We’ve NEARLY finished our first book. ‘Bristol Boys Make More Noise’ – a coffee table book based on John Spinks amazing photographs from that wonderful era, the mid to late 70′s and then BANG 1981. It’s virtually there with text by the very, very lovely Gill Loats. We’ve just got to clear one or two things and then its will be available for pre-order. Its nearly 200 pages of Bristol Music Archive history and we are really proud of it and can’t wait to share it with the world. How we are going to pay for the manufacturing is an altogether different subject but hey that’s the music or should I say the book publishing business. Blessed Love. Mike on behalf of the team and Gill we love you x
Posts Tagged ‘post punk’
Great feature on the label:
Check this piece of essential Bristol music history out! HISTORY
During the mid-seventies Tim Williams was attending funk nights in Bristol where popular local DJs like Superfly or Seymour would play obscure American imported funk records. Just as with the dance culture of today the DJs themselves became the star attractions. Held in venues like the Guildhall Tavern the fashion conscious funk music scene was about dancing, dressing well and having a good time.
Later In 1976 embracing punk’s DIY attitude Tim swapped funk for punk and began writing a fanzine called Loaded. Over 18 months and seven issues Loaded (priced at 15p) documented the Bristol punk scene and its movers and shakers. Most notably young punk band The Cortinas and seminal art punk act The Pop Group.
This interview was conducted in collaboration with Bristol Archive Records.
PDF’s of Loaded can be viewed online at: www.bristolarchiverecords.com/people/fanzine_loaded.html
So what were your first memories of punk in Bristol?
The first time I saw anybody I think it was a fashion situation rather than a musical situation. I’ve always believed that with the influence of people like Malcolm McLaren punk was as much a fashion scene as it was a musical scene, particularly in the early stages. The first people I saw dressed in what came to be recognised as punk fashion was in South-Wales in Newport, when a whole group of people from Bristol went to a night club, which was owned by a guy called Alan Jones. He had played saxophone in a South Wales pop soul combo called Amen Corner with Andy Fairweather Low. Alan ran a nightclub in Newport called Rudi’s and had a shop in Bristol called Paradise Garage.
We all went across to his club Rudi’s and there were a bunch of guys there from the valleys, Newport and Blackwood who were dressed in leather and rubber clothes. This is way early summer 1976 I would suggest, people had chains from their nose to their ear. It was an incredible change from the fashion scene that we were currently into from that particular time. What was interesting was that there was no music to go with the look. It makes me cringe to say so, but they were actually dancing to Donna Summer while dressed in what was a new look. Those people were actually Steve Strange or Steve Harrington as he was then, a guy called Collin Fisher and a guy called Chris Sullivan who went on to run The Wag club in London, Soho. He was the lead singer in Blue Rondo a la Turk into the eighties. So they all went on to great things. They were ahead of their time. That was the first time I saw something that could be described as punk, though there was no music to go with it.
The Pop Group, 1977, photo by John Spink.
When did you first encounter The Pop Group?
The Pop Group were absolutely seminal to the kind of Bristol sound that evolved, they did come in the slipstream of The Cortinas. The Cortinas were the first Bristol punk band out of the blocks, very young kids, the drummer was only 14, went to pretty good schools most of them and had had a band and been associated with bands for some time. At their schools, some went to Bristol Grammar, some went to Colston, some went to Cotham, with the guys that eventually formed The Pop Group. Mark Stewart was at school with some of the guys that formed The Cortinas, certainly Nick Sheppard.
From the beginning of the punk scene, Mark was incredibly influential and knew that he was going to take advantage of this burgeoning scene. He was talking about having this band called The Pop Group, before he even had a band, and produced badges and things of that nature to promote what at that time was just an idea. I was aware of the concept before I knew the band. When they eventually got to rehearsing then I did go to see them in rehearsal a couple of times where they were playing covers of things like Jonathan Richman’s Roadrunner and Solid Gold Easy Action by T.Rex. A real mixture of pop and rock tunes as they developed their musical ability. So I was aware of them before they existed, I guess would answer your question.
