Monday, April 24, 2023

Born On A Ray Of Sound: RIP Mark Stewart

 "To inspire somebody would be one of the best things we could possibly do."

That's Mark Stewart of The Pop Group, speaking to Paul Rambali of the New Musical Express back in 1978. Mark died last week. I was surprised to learn he was 62, a couple of years younger than me. I always just thought he'd be older.

As The Pop Group's wikipedia page puts it "Despite their lack of commercial success, their music inspired and influenced many bands and artists that followed them. They are cited as an influence by artists and bands like Minutemen, Primal Scream, Sonic Youth, Steve Albini of Big Black, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and Massive Attack." And the rest, eh?

In retrospect, I think it's possible to overstate The Pop Group's outsider status. I recently had cause to go through a stack of music papers from the late '70s and I was surprised at the sheer number of times the band's name appears, often prominently. They were cover-featured on the 30 September 1978 issue of NME, behind a gorgeous photo of Mark, looking like a male model or a matinee idol from the age of the Silver Screen. At that point they'd never made a record.

The uncanny ability to draw attention was theirs from the start and Mark's charismatic force was a major part of it. I was in the audience for The Pop Group's first gig. It was at a nightclub on Clifton Downs in Bristol called The Locarno, a sizeable venue for any band who'd never cut a record or played live, let alone one all of whose members were still at school. The place was packed. The Pop Group had a rep in their home town even before they showed up to earn it. Even their first gig was An Event.

As I remember it - and it has to be stressed my memory is fallible and I wasn't, sadly, in the habit of keeping a diary back then - there was no support band. Instead we were treated to a couple of hours of the band's own favorites and influences, an eclectic selection of unfamiliar and frequently uncomfortable slabs of jazz, funk, dub and if I'm not imagining it, musique concrete. I'm pretty sure there was some Pierre Henry in there, somewhere. I think that's how I came to own one of his albums.

It felt like a long two hours, although I had reasons not to want it shortened that had nothing to do with the music and upon which I don't care to elaborate. Eventually the band appeared. They looked uncanny and sounded... less alien than they would in a few months. Among a storming set of powerful originals they included rousing covers of Jonathan Richman's Roadrunner and - unbelievable as it sounds now - Marc Bolan's Solid Gold Easy Action.

A few weeks later my best friend Chris and I published a fanzine, which we called Mrs O'Reilly's Dog, because even then I was determined to make sure anything that had my name on was as obscure, inaccessible and uncommercial as possible. In that opening and, as it turned out, only issue, there was a review of the Pop Group's first gig written, I think, by Chris, in which the band were described as something along the lines.of "four midgets and a giant".

I can't recall the exact phrasing. I do have a copy I could refer to but it's in the loft and I'm too old to be climbing through that tiny hatch any more. Anyway, chances are the review wouldn't be there to check. Someone in The Pop Group or their management took offense, either to the way we'd characterized their physical appearance or the way we honed in on those cover versions, I can't remember which. 

Mark Stewart's height, sometimes given as six-foot seven, comes up frequently in pieces about the band. I doubt that was a problem but no-one likes to be called a short-ass - or a covers band. 

Chris agreed to remove the offending review from all the copies we had. He literally cut them out with scissors. We would have sold them with half a page missing, had anyone wanted to buy them, which fortunately for our nascent journalistic integrity, they did not.

How we dressed in 1978. If we were The Pop Group.
Possibly despite that incident or possibly because of it, relations between our band and The Pop Group flourished. We supported them twice at local gigs and I learned, too late, that we'd been invited to support them at a more prestigious London show.  Supposedly a couple of the group really liked us, while the rest very much did not. I was told which was which at the time but it's long lost knowledge now. It'd be nice to think Mark was one of the pair who thought we had something but I fear it wasn't him.

I retail this anecdote second-hand because I, personally, don't recall ever doing more than passing the time of day with any member of The Pop Group. All communication went through either Chris or his brother, Phil, our drummer and guitarist respectively. The first I ever heard of this supposed invite was when one of them told me they'd turned it down because London was too far to travel. If there's one thing I regret more about my time in the band than that we never made a record it's that I didn't involve myself more in the administration but what nineteen-year old wants to do that? It just seemed so much easier to let someone else do it.

