Y in Dub by The Pop Group

Release date: October 29, 2021
Label: Mute

Here’s a record with a fistful of questions. Jumping from “Is this really necessary?” to “What on earth took them so long?” The Pop Group‘s incendiary gift to the world, Y, celebrated its 40th birthday a couple of years ago with the familiar parade of reissues, bonus discs and accompanying hoo-hah such things now entail. Somehow this unbelievably perfect idea almost missed the party, turning up late to the celebratory Salon Y event when the album’s venerable producer Dennis Bovell performed amazing live dubs of their debut single, ‘She Is Beyond Good and Evil’ rocking people back on their heels and causing the stuck penny to drop…

Then again, for an idea whose time was nearly 40 years ago, you might wonder if it had any real power left in it. I think you know that it does. The brilliance of Bovell’s dub version is that he doesn’t look to radically reinvent or update Y, he just re-engages with it, underscoring its volatile potential. If the original’s strangeness has eased through familiarity and its far reaching influence, it still remains inhospitable and challenging, a thrillingly disorienting listen. Key to that is the sense that everything is in flux, elements might loom forward or disappear, collide and explode. You could argue Y is already a dub album, dub is certainly a strong element of what makes it special. Revisiting it now Bovell shakes up some of its ideas a touch rougher, stepping through some of those doors it kicked open, shaping a shadow, a twin, a different life for it.

As you’d expect there’s more bass, more space, and more effects on the vocals but the songs stay true to themselves, nothing gets spun out into a 10 minute odyssey. The tracks are about the same length but stretch into a wider space, instrumental fragments swirling around the dark matter at its centre. ‘Blood Money’s tape warp drums get slower and weirder, ‘Savage Sea’ becomes more frosty and alien, the album’s steady drift away from the ties of structure now sailing through huge clouds of echo. The sax part holds up the fractured pieces of ‘Don’t Call Me Pain’ but ‘Don’t Sell Your Dreams’ is atomised, a drifting mist of sound, a presence that may not begin or end but just loops around endlessly.

Y is one of those records. The ones with a fierce reputation that confuse and annoy. A critical darling that’ll elbow its way into your world sooner or later if your love of music has any exploratory hunger. It’ll taunt you because it’s awkward and abrasive. Inspired by punk but fearing a stylistic straightjacket The Pop Group crunch dub, funk and free jazz into something equally fiery. By 1979 The Pistols were dead but the year saw Lydon produce his greatest work with PiL’s Metal Box (perhaps the album closest in spirit to Y and coincidentally about to receive its own dub re-versioning from Jah Wobble). The Damned and The Clash hit career highs with Machine Gun Etiquette and London Calling but both, in differing ways, were looking backwards, The Damned embracing their garage rock inheritance while The Clash fluttered their eyelashes at America and made a classic rock double album.

In the class of ’79 Y fidgets next to debuts from The Slits, Gang Of Four, Joy Division, The Fall, Cabaret Voltaire, This Heat and The Specials. All pressing forwards with frantic urgency but The Pop Group charged ahead more recklessly and with greater fervour than any of them. Mark Stewart’s perfect opening line is a barked and defiant confession, “I admit my crime, I’m the thief of fire” a reference to Prometheus, who stole fire from heaven and gave it to humanity. Lyrical nods to mythology are all very well but they’re rarely so appropriate. The skyscraping ambition of Y is Promethean, seizing on the revolutionary promise of punk and forging something new because why wouldn’t you? Because anything less isn’t good enough. The Clash are happy to write their name in the big family bible of Rock ‘n’ Roll but The Pop Group want to defy the gods, steal their fire, and remake the world.

Prometheus suffered a harsh punishment for his offence and The Pop Group didn’t entirely succeed but Y kicks open doors and knocks down walls allowing for possibilities even the band themselves could not fully realise, making one more album before splintering apart. These days you can own quite a stack of Pop Group albums if you’re inclined but Y is the one. Rough and charged, still demanding the impossible. For the 40th anniversary there were demo and live versions assembled which are fine and interesting but the real achievement of Y in Dub is that it matches the original for its abstract and hallucinatory power. It frees Y from it’s frozen image and in doing so it reignites a visionary message of the limitless potential of sound. Fire.

 

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