The Pop Group – ‘Y’: Round 67 – Rob’s choice

The Pop Group - YNick set a theme for the evening. Reminding us that the meeting date coincided with his birthday he batted his eyelashes and modestly declared himself the subject. “Birthdays, beards anything,” he clarified. Ladies and gentlemen let me tell you, sometimes it’s hard to resist temptation. But resist we must.

If my maths are correct ‘Y’, the debut album by Bristol’s The Pop Group, was released roughly 3 weeks before Nick was born, meaning that when he did eventually make his first appearance it was at the point at which the plucky five-piece were beginning to accept that they were not going to storm the Top 40 after all. Whilst it might not have made an impact on the pop charts, this record has banged, clanged and hollered down the years ever since.

We’re fond, some of us, of trotting out the worn-smooth line that in the late 70s punk rock changed everything, creating a Year Zero after which culture could be rebuilt, better. The evidence taken in the round speaks against such a clearing of the decks but it’s undeniable that for some it genuinely was a starting point at which preconceptions could be destroyed and from which new and radical art could follow. Those who went on to make the absolute most of this opportunity did so largely by ignoring the two-chord rallying cry of what we now call ‘punk rock’ and instead adopted the ‘do anything but do something’ artistic template, striking out towards new noises, ignoring constraints and displaying rampaging disregard for the rules, expectations and requirements of rock music.

One of the earliest and most committed of these were Bristol’s The Pop Group who combined jagged funk, slashing guitars, dubby bass lines, exploratory noise and vocals so wild and vitriolic they sounded at times as if they were physically bursting out from frontman Mark Stewart, who was part street corner leaflet pusher, part pulpit thrashing preacher, screaming in tongues, whispering in panic. ‘Y’ was the first of their two albums.

One way or another we speak a lot here about influence, discovery, sequence, timing, originality. It’s impossible for someone as slapdash as me to start to put together a roadmap for a band like The Pop Group. Instead here is a facile observation: ‘Y’, a lacerating musical cluster bomb of control-and-release aggression, came out just 9 years after the Beatles broke up. I’ll accept that this is meaningless if you’ll accept that it makes you sit back and think “holy crap the Seventies must have been quite a decade”.

35 years later ‘Y’ still delivers a significant shock. It’s disorienting and electrifying from the moment it starts, impossible to ignore throughout and almost unimaginable in its scope and composition until you’ve let it work its way into your system and begin to live there. It sounds every bit the revolution its creators were attempting to foment.

Picking back through rock music to find progenitors for this feels like a fruitless task. Sure there’s some of the wild danger of Beefheart at his most blindly instinctive, along with a dash of the Magic Band’s primeval blues. The influence of dub reggae, which runs through much of the most challenging and groundbreaking music to come out of punk, is here, presumably from the same sources that would flow through the Slits, with whom The Pop Group shared a drummer for a while. And there is funk throughout, deployed as an agent of change. But where James Brown may have created funk to get people moving their feet, dancing together towards freedom, The Pop Group use it as a means to propel us towards the barricades, molotov cocktails in our hands.

You have to turn towards improvisational jazz to attempt to explain or trace sources for much of what’s happening here. Rock and pop may not boast antecedents for The Pop Group but presumably Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus would have recognised much in the stabbing, visceral guitars, searching, fractured rhythms and Mark Stewart’s possessed vocal performances. Almost every track on the album just goes off at some point, dissipating, searching, fragmenting, often destroying a killer groove for two minutes of angry, echoing space. Through it all runs an incredibly deft rhythm section who, you begin to realise, are subtly underpinning the whole thing, bringing back even the most far-flung exploration to the bedrock pulse. Throughout, the playing is exceptional. They may have striven for primitivism in some of their sounds, but the skills they used to create them sound highly sophisticated.

Elsewhere there are slashed up voices and processed sounds which begin to hint at the industrial soundclash approach Mark Stewart would go on to explore with the Maffia, Tackhead and On-U Sound System. There is ‘Don’t Sell Your Dreams’ a dying monster made of collapsing dub which spends 6 minutes trying to decide whether to live or die and can’t. It could and should be unbearable but again there is something, some tiny thread, some lifeforce flowing which brings the piece together into something quite compelling. There’s even a throwaway instrumental B-side bonus track on the CD reissue, ‘3.38’, which seems to casually contain the genetic code for the next 15 years’ worth of hip-hop.