Where were they practicing?
A place called The Cave in Clifton, which was around the Cornwallis Crescent type area; they all kind of lived in that general vicinity. It was a well-known rehearsal space for bands around there, that’s where I went to see them.
The Cortinas, 1977, photo by Peter Swan.
So what were your first memories of The Cortinas?
I missed their earlier gigs when they were more of an r’n’b type band. They had been listening to the sort of pub rock music, which preceded punk, so they came from a different background to me. So I was unaware of them evolving. When the punk soundtrack emerged and became clear to people through the national press and through the early gigs of The Sex Pistols, that got my attention and other people was well. Punk was beginning to hold a lot of interest for people and I read notices that there were a band in Bristol called The Cortinas, I can’t recall how we first met them.
It was the coming together of two scenes really because up until then I hadn’t had very much to do with rock music at all. I came from a scene, which was about pubs and clubs where they played soul and funk, there were pretty women and there was dancing, it was about dressing well. That was my background rather than anything rock orientated, I hadn’t really engaged with rock since the days off David Bowie and Roxy Music, which did kind of grab my imagination earlier on in the seventies. I had to find of find my way into a rock tradition when people became interested in punk.
We were going to a place called The Guildhall Tavern in Bristol, which was the funk club that was a very cool scene, very influential scene. Mark Stewart form The Pop Group actually went there a few times. Of that scene maybe fifty percent of those people gravitated to punk, saw that as the next most exciting thing. Although you needed to shift your reference point musically to appreciate it that was a relatively easy thing to do because the music was pretty exciting, the scene associated with it was exciting, and all the political stuff associated with it. That for me was an easy jump in the end, for other people was well, while others stayed behind in the funk scene and never made the jump. Although a lot of us never made that step, a lot of us did.
We found The Cortinas somewhere. What happened was that the Bristol punk scene was emerging from The Cotinas and people who went to their schools, who could play instruments who would form the bands. Those that came out from the funk scene who were working class, we kind of took up the support roles that made the Bristol punk scene what it was. Some people got into band management, some people did promotions and put on gigs and other people like me wrote a fanzine because I had aspirations to write a little bit. There wasn’t one in Bristol and I filled that gap.
Those two scenes came together, The Cortinas appreciated it because we were quite a streetwise bunch and gave them a bit of protection when punks were something that could be targeted. There was a lot of bad press and you could be attacked in the street, we were a bit streetwise and they were really appreciative of the help and support they got from us guys.
Who were the other local punk bands that were popular at the time?
The Cortinas were by far the most successful and the biggest punk band and we will put The Pop Group to one side because I wouldn’t describe them as a punk band. The Cortinas were head and shoulders above the rest, played The Roxy Club in London. They were one of the first bands to play at The Roxy, so they got national attention fairly early on, won a recording contract with Miles Copeland’s Step Forward Label. They were very quick off the mark everybody else was kind of in their slipstream and were not as confident.
The Pigs I think would probably be next in line, they have recently reformed and have been playing some gigs, Mike’s put their album out, re-released that. Other groups that I supported in those early days were The Media, Social Security and The Primates, those that come to mind. All have been featured on Mike’s compilation punk albums.
In those days because I had got the magazine off of the ground I’d get contacted by somebody to say, we’ve got a band we’re playing our first gig. I’d say ok I’ll come and see you and sometimes it would be in their mate’s house. It would be real kind of low key. I’d go round and photograph the guys, listen to them and do a brief write up, right when they were just starting off. That was the beauty of the punk thing. Sniffing Glue Mark P’s fanzine ran a feature, which said, ‘Here’s three guitar chords now go form a band,’ it was basically that sort of ethos. Lots of people did that, and lots of people in Bristol did it. I don’t think with the exception of The Cortinas Bristol really produced a punk band that had an impact on the national scene. It was only when The Pop Group came along in a post-punk idiom that Bristol again got some national attention.
What venues in particular were important to the punk and funk music scenes?
