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2021: The year of Mark E. Smith - How he influenced the best new music

45 years ago, a young lad seemingly finished his shift down at Salford docks, entered a bar, and later slumped off his chair, picked up a microphone and decided to be the only Rockstar who truly couldn’t give a shit. That snarling iconoclast was Mark E. Smith, and it would seem to me, that his fateful wander towards the dingy, flickering spotlight of cult stardom is proving more influential than ever.

The two finest British bands to emerge on my radar this year were undoubtedly Dry Cleaning and Yard Act, both of which soar on the premise of Smith’s unflinching individuality. While it might seem like a paradox to pit singularity and similarities together in the same sentence, there is nothing out there truly without influence. Besides, as the inventor of the internet, Pavement and invader of France, Mark E. Smith presides over in an inescapable sphere of ascendancies.

Alas, his cult style has certainly bubbled up from the underground in the past, but amid the current crop of alternative music’s finest voices, the echoes of Smith can be heard screaming. In fact, I have never been more certain that he is orchestrating things from six feet under like a twisted, ghoulish marionette man—that bastard truly would’ve loved 2021.

With New Long Leg, Dry Cleaning unleashed the finest album of the year, and for my money, The Fall are the most profound influence on the sui generis masterpiece. Like Smith, Florence Shaw orchestrates things from the front, but in a far from conventional manner. With an understated spoken-word style, she parades madness over a post-punk soundscape, rattling off inanities and hidden profundity in a swirling melee of poetic non-sequiturs, reminiscent of the bombardment of discordant information we all face on news feeds in this here age of constant information. 

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Although, Smith seemed to live in his own world, like the pariah king of all things spit and sawdust, this postmodernist reflection of society was forever in the mix of his manic welter. When punk was rearing its joyously ugly head, he was busy pinpointing the existential influence behind it by referencing the work of Albert Camus in the very name of his ever-evolving band. Simply writing songs often seemed a task beneath him, and although melodic and rhythmic, the same principle seems to abide in the work of Dry Cleaning—they are a band that seem to disavow the notion of age-old convention in favour of forming their own alchemy. 

And that same notion crosses over into Yard Act’s output so far. Like Smith, they are making a point with their music, but they don’t let that get in the way of a good joke. In the slew of songs that they have released to date, the band have crafted a smorgasbord of characters who parade around the ever-increasing demimonde of so-called society. This reflective view that page nine is where civilisation truly shows itself clearly in their musical plays. 

Take for instance the masterful Smith-esque line: “Make no mistake we are living our last days in the land of the blind, where the one-eyed man was king until he lost his fucking mind,” that Yard Act frontman James Smith performatively reads in a style that his forebearer would’ve probably called imitation. It’s the sort of sonic wry smile at the why’s and wherefore’s of the modern world that can only be borne of music spawned in bars.

Elsewhere black midi’s wavering take on music also seems to howl the same wind of The Fall’s amorphous style and even on the far side of the pond, Parquet Courts’ masterful Sympathy for Life carried the fuckless torch of Smith’s one-man rhythmic riot (even seemingly referencing the artwork for Dragnet in their own album cover).

Perhaps it isn’t all that surprising that The Fall are making a massive mark on modern music, after all, despite always being tethered to the doldrums of cult, they were one of the greatest and most celebrated bands to emerge from punk. However, it would seem that in the age of uncertainty and a stilted fractured mainstream, cutting your own path with a fiercely sharpened sickle is the best way to brandish the swathe of literary artistry that inspires you, ala Smith almost 50 years before.

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