Coping With Cowardice in the 21st Century
An exclusive chat with The Pop Group’s Mark Stewart
It’s easy to assume that post-punk provocateur turned reggae and proto-rap-loving solo artist Mark Stewart always means business.
When Stewart’s first band of note The Pop Group’s “We Are All Prostitutes” disrupts a compilation of two-and-a-half-minute punk anthems with its freeform jazz feel and politicized rage, it sounds like “Teenage Kicks” were the farthest thing from his mind. As darker times in the 1980s made for dimmer music from the UK, Stewart’s street prophecies suited the Jamaican dub experimentation of producer Adrian Sherwood’s On-U Sounds projects. Recordings for Sherwood with a backing band billed as the Maffia further fueled perceptions of Stewart as a justified malcontent.
Of course, art hardly defines its artist’s every waking moment. It should come as less of a shock that the voice of the voiceless put over “that’s what she said” jokes, not his favorite philosophers or agents of political change, during what was supposed to be a serious chat about the inspiration behind “Liberty City,” “The Paranoia of Power” and other evergreen statements of protest from his debut solo album, 1983’s Learning to Cope With Cowardice.
Stewart’s humorous asides make the messenger seem more accessible without watering down his deadly serious messages, so there’s victory in learning that he doesn’t set around brooding about injustices all the time.
Stewart recently chatted with Rock and Roll Globe about the reissuing of Learning to Cope With Cowardice and its Let It Be… Naked equivalent, The Lost Tapes. The former captures the peak of Stewart’s work with dub, trip-hop and industrial music pioneer Sherwood at the controls, while the latter shares an even rawer take on Stewart’s abrasive music.
With the reissues, both with the Pop Group and now with your solo material, what’s the mindset behind revisiting it all now? Is it a matter of making the music affordable and cutting down on low-quality downloads or bootlegs?
Suddenly, in the last eight or nine years, there’s been an explosion of interest in what people call post-punk. I don’t really understand how they can define such a weird collection of people, but something happened just after punk.
With The Pop Group or with this record, we were just running in so many different directions. I think it’s taken until now for people to catch up. I’m just constantly wanting to make comments about what’s happening now, and I’m writing all of this new stuff about the future. I was talking to my friend from Cabaret Voltaire a couple of years ago, and I said, “What have you been up to?” He said, “For the past year, I’ve been archiving 1975.” You can kind of get caught in your own shadow.
At least we’ve got control over it. It’s independent, and it’s going through our devices. But there’s a way to play off old stuff against new stuff and keep a flow.
For me, punk and post-punk and politics has always been about DIY and control of the means of production and kind of anti-censorship.
How did you meet Adrian Sherwood, and how did you become musical collaborators?
What was happening is everyone in the Pop Group were going off in different directions. We started off as virtually not being able to play our instruments, just by reading three chords in Sniffin’ Glue fanzine. We were voracious consumers of text and art and weird shit, and everybody was into jazz. As soon as everybody started learning their instruments, they started listening to John Coltrane and it was getting a bit jazzy and beardy-weirdy. It’s very difficult for me as a singer who’s used to verse-chorus-verse-chorus. I can’t improvise. I’m not like that guy from Can. I can’t stand on one foot and talk backwards. I need a song structure.
So the last ever Pop Group concert was this huge demonstration in Trafalgar Square. I was working for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament as well at the time. It was the biggest post-war demonstration against the proliferation for nuclear weapons. They were very heady times, but obviously not as heady as now. We thought there was going to be a third World War in that period.
The Pop Group was falling to pieces—in a nice way because we all grew up in Bristol together. I was pushing to do a classic protest song. It was like 500,000 people bringing London to a standstill, and I wanted to do a song like “We Shall Overcome” or a Pete Seeger song for the English crowd as a rallying cry. One of the biggest, socialistic rallying cries that I know of is this old text by William Blake called “Jerusalem.” I was already hanging out with Adrian and had a bunch of Jamaican-born, British-raised Rastafarian mates, so I came and did the first ever Maffia concert and did a version of “Jerusalem” at that rally. So that same day was the last Pop Group gig and the first Maffia gig.
I had met Adrian through my love of reggae and hanging around in Ladbroke Grove in London and going to blues dances and going to a lot of reggae concerts. He was friends with The Slits, and me and him really got on. I was squatting at the time in Ladbroke Grove in West London. He used to come around in the morning. He was driving around a delivery van, delivering reggae records to record shops around England. He just said, “Would you like to come out for a drive” because he loved my sense of humor. The last ever person, too, because I can drive people mental saying “That’s what she said last night” for hours in a van. Never go on tour with me, mate!
