Thief of Fire:
RIP Mark Stewart

I am so saddened to hear that we’ve lost Mark Stewart.

I only wrote about him on the blog once, and briefly too, reminiscing about the first time I heard the Pop Group’s Y. The album had just been reissued by Mute, breathing a whole new life into the original recordings, with a bonus slab of amazing offcuts making up the album Alien Blood as well.

Y was first recommended to me in the bowels of some music forum back in the mid-2000s, sent over on a MediaFire link without any context or explanation. No cover, no sleeve notes, no corroboration. I remember thinking like it must be some bizarre bootleg from some distant land; some kind of post-punk aberration that felt like it had been passed through several layers of abstraction to become something entirely new. It blew my mind to learn he was from Bristol. Though I didn’t visit the city until a few years later, when I moved to Newport in South Wales, it was a kind of profound localisation that was as significant for me as learning Throbbing Gristle first started out in Hull. There is nothing more inspiring than learning something so alien can be produced so close to home.

That localisation is all the more important for Stewart, however. His political ferocity was grounded in present discontent, channeled through an alien sound that immediately brought to mind other ways of being. Popular modernism at its finest.

Mark and I emailed a couple of times over lockdown. He was working on the soundtrack for Lost Futures, a forthcoming documentary about Mark Fisher, which I was also interviewed for just before the pandemic started. Alongside his own original music, he was also looking to license music from other sources. Deep in my inbox, I introduced him to Oneohtrix Point Never for some undisclosed purposes related to the film. What became of that — if anything — I have no idea, but it isn’t hard to imagine them making a wonderful racket together on another timeline.

Prior to that, we spoke when I sent him my first book Egress, for which he wrote the best endorsement:

The dead return to us as our world falls apart. Love and loss ripple into our lives and test our integrity every day. Brutal and provocative, this book is a haunting elegy to Mark’s crystalline mind. He sat on the shores of endless worlds.

I’d always wanted to know more about the relationship between the two Mark’s, and was excited to meet Stewart in person when Lost Futures eventually came out.

He gave a eulogy at the Mark Fisher memorial at Goldsmiths in 2017, which I sadly couldn’t attend, but he was the talk of Goldsmiths afterwards. As Dom reminisced on Twitter, Stewart had hoped to end on a rallying cry to “read Mark Fisher!” but said “read Mark Stewart” instead, before immediately correctly himself. Everyone laughed about it for weeks. As Dom says, it was “a moment of blurring of identity that I know Mark F would have relished enormously”.

It’s a further blurring I’m thinking about now, looking back at that endorsement for Egress. Mark’s words for Mark could just as well be applied to himself. He also sat on the shores of endless worlds, and his music will always return to rotation as our world falls ever further apart.


Fuck statues of slave traders in Bristol. The man there should be a statue of in Bristol is Mark Stewart. RIP.

Originally tweeted by David Stubbs (@sendvictorious) on April 21, 2023.

Tricky on Mark Stewart: “He’s my chaos. When people say I’m weird, I say ‘you’ve got to hang around Mark’.” [Link]

Originally tweeted by Simon Reynolds (@SimonRetromania) on April 21, 2023.

Heartbroken over Mark Stewart, but grateful for the Pop Group, whose politics-aesthetics (songs about urban uprisings, Blair Peach and the torture of Irish people in British prisons via Dennis Bovell’d funk-punk) shaped me more than any other artist. Nobody was as alive as him.

Since the last time I saw Mark Stewart was at my friend Mark Fisher’s memorial service, where he performed a poem for him, Mark Fisher on “For how much longer do we tolerate mass murder?”:

“The Pop Group retained fidelity to the counterculture’s demands for a total transformation of the world. They were still part of what Herbert Marcuse called ‘the Great Refusal’: ‘the refusal of that which is’. Punk’s preferred stance of demystificatory cynicism masked an ambivalent emotional response: anger at countercultural naivety mixed with disappointment that the counterculture’s optimism was no longer possible. But The Pop Group belonged to that strain of post-punk which wanted to make good the promises that even the most successful ’60s music failed to deliver on. As such, the album was at odds with a growing mood of resignation and retreat which was spreading through post-punk and wider British society.”

Originally tweeted by Marcus Barnett (@marcusbarnett_) on April 21, 2023.

Mark had spoken about wanting to write an autobiography that would be half theory, half memoir (though even that is too simple a description of what he had in mind) for a few years, and finally committed to a contract and timeline last spring. From a publishers point of view the prospect of editing Mark was both an honour and a nightmare, and I was as intrigued as I was worried at what I might eventually find, once the first draft was handed in this summer. I may now never know. My last communication with him, just a few weeks ago, was based on the premise that we would meet soon to discuss the work, and as I did not know him well enough to know how he died, only that if he knew something was wrong, he wasn’t ready to share that with me or anyone outside his close circle, there is a sense that Mark was still very much in the middle of things when he passed.

Yet in spite of that, it is hard to view Mark’s life as uncompleted work. Seen in the light of Wilde’s advice of creating a work of art out of life, he was the new project he finished every day. The memory of being sent a song recorded off the cuff via WhatsApp, a bewitching astral sea shanty, which before I could thank him for the unexpectedly touching gesture, learned that he meant to send it to Mad Professor, not a figure I am usually confused with, is as telling an example of Mark’s erratic and infinite brilliance as a finished memoir. And the legacy he now leaves behind, an inspirational challenge to a new generation of restless giants.

— Tariq Goddard, “Remembering Mark Stewart”

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