Mark Stewart
They Made Magic

These pen portraits build up into a gallery of special people. These people have made unique contributions to popular culture. Some of the stories will be fairly familiar, and some may seem slightly strange. There are some glaring omissions, and some odd inclusions. A thread of narrative runs through, and itís all as subjective as hell.

I am haunted by misheard words, misremembered lines from forgotten songs, and yet!  “Searching for love in the library of a ghost town,” sings Mark Stewart, and in the recurring vision I have of him performing this somehow it gets blurred into a recital of Allen Ginsberg’s America: “America why are your libraries full of tears?” 

Mark Stewart as well as having one of the best minds of my generation remains one of its most romantic figures.  A towering howler of pain and frustration, all the world’s crimes on his shoulders and the rhythms of the street in his soul.  With his fellow “teenage Rimbauds” in The Pop Group he captured something about the possibilities and contradictions of being a pop group. 

On the ever-appealing Y set the group released on Radar in 1979 they created, under the guidance of the alchemical Dennis Bovell, something wonderfully free, where ideas outstripped ability but no one cared, and the group nevertheless were tormented by the realisation that it was indirectly paid for by WEA money, with links to the weapon trade, and ultimately it led to a split of the ways with (respected original mod) Andrew Lauder and his label.

Opting instead for the more homely Rough Trade (and by dint of association the Y label run by their manager Dick O’Dell) the group kind of performed a reverse Dylan manoeuvre (and Mark Stewart is the closest aside from Vic Godard we have to a performer of Dylan’s standing) and produced a set of songs that were explicitly political and overtly protests.  And they made sure the music was as extreme and as confrontational, mixing P-Funk and free jazz, the Last Poets and Prince Far I. 

While there remains an unbeatable case to cite The Pop Group’s She Is Beyond Good and Evil as the ultimate punk rock single (as the Postcard collective claimed) what Mark did after the collective splintered is perhaps even more interesting, particularly when you consider what a mess it all was in terms of a career, but who cares when you’re talking about the person that redefined the blues, haunting the recording of Tricky’s Aftermath in the same way he haunted a Manicured Noise BBC radio session back in 1979.

After The Pop Group Mark Stewart’s closest collaborator naturally enough was Adrian Sherwood, who was emerging as the great British reggae originator/experimentalist, and the first solo set was recorded with the On-U Sounds inner circle performing as the Maffia on the legendary Learning To Cope With Cowardice LP.

Perhaps of more interest though were subsequent Mark Stewart and the Maffia recordings featuring Sherwood’s cohorts, the former Sugarhill rhythm team of Doug Wimbish, Keith LeBlanc and Skip McDonald, who were recording under various guises like Fats Comet and Tackhead.  In particular the incredibly heavy industrial dub set, Major Malfunction, by LeBlanc will have helped shape the Maffia sound, reflecting an extreme modernisation of the Jah Shaka model that was so influential in its enormity.

The first set of Mark Stewart and this new Maffia together for Mute, As The Veneer of Democracy Starts To Fade, is incredibly claustrophobic and confrontational with the twisted electro beats and paranoiac squalls of sound blasting out behind Stewart’s exhortations. 

As fascinating as the suffering and crunching is on the Veneer set is there is a very real argument that Mark Stewart is at his most compelling and convincing when he lets his tender side show through.  Like his apostle Nick Cave, Stewart’s howl is heard best on the ballads, but then the greatest of protest singers Phil Ochs averred that beauty is most extreme protest.  And so my favourite Mark Stewart record is his eponymous 1987 set where beyond the anguish of Survival/Anger Is Holy/Hell Is Empty lie the exquisite Stranger (Than Love) – a doomed performance on the theme of Satie’s Gymnopaedies – and an interpretation of the Sylvian/Sakamoto song Forbidden Colours which is more forbidding than anything.  And then comes the totally deranged Fatal Attraction which gives a whole new twist on Taja Seville’s Love Is Contagious, stealing outrageously from Donna Summer’s I Feel Love, one of the great punk moments of its time.  Here more than ever Mark comes across as the Robert Mitchum style demonic preacher, the great showman or shaman.

Stewart’s disregard for copyright, as befitting any true reggae fan, is legendary.  On the 1990 set, Metatron, again he opts not to credit what amounts to a cover of the early Bowie classic Can’t Help Thinking About Me (as also covered by the Purple Hearts on their classic debut, Beat That!).  While on his last full length set Dream Kitchen Mark blatantly borrows the bass motif from Liquid Liquid’s Cavern via the Grandmaster Flash/Sugarhill classic White Lines.  It’s all there to be used went the old argument.

In 2005 the Soul Jazz set up recalled Mark Stewart to life amidst a resurgence of interest in the musical activity beyond punk.  The Kiss The Future compilation was a bizarre overview of Stewart’s from The Pop Group through to the present day (including the all too obvious collaboration with Kevin Martin).  Seekers of signs have observed Stewart’s spectral presence in everything from drum’n’bass to dubstep to death metal and whatever mad melange of sounds is being sold on the streets or played through the phones of the hooded youths upstairs on the bus. 

Thematically many of Stewart’s concerns, like world poverty, the arms trade, the abuse of human rights, surreptitious surveillance, the anaesthetisation of the nation’s youth, torture and mental illness, religious madness and exploitation, are more relevant than ever before, but it is a struggle to think of anyone, physically or spiritually brave enough to fill his boots, even when his own back pages are being closely perused.  Yet there need be no excuses for listening to Mark Stewart’s past.

“If we forget the past we’re doomed to repeat it,” sings Mark Stewart.  And writing about prophecy and the American voice Greil Marcus unusually observantly writes: “The mistakes of the past are sometimes filled with treasue; that is why the impulse to rediscover the past and then correct it is so strong. ‘We have to be absolutely modern,’ Rimbaud said.  No one knows what that means – but to my mind, it means that to find the modern you have to go back to the past.”


© 2006 John Carney