The banner above the stage at the Islington Assembly Hall on Sunday night read “ARMS DEALERS HERE TODAY — THIS IS NOT OK”. No surprise, then, that this was a show by the Pop Group. This is, after all, a band whose first single included the immortal line: “Western values mean nothing to her.” And in the 36 years since I first saw them at a small gig in Bristol, where they were formed, few of their principles — musical or political — have been compromised.
A good crowd showed up in NW1 for the last show of a short tour marking the latest stage of a reunion that began a couple of years ago. They were rewarded by a a set of edgy, driving, passionate songs that blended funk licks with punk attitude, as the Pop Group always did, and included such old favourites as “We Are Time” and “Where There’s a Will”. Mark Stewart bestrode the front of the stage, bellowing the lyrics in a tone at once irate and genial. Another original member, the drummer Bruce Smith, kept the grooves boiling in collaboration with Dan Catsis, who replaced Simon Underwood on bass-guitar in time for their second album in 1980. Gareth Sager scrubbed out rhythm licks — dovetailing with a new second guitarist, Alexi Shrimpton — and delivered the occasional howling solo.
The good news is that they’re actually better at it than they used to be back in the day, when I loved their attitude — a garage band meets George Clinton, Sun Ra, Sonny Sharrock and Augustus Pablo at a Socialist Workers Party rally — but had the odd reservation about their competence. No such problems on Sunday.
On the way out I bought Cabinet of Curiosities, a new compilation of rarities and unreleased stuff from their early days. Its highlights include an August 1978 John Peel session, a terrific live version of “Karen’s Car” (about the cover-up scandal surrounding the death of the US nuclear activist Karen Silkwood) from Helsinki in 1980, and an unreleased studio version of “She Is Beyond Good and Evil”, that great debut single. If the CD was a reminder of the youthful spirit of one of the most important British bands of the 1970s, the gig provided evidence of their continuing relevance.