Sunday, 5 January 2014

The Pop Group, Creeping Bent and Celtic Connections

When Douglas MacInytre founded The Creeping Bent Organisation to 
release records in the art/pop spirit of Bob Last's Edinburgh-based 
Fast Product label and Alan Horne's Postcard Records of Scotland, he 
was asked in an interview who his influences were. His reply 
name-checked Fire Engines, Suicide, Subway Sect and The Pop Group, 
musical agent-provocateurs all, who in different ways, defined what 
came to be known as post-punk.

At the time, MacIntyre had never met any of the artists concerned. With 
Creeping Bent about to enter its twentieth year of operations, however, 
it's a different story, with the label having put out material from key 
players of all the acts named. These include Davy Henderson's post Fire 
Engines projects, The Nectarine No.9 and The Sexual Objects, Alan Vega 
of Suicide's collaboration with producer Stephen Lironi as The 
Revolutionary Corps of Teenage Jesus, and Subway Sect's founding father 
Vic Godard live forays with Bent mainstays The Leopards and The Sexual 
Objects. There has also been a couple of under-rated albums by Pop 
Group guitarist Gareth Sager.

It is with a reformed Pop Group that Creeping Bent begins its year of 
celebrations, with the band's first Glasgow gig for thirty-three years 
forming what might well be the most adventurous show in the 2014 Celtic 
Connections programme. For MacIntyre, the event is a dream come true.

“There's something about that first Pop Group single,” MacIntyre says 
of the band's 1979 release, She Is Beyond Good and Evil. “After Anarchy 
in the UK, it was a massive record for me, and it's still an amazing 
piece of art. It opened up a whole world, from the Nietzsche reference 
in the title, to reading interviews with them talking about free jazz. 
I'd probably never heard of either of those things at the time, so it 
was almost like your university.”

Given that The Pop Group were still in their teens when they formed in 
Bristol, they too were learning their chops. Even so, She Is Beyond 
Good and Evil remains an intense and incendiary musical hand-grenade, 
that pitted Mark Stewart's sooth-saying vocals against Gareth Sager's 
slash and burn guitar, all bolstered by a rhythm section fired by funk, 
dub and jazz at their most elemental.

“In Bristol everyone went to the same nightclub,” says Edinburgh-born 
Sager, “so you'd have half an hour of punk, half an hour of funk, half 
an hour of jazz, and it was small enough to be able to create your own 

Sired in the heat of the recession that would usher Margaret Thatcher 
to power, The Pop Group's urgency was heightened by the agit-prop 
potency of Stewart's apocalyptic-sounding lyrics.

“I was haunted by the disasters of the century,” Stewart says today. 
“Grief, anger, terror and loss beyond words.”

This attitude was made even more explicit on The Pop Group's second 
single, We Are All Prostitutes, and on albums, Y and  For How Much 
Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder. After touring with The Slits and 
jazz trumpeter Don Cherry, the band imploded in 1981. While original 
bass player Simon Underwood had already joined a nascent Pigbag, his 
replacement Dan Catsis joined Maximum Joy with the Pop Group's second 
guitarist Jon Waddington. Sager and Pop Group drummer Bruce Smith, 
meanwhile, formed anything goes skronk troupe Rip Rig and Panic with a 
line-up that included Don Cherry's sixteen year old step-daughter Neneh 
on vocals. This left Stewart to join forces with producer Adrian 
Sherwood and Sugarhill Records in-house band rebranded as The Maffia.

Such a multi-cultural Bristolian legacy has trickled down through 
Massive Attack, Tricky and Neneh Cherry's recent collaboration with 
Scandinavian jazz power trio, The Thing, all the way to the reformed 
Pop Group's 2011 appearance at the Portishead-curated I'll Be Your 
Mirror event in New Jersey. When they arrived on the scene, the likes 
of The Rapture and assorted other American bands had clearly heard a 
Pop Group record or two, while the current line-up of Stewart, Sager, 
Catsis and Smith were recently made aware of a compilation of Polish 
bands covering Pop Group originals . Its name? Still Tolerating Mass 
Murder. As global unrest mounts, it seems, The Pop Group's time is now.

“I remember the first time I went to Optimo,” MacIntyre says of 
Glasgow's Sunday night left-field clubbing institution. “I was coming 
down the stairs, and I heard a Pop Group record playing, I think it was 
Where There's A Will There's A Way, and there were all these art school 
groovers dancing to it in a way that no-one ever did first time round, 
and I thought, 'This is it.'”

Since reforming in 2010, The Pop Group have kept their fiery spirit 
alive, even as they've reclaimed their legacy without ever succumbing 
to mere nostalgia. As Sager points out, “Nobody would think twice about 
going to see Miles Davis when he was sixty-five as long as he was doing 
the business. It's only our culture that has this weird age thing. But 
look at Don Cherry. That guy was a groover. The rest of us were 
nut-cases, and he'd been a wild man as well when he was younger, but he 
recognised something.”

Stewart is more concise.

“I see The Pop Group as a kind of portable infinity,” he says.

With recordings of new material ongoing when logistics will allow, 
Stewart, at least, is on a mission.

“In the studio recently we released a Golem,” he says, “and I can 
simply sit back in awe. We are bristling with visions of a both 
terrifying and glorious future which is ours.”

The Pop Group and The Sexual Objects play the 02 ABC, Glasgow on 
January 18th as part of Celtic Connections.

Sunday Herald, January 5th 2014


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