How Mark Stewart set the tone for post-punk protest music | Punk

Stella McDaniel

In September 1978, the NME put a band made up of teenagers who had yet to release a record on its cover. It was the kind of dramatic, impulsive move to which the music press was occasionally prone, the sort of thing that invariably led to accusations of overheated hype or reckless desperation. By the autumn of 1978, punk was clearly winding down, or at least being co-opted by less artful practitioners than those in its first wave – the big new noise in that area was the terrace-chant choruses and political populism of Sham 69 – so the hunt was clearly on among journalists for something different, a situation that often led them to make rash choices. But The Pop Group, whose frontman Mark Stewart glowered on the NME’s cover, were anything but a desperate hype or a rash choice. Barely out of school, they were in the process of helping to define what became known as post-punk: jagged guitars, funk-inspired rhythms, a bold spirit of experimentation, dub-influenced soundscapes, anything but traditional rock. It’s tempting to say you could tell they were barely out of school. For all the apparent anguish in Stewart’s vocals, their music seemed powered by a youthful enthusiasm that was wild to the point of seeming deranged: it sounded like it was throwing everything they were interested in at you at once. Some people found it overwhelming, an off-putting, chaotic racket. Others were completely entranced. The Pop Group, Nick Cave later claimed, “changed everything” for him: “it was so direct, so musically inventive, so improvised”.

What The Pop Group threw at you was largely the result of Mark Stewart’s eclectic, autodidactic musical education, an education that seemed founded on an insatiable curiosity, but which he always claimed was mostly facilitated by his towering height. Already 6ft 6ins by the time he was 12, Stewart not only absorbed what he saw on the TV or heard on the radio (he was a huge fan of glam rock) but also was able to get into places usually off-limits for anyone his age, including reggae-fuelled blues parties in Bristol’s St Paul’s district, and soul clubs where he encountered tough dancefloor funk and jazz and the curious moment in 1975 when some soul fans began dressing in a style that presaged punk – mohair jumpers, spiked hair and the pegged trousers and 1950s suits that became The Pop Group’s initial onstage uniform. There was also a local underground bookshop, where he took in radical political tracts, situationist texts and cultural theory, all of which coursed through The Pop Group’s lyrics and notoriously argumentative interviews: the writer Simon Reynolds subsequently compared reading a feature about The Pop Group to having “your brain set on fire”.

So the sounds, concepts and style that made up The Pop Group were already in place before punk galvanised them into forming a band. But not even punk could prepare you for the shock of hearing them, particularly on stage – you can get a flavour from the nine live tracks appended to the deluxe reissue of their debut album, Y – where their passion for free jazz improv collided with Stewart’s love for The Stooges, particularly the confrontational live album Metallic KO. “We were all teenage Rimbauds,” the band’s bassist Gareth Sager reflected, “dedicated to creating hell on stage.” More prosaically, the drummer Bruce Smith noted that their gigs were “either really extraordinary or pretty awful”. Whether you were captivated or horrified, there was little chance of ignoring them, which accounts for their meteoric rise: the music press interest; the support slots with Patti Smith, Elvis Costello and Pere Ubu; a deal with Ubu’s label Radar, which released The Pop Group’s debut single, She Is Beyond Good and Evil; a collaboration with the visionary reggae producer Dennis Bovell. If the sound of the A-side – slashing guitars that occasionally degenerated into noise, a super-tight funk rhythm section, cavernous dubby echo, Stewart alternately singing, howling and whispering – wasn’t enough to stand listeners on their ear, there always the B-side, 3:38, which offered the whole thing backwards, smothered in even more echo. Bovell returned for Y, more or less managing to corral the band’s plethora of ideas into something coherent on which avant-funk crashed into challenging, atonal soundscapes. It was a thrilling mess that gathered lukewarm reviews – “exciting but exasperating”, in the words of the NME – but if anything, The Pop Group became even more radical in response, whipping up their sound into a pinnacle of fury on the incredible 1979 single We Are All Prostitutes, and the subsequent album For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder? Packaged in a collage of press cuttings about the threat of nuclear war, famine in East Timor and Pol Pot’s reign in Cambodia, their political stridency seemed to focus The Pop Group’s approach – the lyrics aside, it’s a more easily digestible album than their debut – but, by now, the press that had boosted them had turned against them. It was panned as dour hectoring, while the band themselves started falling apart. Stewart increasingly seemed more interested in political protest than music – at one point spending three months working for CND – while others wanted to shift in a more jazz-oriented direction. They split up in late 1980.

