During the mid to late seventies a band emerged that were to be incredibly influential and who would spawn numerous successfully creative musical acts. The Pop Group were formed in 1977 by five young men who seemed, at the time, to be a part of the `Clifton scene’ (more upmarket area of Bristol). Mark Stewart, Gareth Sagar, Bruce Smith, Simon Underwood and John Waddington welded together influences from funk, dub reggae, jazz, the avant-garde and punk to provide an overtly political and radical sound. They caught the attention of the national music press and played with a huge variety of acts, supporting the likes of Johnny Thunders, Linton Kwesi Johnson, This Heat etc.
They released three albums and broke up between 1980 and 1981 but their influence was huge. Nick Cave cited the tracks She’s Beyond Good and Evil and We Are All Prostitutes (by the Pop Group) as some of his favourite and most influential music. The cross-pollinating music that this band was developing continued with all of their members musical output post The Pop Group. Mark Stewart went on to work with Adrian Sherwood’s `On U – Sound’ label, collaborating with various Jamaican reggae artists and New York's legendary Sugar Hill Gang in his Mark Stewart and the Mafia. Often referred to as the Godfather of the `Bristol Sound’ Stewart’s powerhouse, distorted - hip-hop rhythms, dub and funk bass, atmospheric sampling and haunting, screaming vocals - were aired, to date, on five albums for the record label Mute (London based label, home of Nick Cave and Depeche Mode amongst others). Gareth Sagar developed a more avant-jazz approach with Rip, Rig and Panic and then moved into a type of punk-funk with Float Up CP. PigBag and Head featured ex-members and various Pop Groupers played with The Slits, Public Image Ltd and James Blood Ulmer. The influence of these artists on the general musical architecture of the city cannot be underestimated and led many individuals to think about musical experimentation. That experimentation became a hallmark of Bristol’s more interesting acts.
Just as Mark Stewart had become influenced by the sounds of hip-hop and turntablism from New York combined with the reggae sound systems that were quite familiar to Bristol, so had other individuals in the city's music scene. The Wild Bunch was a sound system who combined the talents of Grant Marshall, Nellee Hooper, Miles Johnson, Robert Del Naja and later a young Andrew Vowles. The Wild Bunch essentially started off playing in St Paul’s where there were a number of underground venues for them to play. They maintained a residency at the `Dug Out’ club and then a series of parties established them as the best sound system in town; although others such as 2Bad Crew, City Rockers, Plus One, FBI, UD4 and the Wise Guise were all active and influential in the scene. This whole development marked the beginning of a radical change in the way music was made in the city. The traditional guitar, bass, keyboards and drums group was being replaced by the `crew’ who worked around a sound system: i.e. a DJ or numbers of DJs, some MCs (Masters of Ceremonies), singers and even sometimes graffiti artists. This later evolved into a small production unit as the availability of computer based studios, samplers and studio outboard equipment became cheaper and more widely accessible. This would become a template that would be adopted by many artists. I would call it a production unit or Producer Led Outfit (PLO). Many of the participants were not musical in the traditional sense of a trained musician, but they knew their music and they started to play around with samplers and keyboards to craft, original sounding, compositions and led the way for new music creation.
Most of the nationally recognised acts in Bristol would adopt this approach. It marked an essential change in the nature of music industry production especially through most forms of dance music. The development of Producer Led Outfits (PLOs) meant that the creative core of a group was much more explicitly identified. One, two or three individuals would be at the centre of a group’s writing and production. They would use the available technology (computers, samplers, sound modules, decks etc.) to craft and orchestrate their set of songs or pieces. They would then think about bringing in other musicians if they wanted to develop a live show, so that their songs could be given a `live’ airing. Massive Attack is a classic example of this approach. Their `live’ shows started off as DJ and vocalist sets (i.e. a Sound System) and then, as their career progressed, became a full` live-band’ show (i.e. drummer, bassist, keyboards, guitarist, percussion, vocalists and DJ).
The Wild Bunch signed to 4th and Broadway and released one single. It contained the tracks Friends and Countrymen and the Look of Love a Bacharach and David classic which was stripped down to Bass, Drums and vocal. This track in particular provided the basis of what became a central feature of something that would be described by journalists as the `Bristol sound' and then later `Trip hop'. The Wild Bunch then split. Nellee Hooper went off to work with Soul to Soul, Miles Johnson went to work in America and Grant Marshall (Daddy G), Robert Del Naja (3D) and Andrew Vowles (Mushroom) became Massive Attack. They released a single produced by another local crew, Smith and Mighty, called Any Love which further developed a sound that was also being experimented with by Soul to Soul in London.
