Nothing sounded like Y in 1979
After a 40-year span in which bands as bizarre as Ween, Primus and Nine Inch Nails escaped the underground and earned mainstream credibility, The Pop Group’s debut album, Y, still sounds as challenging—and influential—as ever.
The April 20, 1979 release took the punk rock decree to learn three chords from Sniffin’ Glue fanzine well beyond sped-up, three-minute pop songs and political posturing. Singer Mark Stewart, guitarist John Waddington, bassist Simon Underwood, drummer Bruce Smith and guitarist, saxophonist and pianist Gareth Sager applied the D.I.Y. ethos to songs grounded in jazz, funk and the most militant and obscure reggae sides. The result is less accessible than Joy Division and less historically obvious than Public Image, Ltd. (PiL) or The Raincoats. Still, The Pop Group deserves ample credit for expanding punk’s once-narrow horizons by the dawn of the ‘80s.
The specter of image consciousness—a human being problem more so than a punk rocker problem—flew out the window when the band joined forces with producer Dennis “Blackbeard” Bovell—a member of the British reggae band Matumbi and producer of sister band The Slits’ own obliteration of the Rasta-inspired punk rock rulebook, Cut.
The album’s best-known track, “We are Time,” brings over six minutes of freeform funk with a revolutionary message more akin to such hard-liners as Gil-Scott Heron than any political punk forerunners. To be fair, these “less angry than thou” bands taught The Pop Group an important lesson, later summed up in PiL’S 1986 single “Rise”: “Anger is an energy.”
That challenging piece of music is as “pop” as The Pop Group gets on Y. The jazz-funk unease gets cranked up on “Thief of Fire,” “Words Disobey Me,” “Don’t Call Me Pain,” “Don’t Sell Your Dreams” and “The Boys from Brazil.” The gorgeous piano accompaniment at the heart of “Snowgirl” and “Savage Sea” makes the band’s cacophony of sounds even more chilling. Rounding out the track list, the band’s most bonkers song of them all, “Blood Money,” bests forerunners The Clash’s attempts at creating the musical equivalent of a justified riot.
The Bristol-based group went on to inspire not just the before-mentioned weirdos, but also hometown friends Massive Attack and even Banksy. Because of its understated yet undeniable influence, the album sounds almost normal because of 40 years of retrospect. Imagine going from Cliff Richard and even the Sex Pistols to that in 1979 with minimal to no warning. Younger fans, and older folks just now discovering the more challenging products of punk rock, enjoy the luxury of knowing to place bands like The Pop Group in a post-punk box while exploring their musical eccentricity and lyrical depth.
Yet just like any other influential and classic album, Y maintains much of its sting while existing in 2019 as less of an oddity from the tail end of UK punk’s commercial heyday and as more of a tipping point in the modern history of angry rock music, Anglicized reggae and politically-charged personal expression.