How Mark E Smith’s spirit haunted every buzzy new band at The Great Escape 2019

It’s now 16 months since Mark E Smith, frontman of The Fall, essence of The Fall, died.

His final years were not spent enjoying the fruits of his labours in retirement, but as he’d spent the previous 43 years – performing for small, medium or large crowds of utterly devoted Fall fans, sometimes on stage, sometimes not, sometimes singing via radio mic from the dressing room.

He was remembered fondly in the music press, and certainly here at NME, but only briefly in the mainstream media. There was no mass outpouring of national mourning like we saw following Bowie’s sad demise in 2016.

Mark E Smith’s thing was always destined to appeal to a select audience, most of whom would happily tell you – for hours – why Smith was a bona fide genius. He amassed no great fortune, but his memory lives on in a mural on the wall of a chip shop in his native Prestwich, Manchester.

But since his passing, something strange has happened. The Great Escape, which took place this weekend, is the festival where the next generation of 6Music bands is born, a place where indie still reigns supreme and where festival bookers, journalists and music lovers go to find the next big small thing.

And this year, it struck this journalist: every buzzy band sounds like The Fall. The bands whose shows were bunfights to get into nearly all play on the tropes that Smith and co birthed all those years ago: oblique lyrics, spasmodic basslines, an air of arty amateurishness, socially aware lyrics, anger, energy, and a feeling that the whole thing might fall apart, right now, before your very eyes.

So there’s Squid, whose bizarro single ‘Houseplants’ is, at first glance, a nonsense, rhythmic meditation on live-in greenery, but is also a comment about the infantilisation of young people who’ll never be able to get a foot on the property ladder.

There’s Life, a punk-funk group from Hull whose provenance defines them and whose singer moves with itchy energy and plunges himself into the crowd at every opportunity.

There’s Do Nothing, the Nottingham band whose languid vocals capture a downbeat Smith and dance with basslines that seem possessed by a spirit of their own, separate to the song in question.

And Chai, the Japanese group signed to Heavenly Recordings, whose frantic songs are drowned out by clashing cymbals and trip over lolloping time changes, all very Fall, albeit pitched up and equally in thrall to Le Tigre.

The spirit of Mark E Smith is one of feel over melody, of art pop that challenges the listener but rewards with sounds from a different galaxy.

Pop culture is cyclical, and every now and then a generation of bands coagulates around a particular strain of influences, whether it was Blur and Oasis channeling The Kinks, Wire and The Beatles to create Britpop, or The Strokes and co dusting down Television, Modern Lovers and Velvet Underground.

So this latest wave seems to have set Mark E Smith as its kingpin, which is good for fans of art-rock and experimentation and vitality in music. Would he approve? Only Mark E Smith would have been able to give you the answer – and you suspect it would have depended on his mood at the precise moment of asking.