The Oral History of the Pop Group: The Noisy Brits Who Were Too Punk for the Punks

While London was calling, these Bristol teenagers responded with dub, avant-jazz and noise — and inspired everyone from Nick Cave to Nine Inch Nails

From left, Bruce Smith, Mark Stewart and Gareth Sager of The Pop Group Credit: Chalkie Davies/Getty

The Pop Group were an explosive mutant gene that made British punk seem safely safety-pinned. A deranged fusion of punk rock, dub reggae, free jazz, political poetics and horrific noise, they never exactly fit in, but ultimately served as a do-what-thou-wilt clarion call to a legion of admirers, starting with feminist-skanking sister band the Slits. Nick Cave, who has described the Pop Group's music as "unholy, manic, violent, paranoid and painful," grafted their anarchic spirit onto the Birthday Party. They paved the way for Fugazi's politicized dissonance, Massive Attack and Nine Inch Nails' larger-than-life soundscapes, and the dancefloor-friendly art-rock moves of contemporary bands like Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Liars.

Among their rabble-rousing post-punk contemporaries, none boasted as much sheer musical inventiveness and audacity. The cocky Bristol teenagers who formed the group in 1977 produced only two albums and an eternally relevant single in "We Are All Prostitutes." They sagely hired Dennis Bovell to produce their brilliant 1979 debut, Y, thus becoming the first rock group let a dub producer run wild with their music. By 1981 they were done, torn asunder by personal politics and the allure of avant-jazz. 

In 2010, founding members Gareth Sager (guitar, piano, music), Bruce Smith (drums) and Mark Stewart (vocals, lyrics) decided to give the Pop Group another go. With a third studio album in the can, they've also embarked on a reissues program beginning with We Are Time, a collection of studio recordings and live tracks released originally in 1980, and Cabinet of Curiosities, a brand new compilation that features an early version of "She Is Beyond Good and Evil," a song that St. Vincent covered throughout her Strange Mercy tour.

Rolling Stone talked to the band's three founding members for a complete accounting of the Pop Group saga, shedding some light on four years that made punk history. 

Mark Stewart: We all went to the same youth club. That was a place you'd go when you were 11 or 12, and you played table tennis. Bristol got bombed quite a bit in the war, and they put up these cheap prefabricated houses over the bombsites, and our youth club was a prefab.

Gareth Sager: I wouldn't call us friends. We were associates. I've always felt fortunate that the Pop Group were more like acquaintances than a band with your best mates. It's very different situations.

Bruce Smith: We met hanging around on the corner, probably. Gareth and I went to the same secondary school, Cotham…The other guys went to Bristol Grammar School nearby. We all lived pretty close together.

Stewart: One of my best friends, Jeremy Valentine, started a band called the Cortinas when we were about 15. He asked me if I knew any good guitarists. I knew Nick Shepherd, who joined the Cortinas and later the Clash. All us lot hung out with the Cortinas like you do when some mates have got a band in the youth club. The Cortinas were part of the first wave of British punk.

Smith: Mark, [bassist] Simon [Underwood], and me were part of a network of kids who were into the black American music they played in nightclubs we managed to bluff our way into when we were 14 or 15. Our enthusiasm for that music was a big connector. There was also a clothing thing. It was kind of an underground scene.

Stewart: During that period, kids in little towns across England were finding out about things like Iggy Pop's Metallic K.O., Roxy Music, Chrome and Pere Ubu. The New Musical Express were covering some amazing stuff. At age 11 or 12 I got into Alice Cooper, Mick Ronson and David Bowie through children's telly like Top of the Pops. Bowie was more of a teacher than anything I learned at school. I heard about Jean Genet through "Gene Genie," which led me to [William] Burroughs, Lou Reed and weird French poetry like Lautréamont. Bowie was a teen pop star but he was also a portal. It was bizarre.

Sager: I took sixth-form classes in a music school and discovered John Cage, Stockhausen and Berio. I know it sounds incredibly defensive, but on the whole I learned maybe two sentences about all of them there. I went on and studied them myself, so I had a side not many people had at that time — about zero people.

Stewart: Because I was tall, I was out clubbing a lot from an early age. I was knocking around with 20-year-olds when I was 11 or 12. Everyone was wearing 1950s clothes we bought from Malcolm McLaren's shop, Let It Rock. We were wearing pink zoot suits and dancing to bands like Ultrafunk and the Undisputed Truth. Heavy, dirty funk. When I saw pictures of the Sex Pistols, they were wearing the same stuff we were wearing. Suddenly there was a band that looked like us. 

