rig & Panic, comes up against the de-politicised context of the music industry where the interaction of music and politics is denied, repressed and then harmlessly repackaged. These tensions are key to the Pop Group and in comparison to such anarcho-punk bands like Crass, Mark Stewart’s emotional-charge is the result of his singing that he is a ‘hypocrite’ too. He is not pure and transcendental but pinioned by an openness to his social context. It is in this way, by not repressing the despair, that he offsets and balances the preachy and didactic elements of his own work because, within his lyrics, he is figured as being as fallible as anyone else. This takes us towards framing the Pop Group’s uneasy relationship with disco-soul. From the perspective of the vocals Mark Stewart’s ‘soul’ is not heir to some confessional gospel tradition, it is rather, a form of possession, an alter-ego, an embittered lament that feverishly denies ‘soul’ at the same time as it re-defines ‘soul’ as political passion. This had been approached before by the likes of Sly and the Family Stone titling an album ‘There’s a Riot Goin’ On’, and it is likely that the Pop Group drew on this strand of their immediate musical past (the distance between the two being a decade at most). Yet, disco-funk was, at this time, a largely deplored form that was synonymous with commercialism and wishy-washy escapism. Even so, as with A Certain Ratio, to whom they were revealingly and startingly compared, the Pop Group drew on elements of funk, possibly as a result of their familiarity with the black music scene of Bristol [2]. Whilst there has always been a protest element in reggae and dub, the way the Pop Group married funk to an immersion in the political milieus of the late 70s transformed this music into an aggressive challenge that propagated discontent whilst offering many people an unsuspected musical syntax. The crux here is not only the 4/4 beat of disco, accenting will and confidence, it is also the fact that, for the Pop Group, funk was played as if it were punk and rather than remaining within the safehaven of rock and deploying an amateurism that soon dried up into parody (Crass, Exploited…), the amateur (non-virtuoso) spirit moved into disco-funk and did for it what punk did for rock and, if you like, took the assault into another sector of the music industry. Though funk has been criticised as requiring more ‘craft’ than punk, any cursory listen to the tracks on this CD shows that the Pop Group’s funk basslines can, at times, be simpler than their punk counterparts: rather than prodding the strings without stopping and encouraging the guitars to drown everything out, a pathway to funk lies in picking out notes and leaving space. The space between the notes gives-off energy and crucially leaves enough ‘silence’ not only for the flow-through of lyrics, but for guitar and other incursive noises to work rhythmically and disruptively (some Pop Group tracks feature wailing sax riffs that work both as a parody of jazz-funk and as a connector to the free-jazz scene of militant musicians like Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, the Last Poets etc. [3]). Then again, the effect of the ‘slap-bass’ adds aggression in that rather than the strings being dulled and softened by being played with the tips of fingers the fact that one funk-bass technique involves hammering the string with the thumb knuckle and actually ‘pulling’ the strings so they rattle on the fretboard gives to the sound a percussive and clipped-angry tone (it was rumoured that the Pop Group’s bass player, Dick Dell, would stand a milk-crate in front of his speaker to further dirty and harden up the bass timbre). Furthermore one of the characteristics of disco-funk that the Pop Group harnessed was the way that funk was made by collectivities of people. Though a move from the standard four-piece of the punk combo to upwards of 6 musicians may seem like nothing earth-shattering it is such invisible elements as these, the arrangement of an often overcrowded stage, that worked as a kind of enigmatic disequilibrium. Disco-funk outfits from Funkadelic to the more mainstream Earth, Wind & Fire would have so many personnel that it would generate the idea of a track as a group celebration. Percussion infills, handclaps and party noise can all be heard at the end of the jubilant ‘Where There’s A Will’ and this track’s group-sung chorus (including the phrase “reclaim tomorrow”), shows the Pop Group at their most optimistic and anthemic. Updating Sly and The Family Stone’s Stand, this track, by concentrating on the ‘joys to come’ rather than the oppressions of the present, still stands-up as as motivational a track as any there has been. Whereas Sly sings out, a little cornily, “There’s a midget standing tall/ and a giant, beside him, about to fall”, Mark Stewart starts out with a reference to the money-relation, “each and everyone of us shall pay on demand”, again linking all people into a common oppression, and then proceeds to hit us with, “We’re getting ever closer… to the new being… whose figure is about to appear”.

The melding of such a line to what was, at the time, a sound that was radically divergent from punk orthodoxy, seemed to tie the two together as expressive of the possible appearance of such a ‘new being’, a ‘change of minds’, and if, most of the time, there is the will but there is no way, it is tracks like this and others by the Pop Group that keep alive the sense of a movement’s precursors and the possibility of change. Though it is usual for a record to be kept tightly within its own historical context, so tight that it cannot breathe anymore, then what surrounds these tracks is the hidden-history of the political and industrial upheavals of the late 70s which culminated in the bringing down of the last labour government [4]. That the actual extent of the strife during this period is only just coming to light and which included the mobilisation of the much obscure Civil Contingencies Unit (ie a parallel government involving the armed forces) means that the Pop Group’s context has not been entirely closed-off as, say, other contexts too reliant on ‘style’ have (ie electro-pop). However, it is no surprise that this CD does not re-present the posters that accompanied “How Much Longer…” as these could have prompted inquisitiveness into this context. The scale of these posters which feature Mark Stewart’s lyrics collaged into montages (Abba disfigured, Robin Hood, police brutality statistics, Gulag fences, famine reports, anti-fascist information…) make the message unmistakable, yet they also illustrate how much of Mark Stewart’s lyrical content was derived from a non-partisan involvement in political literature and how many of the phrases are rooted in the slogans of the leftist demonstrations: “Self-defence is no offense”, “Who guards the guards, who polices the police?”. This is not to condemn Stewart for a lack of ‘originality’ but, just as it underlines the sense of collectivity analogous to an inspirited funk, and does not hinder current appreciation of the Pop Group by their alignment to a particular leftist sect, it also puts the dampeners on all those misguided treatises that had it that such protest music could never be authentically political. Such music has maybe never been ideological; but there is a difference: “I don’t Believe… I can’t Believe…”

(1) American composer Morton Feldman on John Cage.
(2) This brief journalistic alignment of ACR and the Pop Group shows, if anything, the extent to which a rock-based musical journalism was estranged from this ‘white-funk’. Check in a similar direction 23Skidoo and, veering closer to rock structures, the likes of Josef K and the Fire Engines.
(3) On How Much Longer, vinyl space is given over to a Last Poets track.
(4) It’s strange that much discussion about punk has been sidetracked by debates about the relative importance of situationist ideas which has perhaps meant that the working class struggles of the 70s have been overlooked as an influence upon the punk ethos?

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