Funk preceded where we got to in punk, and I’ve already mentioned the Guild Hall Tavern which was a pub effectively, it was an underground pub in Broad Street in Bristol. That was absolutely seminal in that whole funk fashion culture developing. The venues were interchangeable pre-punk, The Western Star Domino Club, Top Cat, The BBQ, they were places where there would always be funk nights and soul nights. The DJs were the stars in those days much as they have become nowadays. It was really DJ culture. People like Seymour and Superfly were interchangeable, they would turn up at these different clubs and they were probably as important as the venue.
Then with the shift across to punk, it was a movement that was getting an awful lot of bad press within the national tabloids, and so not many people wanted to book punk bands. So far as Bristol were concerned we tended to use some really obscure locations. I mean Barton Hill Youth Club was probably the weirdest, as well as tower blocks south of the river. We put on some pretty important gigs there, The Pop Group played there, most of the Bristol bands played there, we put on national punk groups there, The Subway Sect was a fantastic night.
You had to use venues where you could, we used Chutes in Park Street, The Cortinas and Generation X played there, The Cortinas played at The Lacarno which was part of the Mecca system, now the academy. You took venues where you could, we even put on punk gigs at The Bamboo, which was a famous black reggae nightclub on Portland Square. The Sex Pistols were due to play their only Bristol gig at The Bamboo Club, to get tickets you had to go and see Wilko Johnson, so we put on Wilko Johnson from Doctor Feel Good. If you went to the gig you got a voucher to get you a Sex Pistols ticket. Then the club burnt down practically the next night, so that was as close as The Sex Pistols came to playing in Bristol, and they never did.
What were your standout memories of The Pop Group and The Cortinas?
I think with the Cortinas I had an aweful lot of respect for them because they were so young, but to their credit they were competent musically, which not all punk bands were. They stood up to some negative press because of the fact they were middle class lads and were not working class dole queue rockers. That was the kind of image of punk at that time. They weren’t the only ones who were from the right side of the tracks, but they did get a bit of bad press for that. But they stood up to it and they held their own. They had a good image on stage they were all quite visual I think. None of them really adhered to the standard punk uniform; they had an almost cartoonish image, which I thought was really good. In Jeremy Valentine they had a really strong front man, who could stand up to some quite hostile audiences and for a bunch of kids I had utmost admiration for the way they did that.
With The Pop Group I felt that they took things to another level all together, they were not punk, their influences were entirely different, they were young pretentious kids. They were the same kind of age group as The Cortinas but they were talking about avant-garde Jazz, Eric Dolphy, Charles Bukowski novels and poems and the Beat Poets. They had all these influences, art and heavy dub reggae and all of these things they were drawing into the mix. They were talking up those things all the time, quite intellectual in their approach, which some people found comical in a bunch of 16 or 17 year olds. I felt fair shout to them. They were also image conscious, projected a good image, tried to get control over the photographs that were used of them early on. I think Mark Stewart particularly, Simon Underwood and Bruce Smith were all over image conscious individuals and they tried to get control of that as they became more and more popular. The music they played was pretty unique, it was a real hybrid of dub reggae, funk, jazz, there were all kinds of influences, which they brought together and projected into a unique music form for the late-seventies.
Elvis Costello, 1977, photo by Tim Williams.
Could you tell me about one of your favourite gigs from that time?
Carrying on from The Pop Group some of their gigs were really remarkable, they would come on stage to Edith Piaf singing Non Je Ne Regrette Rien, so they really built this stage image. They dressed in a similar way, one week they would all be dressed in grey, the next week it would be cricket whites, you could never anticipate what they were going to do. They played some great gigs at the ICA in London. I also saw them play The Nashville, supporting Elvis Costello and The Soft Boys. That was a fantastic gig; I travelled with them in the back of the van. I remember Elvis Costello standing outside the Nashville waiting for it to open when we turned up and swigging from a carton of orange juice. It was cold, it was the end of the year, we invited him in the back of the van to keep warm. The guys were just taking the piss out of him basically, I felt quite sorry for him and stood up for him a little bit as he was ravaged by the questioning intellect of a bunch of 16 and 17 year old Bristol schoolboys.
