Graded on a Curve:
The Pop Group,
Cabinet of Curiosities

The Pop Group stands as one of our persistently vital and truly prescient post-punk units. This week their slim discography increases by one full-length release, specifically a collection of alternate, live, and unreleased material titled Cabinet of Curiosities. Offered in multiple formats by the Freaks R Us label (as is the smoking 1980 comp We Are Time), it’s not the best destination for a newbie, though fans of the outfit will definitely want to investigate.

Every listener has their own barometer when approaching the intersection (some would say the minefield) of the musical and the political. The yardstick of this writer is to proceed with caution while keeping cynicism at arm’s distance, prudence being necessary because, simply through the laws of qualitative averages, most political music is to varying degrees subpar.

Just as important is to not succumb to the bugaboo of sarcastic pessimism. This can be problematic since the majority of the politico-musical discourse is devoted to the lofty yet weak efforts of pop/rock stars. This isn’t to suggest the status of these individuals somehow denies them the right to have a voice in such matters, but rather that a confluence of factors regularly softens or negates the message.

Beyond the basic need to walk it like one talks it, those earning a substantial living through music frequently either purposefully or sub-consciously finesse their messages to avoid alienating all but the most egregious members of the audience, this reasoning likely selfish (don’t want to turn off those buyers) but also conceivably and wrong-headedly intended to just reach as many people as possible. This is of course a generalization, but the result reliably finds the pleas and protestations of the pop/rock star becoming as ineffectual as those of punks in a suburban garage ranting about the obvious.

A big difference is that the garage band is almost certainly composed of teenagers, meaning they still have the opportunity to mature, hopefully bringing a sense of nuance to their ideas, and to understand that without powerful, engaging sounds, those thoughts will consistently fall flat. In truth, the most efficient way to make a social argument remains the poster (and technological variations/disseminations thereof).

If one knows a bunch of these well-intentioned youngsters, then one has essentially two options; either stand aside and let the situation play out or step up and lend a helping hand. If choosing the latter, a smart choice of action is to hip the inhabitants of that particular practice space to English post-punkers The Pop Group.

Formed in Bristol, England in 1978 by vocalist Mark Stewart, guitarists Gareth Sager and John Waddington, bassist Simon Underwood, and drummer Bruce Smith, in their brief existence The Pop Group did three things extremely well; they comprehended punk as a launching pad and not an end point, understood that radical ideology required music of equal substance, and promoted a non-rockist agenda via challenging sonic explorations instead of motions leading to a New Romantic wasteland.

During their initial incarnation, which ended in 1981 (they reformed in 2010 three original members strong with a new album in development), The Pop Group issued two LPs, ‘79’s Y and the next year’s For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder? They also produced a handful of 7-inches (including a split single with The Slits), made a key compilation appearance (alongside The Slits on Rough Trade’s indispensable Wanna Buy a Bridge?), cut a Peel Session, and had their earliest recordings gathered onto 1980’s We Are Time.

If not yet at their most expansionist, that collection documents The Pop Group at their most intense, and it’s a good place for new ears to begin. Happily, picking up a copy for those aforementioned garage denizens is easier than ever, for We Are Time has just been reissued. And in a sweet turn of events for longtime partisans, a fresh comp is also available corralling additional hard to find and unissued tracks.

Rest assured Cabinet of Curiosities is no assemblage of barrel scrapings. In fact, the trim set opens with The Pop Group’s half of the Slits’ platter, a rhythmic powerhouse that outside of its inclusion on the ’98 Radar Records compilation We Are All Prostitutes (titled after their cut from Wanna Buy a Bridge?) has been kinda difficult to hear over the years.

“Where there’s a Will” delivers an agitated groove par excellence, brawny and brainy yet possessing crucial elasticity and as Sager has commented, palpable free playing (i.e. skronk). Prolonged exposure to the punk-art-funk of Gang of Four and Minutemen obviously reduces the sheer newness of the attack, but what’s left is explosive, sweat-inducing forward motion.

Make no mistake, as The Pop Group were striving to influence minds and alter social conditions, they also desired to move bodies, and “Where there’s a Will,” its 45 hitting racks the same month as their second album, succeeds minus a hitch. What comes after is frankly an unexpected dilly; the previously unreleased version of “She is Beyond Good and Evil” as produced by Roxy Music saxophonist Andy Mackay (the issued single, like Y, was cut with reggae figure Dennis Bovell).

In either take the song has always helped to underscore The Pop Group’s name as not clear-cut irony; it continues to remind me more than a bit of a rawer early XTC. Following it is a solid reading of “Colour Blind” (the original found on We Are Time) from Brussels in 1978, thick with bass and featuring fine and tidy guitar soloing.

Indeed, in championing the heaviness of funk, the liberating qualities of ecstatic jazz and the deep sponginess of dub, The Pop Group were anything but charlatans. Emphasizing this is “Words Disobey Me,” the first of two numbers recorded for John Peel, its strain of non-rockism interestingly relying even more on the principles of band practice than does R&R (thus partially explaining their profound impact on Minutemen bassist Mike Watt).

Further melodicism emerges in “Don’t Sell Your Dreams,” another Y track captured here from a hometown live gig in ’78. The other Peel cut is the well-known “We Are Time,” and while not as bruising as the studio version, the guitar uncoils quite nicely as do the attempts to get a harmonica to loosely approximate a dubbed-out melodica. And any doubts over tightness are settled by the nearly identical durations of the studio and radio takes.

However, as much subsequent funk-rock shows, becoming too tight can prove a major detriment; thankfully The Pop Group valued the element of surprise over the display of chops-for-chop’s-sake. This is easily apparent in “Abstract Heart,” an unreleased song deriving from the Brussels date, and even more so across the collage-like and enduringly discomfiting “Amnesty Report III,” presented here in a different mix.

Cabinet of Curiosities closes with the lengthy “Karen’s Car,” taped in 1980 Helsinki. Loaded with percussion and a passionately disgruntled Stewart, it’s one of two compositions undocumented prior. And if my math is correct, that means seven selections herein are long-established songs. This does lessen the LP’s scenario slightly, but really only for those for which the songs are long-established, and as it unwinds nothing connects as superfluous.

This was due to The Pop Group being far too uncompromising to wear out their welcome and/or weaken the combination of music and message. Hopefully this is still the case. Regarding the reunion, Sager says “things are probably even more fucked up now than they were in the early ‘80s.” This writer is inclined to agree. Until a new record arrives, blasting The Pop Group’s back catalog will have to suffice; it’s more than up to the task, and Cabinet of Curiosities adds to the worthy sum.


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