Smith: Punk rock was very inspiring.

Stewart: The earlier bands were either glam rock or pub rock. They didn't look anything like us; they weren't our tribe. Everybody was rushing to see the Pistols, but it didn't come out of nowhere. The interesting thing about punk is that it came from the people. And the interesting thing about Bristol is that we were not in isolation. So one Christmas we were all in the back of a van after hanging out at the Roxy, and we just said let's form a band. 

Smith: Mark, Gareth, and I were going to the Roxy when we came up with the band's name. Boy, was it fucking funny! We were very proud of ourselves. It so appealed to our twisted sense of humor that what else could it possibly be? It may have been before we started playing together.

Stewart: This is disputable. When I was 13 or 14, I had the idea of forming a band called the Wild Boys, after the Burroughs book. Everybody would come out of dustbins onstage. We used to sit around my mum's kitchen table making up badges and fanzines, and ripping up our shirts. I remember making a coat out of seatbelts and fireman's trousers to go see the Clash. I think the name came from there. We were saying we wanted to be "a pop group." My mum says she said it, but I don't care who claims ownership. I'm into plagiarism, myself. It was obviously me, but you have to give other people credit.

Sager: The Pop Group was all due to the fact that punk rock had come along and we were the kind of kids who thought, If they can do it, we can do it.

Stewart: It was seeing Paul [Simonon] from the Clash, with little Letraset stickers on his bass for where to put his fingers. Gareth may have had ideas about being a musician, but I don't think any of the rest of us did. Punk just blew the doors open. We didn't want to be a normal punk band, though. We thought punk was about experimenting and having ideals and being political. The New York Dolls coming to England and getting on the telly changed a lot of my generation. If we'd never seen that, we'd be like clerks. We embraced the Situationist notion of the explosion in the heart of the commodity. Not that we were right or wrong. As somebody said, All we've got is our difference.

"You get a visceral feeling about whether this is fucking working or isn't. what we were playing was so outlandish to some people they were stunned into silence."

Smith: Gareth had some musical skills. I played snare drum in the school band when I was very young. I wasn't very skilled but had sat behind a drum set before we played together.

Stewart: Simon Underwood, one of the other founding members, was a friend from clubbing. He was a bit older. He'd already left school and had a factory job. He was part of the slightly older, fashionable, clubby-matey scene. We were looking for a guitarist but the ones we knew were all into Lynyrd Skynyrd or something…Somehow we found John Waddington, who was in a band called the Boyfriends from a youth club down the road. We had to dress him up a little bit. Simon brought the funk bass and John was the chicken-pickin' rhythm guitar. Today he's more of a Brian Wilson figure. He's got a huge beard and plays a lot of ukulele.

Sager: We were listening to things like Miles Davis's On the Corner and Funkadelic. Unconsciously, black music was in some ways more our roots than rock was.

Smith: Simon was a complete novice. John had some guitar skills and Gareth had some piano skills. We had this funny cheap rehearsal room and would fucking freak out for hours on end. Punk's energy was so inspiring, but none of us was really into "rock & roll," shall we say? We were trying to synthesize black American music. My dad [abstract expressionist painter Hassel Smith] played jazz, and reggae was huge for us. We were trying to play these things rather than three-chord rock & roll.

Sager: I hate it when people say we started in 1978! It was April '77. I remember because it was around my birthday and I went and bought a guitar with some money a girl lent me. [Laughs.] We jammed on "My Generation" for about three hours and went on from there. 

Stewart: The next day we played "I Want to Be Your Dog."

Smith: We were gripped by the energy of it, so we played quite a lot. We started playing live pretty quickly, and there's a lot to be said for that because you get a visceral feeling about whether this is fucking working or isn't. In our case, what we were playing was so outlandish to some people they were stunned into silence.

Stewart: I was running these school dances to make money. I probably made more money during school than I ever did after. The Pop Group played one of our early gigs there. They wouldn’t' let us in with our punk clothes on; we had to smuggle them in through the toilet window. We played a lot of covers like T Rex's "Solid Gold Easy Action" and Jonathan Richman's "Pablo Picasso."

Smith: There was an early set of shows we did with the Stranglers, as a result of some demos we made with Hugh Cornwell, where it was like crickets when we finished.

Sager: By '78 we were becoming kind of "anti" the typical punk rock that was being done. During one gig with Magazine we played an eight-minute version of "We Are Fire"; no one in that scene had played an eight-minute song ever!

