Mark Stewart and The Maffia - Learning To Cope With Cowardice - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Mark Stewart and The Maffia - Learning To Cope With Cowardice

by Kevin Orton Rating:10 Release Date:2019-01-25
Mark Stewart and The Maffia - Learning To Cope With Cowardice
Mark Stewart and The Maffia - Learning To Cope With Cowardice

I can’t think of a more relevant album title than, Learning To Cope With Cowardice. That said, it was released in 1983 shortly after Mark Stewart split with the seminal band, The Pop Group. Without a doubt, Y is the Pop Group’s definitive statement. However, Stewart took what The Pop Group started with their Punk/Jazz/Funk hybrid and took it further, expanding the repertoire to include Dub and cutting edge stuff we now call Hip Hop. What resulted was the aural equivalent of William S. Burroughs’ cut-up technique. Or to put it another way in the immortal words of Arthur Rimbaud, "A poet makes himself a visionary through a long, boundless and systemized disorganization of the senses." While it may sound like the ravings of a madman, its message is an urgent cry for sanity shouted out from the depths of Thatcher's England. Despite how anyone chooses to label or classify it, in the end, this Frankenstein collage of styles is all just Folk Music. Not only that, its Folk with a message. This is protest music. Like Woody Guthrie scrawled on his guitar, “This Machine Kills Fascists.” Released on the dub label, On-U Sound Records, with founder Adrian Sherwood producing along with Stewart. 

The title track is Stewart’s opening salvo, an eclectic array of musical and lyrical artillery aimed at the jugular of what ails humanity. Musically, it’s a montage of synth pulses, tribal drums, and Funk basslines. Stewart’s eerie, disembodied voice floats and yelps about deliberately too high or low or high in the mix. The best description of it all is, Stewart bouncing around, doomsaying at some underground DJ dance party in the Bronx.

‘Liberty City’ with its Ethiopian sounding horn effects turns reggae rhythms on edge with horrific flair. A ghostly backing choir zombie around as Stewart invites us to, “Take a walk into the conquered city.” Like much of this album it’s a staggering, dizzying stroll. At times drunken and hazy, at other times, paranoid and on edge. “One night in desperation, a young man takes a gun,” Stewart cries at one point, giving a nod and wink to ‘In The Ghetto’ (a Mack Davis tune immortalized by Elvis Presley).

‘Blessed Are Those Who Struggle’ sounds like someone trying to drive an auto wreck through a combat zone. Percussion, like gunfire. Synth blasts pushing the VU dial into the red. Stewart’s distorted vocals flaring up, shooting flames or speaking in tongues. Next in line is, ‘None Dare Call It Conspiracy’. Acerbic dance music with a finger pointed at crime and criminal alike. Stewart’s robotically treated vocals verging on the demonic. If there’s little cohesion here, that’s the point. To knock you off your game and disorient you. Years later David Bowie would cut a tune called, ‘Sex And The Church’ on the Buddha of Suburbia soundtrack.  And I can’t help but wonder if Bowie lent an ear to the racket Stewart was laying down here. Despite throwing the listener on stormy seas of dub-inspired racket, Stewart’s message couldn’t be any clearer. In a world controlled by, “Corporate nations”, profit takes precedence over justice and equality.

‘Don’t You Ever Lay Down Your Arms’ begins with a tuneful herald of horns as Dub beats back Stewart’s strangled vocals, “Searching, searching for treasure”. Then out of nowhere, you’re hit in the face with drum strikes that seem to come from nowhere, put way forward in the mix. It's enough to make you jump out of your seat. Then the horns begin to blare like distant sirens. It’s a positively delirious track, coming at you in all directions. ‘Paranoia Of Power’ is more of a direct march and call to arms, with Stewart shrieking, “Let’s storm the citadels!” A ghostly choir later chanting with him, “Beneath the city streets.” Saxophones wail in and out, anchored in a persistent reggae beat.

‘To Have The Vision’ follows like a Beat fever dream cut up by an intoxicated William S. Burroughs. Stewart’s bellicose rantings trotting in and out, calling out such sins as apathy and complacency. Two things this subversive album seems hell bent at kicking sand in the face of.

Without a doubt, the album’s definitive moment is a dramatic recitation of William Blake’s poem, ‘Jerusalem’. Here all of Learning To Cope’s mania comes to a head. Dub bass, sharp snares, looped clips of nationalistic orchestration. Stewart shouting at you from a distance, armed with a dented, rusty megaphone. Bringing the album’s thesis to its conclusion. Namely, the political is personal. There is no separation.

At times grating and trance-like, this is a hallucinatory listen. Meant to knock the listener off their toes and keep them queasy. At first, it may sound like a wash of disorganized noise but with repeated listens, its clear there’s nothing accidental going on here. It's all deliberate. As the title says, this is an album about coping with the cowardice of our leaders and the way to cope is to knock them off their pedestals. This is the sound of setting propaganda’s leaflets on fire and taking over the streets after the rioting’s done its damage. The sound of screaming for revolution in a pair of concrete shoes. A tribal ghost dance signaling either the end or a new beginning.

In short, it's beautiful, organized chaos that is way ahead of its time. File this one under Uneasy Listening along with Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica.

A lost classic. This reissue is long overdue.

Comments (1)

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Great review! Sounds really interesting, love 'Y' and 'For how much longer do we tolerate mass murder? ' but never heard his solo stuff. Will have to investigate!

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