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Review: Pop Group returns, raucous and defiant

By Peter Wilkinson, CNN
Stage presence: Mark Stewart and guitarist Gareth Sager made for a mesmerising performance.
Stage presence: Mark Stewart and guitarist Gareth Sager made for a mesmerising performance.
  • Pop Group playing their first London gigs in almost 30 years
  • In three decades since their demise nothing has matched Bristol-based group
  • Pop Group influenced "trip-hop" acts such as Massive Attack and Tricky

London, England (CNN) -- On the weekend former Take That stars Robbie Williams and Gary Barlow reunited after 15 years, a musical reunion of a different kind was taking place a few miles away as the Pop Group played their first London gigs in almost 30 years.

About as far removed from Take That as it's possible to be, the Pop Group were, to reheat a tired cliché, way ahead of their time. Formed in Bristol, western England, in 1978, fusing left-wing politics with dub, funk, jazz and punk, the band gained acclaim, if not sales, with their first album "Y." Best known for the raucous single "We are all prostitutes," they issued one more album "For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder?" before splitting amid acrimony in 1981.

Out of the ashes grew funky, forward-thinking bands such as Rip, Rig and Panic and Pigbag, along with the Dub Syndicate and Mark Stewart and the Maffia, all of which strongly influenced trip-hop acts from Bristol such as Massive Attack and Tricky.

Those acts though had a radio-friendly appeal that the Pop Group could, and would, never try to match: even the band's name was an ironical nod to the fact that they did not deal in verse/chorus, verse/chorus, but rather a freeform cacophony that still packed a powerful rhythmical force.

In the three decades since their demise nothing ever really came along that matched the Pop Group. Now they've decided to reform the original line-up of Mark Stewart (vocals), Gareth Sager (guitar, keys, sax), Bruce Smith (drums) and Dan Catsis (bass) for a handful of gigs. In a statement, the band said they wanted to "blow the dust off the old songs and pick up where we left off."

"There was a lot left undone, ... we were so young and volatile. Let's face it, things are probably even more f***ed now than they were in the early 80s and WE are even more f***ed off!"

That angst is certainly in evidence as the Pop Group opens up raucously at the Garage in Highbury, north London, with their most famous song, and there is no letup for the next hour. The band rattles through their best songs, "Thief of fire," "Snow girl," "We are time" and "Words disobey me," but to describe them as songs fails to do them justice really. On their two albums, of which only the first is still available, the Pop Group sound planned, even controlled. Nothing prepares you for the aural explosion they create onstage. Just imagine Captain Beefheart meets George Clinton and you get the picture.

Despite saying much apart from haranguing the audience, Stewart has hypnotic stage presence. Towering over the rest of the band, he seems tortured as he screams and growls his obscure lyrics, often using a loudhailer, though that seems to make no difference to the volume. Chiming, discordant guitars combine with furious basslines and drum patterns to make a glorious racket. And then after playing "We are all prostitutes" a second time, they're off. "We'll see you again in 30 years," says Stewart, as he departs. Can we wait that long?