Smith: Our shows were just fucking insane. We never played for more than 40 minutes. They were wild and explosive. Still are, although we're not 17, of course.

Sager: [In October 1978] we headlined a show we put together at the Electric Ballroom with Nico, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Cabaret Voltaire. We were the first group to put a show together like that, long before other people were doing fantastic shows. Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers were playing the same night, and there seemed to be a bit of a divide. Do you go see The Pop Group or Johnny Thunders? The people who'd moved on wanted to see us.

Smith: We were pretty arrogant and convinced of our own ability to be self-critical. The mutual push to break out of whatever we'd heard and didn't want to sound like was pretty strong. We were convinced of our own ability to be original. We thought we were pretty fucking cool. We had this kind of bubble around us and were very determined to do what we were going to do.

Stewart: Our songs often started from bass riffs in the early days. We'd try to get a funky rhythm going, and I'd start shouting over the top. Over a couple of gigs the shouting would evolve into a bit of a structure…I remember playing people reggae or funk bass lines and saying, "Listen to this." We'd listen to Funkadelic at parties and somebody would say, "Let's play that." Then somebody would play Richard Hell or early Television guitar over it. It felt like we were playing three songs at the same time, which I thought was because we couldn't really play. But these older guys, like Richard Williams in Melody Maker, said it was very cool and experimental, so I just kept quiet.

Smith: Williams was convinced that we were like Roxy Music — art school types with a master plan who'd figured the whole thing out. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Stewart: We really got into Albert Ayler and stuff, but we definitely made a point of writing pop songs. The funny thing is that we really wanted to be a pop group!

Sager: Before we recorded Y, we played quite poppy songs like "Colour Blind," which is a fantastic song but too short for me, and its reference points were too obvious. But at a rehearsal space, out in the countryside, the rest of the band took certain substances that loosened them up. It suddenly started sounding much looser and we got into a groove that I found much more exciting than the upbeat poppy stuff we'd been playing.

Smith: I was 17 when we made our first record, Y, in '78. That period of time was so extraordinary. We got to make the record we wanted to make. We wanted John Cale to produce it, originally. He came to Bristol to meet us all at Simon's apartment, which was riddled with cat fleas. Cale was straight off the plane and fell asleep as we were talking about stuff. As he was crashed out we were like, "Fuck this guy. Are you fucking kidding?" Simon was on the verge of writing "fuck you" on his forehead. We were like, "No fucking way. You're gonna come and fall asleep?" We were young and full of beans.

Stewart: We tried to work with King Tubby, but he got shot.

Smith: We went to Dennis Bovell because of his credibility as a reggae producer. He made a record called "Raindrops" as Dennis Matumbi. The dub version of "Raindrops" is a fantastic record, with one of the most original drumbeats you'll ever hear, and Dennis played everything on it. Because of that record we were like, "Let's get him.

Stewart: I heard Dennis Bovell's dub version of Elizabeth Archer & the Equators' "Feel Like Making Love" when I was a kid. There were all these explosions and lightning flashes and I played it time and time again. Not to mention the humanity of the guy, who did all this brilliant work with Linton Kwesi Johnson as well. We were able to tap straight into the Jamaican thing thanks to Dennis and his openness to some spikey-haired kids. We were blessed, really. There was so much laughter.

Smith: After we forged a relationship with Dennis, I learned he'd really been into Jimi Hendrix back in Barbados. When he heard us he may have thought, "Yeah, I can get into this." Dennis was way more musical than any of us, but never condescending. It was a shared experience. We pushed him to play the mixing desk as though he were making a dub record, because that's what we were into and excited by. It was a steep learning curve.

Stewart: It was all about being open minded and breaking down our conditioning and constructs…We were all sitting, splicing tapes, and making the thing in the same room at the same time.

Sager: Everybody said, "Let's make a really wild album and stop trying to be the next step after the Clash. Let's go miles beyond that, out into space. And that's what it is. Y is absolutely brutal. I don't see anybody coming out with a first album as corrosive and demented as Y.

Smith: Radar was run by Andrew Lauder and Martin Davis and was part of Warner Bros. Elvis Costello paid for us, it's that simple. He was selling all kinds of records.

Sager: It was horrible for Radar. We came out with completely demented and unlistenable stuff. But it made us very happy, and I thought we were really onto something.

Smith: The attraction of making our next records for Rough Trade was our consciences not being answerable to a multinational corporation.

Sager: All of us got much more politicized almost overnight, because it was suddenly such a different country with the [1979] election of Thatcher and the Tory government. We'd been supporting Amnesty International, but after the election we let our personal politics come out more.

