History is important, people are important and individuals are important. When people pass, we have moments of instant memorialisation, the obituaries are written, and then often we forget, or the memory of that person passes into the background as the noise and bustle of life continues. We can forget the impact, the power, the energy and the force that people can wield with their creative endeavours. Mark Stewart is someone we must never forget, but also one whose impact and legacy are all around us, especially the musicians, the wider community of music goers and listeners, the radicals and the citizens who are wanting to break out of what Stewart called the ‘zombification’ of society.
For Bristol and for the world he was a creative who tied together such brilliantly disparate strands that, when put together by him and the musicians, artists and thinkers he worked with, made total brilliant sense in a vociferous way when he unveiled the projects he was a part of. In the time of punk, as he was going to London to hang out with and see the key bands like the Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Adverts, Jayne County, The Damned and many others of that period, he formed a group that was totally punk. It said ‘fuck the idea of the hegemony of punk’ we will do our thing! Raw, real, challenging and full of anger and political provocation the Pop Group were born. Funk, punk, jazz, dub, avant-garde inspiration, music that made you listen, think and dance. WE ARE ALL PROSTITUTES, their second single released on the 9th November 1979, was an incredible statement of intent welding jazz, funk and punk together with political critique. Stewart joined the dots of the often disparate and warring factions of radical culture and Bristol was a perfect location for his work. It had a relatively small geographical area, a population of 500,000 and a music and radical community that moved in the same spaces. Much has been made of the Dug Out Club and its importance in fermenting the Bristol music scene. Everyone who was in Bristol at that time, up until its closure in 1986, knew the importance of the Club. But it wasn’t the only place and the histories so far haven’t mentioned the other pubs and party locations that brought a diverse community together to share ideas, culture and different backgrounds: The Dug Out, along with The Montpelier Hotel, The Old England, The Crown, The Kensington, The Alma Tavern, The Lansdown, The Inkerman, Jamaica Good food, Ajax, the St Pauls Carnival, Ashton Court Free Festival, house parties in Aberdeen Road or Bath Buildings or Denbigh Street amongst others, provided a patchwork of connecting places all over the city where class and ethnicity were not that important but music, culture and a radical spirit were all. Mark inhabited this space. His music and attitude and ideas were a cross pollination of all these things. Inspired by Punk, Funk, Soul Music, Dub and Jazz he pulled together an incredible visceral sound described by many as a full-frontal assault that you could dance to, that made you think, that confronted you and challenged your thinking about music, politics and ideas.
The titles and lyrics of his work get you thinking and processing ideas immediately, e.g. 1985’s ‘As the veneer of democracy starts to fade’ album contains the track ‘Passcivecation Program’ (sic) with the lines: ‘Operation Passcivecation (sic), We call for retribution, A battle for the hearts and minds, A battle for the hearts and minds, They got Stelazine, Thorazine, and Largactil, Suppressed yourself with a new mental health pill’. From the single ‘We are All Prostitutes,’ Mark penned the lines; ‘Our children shall rise up against us because we are the ones to blame. We are the ones to blame, they will give us a new name. We shall be: Hypocrites hypocrites hypocrites’. The track ‘Dream Kitchen’ from 1996’s ‘Control Data’ album tells us that: ‘You love objects because objects love you, Are you happy now in your dream kitchen, it was all you ever wanted, your ideal home!’. ‘Citizen Zombie’ was the title for one of the reformed Pop Group albums in 2015, continuing the theme of capitalist critique.