Few were able to follow the scorched trail this band left behind. One group who certainly recognised the breakthrough that had made were nascent The Birthday Party. According to this clip, Nick Cave and his bandmates were utterly enervated and transformed by an early Pop Group performance shortly after arriving in London.

[youtube:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BUC2GmzJpGY%5D

Whilst it’s hard to find many genuine predecessors of this unholy, incredible noise within rock music, hearing it now it’s impossible to ignore how many artists, starting with Cave and co, pushed their way through the breach that this Bristol quartet made back when Nick was a nipper.

Sometimes when you reach back to influential records from the past, it’s hard to put yourself in the shoes or headphones of the original listeners and to feel the visceral excitement they must have felt. Sometimes that’s because the original context can’t readily be conjoured. Sometimes it’s because the artistic legacy has been so thoroughly plundered in the years following as to leave the original source drained. Either way, these records often sound flat, played out even if you haven’t actually heard them before (seeing as we’re in 1979, I’m looking at you Gang of Four). Not so with ‘Y’. If released today it would be utterly thrilling and having come to it properly so late, it’s my favourite album of 2014 so far.

It’s a record in protest at life full of songs in revolt against themselves. It’s unbelievably good, utterly without compromise. It contains the blueprints for a hundred brilliant records, only a few dozen of which have yet been made.

Tom listened: The Pop Group are a band I have wanted to hear for a long, long, time and now that I have, I have to say that about two thirds of the record was worth the wait. Rob primed us before playing Y (funny that I brought an album by X…where was the Z?) that we would have to go with it a bit; that, at times, it would be just a bit too tricky to appreciate on a first listen. ‘Right’, I thought, ‘I’ll show you Mitchell…I’m going to like it all, right from the off’. But, of course, he was right. Whilst the majority of the record was pretty much spellbinding, the other bits simply sounded like self-indulgent proggy nonsense to me, which I find particularly ironic considering this album’s release date and obvious post-punk leanings. So..the jury’s out as far as I am concerned, and I guess that only repeated exposure to the album and familiarity would tell as to whether the less structured side of the record would reveal its true worth…or not.

Nick listened: I’ll echo Tom; this was a confusing record, wherein bits of it seemed like absolute genius, and other parts felt like indulgent dross. Repeat listens would probably unpack the dross and make you appreciate it more.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – ‘The Good Son’: Round 48 – Rob’s choice

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds - The Good SonI like to make my choices early. It’s rare that I haven’t decided which record i’ll be taking to the next Devon Record Club within a couple of hours of the end of the preceding meeting. When Nick imposed ‘Turning Points’ as a theme I immediately flashed on records like ‘It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back’ and ‘Nevermind’ as records which saw their artists becoming everything they could be. But these aren’t really turning points, more progressions, realisations. I knew I needed to find an artist who had clearly changed direction, and to do so they must have established one trajectory before and another after.

Once I started looking for favourite acts with a dozen or so albums, the list started to format itself. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy? Well, i’m not sure direction of travel is a property one can ascribe to Will Oldham. The Fall? Plotting their career path would likely sketch out a three dimensional pentagram. Nick Cave occurred next and ‘The Good Son’ was my immediate and natural choice. Cave and his band are a desert island artist for me. I firmly believe they are one of most accomplished and significant acts in the history of rock and roll. I’ve thought bringing them to Record Club many times, but never with ‘The Good Son’ in mind. Nonetheless, their sixth album, released in 1990, was, for me, a triple turning point.

Personally, I’ve loved every album the band made after ‘The Good Son’. All the ones before I like and admire and listen to, but I would line them up behind this one and those which followed.

In the context of the band’s career, ‘The Good Son’ seems constitute a taking of breath. The songs, and their playing, is calm. Even when the pace picks up and the heft increases, see ‘The Hammer Song’ and ‘The Witness Song’, there is very little sense of the frenzy, the possession, that charged the earlier records. On ‘The Good Son’ Nick Cave is no longer the deranged swamp church preacher. Now he is in control.

Legend has it that fans of the band, perhaps those who had stayed with them since The Birthday Party were at their savage peak, were confused or dismayed at this turn, at the sound of tender piano ballads where they had become accustomed to hollering, slashing blues. But since ‘The Good Son’ Cave and his compadres have released four records which I would consider masterpieces. The frothing Wild West opera ‘Henry’s Dream’, the state-of-the-21st-Century opus ‘Abattoir Blues’, ‘The Boatman’s Call’ – a prayer to love and ‘And No More Shall We Part’ – a recapitulation and perfection of cave’s milleu and the Bad Seed’s brilliance.  It seems to me that none of these would have been possible without ‘The Good Son’, which reset the meter for the band and opened up a whole new set of possibilities.