Smith: "We Are All Prostitutes" is probably the best recording we ever made. It's fucking unbelievable. It was much tougher, more aggresssive, and more political than anything we'd done. Mark's lyrics on Y are fairly poetic and personal, but "Prostitutes" was really a statement.

Sager: I saw Sun Ra in '79 with the biggest band he would ever have onstage, a 45-piece band with everybody kind of doing their own thing, but in unison. And I'd discovered the American cellist Tristan Honsinger [featured on "Prostitutes"] and Dutch drummer Han Bennink. They were all more exciting than punk, no question about it. I wanted to inform the world about them. They were absolutely amazing musicians who blew my mind completely. There was no turning back for me, no more five-chord songs. Throw the chords out the window!

"It felt like we were playing three songs at the same time, which I thought was because we couldn't really play."

Smith: While making [1980's] For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder?, it began to feel less like a band and more like Mark saying, "It's going to be like this." Being in a band is like being in a gang: It's a constant negotiation. You may not like all of it, but you like enough of it to keep going.

Stewart: I had been getting very agitated about the point of making music. Nuclear winter was going on and Pol Pot was in Cambodia. I was doing a lot of things just to relieve my conscience, I suppose. We were constantly playing benefits.

Sager: Although it was a great combination of political rhetoric and abstract stuff, I realized that banging along the lines of For How Much Longer wasn't strictly the way I wanted to go.

Stewart: There's a track on For How Much Longer called "Communicate," which was free jazz. Gareth was going so bloody out there. I've never had to say this, and I know I'm going to say it in a bad way, but I was finding it quite difficult to put lyrics on [the music]. I'm not a musician. I can't stand on one leg and improvise like the guy from Can. I can't just stand there and rip up bits of paper and make yodeling noises. When people start to learn their instruments a bit, they really want to go off. I love Derek Bailey and all that free stuff, but I can't do anything with it. There was nothing I could do on on the track "How Much Longer," either, because it was constantly changing.

Sager: Improvising vocals is the toughest thing in the world.

Stewart: People really don't get the jovial side of the Pop Group. It's celebratory and the gigs are really dancey. I happen to deal with subjects other people don't deal with, which I don't think are heavy in the least. It's important to talk about all these different things in the world, things what happen right outside your window. You'd have to be a bloody zombie not to see it. But they try to put you in a box like you're all dour and gray, with a greatcoat on. They don't understand that you can be happy while dealing with important things.

Smith: Mark is a singular character. It's both his talent and his downfall. "This is what I'm going to do and you're either in or you're not." We didn't feel like we were in.

Sager: We were all going off in different directions. At that point I wanted to go one way, and Mark... The group had basically run its course. We had done everything we'd set out to do and we were going in different directions.

Smith: Our live shows got a little sporadic. And pop music is very faddish in England and shit was moving very fast at that time. What became the New Romantics and early synthesizer bands had come to the fore, and that had nothing to with us. It was a lot more about fashion.

Stewart: Our last gig was in front of 500,000 people in the middle of Trafalgar Square. I helped organize it with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. We weren't aware that it would be the last Pop Group gig. I was volunteering in the office and was talking to the guy in charge of it, Monsignor Bruce Kent. I said it would be good to have some music for the younger people as well as loads of speeches. Mr. Kent said, "Fine, Mark." I asked Killing Joke and other people to do it. I wanted to play something the older socialists would also know, so we played a version of William Blake's "Jerusalem," which is as well known in England as "We Shall Overcome" is in the U.S. I got some rasta mates and did that at the end of a Pop Group song. So I started my new stuff on the same day the Pop Group ended. 

Smith: Sean, Gareth, and I formed the triad that led to Rip Rig + Panic.

Stewart: I blame The Simpsons for getting [the Pop Group] back together [in 2010]. I got this phone call that Matt Groening was curating an All Tomorrow's Parties event and wanted us to reform for it. It didn't happen, but that kickstarted it.

Sager: When we got back together, Mark and I agreed that we would write new material. After our first couple of gigs, I got back into that funny atmosphere The Pop Group had. I could go back to the way we used to write, but with a more mature style. I didn't want to go there at first. I'd done that. It's a strange, claustrophobic, paranoid, sort of band and not one you really want to have around in your home all the time. [Laughs.] But I came up with a few things, Mark put some words to it, and it clicked again. And that was four and a half years ago. Now we have a whole album that's very much what the Pop Group are about. It's brilliant, really.