What were they saying?
Just kind of ragging him really, and they had that kind of piss taking sense of humour. I don’t know whether it was his glasses or whatever, they were just taking the piss out of him. He’s gone on to be an absolute super star, but that was it they had a real arrogance about them, which was all part of the thing that they created. So yeah some really good gigs, I liked Generation X, I thought they were quite poppy but saw really good gigs of theirs. The Clash were always exceptional live and I saw some great gigs of theirs, the Subway Sect I particularly liked. The Americans came over, I saw the Ramones supported by Talking Heads when they first toured. Also Television supported by Blonde with The Cortinas being third on the bill, which was great experience for them to play with the big American acts. Richard Hell and The Voidoids, Ian Dury was always good live. Some incredible gigs.
Could you tell me how you remember the arc of The Pop Group’s career?
It was quite short I guess, or maybe that was just my interest and involvement with them because I think they did go on to quite a stable more traditional rock career but I had dipped out of the scene by then. They talked themselves up before they even existed so they very cleverly created anticipation. The first gig they ever played was at Tiffany’s it was great. They really did arrive quite fully formed I felt and had a really good musical offering and image from the get go.
I was always disappointed with the recorded output. When I was going to their early gigs, and I must have gone to most of them, I became quite familiar with the songs they were playing, knew most of the songs they were playing, they were really exciting and had great tunes, when the first album came out it didn’t really do the songs that they had been performing live a lot of justice. I don’t know, it’s technical but I don’t think the production was what it could be, fantastic wall of sound creation, but it was a bit messy for me, the production of the whole thing. I don’t think the strength of the songs really showed through. That was a little bit disappointing, but people consider it a classic and look back and think that first album was absolutely great. They lost Simon Underwood quite early on, he went on to form Pigbag. Simon I felt brought a real funky element to The Pop Group which I think they lost a little bit when he moved on and he moved on quite early in the piece.
Do you have any idea why he moved on, was it just musical differences?
I don’t know, he was someone that I knew well before the band were formed because he would go to the Guildhall. Simon did get some involvement in the funk scene. I guess he came from a slightly different musical background. Who’s to say, I don’t really know why there was that parting of the ways. His subsequent band Pigbag were much more in the jazz funk category, where as The Pop Group were much more experimental and into sonic noise and all of that. Pigbag was a fun throw back to another time, more James Brown than avant-garde.
Can you tell me a bit about how you remember the arc of The Cortinas Career?
As I say they were there at the get go, they were already a unit and already performing r’n’b influenced stuff, they were in the initial rush of punk bands and had Bristol to themselves pretty much. Whether signing up with Miles Copeland was a good idea, who’s a bit of a gangster, I don’t know but they had some great times hanging around their offices in London. Got some good gigs out of it, certainly got their fair share of performance time at The Roxy, but again like The Pop Group, their recorded content was probably not that great. The singles were good. The first few singles were absolutely good records and stood the test of time but so far as the albums are concerned, probably a bit disappointing. I think it was when they got to their second album they tried to move into a slightly different direction. I think by then they were beginning to lose interest. Again quite a short arc of a career I would suggest.
Fashion is synonymous with the punk scene, where did you get your threads and stylistic influences?
I’ve mentioned a few times that clothes have always been quite important to me, probably because I didn’t have a lot of money when we were growing up and wore the same clothes too often for too long. When I began to earn money I probably spent far to much on my clothes certainly the preceding funk situation at the Guildhall was a very fashion conscious scene. Most people went to London for their clothes and some of the shops that we were going to in those days became big stores in the punk era as well. We went to Acme Attractions in the basement of Antiquarius where Don Letts was one of the sales assistants, to Johnson and Johnson in Kensington market, and of course to Malcolm McLaren’s Sex at the World’s End in Kings Road. People did buy their clothes from there, certainly in the case of Sex, they moved across into punk fashion as well.
