But Punk slammed into this like someone taking a dump in a Regent's Park lake next to the swans (Sid Vicious, maybe?). It was through a Rock & Folk anthology. Now, that magazine may be France's putrid answer to the UK's NME, with all the sycophantic Doherty-loving to boot, but at least they know their punk (at least of the seventies and eighties, sadly Blink 182 then seems to swindle them). The magazine blew my mind, as I trawled through the history of the UK's most controversial rock genre, with a rest-stop in NYC, taking in -like some musico-literary sponge- The Damned's first New York gig (all capes and gobbing), The Pistols' McClaren-devised publicity stunts, Suicide's literally knife-edged encounter with UK audiences, Siouxsie's first ramshackle gig, Rock against Racism and all the rest. It vibrated unrest, sexual deviance, rebellion and disdain, and I was hooked. I ripped up some of my t-shirts, turned my nose up at my friends' Floyd-and-Morrison adulations and turned from pot to pills and booze. I was never going to be a real punk, but my record collection would. Out went the prog, the classic rock (though I maintained a weird affection for Frampton Comes Alive - should I admit to that??) and the country, in came a list of names that still remain legendary for me, long after I put my dogmatism away and re-expanded my tastes: Buzzcocks, The Stranglers, The Slits, Television, Magazine, The Clash, The Jam, Patti Smith, The Undertones, The Damned, The Saints, PiL...
Of course, Punk would never last, and much of it proved to be a facade. The Pistols, The Clash, The Jam and Buzzcocks all signed to major record labels. The most forward-thinking bands of the first punk wave were met with disdain and hatred (Suicide, Throbbing Gristle, even Television and the Ramones). Ultimately, we all should have paid more attention to Johnny Rotten than to Sid Vicious. For whilst the former ditched the crass commercialism of McClaren's Pistols and turned to more challenging straights with PiL, name-checking Van Der Graaf Generator and Neil Young along the way, the latter burned out in a blaze of silly excess and cheap sensationalism. And Punk died, leading the way for tacky imitations such as Blink, Sum 41, Green Day and The Libertines.
But, what a lot of those who lament Punk's broken promises neglect to notice or concentrate upon, is that, from those halcyon years of 1977 to 1982, we have, despite all I've just written, been left with some of the most sensational music ever made. No less. Typically, the best of it came from 78 (symbolically, the year the Pistols split up)-onwards, and by that time, Punk in its purest, most incompetent, snotty-nosed and brutal form, had made way for bands that were eager to experiment, broaden their horizons and go beyond the confines of three-chord thrashing. Think Siouxsie and the Banshees, the aforementioned PiL, Talking Heads, This Heat, Throbbing Gristle, Magazine, Joy Division, and many others.
What Punk did is wipe the slate clean. The significance of Rotten's praise for Van der Graaf Generator is great. They were the black sheep of that most hated (by Punks) of genres: progressive rock. They were smart, intellectual, long-winded. But Rotten (by then back to being John Lydon) also could see that they were aggressive, nihilistic and violent, propelled by the dark visions of their screaming lead singer, Peter Hammill. In 1977, VdGG played at Punk's signature venue, The Marquee. They played long songs, full of odd time shifts, arcane lyrics (no political sloganeering here!) and lyrical musical breaks. Yet the Punks loved them. Because they had the very same passion, intelligence and sense of adventure that characterised the Blank Generation, and had become the undoing of the moral establishment and the rock aristocracy. Punk was about ripping down complacency and prejudice. Whether it was a singer-songwriter (Young), Glam Rocker (Marc Bolan, who played with The Damned), a prog band (VdGG) or a fast'n'loud punk quartet, if you had the balls, energy and bile, you could play ball.
And play ball they did. In the wake of Punk's first wave, Goth, New Wave, Post Punk, Electro-pop, Industrial and No Wave all sprang up, taking rock music to new heights. And, barely noticed among all this creative euphoria, but creating enough of a stir in their own little way, was a snarling, virulent quintet from the nondescript British town of Bristol. In the ultimate Punk move, they insolently called themselves The Pop Group.
