PUNK’S spiky-haired explosion between 1976 and 1977 may have made the most headlines but several British bands that sprang up in its wake took that uninhibited spirit to a different level.
Among them was The Pop Group, a five-piece from Bristol whose angular guitar riffs, dub and funk rhythms, provocative lyrics and manic performances have influenced musicians as diverse as Nick Cave, Primal Scream, Massive Attack and St Vincent.
The band reformed – as a quartet – four years ago; now they are about to head out on their first national tour. Singer Mark Stewart puts the delay in getting out on the road down to the fact that they’ve been “selective in what we have been playing”.
The catalyst for the reformation was an All Tomorrow’s Parties festival at Butlins holiday camp in Minehead, curated by Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons.
“He gave them a wish list of his favourite bands of all time that he wanted to see. He asked Iggy Pop to reform The Stooges and me to reform The Pop Group. We’d been toying with the idea – we’re all still mates – but making something new was the reason for the reformation.
“We’ve always been really independent. We said if we were going to do it we’d have to be in control and have our own distribution networks.”
The Pop Group’s tour this month coincides with the release of two albums. One, We Are Time, is a compilation of demos and live material that dates back to the band’s earliest days. Listening back to his teenage self, Stewart marvels: “Who was that soldier? He must have been completely mental.
“If you look back to what we were playing in ’76, ’77 when some of the songs were written, it was demented. I don’t know what planet we came from.”
Though “not much of a nostalgia person – I like looking for tomorrow and enjoying life”, Stewart nonetheless found delving through the archives invigorating. He talks of experiencing “weird psychic moments when your younger self is talking to me now about something that happened last week”.
The group will be playing the album in its entirety on this tour as they’ve “never had the chance” to play it before. “The band was mutating quickly. Some of those songs were only played in a youth club in Bristol to about three people,” Stewart recalls.
What’s intriguing – even from The Pop Group’s fledgling material – is their use of juxtapositions and sound clashes, something Stewart continued through his later solo career.
“I don’t know what ‘straight’ is, to tell you the truth,” he says. “When you’re walking down a street something is always clashing, that’s the way our brains interpret what’s going on.”
He was influenced by Dada and the experimental American filmmaker Kenneth Anger who, he remembers, once “got the sound from a Jehovah’s Witness film and cut that with a homoerotic biker film he was making”.
“Cut and paste, slash and burn – that was the art of the era, specifically punk.”
Playfulness was a key component of the band’s make-up. “A lot of people think The Pop Group was solemn but we were not Joy Division,” Stewart says.
Now he can appreciate “the amount of stuff we did in the period of a couple of years was more than a lot of bands do in 10 years”.
“We started and we stopped, we did not have the chance to look at anything. Now we’re picking up where we stopped. Playing those teenage songs, it’s weird. It’s a ritual of redemption. It’s a weird experience but interesting for me. They stand the test of time. I am that person but also detached.”
The other Pop Group album released this month is Cabinet of Curiosities which opens with Where There’s a Will, originally available on a split 7in single whose other side was provided by The Slits.
Stewart recognises they were “kindred spirits” with the all-female punk band. “For some reason I felt Ari [Up]’s feralness,” he says. At one stage the two bands shared the same producer, Dennis Bovell. Stewart remembers “going to blues dances and sound system dances with Ari, we shared a love of reggae.”
He’s still “really into” split singles and sharing things, he says. “We’re setting up distribution so that hopefully other cool bands can tap into it.” He’s recently been swapping ideas with Mike Watt of veteran US punk group The Minutemen as well as the artist Judy Nylon, and bands Savages and Factory Floor.
“There’s still a strong community amongst artists,” he says. “Although the industry tries to divide us mutual respect overrides any of that.”
Reflecting on the band’s lasting influence and where they might go in the future, he says: “I think The Pop Group was a battering ram to re-establish interesting ideas into the mainstream. There are sleeping agents, secret Pop Group fans, post-punks, letting us in through the back door.
“If we can keep our nerve and stay committed I think it would be a good thing to do. It’s a channel.”
The Pop Group play at the Brudenell Social Club, Queens Road, Leeds on October 24, doors 7.30pm, £17.50. http://www.thepopgroup.net/live/