While sorting through some old papers, I recently found a list I had penned at age seventeen, entitled “The Top 10 Bands I Have To See Live.” Some of my choices were pretty embarrassing (I’ll tell you this, and this only: Placebo was sixth) but I was pleased to discover the number one band was one that I was still more than happy to stand behind: The Pop Group.
Back then, the inclusion of The Pop Group on the list was little more than teenage fantasy: the band had been broken up for years, with no sign of a reformation on the horizon. So it was one of life’s nice little coincidences that found me standing at The Pop Group’s Sydney show at the Factory Theatre, only a month or so after rediscovering the list.
My inner seventeen year old was beside himself, but the grown up me (the one ordering the beers) was a little worried by the relatively small crowd. After all, the impressive space of the Factory was only a third full. Sadly, my worries were not allayed when the band launched into Citizen Zombie, the lead track off their new fantastic comeback album of the same name.
It wasn’t that the band weren’t up to scratch – they are, and have always been, supremely talented musicians – or that time had not been kind to their unique sound: it was that the mix was terrible. I was standing towards the back, right next to the sound board, and looked over in horror to see that the mixer, his long ponytail bobbing, seemed more interested in dancing than actually handling the sound.
These became the two forces The Pop Group had to battle against then: the room, and the godawful live sound. The band performed admirably – time has not dulled a single note of frenetic, paranoid tunes like Words Disobey Me or the frenzied Thief Of Fire – but for much of their set, victory against their two foes seemed impossible.
Lead singer Mark Stewart prowled and skulked across the stage, proving to be a formidable figure indeed, as well as a hypnotic front man. But his distinctive, pained howl – the same howl that marks out recent track Mad Truth for greatness – was being constantly messed with by the distracted mixer. Sometimes his voice was oversaturated with reverb, even when Stewart was merely trying to chat with the crowd, and at other times it was flattened and hidden in the mix, meaning that incredible, incendiary tunes like the recent Shadow Child lost some of their edge.
On the plus side, the sound did begin to improve, but sadly, only as the set began to wrap up. We Are All Prostitutes, which Stewart dedicated to deceased Birthday Party member Tracy Pew, frazzled and fizzed with all the necessary power, the sound levels finally sorted. By the time Stewart and his band left the stage, only to return for their encore with the funky, paranoid We Are Time, it oddly felt like the gig had only just begun.
And then it was done; Stewart thanked the assembled crowd for ‘the best gig in ages’ and the lights went up.
I walked out then in two minds. On the one hand, the sound issues were too much for a cynic and grump like me to bear. But on the other hand, my seventeen year old self was in rapture. He had heard one of his favourite bands nail hit after hit. Quibbles over the sound mattered little to him.
But he isn’t the one writing this review, so he’ll just have to moan and whinge as he sees the sadly average star rating. That little bugger.