The Pop Group were quite the flash in the pan. They appeared in 1978 and had split just three years later. They only managed two official albums, of which Y was the first, and the only one of much note. But it was a blazing flash, I can assure you. Y sounds like little else in Punk, let alone mainstream rock. Put succinctly, it is one of the greatest of all post-punk albums, easily matching PiL's first two, anything by Joy Division and Magazine's Real Life on all levels. And of the lot, it is the one that maintains the Punk spirit the most, despite being unbelievably forward-thinking and challenging.
Bristol has long had a history of leftist activism (something maintained by the likes of Massive Attack in recent years), and The Pop Group were no exceptions. Y is highly-charges, taught and angry. the perfect railing letter against Thatcherite Britain. The artwork presents gripping and disturbing images, from the creepy pygmies on the cover to the bold red lettering, via pictures of prisoner camps, shady political figures and charnel houses. The lyrics were similarly bold: "I admit my crime/I'm a thief of fire!" screams singer Mark Stewart on opener "Thief of Fire", his voice interspersed by recordings of political speeches. "But who to trust/When you're stealing from a nation of killers" he rails a bit later on. On "Blood Money" he eructs: "Money's a weapon of terror", topical words in this day and age. Other songs mention totalitarianism, torture and colonialism, the whole being so potent it's hard to imagine anything similar ever getting released today. It's just too heavy.
And that's before we get to the music. The sound of The Pop Group borders on the indefinable, which is why it's so memorable, for all it's occasional flaws (some of the more experimental bits feel fumbled, noise for noise's sake). These guys saw no boundaries, and so met none. Produced by reggae stalwart Dennis Bovell, they took in his background of fat bass and stuttered rhythm, threw in some ragged punk guitar and screams, and a fair dollop of rigid funk, and got a sound like no other. Tracks like "Thief of Fire" and "We Are Time" groove like few other punk tracks, scattered through with sax bursts, nutty effects, echoed vocals and stunning bass hooks that would almost sound perfect in a disco or in a Jamaican dance hall. Equally stunning is "Snowgirl", slower (their attempt at a ballad maybe?), but no less weird and strangely catchy, with cabaret piano (!) sneaking out of the weird vocal mixes and juddering percussion/guitar/bass explosions.
And I already mentioned the experimentation. Despite probably not having the required chops, The Pop Group were fearless, and looked to the avant-garde at all times. On "Thief of Fire", for example, this adds even more edge to the dance grooves, with even jazz touches through the saxophone breaks. It's a sensual overload of sorts, and a precursor to the sort of twisted funk the likes of The Streets and !!! would attempt two decades later, only with more convention and much less balls. On "Blood Money", "Savage Sea" "Don't Call Me Pain", it becomes full-blown experiment, with stop-start rhythm, overloads of effects and some crazy scatty vocal eructations. It doesn't always work, but when it does it's stunning, and I will always be in awe of these guys for throwing themselves at their art and their vision with such vicious abandon. All of them are great, be it Gareth Sager with his staccato bursts of distorted guitar or his Brotzmann-esque sax wails; the roaring, crooning or howling Mark Stewart; or soulful, funkadelicised bassman Simon Underwood, the beating heart of the whole thing. And special mention to Bovell for letting his charges run amok like this, whilst somehow also tying them to such a strong reggae/funk/punk vibe.
The Pop Group fell apart quite quickly after Y, managing only a mediocre follow-up and some gigs before Stewart ended up splitting to go solo, staying true to the vibe he helped launch on this masterpiece. Post-punk would continue to evolve in new and fascinating directions, but few albums released afterwards would reach such heights of bonkers fury and innovation. Luckily, the CD format has seen Y get a gorgeous sonic facelift, whilst tacking seminal p-funk single "She Is Beyond Good and Evil" to the beginning of the track-list. The album sounds all the more cohesive for it, and even 29 years on, few records can produce such a heady mix of vicious bile, musical exploration and leg-shaking grooves.