Mark Stewart’s most significant contribution to rock music was as the vocalist for the Pop Group, arguably the most quintessential experimental rock band in history. Around this time, bands of comparable artistic importance based overseas were probably Pere Ubu and the Contortions. But I would argue that the Pop Group, led by Stewart, were creating a far more dazzling and daring primitive musical mega-fusion than their contemporaries.
Hailing from Bristol, the group were formed in 1977 and produced two seminal 45 rpm singles, She is Beyond Good and Evil and We Are All Prostitutes. The former emerged in the wake of the punk explosion in the UK but in reality both recordings were about as close to punk rock as Captain Beefheart was to the blues.
The combo recorded two brilliant albums. The best of these, and one of the greatest artistic achievements in rock music history, is the 1979 album Y, a genuinely revolutionary intense tour de force fusion of agit-prop punk, funk, jazz and dub syncopation.
Stewart’s subversive and anarchic singing style was the perfect vehicle for the nihilistic lyrics and slogans that hinted at an apocolyptic future. Each piece on Y embodies a ferocious synthesis of primitive rhythms and dissonances.
An underlying tension unfolds which is heightened by Stewart’s violent, anxious metaphysical screams and politically-charged lyrics while the music evokes a scary vision of a barbarous post-apocalyptic humanity.
Y is the punk generations equivalent of Soft Machine 3 that emerged from the Canterbury school a generation before.
The groups second masterpiece, For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder (Rough Trade, 1980) places a greater emphasis on the rhythmic and funk aspects of the music than its predecessor. The records heavy use of wind and percussion instruments gives more space for the anger, torrent of noise and anarchic verbosity in the songs to emerge and, in some cases, dominate.
The record utilizes a dogged rhythm accompanied by unhinged keyboards which is repeated from the beginning to the end. It is music made, as with Y, through syncope, screams and noises, and a collapsing sound wiped out by high-voltage discharge.
Within three years of the release of this masterpiece, the band had dissolved. Four new, separate, and important musical happenings spawned in its place – Rip Rig and Panic, Maximum Joy, Pig Bag, and Mark Stewart’s solo career.
Stewart went on to be a key part of the influential collective, Tackhead, who invented a unique and powerful style of rap, funk, dub and soul music and whose legacy can be found in the trip-hop genre of the nineties. Stewart also operated under the pseudonym, Maffia, continuing the programme launched with the Pop Group.
Stewart’s creative high points during this period included the albums, Learning To Cope With Cowardice (Rough Trade, 1983) which accentuated the experimentation and Friendly As A Hand Grenade (TVT, 1989), with a sound that often mimics the refined and explosive funky-soul of Was Not Was.
If the average tone is that of a hybrid between rap and soul, the most significant innovations are represented by the pressing and insane Demolition House and the brutality of Airborn Ranger, obtained by stratifying the electronics to obtain a symphonic effect and grafting heavy metal guitars on top.
Sadly, neither Stewart or the Pop Group after they reformed, were able to repeat the artistic highs of their past glories. Nevertheless, Stewart and the band that he led, made a significant mark within the cultural landscape of the UK.
More broadly, the significant contribution Stewart made to rock music history worldwide cannot be overstated. With For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder and particularly Y, Stewart helped pioneer a completely new militant musical language and he can be considered to be one of the main innovators of funk, trip-hop and dub music. His influence among successive generations of musicians will continue long after his passing.