There were stylists in the whole punk set up, but the fashion was kind of anti-style, even though people would buy expensive leather trousers, winkle picker shoes it was essentially about doing it yourself. There were some really creative people, a lot of art students were into it, and would put a lot of their creativity into dismantling their look and then reconstructing it. You could usually tell who was from a more artistic fashion background on the punk scene, against those who just liked rock music and thought this was a new diversion and therefore they could stick a few safety pins in their clothes. Some of the musicians were dreadfully guilty of fashion faux pas. The Police were on the same record label as The Cortinas and dear old Sting would put safety pins in the bottom of his flairs to make them look like they weren’t actually flared. They were people who were trying to find some way of looking punk when it wasn’t actually in them.
I remember buying plastic trousers for about £8, I cant remember whether that was a huge outlay. Certainly as someone who had always invested in my wardrobe quite a bit it wasn’t any big deal. I was probably spending less when punk was the scene, certainly in Malcolm McLaren’s shop, Sex, I remember buying two sera t-shirts, which were probably £25 each. That would have been quite expensive. When it became Seditionaries and they started selling more of the Vivienne Westwood designed stuff specifically then that got pretty expensive. You could buy clothes in Paradise Garage in particular, which Alan Jones who I mentioned had the club in South Wales, he became The Pop Group’s first manager. Alan was involved on different levels, had been in the music scene himself, owned the shop, was close to Lloyd Johnson that ran Johnson and Johnson in Kensington market, and was selling their clothes. So you could get some decent punk gear from Sex and Seditionaries and the Johnson and Johnson stuff from Paradise Garage in Bristol. Boney Moronie was next door and opened up later and was a cheap copy really. Where you could get more affordable stuff if you couldn’t afford the more designer punk togs that Paradise Garage was selling.
When you went up to London to go to Sex, how did you go up?
It would vary. We would go by train, sometimes by the time the punk thing was happening we would go up to go to The Roxy in the evening and to go to a gig. I remember going down to Sex in the Kings Road with Mark Stewart and seeing Marc Bolan around by Town Records down the bottom. Typical Mark, this was before The Pop Group really kicked off, his attitude was, what he actually said was, “Bolan, don’t talk to him.” Which I thought was fantastically conceited of him, but that was how he viewed the world. Bolan, yesterday’s man. As if he would know us from Adam, and as if we would ever go and speak to him, but Mark’s first reaction was “Bolan don’t speak to him.”
Who were the chaps?
If you go back to the funk scene and the Guildhall, there were lots of monikers around. Your clothes was your kit, so everybody talked about their kit and if you wore the kit then you were the kit chaps. That was a kind of name, which was semi-humorously used to describe this kind of movement of people who were heavily into fashion, heavily into funk, who went to the Guildhall or Fosters as it was called as well at the same time. I guess we were chaps. The guys in the band who had not been part of that scene, although Mark did go to the Guildhall a couple of times and Simon Underwood would have been there. I think they looked up to what was a big bunch of well-dressed but streetwise individuals. So we were the chaps.
Generation X, 1977, photo by Tim Williams.
Who were the funk bands that you did like?
Funk was a very sort of elitist scene, it was about records, for me you had to have the latest 12-inch single from the states on import. You didn’t want your DJs to play anything anywhere near the charts. You needed obscure latest releases from America; huge bands at that time were Brass Construction, The Fatback Band, The Ohio Players, Peoples Choice. They were bands that were black American and urban and that was the essence of funk, really. It’s really sad that black bands don’t seem to exist anymore. Rap has overtaken the whole thing. You have individual artists, but the days of when I went to Hammersmith Odeon to see B.T. Express, they were another big funk band. Fantasic eight piece musical funky jazzy kind of band, backing singers, really good performance. That kind of act doesn’t seem to exist anymore. Funk was all about getting the records and being able to dance to it.
How did the fashions in the funk scene contrast with the punk scene, what was the difference?