Finally, for me, i had a turning point with this album itself. this was The third album i bought by the band, if you include ‘Tender Prey’, which I took back to Piccadilly Records, convinced I had a bad pressing. Thereafter ‘Straight To You’, one of the all time great love songs, was the flame that drew me to Cave, and I loved the album it came from, ‘Henry’s Dream’. ‘The Good Son’, released before ‘Henry’ but purchased after, made little sense to me at all, until suddenly it did. I think Shane MacGowan’s stumbling, winning version of ‘Lucy’, released in 1992 as a B-side to the pair duetting sort of pointlessly on ‘What A Wonderful World’, may have broken me in, or maybe the pure, dripping beauty of ‘The Ship Song’ finally penetrated my stern heart. I don’t think I’d ever clicked with such a slow record, a collection of such apparently plodding songs, but when ‘The Good Son’ came into focus for me it also opened up a world of possibilities which would take me from Tindersticks to Tom Waits, Palace Brothers, Low, Lambchop, Scott Walker and on and on to much of my favourite music today.

So, not the Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds record I would have chosen, but the right one for this evening. I firmly believe that the band and their singer songwriter took a big step here and have grown better and better as they have matured in the near 25 years since. In that time they’ve produced albums as rich, complex, self-contained, witty, engaged, moving, poetic, playful and rewarding as anything from Dylan’s back catalogue, but with a tiny fraction of the acclaim. If ‘The Good Son’ was the breath which made that possible, i’m sure glad they took it.

Tom Listened: Little do I want to pop Rob’s bubble of bliss since becoming a father less than a week ago, but I have to say that in the case of Mr Cave he’s just plain wrong. Having gone back and listened to 1986’s album of cover versions, Kicking Against the Pricks and then, immediately afterwards, the post Good Son Henry’s Dream…and fully expecting a DRC epiphany, I regret to say that things panned out exactly as I remembered them. The former is, for me, so wonderful, in a teasing, vaguely cheeky, yet wholly reverential way to the originals and it easily surpasses any of the latter works of Mr Cave’s I own (coincidently they comprise solely of the four ‘masterworks’ that Rob has mentioned in his write up). I found Henry’s Dream as patchy as ever – some fantastic songs sure (When I First Came to Town is my favourite) but it doesn’t hold up as a complete work as far as I am concerned.

So I guess it makes sense that The Good Son worked for me much more than I expected it would. I knew some of the tunes already (The Ship Song and The Weeping Song) but, on first listen they in no way eclipsed the rest of the material and all the songs seemed to neatly sidestep Cave’s occasional over-earnestness that at times muddies my enjoyment of his later work.  So I am very grateful to Rob for highlighting the transition point in Nick Cave’s career but, unlike Rob, I expect I will be exploring the pre Good Son material before delving further into the latter half of his chronology.

Nick listened: Like The Smiths, I bought my first Nick Cave record whilst at university; The Boatman’s Call. I loved it dearly at the time, though I’ve come to understand that it’s pretty atypical of his oeuvre. I’ve not really explored beyond that, though; I bought No More Shall We Part when it came out but found it very dry, despite the obvious care and craft that had gone into its construction. The fact that I’m using words like ‘craft’ ad ‘construction’ is telling; I like Cave’s assertion that he works on music in an office, like it’s a day-job, in theory, but something about the outcome didn’t do it for me. I’ve listened to Murder Ballads a couple of times, and the first Grinderman album (which I really quite liked), but nothing more.

This was really good though (as was the track from Abattoir Blues that Rob also played), and makes me want to investigate Cave’s ominously large catalogue a bit more. Without contextual knowledge of what came before, or much of what came after, I have no idea if it’s a turning point or not – it sounded like I expected Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds to sound, although perhaps more supple?

Graham Listened: It was great to finally find time to listen to a whole album of the man’s work. I have been dipping in and listening since the days of the Birthday Party, but strangely, never felt the need to buy an album for myself. Every time I catch him on the TV performing live I find his work fascinating and engaging.  It’s almost as if since he struck out on his own, nearly 30 years later, the size of his back catalogue has become too intimidating to know where to begin. This was great and sounded like something I should own, but reading other members comments, I still don’t know where to start.