All of this I told, years later in the mid-1990s, to an eager American guy who'd just started a website dedicated to The Pop Group. I'd found the site while trawling the web, something that seemed like an adventure in itself back then. Following my already-established pattern I left a long comment, which led to first to a correspondence, then to my sending him a copy of the controversial review, and finally to a personal visit from the website's creator, who came to the city where I live and stayed with us for a night.

Double page spread in Sounds, three months even before the NME cover.


All of these events framed and shaped my attitude to what information I was willing to reveal about myself across the internet for many years. I mean, it was exciting and all but when people come to your house it gets weird.

Backtracking, almost the last time I saw The Pop Group was around 1980 at the Corn Exchange in Cambridge, where I was at university, studying English. They were co-headling a bill with Linton Kwesi Johnson, the dub poet. Mark Perry's band, The Good Missionaries were supporting.

I dragged a bunch of college friends along to see them. Like most of the audience, they were mainly interested in LKJ. When it was announced, after the gig had begun, that he wouldn't be appearing after all, half the audience left. The Good Missionaries played their fairly uncompromising set, which shifted a few more people out into the street. Then The Pop Group came on to see if they couldn't get rid of the rest.

By then, they'd released what is still one of my favorite singles of all time, the incendiary She Is Beyond Good And Evil, as well as their now-legendary first album, the enigmatically-titled "Y" but most people left in the room hadn't come to hear any of that. The Pop Group didn't care. They played it all anyway, giving one of the most inacessible, challenging performances I've ever heard. There certainly weren't any crowd-pleasing covers this time. 

She Is Beyond Good And Evil - The Pop Group

By the end of the gig, the hall was more than three-quarters empty but most of the people who'd stayed were onstage with the band, having a great time. It was a rioutous, joyous, celebratory affirmation of acceptance of the other, a philosophy The Pop Group lived as well as preached. Until a year later, following the release of their second, even more uncompromising album, "For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder?", when the band split up. 

As Rolling Stone described it "The Group broke up in 1980, as Stewart’s interests drifted deeper into reggae and his bandmates wanted to explore free jazz.", stretching the old "musical differences" cliche to its absurdist limits. The various members dispersed, forming a number of more commercially successful outfits that included Pigbag, Maximum Joy, Rip, Rig and Panic as well as my own favorites, the before-their-time and decidedly not commercially successful Head

Mark Stewart wasn't in any of them. He moved smoothly into a successful solo career, rich in collaboration. He transferred his very considerable talents to Adrian Sherwood's On-U Sound collective, where he recorded and toured through the eighties alongside the likes of Tackhead, African Headcharge and the New Age Steppers

Hysteria - Mark Stewart and The Maffia

I saw him on stage again, for the final time, sometime in the mid-eighties, when he made a triumphal return to Bristol, playing in a kind of On-U Sound package tour with Tackhead and Gary Clail, among others. The entire event was top-class musical entertainment but even among that stellar line-up, Mark effortlessly prevailed. His overwhelming physical presence and the floor-shaking resonance of his voice made him a standout in any company.

According to all of the personal tributes from those who knew him, he was an affable, friendly kind of giant, immensely willing to help guide and mentor other musicians. He offered a wellspring of creativity and imagination and acted as an indefatigable campaigner for social justice as he conceived it - and he was a right good laugh, to boot. 

I know nothing of that. I just know he was a blindingly good performer who fronted a blindingly good band at a time when few either wanted or understood what he and they had to offer. It meant those of us who thought in the know were able to feel all clever about it.

Fortunately for Mark, there were some people out there who really did get it. Time proved him right and everyone else wrong. He found an audience who truly understood his message and in his wish to be an inspiration to others he absolutely succeeded.

He will be missed. He already is.


  1. When I read "Charlie Parker" I said "what?" But having heard She Is Beyond Good and Evil, yeah, I can actually hear some of the jazz in there. Damn, another influential musician gone. We're losing too many of them these days.

    1. That's the official, contempraneous video but I don't think it does the full sound of the recording justice. The seven-inch vinyl single on a half-decent system is bone-shaking whereas this sounds a bit skeletal by comparison. I'm not one to make claims for the "warmth" of vinyl but I do think those old-school, massive speaker stacks that used to accompany hifi systems make a difference.

    2. There's also something to be said about the design of the amps and speakers of those old systems. A lot of amp design these days is away from warmth and more toward, well, cold calculated precision. And the speakers emphasize clarity over warmth too. That does have an impact on the sound out of those old systems, as I've found when I've put speakers I've built into older systems I can hear the difference.


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