The legendary English post-punk band's live and rare tracks fill out their legacy and unravel bits of their mystery. They're also raw, wild and challenging.
The Pop Group were one of the early influential successes of the British post-punk movement despite only releasing two studio albums. They became one of those distantly important figures in punk whose influence vastly outweighed their recorded output, their dark vocals, tribal rhythms and angular guitar play coming to define many of the characteristics of the first wave of post-punk in both the UK and the US. They’re also one of those bands whose music contemporary artists have yet to catch up to. Y, their debut, is one of the most volatile, high-energy records of the era, combining acrobatic dub bass lines, tinny funk guitar, mutant drum rhythms and tortured vocals into a violent potpourri of equal parts intellectual cynicism and irresistible grooves. Even today, that album kicks like a shotgun, so much so that it’s hard to believe that it came out in 1979, when post-punk was still only budding. The Pop Group is still so valued because their music continues to sound so alien, and though everyone from the Minutemen to the Rapture to St. Vincent have tried, no one has been able to emulate their unique formula.
We Are Time was first issued in 1980, after the band had already released its two studio records. It’s a compilation of odds and ends, demos and live versions and rarities that deserve to be heard on a larger scale. It’s been reissued now as a companion to the band’s new compilation record, Cabinet of Curiosities, and as a preface to the Pop Group’s surprising 2015 return with a third studio album, Citizen Zombie. With all of this in context, it can be difficult to appreciate the music on We Are Time on its own merits, divorced from the cautious excitement that comes from reunion albums, to determine whether or not it’s worth a look for the casual fan and the new initiate alike.
What We Are Time shows is that the band’s otherworldly energy translates smoothly to the live setting, and their brutal charms are still ever-present on their demos. The live version of Y-highlight “Thief of Fire” is somehow more rhythmically chaotic than the studio version, while the “Colour Blind” demo juxtaposes delicate melodies in the verses with a sharp, destructive hook and a raucous guitar solo—the band’s bread and butter. “Kiss the Book” comes from a John Peel Session recorded in 1978, a performance that slowly devolves into some form of mad, anarchic glee, making it a clear standout for documenting the strengths of the Pop Group’s performance capabilities. Overall, We Are Time succeeds in properly showing every angle of the band, from their violent aggression to their more relaxed grooves, effectively boosting their stature as an unequivocally essential artist.
Cabinet of Curiosities fulfills the same goals as We Are Time, but in a far more disparate package. “Where There’s a Will” is perhaps the most straightforward song the band ever recorded, essentially a radio-friendly groovy disco jam with refined instrumentation, feverish vocals and psychotic saxophone squealing. “Abstract Heart,” recorded live in Brussels in 1978, shows another side of the band as well, more low-key and aching, even cutting into swing-heavy interludes that sound closer to Led Zeppelin than the band probably would have preferred. Other tracks are less essential, such as the “Original Alternative Version” of the Pop Group’s most revered single, “She Is Beyond Good and Evil,” in which the band feels out of sync and less energized, the John Peel Session version of “Words Disobey Me,” which comes apart at the seams in the middle, and the live version of “Karen’s Car,” marred by aimless construction and poor recording quality. It’s hard to recommend Cabinet of Curiosities to those less devoted to the Pop Group’s dark, chaotic methods because of this, but the hidden gems that the album does provide are absolutely worth seeking out regardless. It’s also worth mentioning that post-punk is one of the more divisive areas of rock music, and while connoisseurs will absolutely adore the rawness of these rarities, the same quality is just as likely to turn off newcomers.
Regardless of variety or sound quality, We Are Time and Cabinet of Curiosities give us more of the Pop Group, a band that always deserved to have more. Most of these tracks are more than worthy of release, to the point that it’s remarkable that Cabinet of Curiosities didn’t come sooner. With Y and For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder?, there was always a sense that we were only getting a taste of what the Pop Group were capable of, and yet they made their name on those two albums. We Are Time and Cabinet of Curiosities don’t fill in all the blanks for us, but they confirm that the Pop Group deserve their high status. With a new album on the way, perhaps its best that all of the band’s secrets were never fully revealed so they could have more surprises in store when the time was appropriate. Luckily that time has come.