The Pop Group’s debut LP, Y, is pure youth energy. Adrian Sherwood called Mark Stewart intimidating, but now, two years after we connected, I have a special relationship with the artist, philosopher, and poet. Even though there is a 30-years generation gap between us, we are sonically on the same wavelength. And I found out from him that in 1979, at the tender age of 18, he and his band The Pop Group were channeling a far more mature power and stream of consciousness than what was happening in Bristol and the UK.
"We were 18 years then
Thru the darkest night
As the new reality dawned
Witnessing the birth of punk
Sharing a cab with Burroughs
Sitting next to Keith Haring at Save All Robots
Being namechecked by Bowie
Working with Kenneth Anger
I just have to do it
The muse must be obeyed
Arghhh shes calling me now
Like a siren!"
The band's music was and still is very far from what one might call pop in any decade, be it the seventies, eighties, nineties, or our present day. Come 2021, and Y goes full charge into the dub dimension, with the mighty Warrior Dennis Bovell at the Controls.
While many might consider the sound of Bristol something else than the post-punk funk dub, The Pop Group and their debut album demonstrate how you can make an LP that won't age and sounds, 40 years later, fresh as a Kalashnikov. This review features samples from an interview I did with Mark two years ago, on Y’s anniversary, the moment when Mute Records put out an extended version of this legendary album on different sexy psychical formats. Right now, in a pandemic year filled with sublime dub releases, the hottest album in this genre is a recording made in 1979 and remixed with a fresh approach, something only MBE Dennis Bovell could pull off.
I have often compared dub producers with modern visual artists because they paint the same way, innovating sound. And for example, Dennis Bovell is UK’s Jean Michel Basquiat, having juxtaposed African, American, and Caribbean sounds into an otherworldly fusion of funk, afrobeat, post-punk, jazz, and more. This superproducer has worked with The Slits, Orange Juice & Edwyn Collins, Sakamoto, Fela Kuti, Jah Wobble, Arcade Fire, and Jarvis Cocker, to name a few. Just like Basquiat, Bovell’s art has an apparently natural way of creeping into your brain, but once it hits you, there is no way back to the same socio-political reality and context. Bovell has produced black and white artists and groups with the same velocity and passion, always with the best, most rewarding results. Here, on Y in Dub, he is on a time machine capsule journey. Having produced the original album in 1979, he re-works it more fluidly into a different kind of monumental beast.
This is not a radical deconstruction in an electronic dub way like Mad Professor did with Massive Attack LP’s, the Space Monkeyz did with Gorillaz’s debut album, or even Bovell did for Arcade Fire by juxtaposing them with Linton Kwesi Johnson. This is far from the collages of sounds dub music can morph into, looping towards hypnotic repetition. Y in Dub somehow keeps the blueprint on the original recording and pumps more bass and space into a record full of surprises from its birth. Mark Stewart’s vocals are left 85% intact only with more reverb and delay, when usually in dub vocals are chopped up and re-arranged into fresh new poetry. The drums and electric bass are pure blasting texture remixed and re-arranged in a way they sound like rolling thunder.
Thief Of Fire (Dennis Bovell Dub Version) takes the original into the Funky Milky Way. That Bootsy Collins-like bass has more volume and strength, but also the necessary reverb to enter dub territory. The drums of Bruce Smith are pure funk jazz, and they bounce from left to right in the mix, creating more space as they roll. The guitar and the saxophone played by Gareth Sager are fueling through the dub dimension, signaling the tension and the potency of the Pop Group as a dub punk-funk jazz ensemble. Clearly, a notable difference between this version and the original is how the distorsion turns into reverb and a wall of sound ready to pull out the flame or spark out of Prometheus nest.
Snowgirl (Dennis Bovell Dub Version), on the other hand, makes the way to the vibe of cinematic funk-jazz, dub, dada poetry. Drums, bass, and piano that are inspiring the mood of a film score offer the perfect bedrock for the twisted lovers' rock lyrics Mark spits threateningly. This version would have fitted on some noir classics like Elevator to the Gallows. Versus the original, we get the same filtered out of the mix guitar feedback and processing to make dub the final frontier.