There were things, which indicated that things could move to a punk way. I guess your classic funk look in the mid-seventies was pegged trousers, winkle picker shoes or plastic sandals, a Hawaiian shirt, mohair jumper and wrap around sunglasses. The wrap around sunglasses, the mohair jumper developed holes, the pegged trousers started to be made in a different material and the winkle pickers certainly followed through. If you look back now you can see that there were some quite short steps for that funky fashion look to evolve into punk fashion.
Tell me about the fanzine you started, what was it called?
It was called Loaded, I only did seven issues. Sniffin’ Glue was the benchmark, which Mark Perry started in London at the outset of the punk scene. I was never particularly musical and I wanted to be involved because that’s what the whole scene was about. So I started the fanzine, absolutely easy to do, you just started writing whatever you wanted to write, you took a few photographs with an instamatic camera and then you photocopied it. A friend of mine at the time, Billy Summers who sadly passed away, joined a band called Gardez Darkx’s who will probably be on Mike’s album. He played the trumpet, so quite an obscure sort of line up. Billy worked for a shipping company in Avonmouth and had the key to the office and the photocopier. We would go down there at night after we had been to the pub and I would photocopy Loaded and sell it at gigs.
It kind of got bigger towards the end, when I went into a deal with a guy called Collin who ran a shop called Forever People which was a comic shop. It was on Gloucester Road at the time and later moved to Park Street. He financed printing it more professionally and then distributing it around other shops, which I did. Sold it for 15p initially, I think it went up to 25p before I just stopped doing it. It was good, I did it all myself, took the photos, Steve Swan whose brother was the drummer in The Cortinas was a pretty good photographer and I used quite a lot of his photographs.
I had a guy working who would contribute articles called David Housham who was the NME’s regional writer. He would review gigs for the NME when they were in the South West. David, I knew his name because everybody read the NME and I was keen to meet him because that was such a great job to have. When I met him he was a little lad in an anorak who lived with his gran, but that’s what a lot of NME writers could be like when you finally met them in the flesh. He went on to read English at Oxford and has probably had a good literary career. Julie Burchill I knew as well because she went to my old school, she was one of the original NME gunslingers, and from Brislington like me, so that’s a nice connection to keep.
You mentioned Marc Bolan earlier; do you have any more anecdotes involving notable people that you want to reveal to us?
I’ve mentioned Elvis Costello getting the piss ripped out of him by The Pop Group and Mark Stewart refusing top talk to Marc Bolan. I don’t know, I interviewed quite a few people when they came to Bristol for the magazine and always managed to talk to them. I remember The Ramones being on Bristol city centre buying hotdogs from an Italian guy called Franky who was always selling hotdogs on Bristol city centre at the time. To see Dee Dee Ramone and Johnny Ramone there in their leather jackets buying hamburgers from Franky on Bristol city centre was quite a surreal sight to see.
What was your recollection of the wider political climate at the time, and how important was politics to you or to the local music scene?
I think history has written up that punk was born out of boredom and all those bits of rhetoric. I think at the time it was great, it was a bit of sloganeering, it was something to write on your shirt, ‘Boredom Breeds Contempt’ and all the anarchy type stuff. I don’t particularly think that most people were driven to be involved for any great political reason. Certainly Mark and The Pop Group used their albums and their concerts, the way they presented themselves, to protest in a sort of Amnesty International type way against injustices around the world. That was terrific and a good thing to see, most people just wanted to get their album out and make some money. Historically it maybe looked back on as a political movement, I think it was more of a reaction against the flatulent music of the mid-seventies that rock music had become. That’s why it suddenly changed and went back to basics with your two and a half minute guitar slashing punk single. That was more of a driver than the political scene.
What are your lasting memories of the period and of punk and funk music in Bristol?
The funk thing was very underground really and it had nothing like the publicity of the punk. Where I could find loads of photos of the punk years, there were no photos of the funk, because it was just a bunch of people going out to clubs, drinking having a good time, there would be the occasional fight, it was what young people effectively did. Punk in Bristol, it was different because I don’t think we have a great rock tradition for punk to have been part of this ongoing continuous rock time line, and we didn’t have that. Bristol had the Granary a few underachieving bands, but effectively The Cortinas suddenly punched onto the national scene, The Pop Group did the same and then we had a gap before Massive Attack and those bands kicked in. I think for those reasons I think it seemed like a much more self-contained and unique experience than it would be for other cities.
