Y remains a crucial album, a template in how to take a raft of influences linked by white-hot passion and make something that continues to sound challenging and new.
Forty years after its original release, the Pop Group’s Y remains a thoroughly arresting, at times incendiary listen. To celebrate this milestone, Mute Records has released a limited box set which includes the original album and accompanying single “She Is Beyond Good and Evil,” along with previously unheard albums Alien Blood and Y Live.
Most of editions of Y released post-1996 begin with single “She is Beyond Good and Evil” but this version restores the original running order, kicking things off with “Thief of Fire.” From the start, this song is an urgent, noisy polyrhythmic manifesto where snatches of found speech, Mark Stewart’s often garbled stream-of-consciousness lyrics, squalling saxophone and angular stabbing guitar chords make this a primer for the rest of the album. It’s in Y, perhaps more than any other album of the time, that these elements, drums that both hold rhythm while making room for stutters and interruptions, guitar wails and feedback, horns, plucked bass notes, coalesce in ways that moved the Pop Group way beyond the cluster of interesting and thoughtfully provocative groups exploring what remained after the first wave of punk had burnt out. Certainly there’s a lot here that was in the compositional air at that time, but few at the time were seeking to combine such disparate elements; one can detect traces of Captain Beefheart and Ornette Coleman, Pere Ubu, Funkadelic – it’s no surprise that Nick Cave once described the Pop Group as “unholy, manic, violent, paranoid and painful.”
Central to the depth and heaviness of Y is producer Dennis Bovell, whose own pedigree is nothing short of phenomenal. Born in Barbados but relocated to London while still a child, Bovell honed the bass-heavy sound of Y as a musician in the reggae band Matumbi and with his own soundsystem, Jah Sufferer. The leap from DJ and musician to producer, certainly in the British reggae scene, seems to be almost an inevitable one and, alongside work with the Pop Group – this his first non-reggae production credit – Bovell also produced albums by Orange Juice, The Slits and Thompson Twins.
Disc two contains the remaster of “She is Beyond Good and Evil” which lands in a roar of guitar noise and then undoes all the rockist expectations with a hollowed-out funk workout, all strummed guitars, reverbed noise and, over and through it all, Stewart’s anxious utterances: “My little girl was born on a ray of sound/ Sleeps on water, walks on ice,” the song’s title taking Nietzsche’s original phrase and making it resonate with the frustrated desires of those thwarted by capitalism. At times it’s almost like a regular pop song; a verse, a chorus, a refrain, but there are odd angles, sung phrases that stick and trip, huge blurs of reverb that mess with space and distance. The original single’s B-side, “3:38” is here too and Bovell’s dub expertise is given full rein with thudding drums, washes of cymbal, backmasked guitars, leaving behind a tumbling juggernaut that, far too quickly, is over.
However, it’s Alien Blood where things get really interesting, at least for those already familiar with the Pop Group, the album made of delicately remastered tracks from the original tapes of the studio sessions from which Y emerged. None of this material has been released before and it’s a revelation. Alien Blood shows that Y was the result of intense labor, the tracks being transformed from their embryonic states as captured here and made into something polished, if still brittle and angular. Yet what’s also shown here is that even their earlier drafts and sketches had a phenomenal power. “Thief of Fire (Bass Addict)” has the savagery of the version on Y and manages to be harder, Bovell pushing the bass and saxophone further forward, giving room in the song’s final third for a momentarily slightly gentler guitar sound. “Words Disobey Me – Dennis the Menace Mix” brings Stewart’s voice forward than in the Y version, playing with the spaces between the instruments, pushing everything further apart to give the song’s relentless rhythm a blasted hollowness over which Stewart’s “We don’t need words/ We don’t need words” rings and echoes. Alien Blood shows how much the band bought to the studio and, from there, how central Bovell was to the process.
Finally, Y Live demonstrates the band’s attempt to, as Stewart puts it, “paint the impossible” and realize the fury of these compositions on stage. The live disc is compiled of recordings from New York, London, Sheffield and Manchester and the track listing matches Y exactly, the better to show how the early drafts on Alien Blood were made fit for purpose and then torn open for audiences.
To support the release of this definitive edition, Stewart and multi-instrumentalist Gareth Sager have developed to “Salon Y,” a series of live events with Bovell providing live “dub destruction” and supported by Eric Random, another vitally important figure in the British mutant-post-punk landscape. Distanced fans can only sit morosely and wonder at such opportunities, taking solace in how crisp the remastered tracks sound and how, after 40 years, Y remains a crucial album, a template in how to take a raft of influences linked by white-hot passion and make something that continues to sound challenging and new.