Wednesday 29 October 2014

The Pop Group and Goodbye Leopold at Islington Assembly Hall - 26 October 2014

The Pop Group - pic Martyn Boston

I’m standing amongst a crowd of similarly mature and dark-clad individuals at Islington Assembly Hall. It takes a lot to get me into London on a Sunday night, but I wouldn’t have missed this for the world.

Starting proceedings, three extravagantly garbed women line up across the stage. They are sheathed in splendiferously vibrant and exquisite leotards, adorned with long tassels that hang from their arms. They look like three rare and exotic butterflies. Somewhere, David Attenborough stirs with excitement.

This is Goodbye Leopold. They sing majestically acapella, a plaintive chorus of interweaving harmonies. The room falls silent.

The sound swells. It is never entirely clear what they are singing about, and a quick bit of research afterwards reveals that the band have a penchant for singing backwards, which may explain it. Nevertheless, Goodbye Leopold lift us up to a higher frame of mind.

Tonight is a benefit for Campaign Against Arms Trade. A banner hangs across the stage, there are guest speakers and stalls in the lobby. It’s like the agit-prop days of the late Seventies.

I’m here to see The Pop Group, a band utterly unique in the annals of British music.

I’ve long been a devotee of frontman Mark Stewart, both in his solo career and his work with The Maffia, but this is the first time I have experienced him with the band with whom he first started out.

Mick Jagger swaggers, Michael Jackson used to moonwalk. Mark Stewart lumbers. A huge mountain of a man, he prowls around the stage continuously, a towel around his neck. He looks more like a bemused heavyweight boxer than a singer.

The Pop Group were/are the most uncompromising and didactic of bands that allied with the Hard Left. Their songs rail against injustice, greed and corporate evil, their concerts were rallies to the cause.

But above all, they were funky. You got a hefty dose of politics, but you danced your ass off.

The band start with ‘We Are Time’, Stewart’s voice a wild electronic scream of rage and distortion. Around him, the rest of the band - Gareth Sager, Bruce Smith, Dan Catsis – lay down an irresistible rhythm that veers between funk, soul and dub.

The power that comes off the stage would light most of Islington. ‘Thief of Fire’ follows, another howl of pain and anger. The crowd are dancing so hard that you can feel the wooden floor heave beneath you like the deck of a ship.

The band are promoting a compilation album called ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’, a collection of rarities that are obscure even by the standards of this band. A track called ‘Genius or Lunatic’ is introduced with the statement that it was first performed at Westbury-on Trym Youth Club. I'll bet they never knew what hit them.

‘Amnesty Report III’ is a song based on an report of police brutality against Irish prisoners. The Pop Group were angry then and remain so now.

‘Where There’s a Will’ is probably the single best live moment that I’ve had at a gig this year. This music bypasses your brain and simply jerks your body about.

There’s a certain amusement to be had from a roomful of people chanting along to songs with titles like ‘She Is Beyond Good and Evil’ and ‘We Are All Prostitutes’. The Pop Group are a throwback from the days when music culture and politics were expressly linked. We sang the songs, we went on the marches, we supported the causes. Compare that to the wishy-washy stance of the majority of acts today.

Tonight is a thumping, pumping, propulsive triumph. Mark Stewart and co finish and stand exhausted. We cheer them to the echo.

Then we filter away to man the barricades…

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