Is your principle awareness The Cortinas and The Pop Group?
Yeah I never stayed committed to a scene for a long time particularly. After The Pop Group my interest in rock music receded again. I was really seduced by the whole punk revolution, and the fact I thought The Pop Group were pretty special. For about 18 months or so I did nothing but go to gigs and write about them. As it became sort of tiresome and lost that revolutionary edge, it was sinking back into being run of the mill rock music patterns, tours, albums. It didn’t feel like it was anything special anymore, I lost interest in all of that. I cant remember where I went to musically and scene wise but I got into DJing into the eighties and did a succession of really successful nights around Bristol called Bird Land. We were called Fat City we kind of fell into it. Somebody was running a night in Bath where my partner lived, they needed DJs it was called the Pride of Bath, it was a boat floating on the weir. We had loads of records so we agreed to do it.
One of the only other things worth mentioning are, Bristol’s musical history. I think the reason these two bands stood out is because Bristol has never really had a kind of rock heritage or a rock reputation. You think about other big cities Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Glasgow all produce loads of rock bands, always have done, and seem to have that tradition where people want to be in bands and to follow the rock music timeline. I think Bristol has always been different from that. It hasn’t produced loads of normal rock bands, its tradition has been more. I think it did have a soul tradition around clubs, which is why for me the funk thing was kind of what Bristol was all about. It has always had a strong reggae tradition through blues clubs and The Bamboo and The Dugout and all of those places that were seminal locations. Its always been a laid back sort of dope-fuelled place really. I think that’s why Bristol has never really been interested in churning out a bunch of four white guys play guitar, drums and bass. That’s never been part of the scene.
The Cortinas were quite a different punk experience, The Pop Group were certainly different in the post-punk years and I think that’s part of Bristol’s culture which has always been quite different from any other big city’s. That’s why eventually when the city did produce acts that became nationally and internationally famous like Massive Attack, Tricky and Portishead, they still didn’t fall into that kind of conventional white boy rock act. They invented their own kind of sound to make an impact. I think that’s something else that Bristol should be proud of.
Ok thank you very much Tim it’s been a really great interview.
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PIGBAG ARE BACK
Saturday, March 26 at 9:00pm – March 27 at 12:00am
Jazz Cafe Camden London
London, United Kingdom
First London gig for the reformed band playing new material as well as a few favourites from the past
The Pop Group: still blazing a trail that makes rock look conservative
More than 30 years ago, the Pop Group ransacked free jazz, dub reggae, noise and funk. But I never imagined they’d still sound so vital in 2010
As far as I can remember, one member was wearing a skirt of some kind, another was sporting a Mohawk haircut. The lead singer sang though a kerchief and, later, though a megaphone. Every song seemed like a statement of wild intent, an unholy noise that merged funk, dub and avant-garde noise.
Back then, the Pop Group were almost too much to take in: pretentious, arrogant, noisy, chaotic, violent to the point of implosive. For me, they signalled the moment that punk mutated into something new and infinitely more ambitious, a chaotic merging of dub, funk, avant-garde noise with paranoid, often politically charged, lyrics. Their music spoke of a future free from the few already exhausted chords that rock’n'roll was built on.
I was reminded of all this on Saturday night at the Garage in north London, when the Pop Group, reformed with all but one of their original members, tore into We Are All Prostitutes, a song that sounds as tumultuous and deranged now as it did 30-odd years ago. I had gone to the gig with mixed feelings. When a beloved group reforms after years of silence, the heart sinks. What price memories if they are trampled on for nostalgic or economic reasons? The original Pop Group burned, and burnt out, in a few years. Now, 30 years on, older, portlier, unable to draw on the untramelled energy and optimism of youth, they were back. Would they still burn?
