Keep proper journalism alive. It's time to Back the Cable
The Bristol Cable

‘He was our godfather’: Bristol musicians remember Mark Stewart

It’s a year since the Pop Group singer, a revered figure of the post-punk era, died aged 62. Beyond the uncompromising legacy of his own releases, his influence remains etched into his home city’s musical DNA.

Features

“I’ve never heard anything like it,” says Jeremy Valentine, lead singer of The Cortinas, recalling the first time he saw the Pop Group perform at London’s famous Marquee Club. 

“It was a hipster audience – New Musical Express journalists and people like that,” he tells the Cable. “They’re impossible to impress.”

The Pop Group were meant to be warming up for Valentine’s already established Bristol punk band, but he and the rest of the Cortinas were left awestruck. 

“They went on stage, and we thought, well, we can’t fucking follow that,” Valentine says. He pauses, a discernible hint of admiration in his voice, before adding “They just blew the audience away.”

The gig was in 1977, when the snarling rage of punk was at its peak in the UK. But over the next few years, as the first Thatcher government’s economic policies began biting inner-city communities and late-Cold War paranoia soared, that sound evolved into something freer, more complex – but just as angry. 

The Pop Group and their revered lead singer Mark Stewart, who died on 21 April 2023 – one year ago this weekend – were right at the heart of this movement. 

Sinewy swagger

Stewart, who was born in 1960 and grew up in Redland, was already approaching two metres tall at age 14, helping him get into most of Bristol’s funk and reggae clubs. The music from these venues would heavily influence him during a 46-year career in which Stewart marched exclusively to his own beat. 

It started when he was just 16. The Pop Group began performing at venues around England, with Stewart squaring up to the microphone with every sinew shaking. With intensity, otherworldliness and more than a dash of swagger, the singer stalking the stage in full flow was not an experience for the fainthearted.  

Janine Rainforth, singer with Bristol contemporaries Maximum Joy, remembers Stewart as “peerless in terms of his performance”. 

“His vocal ability was just beyond the pale,” she says of the singer, who could go from croon to scream over the course of a line. “To sing like that live was quite something.” 

Mark Stewart on the cover of the NME, 1978

During the Pop Group’s performances, Stewart “liked to be in the moment – so the whole thing was engineered around that”, explains Gareth Sager, the band’s guitarist.  As a result, Stewart always left it to Sager to write the set list. 

At 18, Stewart had made the cover of the NME and soon afterwards the Pop Group – who only lasted four years in their first incarnation – were touring the world alongside the Patti Smith Group. While often labelled ‘post-punk’ by critics, categorising the band was a formidable challenge. 

With lashings of funk, jazz, dub and reggae they twisted and bent genres to their will. “It was intense, but also completely original with that kind of funk stuff they were doing, strange song structures and stuff like that.” Valentine reflects.  

“[We] had so many influences and wanted to bring them in all the time,” explains Sager. “We probably started copying things like the Stooges but really, we wanted to sound like James Brown, Funkadelic… then we heard Miles Davis.”  

It wasn’t just the sound that turned heads either, but Stewart’s lyrics – pitched in the sweet spot between abstract philosophy and direct social commentary. Valentine may have been shocked by how powerful the Pop Group were when seeing them live for the first time, but he always recognised Stewart as someone who had “an intellectual curiosity [and was] “very much into new ideas”. 

He recalls how, while both he and Stewart were in their early teens, Stewart was reading Nietzsche, which he “couldn’t even pronounce” at the time.  

“Think about that – he wrote that song, She is Beyond Good and Evil,” says Valentine. “That just shows that he’d taken that Nietzschean idea of beyond good and evil, and then turned that into a fantastic kind of romantic pop song.”  

Sager, meanwhile, describes Stewart as having “a great instinct – a magpie poetic thing for sort of picking up on things that were in people’s psyche”.  

‘He led us in like we were going to war’

Stewart’s 20th-century discography (see box) has been the subject of many previous articles. But, I ask Janine Rainforth, who had known Stewart since they were teenagers, what was the man really like?  

“He was an agitator, but he also encouraged and was really generous with his time,” she replies. “He believed in people, but especially in the underdog.”  

Gareth Sager (L) and Mark Stewart perform at Alexandra Palace in 1980 (credit: Paul Roberts)

DJ Milo Johnson from the Wild Bunch, members of which would go on to form Massive Attack, remembers this side of Stewart well. 

In the 80s, “Mark would be going to New York, which none of us could or had done at that point, and [he would] bring us WBLS and Kiss FM radio tapes back to our camp,” he tells the Cable. “Those tapes were like gold to us – hearing the latest records fresh from New York, which helped us build our own collection.”

Stewart also arranged one the group’s first London soundclashes, Johnson explains. 

“He led us into that venue like he was going to war,” he says. “I remember thinking, ‘Flipping hell Mark, tone it down a bit mate,’ but it seemed he had more confidence in us than we did.

Tricky, who joined the Wild Bunch in 1987 before contributing to Massive Attack’s first album and going onto a successful solo career, shared a flat with Stewart in the 80s. He had a big effect on his life too, Tricky says. 

“He was booked into the studio one day and, not sure why, he couldn’t make it,” Tricky recalls. “So he gave me the studio time, and I recorded Aftermath there, which got me my record deal.” 

