Music: The politics of dancing

From Pop Group to gabba-techno, Mark Stewart's an end-of-the-century man.
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The Independent Culture
THE POP Group's life was brief and fierce. Begun in 1978, collapsing in 1980, the Bristol teenagers' insertion of black funk, free jazz, dub and political protest into post-punk seemed, like much of the era's music, to be a doomed experiment. And yet, with each passing year, the influence of The Pop Group and its leader Mark Stewart grows. Their home city's trip-hop scene acknowledges the inspiration of Stewart's maverick spirit, just as much as his use of dub. Tricky was Stewart's flatmate in the Eighties, and the two share an alienated mentality. Stewart's second solo album, As the Veneer of Democracy Starts to Fade (1985) was the defining spark for Nine Inch Nails' Industrial sound (the genesis of Marilyn Manson). Junglist Omni Trio has namechecked the band. Neneh Cherry and Nellee Hooper found fame in its spin-off, Rip Rig and Panic. This year, the reissuing of The Pop Group's own work has been completed. Listening to it takes you back to a forgotten time: 1979.

It was the year of The Pop Group's debut, Y, and Margaret Thatcher's victory. The Rock Against Racism movement was replacing punk's nihilism with social idealism. The Pop Group, along with bands like Gang of Four and the Slits, had to wrestle with the social implications of each note.

This year's We Are All Prostitutes (a compilation of singles and 1980's How Much Longer do we Tolerate Mass Murder) recalls the era with a poster of Westminster behind barbed wire, and Stewart's screams at injustice. Its bluntness is shocking.

To be fair, it's on Y that The Pop Group's reputation rests. It's a record over which Stewart's voice is a pleading whisper more than a scream. It's an often graceful work, trying something new on every track, with a romanticism rare in such hard-bitten times

"We wanted to take some of the energy that I drew from punk when I was 14, and make it more political," he recalls. "After the sloganeering, we wanted to get involved in campaigns - Scrap SUS, the Blair Peach campaigns, CND. And the attitude was that if we were trying to be `radical' with the lyrics, we should challenge the structure of the music, too. Punk was still rock'n'roll based, no one was doing what we were doing. I was really into the Last Poets and the Black Panthers, and the others were getting into free jazz. We were creating a wall of noise for the lyrics to fight against. It was all part of challenging the production process, disrespecting the studio machines. It looks naive now, but we were hopeful as much as anything else"

The Pop Group couldn't contain so many dreams for long. The other band members split with Stewart in 1980, forming Rip Rig and Panic and Pigbag. But Stewart's experiments continued. His first solo album, Learning to Cope with Cowardice (1982), brought Jamaican dub musicians to bear on songs including "Jerusalem". As the Veneer of Democracy Starts to Fade employed hip-hop's Sugarhill Gang rhythm section in still more radical departures. In 1987, the track "Stranger" appeared on his eponymously- titled album; it has since been credited as a blueprint for trip-hop. And 1990's Metatron, sinking into techno-fear and individual shame, came close to both cyberpunk and Tricky's later, more intense alienation.

Dub has been a constant for Stewart, but it's techno that has given him new heart. But what does he think of his most direct, seemingly apolitical descendants like Tricky?

"Tricky draws on my nihilism," he says. "You need to go through that emotional despair. It's a tunnel you go through to get to the light."

In 1998, Stewart is as optimistic as ever. His latest inspiration is the politicised gabba-techno of the German provocateur Alec Empire's Digital Hardcore label, just now tipping into the mainstream. Last month, Stewart released a single, "Consumed", from his last LP, Data Control, with a crushing, manic remix from Empire. He's collaborating with Empire, Deejay Punk Roc and British gabba star Johnny Ultraviolence on a new album, in a style he calls "tech line noir hardstep fist funk". It could be The Pop Group all over again.

"As usual, people say the politics are naive," he says. "But ... it's proper, end-of-the-century music. It's how my brain works. I'm as excited about it as I was about the Last Poets. I'm just drawn towards it. These are things I can't ignore."

`We Are All Prostitutes' (Radarscope) and `Consumed: The Remix Wars' (Mute) are out now; Mark Stewart's new album is due early next year