The answer, against all the odds, is yes. Nick Cave, once described the Pop Group’s music as “unholy, manic, violent, paranoid and painful”. To a great degree, that remains the case. They still sound like nothing before or since. And Gareth Sager still rushes on stage like a gleeful maniac and grabs whatever instrument is to hand – in this case, a keyboard – and unleashes a salvo of atonal noise to set things rolling. Then, a short silence broken by a familiar crash and what Cave once described as one “of the greatest ever openings of a song”; the bestial howl that begins We Are All Prostitutes.
The song rumbles and clatters along in its barely cohesive way, just about grounded by Bruce Smith’s extraordinary drumming and a taut bassline that shakes the floor. I was reminded immediately of Sager’s singular – and often overlooked – brilliance as a rhythmic lead guitarist of fierce intensity, a blur of movement chopping out dissonant shards of sound that punctuate the songs and undercut Mark Stewart’s anguished vocals. “Our children shall rise up against us,” Stewart chants, half-warning, half-hoping, still raging against those Babylonian forces of oppression.
How to describe the sound of the Pop Group? It is, more than anything else, a rhythmic noise, fractious and uneasy, dense and chaotic, but imbued with its own inner logic. It does not welcome you in, but instead provokes a reaction of some kind: fewer people leave the room tonight than used to. The vocals seem to emerge from another space than the music, a deeper, darker, even stranger, realm of the imagination. At times, it’s like Franz Kafka fronting Funkadelic; at others, like a madman with a megaphone ranting at the world over some strange collision of Ornette Coleman and Lee Perry.
Unsurprisingly, things often threaten to fall apart but the sheer propulsion of the rhythm section pulls it all back from the brink. It’s the exhilaration of watching a tightrope walker. The familiar thrust of We Are Time is as close as they get to a riff-based song but it careers off at warp factor 10 within seconds. The bass rumbles like an earthquake, one drumbeat echoes across another, dubbed-up, ghostly. Thief of Fire begins with an even more primal howl than We Are All Prostitutes, then stutters and judders along, frenetic, impatient.
Sonically, things can get strange when there is this much abrasiveness and distortion. You hear noises within noises: strange echoes, floating dismembered vocals, reverberations that seem to emerge from underneath your feet. And then there’s the lyrics. Mark Stewart has a post-Pop Group reputation as one of the great conspiracy theorists of the British music underground, but he is a singular songwriter all the same. She Is Beyond Good and Evil remains utterly unique, utterly spellbinding: an existential love song that posits a Nietzscheian worldview over a dub-funk maelstrom that perfectly echoes the lyric’s fraught articulation of all-consuming desire. Here, love is a unified front against a hostile and threatening world:
“Our only defence is together as an army/ I’ll hold you like a gun.”
No one has written lyrics this strange and startling since the Beats except maybe for the aforementioned Mr Cave when he was rooting though the southern swamplands with the Birthday Party. (An old Gareth Sager quote from 1978: “We are the beatniks of tomorrow”.)
Back in 1979, She Is Beyond Good and Evil, produced by British dub wizard, Dennis Bovell, sounded like the most extraordinarily adventurous pop single I had ever heard. On Saturday night, it blazed anew, the guitar much more upfront in the mix, altering the contours of the song altogether. Stewart told the rock writer Simon Reynolds that the song was “an attempt to mix up poetic, existentialist stuff with political yearnings”. It is all that and more, something truly beautiful and breathtaking in its formal risk-taking.
The Pop Group were young, fearless and full of themselves when I first encountered them, unafraid to be overambitious, even pretentious in order to express their impatience with pop music. They ransacked free jazz, dub reggae, noise, funk and the outer reaches of experimental rock and, for a few brief moments, before the conspiracy theories, the relentless politic ranting and the faux-tribal stylings took over, they blazed a trail that few, if any, have had the imagination or the bravado to follow. It was good to be reminded of how singular and beautifully abrasive the Pop Group could be, and how dreadfully conservative most rock music since sounds in comparison.