The time has come for me to make good on my promise to post something session-wise on the anniversary of John’s death in Peru. it is remarkable, if one takes the time to consider it, how much recorded evidence of his contribution to music has surfaced in the last few years, and how much is still coming out. Proof then that fidelity to his cause has not died: at least not outside the BBC, who initially organised two Festive Fifties, a host of documentaries and a few John Peel Days but who seem to have lost interest subsequently.
Well, John, some of us are still definitely in your corner, and my contribution comes from post-punk reconstructionists the Pop Group. Thier sound is still to my ears remarkably contemporary, betraying little of the slam-bang of that era, and they paved the way for sessions by a host of 1980s pretenders attempting to marry the new wave with splashes of jazz and later dub reggae and funk in the same way that the Slits did (and in fact at one point they shared the same drummer and managers, and released a collaborative single with them). Since they came from Bristol, they are usually stated to be precursors of groups such as Massive Attack and Portishead, but listening to this remarkable session (the only one they did for Peel) no such affinity is evident. They did not, however, impress Bill Aitken, the engineer at the time, who writes on his site Starry Eyed And Laughing about the recording:
The Pop Group were the most obnoxious bunch of prats I ever had the misfortune to record. Their instruments sounded bad, they couldn’t play in tune or in time, their act (I refuse to use the word songs) was crap, and like many acts of the punk / new wave era, they were arrogant beyond belief.
I remember working hard to get the backing tracks to sound respectable – and when the band came in for a playback the reaction was to inform me by means of a high volume harangue that “You make a shit sound!”
The drummer then went on to insist that I make him sound “like David Bowie’s drummer”. I didn’t even bother debating the issue with them. Because they were so bad, they overran the double session. We only just got the backing tracks down by the early hours of the morning, and had to arrange another session for remix. I was pleased, because I was dreading the mix, and hoped that they would not have the time to turn up for the second session.
On the remix session, just as I was about to lay down the first track on 1/4″, the band turned up. They asked if they could hear the track before I laid it. The reaction was predictable (“the sound is a load of shit!…. etc). Anyway, as I played the track through again, trying to decode from the bullshit around me anything valid that might help get the recording more to their liking, the vocalist leaned over, pulled up the “lead vocal” fader to levels that were technically overloaded and artistically crass and said – “I want more vocal”.
For a joke, I grabbed the fader and said “oh … you mean like this!” – and I proceeded to wank the fader up and down furiously in time with the music. I fully expected to savour the satisfaction of insulting them all, but to my amazement, the reaction was “hey …. that’s great!!!!”
Stung into action, I compounded the lunacy of the situation, and so I started doing the same alternately with the bass and drums and – not content with screwing around with the levels – I started to put the most ridiculous eq on everything, and to feed-back the delay lines and reverbs to each other – almost to the point of oscillation.
Looking back, I suppose the band had a point. If I hadn’t done something ridiculous to distract the listener, the Great British public would have been that much more aware that what they were witnessing really was a load of crap.
Anyway, to add insult to injury, the following week the Melody Maker referred to the “amazing John Peel tapes” in reviewing the Pop Group – and I was told that on the strength of my tapes, the band had managed to get themselves on the Patti Smith tour. This was the only time I remember a BBC session getting a positive review in a music mag! What a travesty! It was about this time that I started thinking about making a move to earn a living outside studios.
The whole punk thing was a joke for me, and I became very disillusioned with some of my colleagues at Radio 1, who seemed to be succumbing to the “king’s new suit of clothes” syndrome. I think the passing of time has sorted out the wheat from the chaff. Who remembers the Pop Group? For that matter who remembers Patti Smith?
They split in 1981, with vocalist Mark Stewart moving on to work with On-U Sound, and early member Simon Underwood taking his bass guitar into Pigbag: however, a reunion was announced this year. Festive Fifty entries? Nah. A bunch of poseurs pulling a confidence trick on Rough Trade? You make up your own mind. Influential? Beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Pop Group, Peel Session 1978-07-03
Kiss The Book / We Are Time / Words Disobey Me