The 1980s is gathering gaudy momentum, synths seem to be taking over the entire world like a proto-Daft Punk version of Terminator. One brave anti-hero sits in the corner of some Salford spit and sawdust pub. Although on the surface he appears to be simply getting quietly bladdered by himself until he achieves peak misanthropissed status, he is actually about to rise up, grab the music industry by the lapels and rattled it about like a Skoda going over a cattle-grid, tearing down the icons of all the filthy Bolshevist and backstabbing bastards that he perceives to be in his way. He is Mark E Smith, part genius, part maniac who helmed The Fall like a warlord as they continued to march inward from the far reaches of culture.
Since snarling out of school pants and terrorising the neighbourhood like a particularly bothersome wasp at a Cider festival, he slashed through the norm like some demented daemon of the demimonde, whipping up a cyclonic barrage of hellfire. As he staggered along, he swept up a legion of devoted fans (all fifty thousand of them) in this maelstrom. As it happens, among that clutch of devotees was a few weird Australian’s who had traded Bondi tans for the complexion of Alaskan Vampires.
Cave and his Birthday Party cohorts saw Smith as one of the few artists, if you call him that, who stood out from the cesspit of snarling punks as a rock star who truly didn’t care what anybody thought. However, he did care about his own music and with unique lyrics akin to Vladimir Nabokov prose etched into the back of a toilet door in a flat roof pub, and a sound as jarring as a daft pigeon scraping his beak on a window, yet rhythmic in its own weird way, he stirred the inspiration pot of The Birthday Party like almost nobody else.
At the time, Cave stood on the precipice of artistic uncertainty, The Birthday party came slithering out of the Australian outback into the glare of the wider world in a benevolent storm of adrenalised chaos. They were as perfunctory an incendiary attack on the mainstream as a Molotov cocktail hurled at the riot police.
Soon, however, that head spin was out of control and the precipice loomed larger for Cave than ever before. When they moved to London they were greeted as junkie pariahs that only The Fall and The Pop Group were bold enough to mingle with them. “We were very isolated in London,” Nick Cave tells ZDF.
Adding: “We were friends with The Fall, and we were friends with The Pop Group, and these were great English bands and, particularly at that time, they were the saviours of the music scene because there was so much shit that was happening at that time. Terrible, boring kind of stuff. And Mark Smith’s lyric writing was just incredible, so they had a huge impact, but we weren’t involved in a scene we just knew them.”
In many ways, this inspiration came at the most vital moment for Cave. Mark E Smith’s singular lyricism proved to be a beacon that shone through the murk of creative obscurity that followed the demise of The Birthday Party and loured Cave back into the beam of the creative boon that songwriting has evidently become for him since. Cave would later remark that Smith helped him to feel comfortable with chasing his bolted muse no matter which weird territory it wandered to. “I think we tended to create some kind of area where we can work without particularly having to worry about what’s fashionable.”
Later, when Smith, Cave and the Shane MacGowan came together to complete the triumvirate of rock’s vicious outlaw virtuosi, Cave laughed: “So, the NME thinks we’re the last three heroes of rock ‘n’ roll, do they?” To which McGowan said, or rather spat, “Smarmy fuckers,” adding, “What they actually mean is that we’re the three biggest brain-damaged cases in rock ‘n’ roll.” To which Smith chimed in, “Apart from Nick, Nick’s cleaned up.” Cave agreed, “Yeah, my brains restored itself.”
Indeed it had, and his latest tour of spiritual deliverance is testimony to that. However, without Smith, he might not be in the arts at all. The spirit of The Fall still evidently lingers in the welter of Cave’s songwriting but more so than that, Smith proved to be perhaps the weirdest big brother figure in music when Cave was initially struggling to make headway. This is something Cave has been eternally grateful for even if Smith did think their friendship was through after his invite to perform alongside his heroes at the Cave curated 1999 Meltdown Festival was lost in his own letterbox.