16 Mar 2015: Rough Trade Brooklyn, NY
Reunion shows and albums can be tricky things to pull off. Often, a gang of elder statesman reforming and taking to the stage to play the hits feels like a “we still got it gesture” and little else. There is often no bid to push things forward, to invoke a sense that “the hits” matter beyond just being well-known and well-loved songs.
None of these perceptions come into play when the Pop Group plays a gig, their 16 March show at Rough Trade in Brooklyn being a prime example. One of the most crucial bands in England’s post-punk scene, they released two albums in their prime and left it at that for 35 years, only releasing their third full-length—Citizen Zombie—this February. This long period of hibernation wasn’t exactly that; most of the members formed other acts, and frontman Mark Stewart embarked on a solo career. However, that time off from the Pop Group gave the band ample time to become really, really angry about all of civilization’s failings, and thus leading them to create a release that still carries a youthful indignation. While Citizen Zombie’s glossy production—courtesy of Adele producer Paul Epworth—stifles a bit of the Pop Group’s more abrasive aspects, the band brings a lot of naked aggression to the stage.
The Pop Group’s 1979 single, “We Are All Prostitutes”, is a favorite to open with, but whether one knows its coming or not, fire-branding the audience right out of the gate guarantees everyone’s attention. It’s also a good indication of how powerful Stewart’s voice remains. While a band like Gang of Four—whose version of funk-punk eventually wore out its welcome in a way the Pop Group’s would never dare to—garnered greater popularity, Jon King’s vocals never had the primal ferociousness of Stewart’s. It is a thing that sometimes feels at odds in Citizen Zombie sonic landscape, and makes the songs all the more unique for it.
Stripped of saxophone appearances (multi-instrumentalist Gareth Sager occasionally uses a clarinet as substitute), the live show—paired with Rough Trade’s excellent acoustics—brings out the band’s disco influence and highlights the impressive range of the rhythm section, expertly locked down by drummer Bruce Smith and bassist Dan Catsis, and renders Stewart’s incendiary calls to action more palatable.
Yet, the songs still hit full on. The classic “She Is Beyond Good and Evil”, wedged nonchalantly between Citizen Zombie tunes “Nowhere Girl” and self-described “weirdest song we’ve ever done” “Shadow Child”, sounds as exhilarating, as radical, as the first listen. “We Are Time”, similarly, wholly retains its edge and danger. That these songs, with their strange and deft marriage of punk, disco, funk, dub, and jazz, existed in the first place is unbelievable. Hearing them today makes you wish bands that are half the Pop Group’s age would try harder.
With so many songs about the evils of capitalism and society’s degeneration, some might suspect it would be easy for a Pop Group show to become a dour affair, no matter how many funk and disco elements are in the mix. Stewart thankfully brought a lot of light banter to the show. He retorts “that’s what she said last night” when an impatient audience member shouts “Come on!”. He introduces one song with what may have been a gaffe but comes across as perfect comic timing: leading into “Nowhere Girl” by dedicating it to Patty Hearst, who helped the Pop Group out and “took good care of us” in the past, Stewart turns his back, waits a tic, and says, “Sorry, I meant Patti Smith”.
Given the Pop Group’s melting pot of influences, Stewart made a point of paying respects to New York’s many musical scenes, innovative artists, and famous venues, with Stewart citing no wave spot Tier 3 as his favorite fallen club. At their start, the Pop Group influenced everyone from the Birthday Party to Sonic Youth. Tonight, they brought enough raw energy to Brooklyn that the optimist in me wants to believe the Pop Group can influence a whole new wave of aspiring bands. And if that doesn’t happen, at least the Pop Group’s songs aren’t going anywhere.
// Notes from the Road
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