Whether by design or pure coincidence, 2016 is turning out to be the perfect year for The Pop Group to step back into the public eye. The Bristol band formed in 1977 in the wake of punk rock. Then teenagers Mark Stewart (lyrics, vocals), John Waddington (guitar), Gareth Sager (guitar/saxophone), Simon Underwood (bass), and Bruce Smith (drums, percussion) were inspired by punk, but thought it was too conservative. So they added elements of dub, funk, dance music, free jazz, and the avant-garde into the mix. They released their debut single, “She Is Beyond Good and Evil,” and their debut album, Y, in 1979 to critical acclaim. Although not exactly commercially successful, they made enough noise to be signed to Rough Trade. During that time bassist Dan Catsis replaced Underwood, and they followed up Y with another single, “We Are All Prostitutes” and a full-length, For How Much Longer Will We Tolerate Mass Murder?. They released a final single, a split 7-inch with The Slits, before breaking up in 1981. The members went on to join and/or collaborate with other bands including Maximum Joy, The Slits, and Rip Rig + Panic.
But unless you’ve haven’t been paying attention to trends, you’ll know how that story ends. Like many bands that didn’t quite break through initially, The Pop Group’s reputation only increased during the years of their absence. In 2007, Rhino reissued Y, and in 2010 Catsis, Sager, Stewart, and Smith reformed The Pop Group, first re-releasing the We Are Time compilation and then putting out the odds and ends compilation Cabinet of Curiosities in 2014. In celebration of that release, the band returned to the concert stage for a seven-date jaunt. The next year they put the exclamation mark on their reunion by releasing Citizen Zombie, their first studio album in 35 years. With the band solidly reunited, there was only one piece missing from their catalog: their second record. This new edition of For How Much Longer Will We Tolerate Mass Murder? (Freaks R Us) is slightly different, though, as they removed the track they did with The Last Poets, “One Out of Many,” and replaced it with the non-album single, “We Are All Prostitutes.”
If you know absolutely nothing about The Pop Group, a title like For How Much Longer Will We Tolerate Mass Murder? tells you exactly what you’re getting. Moreover, song titles like “Forces of Oppression,” “Rob a Bank,” and “There Are No Spectators” further hammer the agenda home. Obviously, subtlety was never on the band’s to-do list. On “How Much Longer,” Stewart declares, “Nixon and Kissinger should be tried for war crimes for the secret bombing of Cambodia,” and on “Feed the Hungry,” he lets loose with, “10,000 men, women, and children die of starvation every day. The major cause of famine and poverty is organized human greed.” As the internet would say, they have no chill.
The music matches the frantic urgency of the lyrics. As restrained as a punch in the face, there is a steady dub-like presence from the rhythm section that lets the rest of the band fly off on tangents. At its core, The Pop Group think of themselves as a sort of funk band so it makes sense. And if you just listen to the grooves you might be convinced. However, with Stewart’s vocals front and center and a little bit above the mix, you’ll never entirely lose yourself to dance. Plus, there are a number of moments when the relative peace is broken up by the forceful injection of a saxophone squall, a guitar on the verge of a nervous breakdown or a ghostly violin. But For How Much Longer doesn’t rely on brute force to get its point across. The band is just as comfortable with letting off the gas and slowing down to let the dub rise to the forefront on songs like the aforementioned “There Are No Spectators.” But less you think them soft they follow it up with a manic free jazz instrumental, “Communicate.”
As a time capsule, you could do a lot worse than For How Much Longer as lyrically and sonically it feels very much of the time in which it was created. Yet content-wise everything feels shockingly current. Some names may need to be changed, but for the most part it’s still distressingly relevant. It feels like less of a case of the world catching up to The Pop Group and than simply the fact that some things just don’t change. So for yesterday, today, and tomorrow For How Much Longer Will We Tolerate Mass Murder? is a vital record to have.