Blood Money (Dennis Bovell Dub Version) turns the original sonic attack into an ambient horror film soundtrack. Not saying the original would not sound awesome on any of the Frankenstein movies scores, but the new dub lights the fuse and puts a heavy pressure with the distorted deep low-end vocals, creating pure discomfort. Either the bass or a creepy synth bass resonates in the mix, almost splitting the song into two different tunes juxtaposed, playing in parallel at the edge of sanity.
Savage Sea (Dennis Bovell Dub Version) is the perfect follow-up to Blood Money. Mark tells of the profound impression Andrei Tarkovsky’s sci-fi weirdness Stalker made on him, his bandmates, and peers. Both the original and the dub version are subtle film-like chants. The melodic piano of brilliant composer Gareth Sager has dub and reverb on the version blasting it properly into a world of freaky science fiction. Classic piano chords sound now like synthesizer arpeggios. The strings can put anyone out of their comfort zone into a bloody unsettling film like Cannibal Holocaust. And that is a good thing because this is the state of the world right now.
We Are Time (Dennis Bovell Dub Version) was the dubbiest tune on Y, but the new version has Simon Underwood’s electric bass rumbling Soundsystem style as an eargasm. The original had the catchiest guitar riff and was a centerpiece of the LP, while this version fragments that excellent dialogue between John Waddington and Gareth Sager’s guitars with more reverb and delay taking into warp drive. All fun, take no prisoners! The Star Trek comparison Mark does come straight out of Dennis Bovell’s love for science fiction dub, and I must mention the superb Blackbeard – I Wah Dub LP. In there, the Dub Master splits the atom with pure genius. Just check out Electrocharge. We Are Time is where Mark’s screaming vocals sound way better dubbed to death into a dadaist cannonball paranoia. Layer upon layer of words, screams, and echoes are painting a picture of 25th Century madness. The word Lies dubbed out has a powerful impact, leaving more victims than The Night Of The Comet. You can feel how much Dennis Bovell and the Pop Group enjoyed doing this version.
„Don’t let time catch up on you girl
Lies, time, lies, time”
Words Disobey Me (Dennis Bovell Dub Version) continues the sci-fi trip. Even though by comparing Y and Y in Dub you can see less distortion and a more focused foundation of the riddim section. The new album is by no means watered down or made more user-friendly. This is still a challenging listen for people outside the post-punk dubheads addicts. The synths and pianos on Words Disobey Me are very high up in the mix, creating an eerie feeling and turning your guts out for probing. It is no surprise that this is one of Kevin Richard Martin, aka The Bug’s favorite on the album.
Don’t Call Me Pain (Dennis Bovell Dub Version) has one of the wickedest saxophone riffs on the LP, and channeling that into the dubiverse gets a groove going. Dennis Bovell gets to showcase his brilliant work on polishing jazz scapes both rhythmically and compositionally. Already he was a specialist and you can check out his past work on Jazzz as Blackbeard and his tune with Linton Kwesi Johnson on Two Sides Of Silence. This time the Dub Master highlights the special chemistry between John Waddington and Gareth Sager, one that is set in stone from the conversation between guitar and saxophone. Rippling through Mark Stewart’s vocals the delays shred the words and syllables into raw surrealist sound.
„Don’t call me pain
My name is mystery
This is the age of chance
Obey because you either love or fear
Mercy, mercy let us bleed in peace”
Boys From Brazil (Dennis Bovell Dub Version) and Don’t Call Me Pain are political prophecy paintings with an underlay of Peter Kennard collages. Mark’s message is aimed at Thatcher's new attitude as newly appointed Prime Minister. Even though the Falklands War came three years later, these two songs might be the best soundtrack for the early eighties tensioned political climate. Marks Tarzan roar in the Boys From Brazil is such a cartoonish accent, that Bovell’s brought in female vocals to temper it. I have no credits for it, but I could swear they are from Ari Up, who in the next year formed the New Age Steppers collective with Adrian Sherwood and members of the On-U Sound Records and members of The Pop Group and The Slits. Her vocals are up in the mix in the new version to a highly delicious outcome. What I love about the new Boys From Brazil version is the delay on the original abrupt ending, creating a feeling of relaxation.
