It’s 1979 and I’ve just heard a song on the radio that will change my life and the direction of punk-rock. “Beyond Good and Evil” by the Pop Group, a searing crash-mix of James Brown, Funkadelic and Beefheart, totally unlike anything ever heard before or since. That it should come from a bunch of 18 and 17 year-olds living in Bristol is even more unlikely.
Mark Stewart’s vocals were the defining article, however – this crooning, screeching voice, determinedly seeking atonality. The first album, “Y” was even better, sounding like a deranged Jim Morrison jamming with Ornette Coleman. The producer Dennis “Blackbeard” Bovelle almost had a nervous collapse trying to calm the lads down. He explained in vain about recording levels: “If everything is in the red it will sound distorted!” “Great!” screamed the Pop Group and carried on making the necessary noise.
Their influence was incalculable. They were the Birthday Party’s shining example ( once when the Pop Group wanted to jam with the Party, Nick Cave almost got cold feet. “B-b-but they’re our heroes!” he is reported as saying). Predating almost all the P-Funk-Punk that would later rise to popularity (everything from A Certain Ratio to Haircut 100, I’m afraid), they laid the foundation for what was to become The New Age Steppers and eventually On-U Sound Systems.
Very shortly after their finest moment, everything collapsed… mainly under the weight of their own political dogmas. The Pop Group became an unlistenable, sprawling (but funky) aggregate spitting out phrases about Cambodia, police brutality, violence in the third world, British presence in Ireland etc ad nauseum. Naturally, no one wanted to listen to that, and they still don’t (their second record with the modest title of “For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder” managed to alienate even their most fervant followers, quite a result).
1981, exit Pop Group. Pace. Most of the members found some success in unimportant groups like Pigbag or Rip Rig and Panic (Nina Cherry’s first outfit. She had married the Pop Group’s drummer Bruce Smith). Out of the firmament of Bristol-London arose a new spectre: Mark Stewart and the Maffia. That voice, full of surreal passion, spouting a less direct form of political cant (although still very, ahem, engaged), bringing the flame to another generation.
This time he came with the bestest, funkiest supermusicians available. Keith LeBlanc (drums), Doug Wimbish (bass) and Skip Macdonald (guitar), (previously of Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaati and the Sugarhill Gang), could funk anyone’s ass off. Combined with Stewart and Sound-Supremo Adrian Sherwood, it was dark cocktail of distortion, dub and damnation, the first Avant-Streetbeat-meets-Electro record — and it was miles ahead of its competitors. In the meantime, many strange stories were beginning to be related about Mark Stewart. At a Mute Records Christmas party, Mark broke into the stationery department, stealing and inhaling the photocopier fluid. Talk of substance abuse and unpredictable behaviour became common.
It’s 2005, and a reformed Maffia are playing Festsaal Kreuzberg, presumably to promote their new record “Kiss the Future”, a collection of Pop Group and Maffia favourites, plus a few new tunes. It’s as good a time as any for a comeback, and judging by the reaction of the audience, everyone is in agreement. Where were you guys all these years?
Surprise number one: Hey, it’s the original band! Skip and Doug and Keith and Mark! 15 years vanish in the blink of an eye… as if techno never happened.
Surprise number two: The Natty Baldhead himself, Adrian Sherwood is doing the mix. Sweating, trimming, echoplexing, Colonel Kurtz in his laboratory… when he tweaks a distant fader you can hear an immediate result. Everything is positively simmering in reverb, steeped in echo-o-o-o…
Surprise number three: Bobbie Gillespie doesn’t appear (despite being advertised)! “Too drugged-up” was the talk amongst the roadcrew… actually not such a surprise after all.
So how did it sound? Well…great, actually. Occasionally my super-ego would whisper to me: “But it’s nothing more than a bunch of patent funk riffs with Stewart splurging various Pop Group lyrics (seemingly at random) over its framework!” Yes, yes, but it was more than that… somehow, that ATTITUDE, the inverted underground spirit of the late seventies and eighties (you young whippersnappers will never know…) leaked through. THAt voice again, almost untouched by the last two decades, which is more than I can say for Mark personally. Best to listen with your eyes shut, as the spectacle of an overweight, two-meter tall pub brawler in a white MC5 tee-shirt is not a feast for the eyes. Skip and Doug seem not to have changed a hair since I saw them with Tackhead in 1988, however.
All bases were covered, all favourites played, with no great respect for the originals. “Beyond Good and Evil” was delivered over a rendition of Chic’s “Good Times”, for instance. “Liberty City”, “Hypnotised”, “As the Veneer of Democracy…” were all forced through the meat-grinder, emerging as spicy, funky sausage. All but unrecognisable from their original form (which usually involved Synthis and samples, both absent tonight) but possessing enough bump and grind to induce the lame to boogie.
All in all, a ripper’s delight. The guys from Twisted Robot productions deserve commendation for bringing this little freakshow to our village and one can only wonder what their next coup will be. A Bobbie Gillespie concert perhaps?