Asked about Stewart’s overall influence, Johnson has no doubts. “Consider what would later come from our ragtag crew that he took under his wing,” he says. “Massive Attack, Tricky, an international superproducer [in] Nellee Hooper, a new genre of music, and how it would all impact the city of Bristol in an incredibly positive way – [Stewart] was the most important element in its creation, he was our godfather.”

Photographer Andy ‘Beezer’ Beese, famous for documenting Bristol’s 80s music scene, agrees. “[Mark] was hugely talented in so many areas, and so ahead of his time, that it naturally had an enormous impact on so many of us,” he says. “His diverse creativity, together with his passion for us all to rise and shine, is why the music, arts, and creativity stemming from Bristol has become such a major global force.” 

‘You can do it’ enthusiasm

But while Stewart is best remembered for his impact during those formative musical years for Bristol, his influence did not end with the dawn of the 90s. 

In 2008 he released his sixth album Edit, with The Pop Group reforming in 2010. They would go on to release two more acclaimed long-players – Citizen Zombie with producer Paul Epworth, and Honeymoon on Mars, which saw them collaborate again with Dennis Bovell, this time alongside legendary Public Enemy producer Hank Shocklee. Stewart also linked with an all-star cast of artists – Richard Hell, Lee Scratch Perry, Daddy G, Keith Levene, Tessa Pollit, Gina Birch, and Kenneth Anger – on his final LP proper, Politics of Envy.

Mark Stewart onstage in later life at the Nottingham Bodega in 2014 (credit: Shaun Gordon)

While continuing to create prolifically in later life, Stewart’s enthusiasm for championing new bands from Bristol also still burned bright. Ishmael Ensemble’s Pete Cunningham remembers him as someone who was “genuinely interested in what was new”.  

“When I first met him, he was shouting about all the Young Echo stuff, Giant Swan and I guess he put us into that,” Cunningham says. “He was just really excited about new music and was there to help… he had this kind of ‘you can do it’ enthusiasm.”

Over four decades, Stewart occupied a singular space in music, not via mainstream success but by creating in a way that was uncompromising and authentic. 

“I just make sparks and try to push things together that don’t necessarily fit,” he said of his own creative process. “I’m happy to put a bootybass bassline on top of a Slayer guitar – for me it comes back to cut-and-paste and doing a punk collage, putting Ronald Reagan’s head on top of a gay cowboy model or something.” 

It’s difficult even to call Stewart a trailblazer, reckons Rainforth, who argues: “I don’t think anyone can follow in his trail.” 

Yet many of the characteristics Stewart was renowned for – collaboration, a desire to combine elements of seemingly disparate genres, and a scepticism towards authority – are now embedded hallmarks of Bristol’s music scene. 

Beyond the acts that were personally impacted by him in the 80s and 90s, listen to the music of today – from Ishmael Ensemble to Young Echo and Noods Radio – and Stewart’s influence often still seems to be lurking. 

 As Milo Johnson says.“The city of Bristol owes that man more than I think most people understand.”

Independent. Investigative. Indispensable.

Investigative journalism strengthens democracy – it’s a necessity, not a luxury.

The Cable is Bristol’s independent, investigative newsroom. Owned and steered by more than 2,500 members, we produce award-winning journalism that digs deep into what’s happening in Bristol.

We are on a mission to become sustainable, and our first target is to raise our membership income by 50% within 12 months. Will you help us get there?

Join the Cable today

Join 2,500 Cable members redefining local media

Your support will help the Cable grow, deepening our connections in the city and investigating the issues that matter most in our communities.

Join now

What makes us different?

Comments

Post a comment

Mark if this comment is from the author of the article

By posting a comment you agree to our Comment Policy.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Related content

When words fail: Meet the Bristol group nurturing male musicians’ mental health

The Seed Sessions project combines counselling and music mentoring to help young men express themselves. We heard from its founder, one of the participants and a counsellor working with the group about the power of music as a therapeutic tool.

Listen: Love Her – how Weekenders made space for women’s music

As part of this series of podcasts about underrepresented parts of Bristol’s history, this is a homage to Weekenders, a women's music night that started in the late 90s.

‘Crazy summers, days of rage’: how Beezer’s camera immortalised 1980s Bristol

Long before the ‘Bristol sound’ label was applied to the potent sonic brew bubbling from the city in the 90s, Andy ‘Beezer’ Beese moved with the bass-heavy beats of the 80s to photograph the era's pulses, parties and protests.

‘Trust in the grooves’: how Bristol’s independent record shops are navigating an uncertain world

The vinyl revival has provided an unlikely bright spot amid a bloodbath of UK high street closures. Bristol’s indie music retailers explain how they are keeping locked, innovating and creating communities to help them survive and thrive.

‘I can’t die, I’ve not made my solo album’: Holysseus Fly on overcoming cancer and looking forward

The Bristol singer-songwriter and Ishmael Ensemble member discusses overcoming breast cancer at just 25 and launching her career as a solo artist.

Grove: ‘Impending doom definitely plagues my mind, but I’ve sought out the tools to deal with that’

Following an explosive first festival season, Bristol-based producer and vocalist Grove sits down with the Cable to talk punk, power and vulnerability.

Join our newsletter

Get the essential stories you won’t find anywhere else

Subscribe to the Cable newsletter to get our weekly round-up direct to your inbox every Saturday

Join our newsletter

Subscribe to the Cable newsletter

Get our latest stories & essential Bristol news
sent to your inbox every Saturday morning