But the bad reviews and the band’s brief lifespan didn’t matter: they proved vastly influential. If Nick Cave locked on to their more confrontational aspects – his edge-of-panic vocals in The Birthday Party were audibly inspired by Stewart’s – others took something different from them: you could hear echoes of their stew of funk, dub, jazz and experimentation in a lot of music that subsequently emerged from their home city. Their impact on Bristol’s music scene was compounded further when they returned from playing shows in New York bearing cassettes they’d recorded of Kool DJ Red Alert’s Kiss FM show. The Pop Group’s tapes of nascent rap were copied samizdat style and distributed around the city: Nellee Hooper, who would ultimately go on to produce everyone from Soul II Soul to Madonna to U2, was one of the recipients; so was Massive Attack’s Grant Marshall; another Massive Attack member, Robert “3D” Del Naja, drew covers for the cassettes.

Stewart, meanwhile, briefly joined The New Age Steppers, an eclectic collective of musicians centredon producer Adrian Sherwood, before forming Mark Stewart and the Maffia with some of its other alumni. Their 1983 debut album, Learning To Cope With Cowardice, offered a blend of electro-influenced rhythms, dub reggae, radical politics and electronics just as radical and exciting as The Pop Group’s – its closer was an astonishing deconstruction of William Blake’s Jerusalem – but its follow-up, 1985’s As the Veneer of Democracy Starts to Fade, made with the former disco session players who became Tackhead, was even better. From the start, Stewart had been drawn to rap’s aggression and its avant garde aspects – he compared the beats he heard Kool DJ Red Alert playing to a “jackhammer” and to Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music – and As the Veneer …’s take on hip-hop was both punishingly heavy and left-field. Strafed with noise, coated in distortion, the album became an influence on industrial music: one fan, Trent Reznor, subsequently sampled Stewart’s The Wrong Name and the Wrong Number on Nine Inch Nails’ Head Like a Hole.

Stewart continued ploughing his own, idiosyncratic musical furrow. He was sometimes dismissed as a paranoid conspiracy theorist: the worldview he continued to espouse on subsequent solo albums Metatron and Control Data meant questions were occasionally even raised about the state of his mental health. But, if he was a conspiracy theorist, he was an unfailingly generous one, particularly when it came to fellow Bristol artists: he assisted Gary Clail’s rise from roofer to Top of the Pops; encouraged Martina Topley-Bird to sing, and paired her with Tricky, on whose debut solo album, Maxinquaye, Stewart also worked. In fact, Stewart was a serial collaborator, whose choice of musical partners was wildly eclectic: he seemed as happy working with Penny Rimbaud and Eve Libertine of Crass, or David Tibet of Current 93, as he did with Massive Attack or chill-out duo Sofa Surfers; on one Stewart album alone, 2012’s The Politics of Envy, the supporting cast featured Lee “Scratch” Perry, Primal Scream, Richard Hell, the film-maker Kenneth Anger, PiL’s Keith Levene and Factory Floor. It was matched by the sheer breadth of his influence, which spanned everything from dance music producers to the denizens of the post-punk revival – by the mid-00s, The Pop Group were somewhere in the DNA of umpteen alt-rock bands – and occasionally cropped up in some unlikely places. When the band reformed in 2010, Stewart tweeted the producer Paul Epworth, fresh from working with Paul McCartney, Adele and Coldplay, and asked him to produce their next album: Epworth immediately agreed, calling it “an honour”.

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The resulting album, 2015’s Citizen Zombie, was as fiery, uncompromising and challenging as anything The Pop Group had made in their teens – listen to the title track or St Outrageous if you want confirmation that their chaotic brand of fury was undimmed, or to the electronic Nations if you want proof that their willingness to chuck the unexpected at their audience was still present and correct. But then, you rather got the feeling that Mark Stewart hadn’t changed that much either. When he appeared on the Guardian’s Music podcast around the time of its release, it was like a whirlwind with a West Country accent had blown into the room. Talking nineteen to the dozen, he was utterly charming, incredibly funny, argumentative, full of ideas, insatiably curious about a vast array of music. His conversation kept going off on unexpected, fascinating tangents: you frequently couldn’t get a word in edgeways. He still seemed powered by a wild, youthful enthusiasm, still seemed intent on throwing everything he was interested in at you at once.

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