Written by: Dave Cantrell
One of the advantages – one might even say blessings – of living without the internet ‘back in the day’ was not having all things great and small, shocking or trivial, subjected to the merciless process of absorption. To the extent that democratization was the internet’s grand promise, it appears that after twenty+ years the only proof of that utopian premise is the broadly held understanding that everything, no matter its impact or resonant importance, will be equally lost to the blurry indistinction of whether or not it’s been heard or ignored. After a day or two, week at the most, it’s all essentially the latter, slipping into an increasingly fallow field of the amorphous ‘back then.’ History has never been more quickly made nor as quickly lost. This, when combined with perhaps the chief disadvantage of our wonderfully sprawling status quo – that virtually nothing escapes our collective notice once it’s posted somewhere online, that whatever morsel of newsworthy nutrition will eventually be fed us by one of our many feeds, leaving us in a perpetual state of jaded cognition, our curiosity slaked before it’s even aroused – means it’s dramatically seldom (unless it’s a disaster or the sudden death of someone major) that anything from any source or direction startles us awake. Paradoxically, despite the internet’s allure, that built-in pizzazz factor of constantly having our screen-addicted attention, anyone standing at an objective distance cannot help but come to the dim, unavoidable view that the level of intellectual potential being squandered borders on the gross. It’s a conclusion that can point towards a depressingly stultifying world indeed. We have, in a very unreal real sense, heard it all. Which is why, if I may be so bold to suggest, the reissue of the Pop Group’s seminal ‘lost’ album For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder? is all the more urgently germane. The very trenchant nature of the record lends its release the status of a towering cultural event whether that culture’s aware of – or comfortable with – that or not, and the fact its juddering, unwavering confrontational stance still casts its shadow with as much dark relevance as it did in the disastrous dawn of the Thatcher-Reagan cross-Atlantic clown show only doubles down on the legitimacy of those claims. Now, as then, the need for a document of this unflinching power is acute.
Besides being beside the point (and just to get this out of the way), For How Much Longer‘s reputation for being a ‘difficult’ listen is also misplaced. True, Mark Stewart gives no quarter in the feral exercise of his vocal cords – he could in some ways be held up as post-punk’s Captain Beefheart, many times ululating with such ferocity he seems essentially a large, imposing larynx with legs – and the scattershot angularity of the noise over which it presides is often sharp enough to draw blood but as it’s serrated, take-no-prisoners James Blood Ulmer-battles-James White funk that’s being dissected here it can prove rather hard to resist. Which leaves us with the primary critical jibe at the time (1980), its supposed hectoring, lecturing tone, to which, in retrospect, it does seem difficult to not counter with “Well, duh. Imagine that, an agit-pop record speaking with a sometimes (OK, most of the time) indelicate directness to the matters of current political urgency. Shocking.” Yes, Tolerate is strident, rather unsparingly so. So fucking what? Look, a couple quick points. This record arrived on the heels of single “We Are All Prostitutes” (now added here), which, containing such unmistakably declarative lines like ‘capitalism is our most barbaric religion,’ wasn’t exactly artistically obtuse and yet was met with widespread adulation, storming the UK indie charts etc, so the mood and its presentation on the ensuing LP should hardly have surprised. And in any case, it needs to be remembered that this is music designed to discomfit, to jolt folks from their stupor, to get them riled up and get them moving until they find themselves agitating at the barricades. That is, after all, agit-pop’s job and no one plied it with more on-the-nose in-your-face acuity than the Pop Group.
So, y’know, I don’t want to go too deep into it, this is a music review not a poli-sci lesson, but as Stewart has said regarding Tolerate, context is crucial, and if you want to track back the trail that led to our current precipitous rise of the 1% and the concomitant dismantling of the middle classes in both Britain and the US, you end up at the ascension of Mag-the-Hag Thatcher to the prime ministership of the UK in 1979 and Reagan’s landslide electoral victory in November 1980. Yes it’s all a bit more complex and multi-dimensional than that but the evil seeds indeed lie there, with the glimmers of union-busting, deregulation, privatization, and rampant crony capitalism gleaming in both leaders’ eyes. They dressed it all up in their respective symbols of patriotism, of course, propagandizing with such vigor along the way, distracting with the menacing threats of ‘other’ – immigrants, welfare queens, crackheads, there was always some bogeyman lurking around the next corner – and with petty shows of rank militarism – the Falklands, Grenada – that they ultimately managed the most remarkable political sleight of hand, inveigling their citizens to vote against their own economic interests time and again (unless those citizens were wealthy in which case there was no mis-persuasion necessary), convincing them that they too can one day be as rich as the Ewings and see themselves on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. And the remarkable thing? This was all done out in the open. It didn’t take a degree from Wharton or Oxford to understand what was happening and that’s the reality For How Long Do We Tolerate Mass Murder? was meaning to stare down with unstinting conviction. That’s our context here. Surely to embroider the message in too much market-slaking artifice would be to betray it, but fortunately that isn’t a problem, as the the band not only hold up their end of the bargain musically, they blow it up into a million brilliant pieces.
From the squalling, fascist-shaming “Forces of Oppression,” brutally busy chasing, then devouring, its own funk tail, through to the twisted child’s-play romp of “Rob A Bank” with its trumpety flourishes and startling go dark ending – not sure any album then or since has finished with quite that dash of sudden finality – the trenchant meter is peaking in the red. Dan Catsis’s astonishing bass work eviscerates on a regular basis, the guitar as manipulated by Gareth Sager grinds out chopped-up, unraveling rhythms and leads like he’s Andy Gill’s tempestuous, unhinged doppelganger, Bruce Smith wields the drum kit as if it’s some sort of percussive weaponry, holding the chaos together with a miracle of muscle and nuclear fusion, Stewart yawping, growling, venting, rampaging, whatever it takes to make himself not just heard but heard, the words, with rare exception, fully articulated. Ultimately, one realizes that while, yes, this is protest music, it’s also, due its uncorked emotive nature, a type of soul music for the pissed-off and dispossessed, which, when you think about it, is just about all of us at this point. But above all it’s simply a marvel of disjointed unity.
“Feed the Hungry” is, rather ironically, phat down to its marrow, “Blind Faith”‘s dual-channeled guitar freakouts tear themselves up in irresistible shreds, “There Are No Spectators” strips the dubplate down to its shardiest basics and attaches them to a no-wave template, while “Communicate,” thanks in no small part to the screaming simian skronk of Sager’s sax, is both the album’s most impenetrable track and possibly its most breathtaking, jazz drinking nightmare funk kool-aid and the band entire bashing its way into an agony of ecstasy that encapsulates everything the Pop Group were/are about. I don’t know of any instance in any canon that more gloriously fuses an artist or band to its moment. It’s noisy, it’s slightly unkempt, it’s gorgeous and powerful, unrelenting and inspired, as fist-clenchingly tight as it is bone-jarringly loose and yes by now I might as well be talking about the album itself. Funky and beautiful and challenging at every turn, For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder? will, without apology, knock the apathy right out of you. Taken as a whole, the album has a quasar quality, almost too intensely compressed to bear while simultaneously shooting outward with a wildly generous expansiveness. It exemplifies post-punk inside its every precisely flailing groove, and I don’t believe it’s overstating things to consider it that movement’s big-bang moment.