Gang of Four’s terminal descent into hitherto unexplored depths of laughable badness prompts questions about the meaning and value of “authenticity,” some of which that band’s stalwart guitarist Andy Gill addresses himself in this essay (caveat: while it contains some ideas seriously worth discussing, the post at that link is uncomfortably closer than I hoped I’d ever get to watching a 60-ish year old man jack off to his own reflection in a full-length mirror). And it raises eternally familiar questions about what it means to age as a rebellious or difficult artist, especially in as youth-obsessed a milieu as rock music. There’s hardly a shortage of exemplars in Go4’s cohort—Michael Gira is 61, and Swans are making their best music ever. Genesis P-Orridge, at 65, has lately released a wonderful LP called Snakes under the Psychic TV banner. And WIRE? That band seems to be completely unstoppable. And while a few of their edges are sanded over on their recent reunion album Citizen Zombie, the Pop Group have successfully contemporized their sound without even slightly debasing it.
The Pop Group formed in Bristol, England in 1977, contemporary with punk, but their deep debt to funk made them far more closely akin to NYC’s No-Wave/Mutant Disco scene. Not that TPG was ever a straightforward dance band—they were far too fucked-up. Astride their funk and dub-style grooves rode sharp, violent, noisy guitars that could practically slice through skin, and atop that beautiful cyclone, Mark Stewart declaimed radical agit-prop lyrics in a terrifying wail that maintained, at best, a casual relationship with staying in tune. They were the Contortions brawling with the Birthday Party in an SWP hall, and though they burned out quickly, breaking up by 1981, they left behind a handful of mesmerizing singles and the essential post-punk documents Y and the long out-of-print For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder?. Their influence was far-reaching and disparate, and could be heard in US underground rock bands like Sonic Youth and the Minutemen, and in Bristol’s later dance music scene.
The Pop Group have always been divisive, so the response to Citizen Zombie, their first studio LP in three and a half decades, has been unsurprisingly polarizing. Notably, Pitchfork and The Quietus have absolutely torpedoed it, while the likes of the AV Club and Mojo have found much to like. It’s true that the band’s old slash-and-burn volatility is subdued some here, but not really much, and this is in no way a bad album, nor is it an inapt bearer of the Pop Group’s name—for my part, I think it’s damn good stuff. Their decades-long diaspora into bands like Rip Rig + Panic, Pigbag, and Mark Stewart & the Maffia leaves its mark on the reconstituted Pop Group, and the band’s menacing dub and terroristic funk are augmented with electronic, gospel, and Afrobeat influences. (There are also a lot of moments that seem like blatant lifts from Madchester, but the Pop Group influenced that scene in the first place, sooooo…) Stewart’s lyrics remain as strident as ever, but are broadened here and there with moments of actual optimism. Inspiritingly, Citizen Zombie sees TPG making itself a bit more accessible without tarnishing its legacy. A couple of months ago, DM’s Richard Metzger shared with you their video for “Mad Truth,” directed by Asia Argento. Take a look at it again, if you like, and enjoy some other representative tracks below.
Here’s some uncommonly good audience-cam footage of the Pop Group performing at the BBC’s Radio 6 Music Festival just a few weeks ago, positively slaying their classic track “She is Beyond Good and Evil.”
Previously on Dangerous Minds
Beyond good and evil: The Pop Group’s Mark Stewart, the Dangerous Minds interview