Graded on a Curve:
The Pop Group,
“We Are All Prostitutes,” For How Much Longer
Do We Tolerate Mass Murder?

Remembering Mark Stewart.Ed.

The recent vinyl landscape has been positively loaded with quality post-punk reissues, and in a fine development the politically raucous experimentalism of The Pop Group’s second 45 “We Are All Prostitutes” and ensuing LP For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder? are getting added to the pile, with the latter offering reproductions of the original release’s four double-sided posters. Both were part of Rough Trade’s glorious amassing of post-punk vitality at the dawn of the 1980s, and they’ve return to the racks courtesy of the Freaks R Us label.

Initially composed of Mark Stewart on vocals, Gareth Sager and John Waddington on guitars, Simon Underwood on bass, and Bruce Smith on drums, The Pop Group commenced activity in Bristol, England in the year 1977. Formed in opposition to punk’s tenet of simplicity and inevitable drift into orthodoxy and formula, The Pop Group set to work embodying an alternative to what they identified as a musically if not necessarily ideologically conservative movement.

They achieved this goal by embracing free jazz, dub, funk and general experimentalism as punk’s intensity and usefulness as a vessel of socio-political dissatisfaction were retained. Befitting the non-rudimentary approach, their debut single “She Is Beyond Good and Evil” didn’t appear until March of ’79, but once the ball of wax was set in motion it rolled hard and heavy.

Y, The Pop Group’s first full-length, arrived a month later, and like its 7-inch predecessor it was produced by long-serving reggae figure Dennis Bovell; both were put out by Radar Records, a prominent if fairly unglamorous imprint of the new wave era, and they effectively established the parameters of a unit that grew more uncompromising as it hurdled toward dissolution in ’81.

The adoption of funk as a political weapon runs the risk of succumbing to flaunted chops and mere didacticism, but The Pop Group personified far too messy a proposition to detour into that wasteland. And the move to Rough Trade, with Dan Catsis replacing Underwood, at first magnified their abrasiveness and then honed the attack.

A nagging problem with the union of music and politics is a tendency to seek consensus by setting the bar exceedingly low. However, instead of platitudes The Pop Group surely alienated a sizable portion of potential audience through song titles alone; “We Are All Prostitutes” presents the sort of polemical broadness that results in unheard dismissals as its mouthful of a b-side “Amnesty International Report on British Army Torture of Irish Prisoners” (often truncated to “Amnesty Report”) isn’t likely to be plucked from the bin by folks in search of party platters.

“We Are All Prostitutes” was an important entry on Rough Trade’s top-to-bottom unimpeachable Wanna Buy a Bridge?, a wide-ranging yet thoroughly cohesive compilation spanning from the recognizably punk “Alternative Ulster” by Stiff Little Fingers to a cover of Chic’s “At Last I Am Free” by Robert Wyatt. Through instrumental aggression and strident message The Pop Group stood out.

As Stewart emotes such unsubtle and ineloquent lines as “Everyone has their price” and “you too will learn to live the lie,” “We Are All Prostitutes” grippingly flirts with disaster; minus the caustic funk and street-level experimental racket his statements would assuredly be easy to deride, but in Stewart’s favor he spits out his syllables not like a prophet-blowhard-leader in waiting but in the mode of a madman ranting on a street corner.

Again, the aim isn’t to unify but to agitate: “capitalism is the most barbaric of all religions” definitely inspired more than one listener to yank needle from groove before completion. But it’s also just as certain a percentage of ears turned off at the outset came back to be gradually swayed by spastic groove, sax skronk, cello scrape, and Stewart presiding feverishly amid the tumult.

The flip’s exposé on the abuse of power is somewhat less intended for outright feather-ruffling, though the collage-like flow of avant-extremity will no doubt leave many chilly to ice cold. But don’t misconstrue it as superficial fucking-around; the progression is highly rhythmic (if angular) as the cello of veteran free improviser Tristan Honsinger (an alumnus of guitarist Derek Bailey’s Company Weeks and a collaborator of pianist Cecil Taylor) joins the fray.

The proceedings are only a bit tamed on For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder? Opener “Forces of Oppression” does connect a smidge more songic, but the overall effect is still immense as the rhythmic thrust gets sharpened. Additionally, as Stewart excels as a front man the album’s no less verbally scathing.

This is frankly about as non-rockist as post-punk got and it’s worth underscoring how radical The Pop Group’s globally inclusionary methodology once was. That their greatest achievement is musical rather than lyrically based is ultimately the reason why they continue to matter; the blend of dub, Afrobeat, avant-jazz, and funk accentuates the anti-imperialist “Feed the Hungry” quite nicely.

The original pressing of For How Much Longer wielded portions of The Last Poets’ “E Pluribus Unum” in a hairy-assed fusion with a barrage of keyboard and spurts of noise, but I’m guessing legal concerns have found “One Out of Many” replaced by “We Are All Prostitutes.” This isn’t so much a duff move as it’s just redundant considering the single is getting reissued simultaneously.

“Blind Faith” is a showcase for the band’s mixture of ragged momentum and practice-based precision as a mess of truly acidic amp squall keeps things in the anarchic zone. “How Much Longer” wraps up the first side, its point so blunt and its funk so off-kilter it’ll probably give lots of non-politically-inclined witnesses the utter fidgets.

As stated, this is by design, though For How Much Longer isn’t unrelenting. “Justice” opens with a danceable groove while Stewart rails as angrily as ever, and “There Are No Spectators” uses spongy reggae weirdness to carry its content; like much of The Pop Group’s message, the notion of citizen culpability remains very relevant, so it’s not at all accurate to peg the ideas as taking a back seat here.

Even as “Communicate” roars forth with potent free-jazz lung fury, guitar spasms and drum boisterousness, For How Much Longer’s second side registers as slightly lesser. The anarcho-punk shaded closer “Rob a Bank” isn’t a problem; it reaps the benefits of sonic mayhem and perhaps a touch of humor.

It’s really more a case of impact decreased by range, not necessarily a bad problem to have, and to restate it’s a small margin. “We Are All Prostitutes” is the haymaker in The Pop Group’s discography; For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder? is a refinement, but it’s still crucial.

“We Are All Prostitutes”
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For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder?
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