An intriguing bridge between the worlds of post-punk and the electronic music.
When the Pop Group formed in the wake of the first crashing waves of punk in 1977, they bore only the genre’s DIY aesthetic and penchant for agit-prop lyrics. In sound, they relied on a heady mix of funk, free jazz, reggae/dub and noise, all of which would become hallmarks of the so-called post-punk movement. The band’s founder and head visionary, Mark Stewart, saw no reason to restrict his band’s musical approach to the increasingly rigid framework of three-chord punk rock songs. Instead, he adopted the role of musical polyglot, absorbing as many styles and influences as possible, something that went along nicely with his similar approach to academia and politics.
This combination resulted in one of the more cerebral, politically-informed bands under the post-punk banner. It was a decidedly non-commercial sound and approach – something made clear in the band’s ironic moniker – yet nonetheless proved quite influential within the increasingly creative world of post-punk and the myriad genres it would spawn thanks to its open-minded, unrestricted approach to music in all its forms. As with many groups of that era, however, the Pop Group would not last into the 1980s, breaking up at the start of the decade.
Stewart and former Pop Group guitarist John Waddington popped up later that year on the Adrian Sherwood-helmed New Age Steppers, along with a multitude of other post-punk luminaries to explore a more dub-oriented sound. It clearly made an impact on Stewart as the bulk of his solo debut, Learning to Cope with Cowardice, would follow a similar path. Where his work with the Pop Group relied heavily on angular post-punk rhythms rooted in a sort of mutant funk, Stewart’s first foray into solo territory was something far more fluid, employing elements of dub and primitive hip-hop rhythms to create something equally as avant garde as anything he managed with his former group.
The opening title track quickly sets the tone, unfurling a series of disorienting, swirling sounds that leave the listener with the same woozy feeling found in the most effective dub records. From there, Stewart never once lets up, taking things further out on both “Liberty City” and the proto-hip-hop/industrial dub pastiche “Blessed are Those Who Struggle.” The latter, with its wobbly, cheap keyboards and robotic drumming is about as far out as one can get sonically while still retaining a discernible groove that elicits the requisite head-bobbing integral to the best club tracks.
Each track sprawls well past the five-minute mark, allowing ample room for Stewart to spread out and get the most out of his many musical ideas. The agit-prop of the Pop Group remains fully in effect on Learning as well, with song titles like “None Dare Call it Conspiracy,” “The Paranoia of Power” and “Don’t You Ever Lay Down Your Arms.” And while the lyrics within each are often few and far between if not stretched beyond their breaking points, the sentiments are nonetheless well conveyed within the confrontational nature of the music itself. Closing track “Jerusalem,” often regarded as the unofficial anthem of Great Britain, is a calculated move that draws heavily on agit-prop tropes.
With this reissue, the original album is augmented with the so-called “Lost Tapes.” These recordings show Stewart’s creative process as it moves from the embryonic to the finished product that would become Learning to Cope with Cowardice. Each track is spare and lo-fi, yet no less effective in its dubby sense of wooziness. “Paranoia” in particular is as close to straight-ahead dub as Stewart gets anywhere within these sessions, complete with call-and-response female vocals. “Liberty Dub” takes the “Liberty City” track and stretches it like musical taffy on a hot summer’s day to create something almost lysergic in nature – yet another hallmark of an effective dub track.
In all, Learning to Cope with Cowardice / The Lost Tapes is an intriguing bridge between the worlds of post-punk and the electronic music that would increasingly take over both the underground and mainstream in the coming decades. In this, Stewart’s work sounds as fresh and culturally relevant today as it must’ve sounded futuristic and utterly alien when originally released.