Obviously, I was interested in dub techniques, but Adrian had a completely different take and he had a coterie of musicians around him. I remember going and meeting Prince Far I, a Jamaican legend, and his wife going, “Your porridge is ready, Prince Far I!”
We always wanted cheap studio time back in those days, so we’d go crash his studio in the middle of the night, working through the night on hundreds of edits. I’d already heard the beginnings of hip-hop in the states because we were in New York a lot with The Pop Group. I was trying before samplers with a jack plug and a thing called an AMS to reproduce these weird scratching noises and something completely different came out.
Were you well-versed in reggae before coming to London?
I loved it. Growing up in Bristol, there was a very cheap area for housing called St. Paul’s. My mother’s dad moved in from the countryside looking for work. It was like a white ghetto back then. After the second World War we were recruiting in Jamaica and Africa and India because we needed labor. We lost so many people in the second World War. We needed people to work in the factories. When the Jamaican lads came to Bristol, my granddad went out and shook their hands because they had on polished shoes and had suits on. He thought they were gentlemen, and he really got on with them.
From an early age, I was going to Jamaican dances. Funk was my first love, but in Bristol the Jamaican community was the place to go late at night. Later on, I started following sound systems. I’m a bass head, you know. I’m really interested in bass. I kept on thinking how can I crush these really heavy dub noises and some of these explosive noises and scratches I heard in the early days of hip-hop? How can I bring that into my palette? That’s the beginning of Cowardice. It was the beginning of what people later ran off with. People created whole genres out of one track.
Does the Wes Brooks (“Don’t You Ever Lay Down Your Arms”) cover on the album represent the sorts of reggae records making it to Bristol and London?
Yes. We called it roots reggae or sufferers. I still am into it. I end up singing along with it, and I push my own words into their melody. That’s how “Beyond Good and Evil” came about. Reggae gets me singing along. Not in a patois sense. I feel it. I don’t know why, but I feel that shit. Not in a white reggae / UB40 kind of way. I’m not sitting here with dreadlocks. You are, obviously. You’re the only dread in Georgia.
You call back to The Last Poets’ Pop Group collaboration in “Blessed Are Those Who Struggle.” Could you talk about that a bit? What was your relationship like with those guys?
Basically, Jalal, who died last year… Jalal Nuriddin became quite a good friend. He ended up doing something on On-U.
As teenagers, we were crate-diggers. We’d go into these crazy secondhand record and book shops on the way home from school. Somebody said here’s John Coltrane, and from John Coltrane we found Albert Ayler. We were feeding off the energy of dada, futurism… The weirder the shit, the more we were into it. The craziest album I ever found was one called None Shall Escape by the Caribbean Situationists, which was completely out there. Now I’m getting into Turkish prog stuff.
But The Last Poets, The Watts Prophets and the reggae poets, Michael Smith and Linton Kwesi Johnson who is a friend of mine, really helped me get an idea of how to get big, longer words into pop songs. I was trying to talk about stuff that didn’t normally fit into the “baby, I love your car” song kind of idea.
I also loved what they called toasters. The Jamaican DJ toasters like Big Youth, I Roy, U Roy… That’s how I found Adrian. He was working with Prince Hammer. You know, the guys who toasted on the microphone who were the roots of rapping.
Then my mates in Bristol started Massive Attack. We all came from the same sort of scene. Banksy’s from our gang. In Bristol, there was a group of us who dressed up in 1950s clothes and went to reggae dances and funk dances. Then when we saw pictures of the Sex Pistols, we thought, “They’re wearing similar clothes to what we’re wearing.” All of the bands we saw before had long hair and beards. Sorry if you’ve got long hair and a beard. There goes another star. One and a half star! You’re sitting there like Duane Allman, right?
Now people can get on YouTube and fall down a rabbit hole, going from The Clash to The Slits and Mikey Dread and The Pop Group and then talk about these new discoveries on Facebook or Twitter.
It gives you a sense of community. When times are rough and the politics in your own country are not what you’d want maybe, knowing there’s cool people in Amsterdam makes you realize you’re not on your own. That’s what music really helps with. I remember playing a Maffia gig somewhere in Dallas or Houston. I was outside. I was smoking at the time, and I went outside to have a cigarette. Some kid came up to me and said, “Mark, listening to your music makes me realize I’m not the only freak in the town. It makes me realize there’s other people out there questioning things. Maybe I don’t agree with them, but they’re into weird shit and see the world in different ways.” He gave me a cassette, and on the cassette was written “Pretty Hate Machine” in felt-tip pin. A year later, I realized it was Trent Reznor.
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