If We Are Time was the centerpiece of the original LP, Don’t Sell Your Dreams was the grand finale where despair is served on the table along with the invoice. Pure work of genius in 1979 on this Epilogue by Mr. Bovell and the young and courageous Pop Group! On Y in Dub, the Dennis Bovell Dub Version takes the song in the heart of New Orleans and morphs it into jazz dub alienation. Bruce Smith's drums are less present for more effect. This version is an example of anti-punk looseness blossoming into pure beauty.
She Is Beyond Good And Evil (Dennis Bovell Dub Version) in the first single Dub Master Bovell and the Pop Group showcased before the release of the Y LP. That was a time when singles came separated from the album, people would buy it and then find only new music on the album. And man Bovell loves this song! On Y in Dub, you get a double hit with two different versions, both drained in reverb, delay, and dub effects making it a sublime coda. He enjoyed deconstructing this into pieces. What also strikes me most is how raw and beautiful Mark Stewart's love songs were, lyrically speaking. This and Snowgirl are deeply rooted in the brutalist tradition of blues love songs, something all rock n rollers channeled in a great way, with bands like The Doors and Janis Joplin & Big Brother and the Holding Company. Stewart's love for Bo Diddley and Lightnin’ Hopkins, and his collages too, brings a lot of necessary finesse to the post-punk genre.
3:38 (Dennis Bovell Dub Version) is 4:43 now and begins with a rooster call by Mark Stewart. This B-Side to She Is Beyond Good And Evil was the first proper dub Dennis Bovell did for the Pop Group. So it is only fitting that this version should go deeper into King Tubby Heaven with so many stops and changes to reach the grand finale in full bombast. Dub is an Art and Science, and this song should be in the Dub Museum Pantheon right next to all Jamaican and UK Royalty, Lee Scratch Perry & The Upsetters, The Scientist, Sly & Robbie, Mad Professor, Adrian Sherwood, and Youth. What a trip fit for this crew!
It is so vivid Dennis Bovell MBE should soundtrack as many films as possible. He did score the 1980 UK classic Babylon, but now he is in full effect as a musical director remixing Y in Dub. Please, Dub Master, show Hans Zimmer how it should be done. What I found interesting in my chat with Mark Stewart was the search for the perfect producer for Y:
„The best way I can describe Y is like thunder in the arid neon desert. We were just beginning to reach out to King Tubby when he nearly got shot. There was no way we would try to reach Jamaica to record it. It was awash with weapons at that moment in 1979. We initially had meetings with John Cale of the Velvet Underground to produce Y, as we all loved his work on Nico’s Marble Index. I vividly remember having to bunk school to meet him and racing back through Europe back to Bristol, from our tour with Pere Ubu, for a school exam. Also, we talked to the great Conny Plank for helping to produce Y, as we found his music everywhere. His productions were often in second-hand shops, and we were buying records with our school dinner money: the early Electronic music LPs like Nectar Jane, Guru Guru, and my absolute favorite song, Ride the Sky by Lucifers Friend.”
My comparisons with film soundtracks throughout this review have a logical foundation. In my conversation with Stewart, he enlightened me: „Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker was really an eerie description of our world then and now, and it made a deep impact on us. And on mates of ours, bands like Joy Division and Cabaret Voltaire. The cathedral scene in Nostalgia changed me forever.
No way back
The Pop Group
No safety nets"
"So our influences on Y were these:
Os Mutantes/Desire of the spark mutantes
The Ox by The Who
Konstantin Raudive/ Voices of the Dead LP
The Count de St. Germain"
The Y album is one of Nick Cave’s, St. Vincents, Robert Del Naja, and Trent Reznor’s favorites and you can hear the way the Pop Group actually changed pop music through their anti-pop sonic attack of an album. What better way to bless those recording sessions than dubbing them out of this world and planet. And there is none better at it than the original producer Dub Master Dennis Bovell OBE.
If you would enjoy having the record in your collection, you can buy it here.