Smith and Mighty were the next element to push Bristol further into the national and international pop consciousness. Between 1988 and 1989 they released Walk on By and Anyone Who Had a Heart; again these were two Bacharach and David classics but Smith & Mighty’s trademark reggae bass, discordant piano, eerie vocals and tense, electric production stamped these songs with a particularly Bristol feel. They produced a classic but relatively unknown album for local singer Carlton (The Call Is Strong), gave a young Bristol crew Fresh Four (whose members later formed Reprazent and the Full Cycle label with Roni Size) a top ten hit with a cover of Wishing on a Star and released various tracks on their own three stripe label. Smith and Mighty were then signed by London records and spent four years fighting with the record company over an album that they had produced. The end result was the dropping of the act from London Records. Some say that this is the biggest travesty of Bristol’s musical history. Anyone who heard the prospective album knew that it could have made Smith and Mighty THE major Bristol act. This however was not to be and they returned to the underground to release material on their own label, as Smith and Mighty, and also as More Rockers (a more `Drum and Bass' approach). They then released a series of albums and singles on Studio K7 of Germany. Rob Smith is now signed to Grand Central and released a `solo’ album in 2004.
The early to mid 1990s belonged to what might be described as the holy trinity of the Bristol music scene - Massive Attack, Portishead and Reprazent and the various groupings and offshoots from these acts. Massive Attack’s Blue Lines, Protection and then the Mezzanine album made them one of the most influential English artists. They used the template of a production unit and took it into new territory. The three core members crafted ideas out of samples, collaging and mixing sounds together. They enlisted musicians to add parts in, they got guest vocalists to contribute and then they cut and mixed the final product. This type of music production is now the norm for a lot of new music that is produced. Portishead who emerged from the fringes of this whole scene also used the PLO template and produced an album - Dummy - that was a huge international success. Geoff Barrow who was a tape operator in Massive Attack’s studio and an aspiring DJ, Adrian Utley, who had been working for years on the Bristol Jazz scene as a guitarist, Beth Gibbons, a local pub band singer who met Geoff at an Enterprise Allowance Introduction Day, and Dave Mcdonald, who used to play with Rob Smith of Smith and Mighty in local reggae band Restriction and worked at PIJ studios (situated in Jamaica Street, Bristol) and around the city as an engineer, were the core members of Portishead. The music they produced combined influences from film composers like John Barry, Ennio Morricone and Bacharach with hip-hop rhythms and vocals influenced by Janis Joplin and Billie Holiday. They went on to release a second album entitled Portishead which continued their success. Roni Size, a young DJ who had been getting into the rave scene, met another DJ called Krust who had been in Fresh 4. They formed a label called `V’ records with London producer Jumpin Jack Frost who had played in Bristol many times at Massive Attack parties. Soon they started their own label called Full Cycle and produced some of the most cutting edge `jungle' or `drum and bass' music to come from the UK. A crew has developed around them, including singer Onallee, DJ Suv, DJ Die and MC Dynamite. These individuals all produce their own music and also came together to form Reprazent with a full band playing behind them. They enlisted local musicians such as Rob Merrill on drums (who has played with Sheep on Drugs, Arthur Baker, Monk and Canatella, Smith and Mighty), Si John on bass (who has played with The Federation, Monk and Canatella, Finger and now The Ging) and occasionally Portishead drummer Clive Deamer (another stalwart of Bristol’s jazz scene). Reprazent's first album won the Mercury Music Prize in 1996. Their second In the Mode (released in 2000) brought them to an even bigger audience. Throughout their releases the jazz, heavy reggae bass and occasional punk/new wave influences can be heard seeping through. Massive Attack’s initial crew has also spawned a number of acts, the most well known of these was Tricky whose debut single had been co-written by Mark Stewart (formerly of the Pop Group). His Maxinquaye album became a huge seller and pushed Tricky into a limelight that led to four further albums and a part in Luc Besson’s film the Fifth Element. Shara Nelson, the voice of Blue Lines also left to pursue a solo career.During this time period of the late 1980s to early 1990s many other artists were springing up. Nick Warren and Jody Wisternoff emerged as Way out West; The Blue Aeroplanes continued to make music, bands such as Strangelove emerged as a promising indie rock band. Labels such as Cup Of Tea, Hope, Sarah Records, Earth Recordings, Breakbeat Culture, Tech Itch Records, Independent Dealers and NRK introduced acts such as Alpha, Statik Sound System, Monk and Canatella, Crustation, Receiver, Flynn and Flora, The Field Mice, Starecase, Decoder, Technical Itch, Jamie Anderson, Kosheen, The Experimental Pop Band etc. Bristol had gone from a relative backwater, where most people felt that the Wurzels and Fred Wedlock were the height of West Country musical production, to a city which was talked about all over the world.