Mark was political and he stated that everything we do is political. In an interview with Radio Maps in Bologna, Italy in 2011, Mark recounted that a trip there in the late 1970s with The Pop Group and The Slits had radicalised him. Seeing the work of Autonomia and Radio Free Alice and realising that the working class in Italy were engaging with theory and ideas and doing amazing work inspired him to do the same. He drew so many different ideas and people together and worked with many of the figures whose music and ideas he loved. When you look at the list of people who he collaborated with and who he brought to people’s attention, it reads like a treasure trove of radicalism and empowering music: The Sugarhill Gang band became his second Maffia group, before that for the ‘Learning to Cope With Cowardice’ album he had a formidable group of reggae artists that were cohering around Adrian Sherwood’s On-U-sound label: Jah Wobble, Keith Levine, Youth, Dennis Bovell, Bobbie Gillespie, Meat Beat Manifesto, Rupert Goldsworthy, John Sinclair, David Tibet, Penny Rimbaud, Eve Libertine, Kenneth Anger, Lee Scratch Perry, Richard Hell, Gina Birch, Thurston Moore, Jeffrey Lee Pierce, Andrew Weatherall, Consolidated, Adi Newton, Sun Ra, Howie B, Daddy G, Robert Del Naja, Terry Hall, Trent Reznor, Chicks on Speed, Adult and there are many more. Ideas and theories were always a part of his work, when we look at music often being a gateway to ideas the ones that Mark referenced were pregnant with possibility: The Angry Brigade, King Mob, William Burroughs, The Red Brigades, Autonomia, Lindsey Anderson, William Blake, Austin Osman Spare, CND, Amnesty International, Allen Ginsberg, Bruce LaBruce, Antonio Negri, Julia Kristeva, Mark Fisher and many more. These are references that many different people have checked over the years, but the way Mark did this through his music and narrative was potent and challenging. Nick Cave stated that the reason The Birthday Party band members moved to London was that they were so inspired by The Pop Group and thought England must be full of this type of music. They found a very different England on arrival. But seeing The Pop Group was an experience that had a huge impact on the young Cave, he described them and the gig they played, in a tribute on his Red Hand files blog, in this way; ‘The Pop Group strode onto stage and ploughed into the opening song with such indomitable force and such sudden visceral rage that I could barely breathe. It was the most exciting and ferocious concert of my young life’.
Mark continued to challenge at every moment. He challenged the idea of musical form and genre, the idea that you couldn’t mix music, politics and philosophy, the idea that music was a form of consumerism and ultimately disposable. He continued to challenge us all to do better. Like anyone living through the late 20th and early 21st century he had his issues, his demons and his problems. He came from a middle-class background but knew the value and importance of class and especially the role and importance of the working class. He was proof of the importance of having ideas and acting on them in relation to your own class position, and knowing that they are the things that define us, not where we started life, we can change and embrace that change. He was always on the side of revolt and emancipation. He was called by many the Godfather of the Bristol sound, I don’t think that Bristol has a sound but it has got a critical imagination and an ability to join the seemingly disparate together and produce something magnificent. For one of his last works, the project ‘Obsolete Capitalism’ on the Italian Rizosfera label, he wrote an accompanying booklet to the record. These words are a great place to end this tribute and to inspire us to continue with the energy, thought, creativity, anger, biting critique and insight that Mark clearly had. Let’s keep Mark’s memory alive by continuing the work he was instrumental in beginning.
Defy The Herd
“The 85 richest people in the world own the same wealth as the 3.5 billion poorest people in the world. In these class war games, in the age of spectacular capitalism we must not become digital slaves. Technology can also be enabling said Mark Fischer. Lucid subversion is a mark of a man. Let us galvanise a generation to action. Groups can spring up around the world, equipped with a new vocabulary, a new set of ethics and a sense of mission creating jubilant manifestos against the dominating deadly forces. He helped us bring these disciplines into a brand new context, dreamers, gamers, hacktivists and other heretics become infectious to the hyetal hierarchies for the purpose of seeding a new mutation of radicalism, new iconoclasts who can seize the day. Mutual futures decided at the futurological congress’s and the skill share bazaars will become trans medial insubordinations. The tortures, beatings, random slayings, crimes of hate, rhetoric, politician’s, preachers of the perverted continue. This is not the middle ages, class war is now a scorched earth policy where they are raping the worlds resources at the feast of mammon and retreating to their castles leaving our lands barren, lest your children try to clutch at their horded spoils, when that dying howl of hunger blows down your door, lady spare a jewel, arise, arise the signs are flaming in the skies. A struggling world could yet be free and live anew.”
Mark Stewart and Obsolete Capitalism – Obsolete Capitalism IV – Gennaio 2020 • NURKFM009