Eat Your Vegetables: The Pop Group

This noisy, caustic band with the smartass name was founded in Bristol, England, in 1978. The group broke up 1981, and members went on to other notable yet now-obscure projects. During that period of less than four years, the Pop Group produced two albums and another album's worth of singles and one-offs. Of those, only the first LP, Y, is in print. I found out about these guys because legendary punk bassist Mike Watt has recently made a habit of covering their song "We Are Time."

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It's easy to see why Watt would cover this band. First, though the Pop Group has a reputation for radical politics, vocalist Mark Stewart treats them obliquely, in a clear antecedent to the Minutemen's similarly indirect or impressionistic approach. Though Allmusic dings the band for being "unabashedly and stridently radical to the point of being hectoring," this is only true of the band's later work, such as tellingly entitled second LP For How Long Do We Tolerate Mass Murder.

On Y, the band is nowhere near as directly political as some of their contemporaries, in particular Gang of Four and The Ex; even Wire and Joy Division have more "strident" moments. Second, the band's basic sound, which pits simple, clever finger-style bass riffs against scratchy guitars with zero low end, likewise recalls the Minutemen's "ideological" sonic separation between bass and guitar.

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However, in these respects, the Pop Group is a product of its era, and differs from its neighbors mostly in degree. The most distinctive thing about this band is the way it fits between English post-punk and the loony, improv-driven funk-skronk of No Wave, not unlike Pere Ubu.

Whereas Wire began its career playing short, direct punk songs before discovering a more experimental side, the Pop Group burst from punk's forehead fully formed with an avant-garde sensibility that makes it sound almost insane. Yet unlike This Heat, they group exploits the avant-garde without letting go of riff-based funk-punk; also while retaining a sense of political groundedness the No Wavers eschewed in favor of polemical interiority and confrontation for its own sake.

On the flipside, Gang of Four may not push the envelope quite as much, but its songs are a lot catchier, and the Pop Group really wasn't around long enough and/or wasn't popular enough with the right people to achieve the historical importance of The Fall or James Chance.

And yeah, judging from the lyrics, which can be found at this excellent fan site, the band's post-Y output does seem a little preachy. Finally, the Pop Group can't actually touch Pere Ubu in any respect, but c'mon, that seems a little unfair.

Protein: 60%. Artistically, Y is on a level with other major records of British avant-garde post-punk, but if it had never existed, would musical history have been much different? The band was also associated with the Slits, and members went on to play with a couple of other, more well-known, musicians. Wikipedia credits them with helping to "start a Bristol 'scene' that would later spawn trip-hop," for whatever that's worth (i.e. not much).

Fiber: 90%. The Pop Group strikes an incredibly sophisticated balance between experimentation and rhythm. The way bassist Simon Underwood and drummer Bruce Smith keep the riffs locked down while the other three guys are freaking out is on par with a band like Nation of Ulysses or Drive Like Jehu, but with much less testosterone.

Sugars: 50%. Y's riffs are fun, but it is pretty abrasive sonically, and you won't be singing along to anything. Watt's version of "We Are Time" is better, to be honest.

Fat: 35%. Pro: brevity, rhythmic solidity, lack of pretension. Con: smugly ironic name, jittery and obnoxious videos, political didacticism in later work. The music wins out.

Part of a balanced breakfast? The Pop Group is like the vegetarian breakfast sausage of experimental funk-punk: good for you, and almost as tasty than the more conventional version.

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