The Mekons aren’t a band in any normal sense, may not exist, and can be accurately described only by using the sort of superlatives that would make most normal people throw up their hands in skeptical exasperation, all of which makes them a problem for those who love them. After all, I can tell you that at their best, they’re as good as your favorite band, that they could change the way you feel about things that matter to you, and/or that they offer solutions to some of the more serious internal conflicts felt by any ordinary citizen living under late capitalism—all (maybe) true!—but there’s no real reason for me to expect you to believe any of it, and in fact you probably won’t. With nearly everything ever written or recorded now instantly available to nearly everyone, it’s very easy to assume that everything that deserves to succeed either already has or is in the process of doing so, and so that failure, of whatever kind, is deserved. If the Mekons were what you claim they are, in other words, everyone would already know and acknowledge it. That they don’t is proof you’re wrong.
The irony here is that this line of reasoning is precisely what has always obsessed the Mekons, the very thing that a lot and maybe most of their best work is about: Does it matter what you say if no one really cares about it? The more closely everyone is wired up so that anyone at all can say anything to everyone, with a concomitant decrease in how much any of it matters, the more important a question it becomes, and so the more frustrating it becomes that few people have ever been all that in interested in what these people have to say about it.
Anyway, what really matters—aside from the fact that there are at least some people who care what they have to say, and that this is, or at least should be, enough success for anyone—is that no matter how much it ramifies out into the broader world, the Mekons are a great band. Many, though not all, of the things that make them so—they’re very drunk and very left-wing in a very old-fashioned way; smart in a way that involves, as an admirer put it, making references you don’t get even when you’ve read the books in question; and funny in the sense that you can’t figure out why their jokes work, especially since they make less sense the more you think about them (in all, they’re the perpetual grad student’s ideal band)—also make them sort of impenetrable. But there’s no reason to be unaware of them, or to be somewhat aware of them and write them off as strictly for the rigorously committed, or to be fully aware of them and not quite get what they’re on about. The ways in which they play out various paradoxes, in which their irrelevance proves all their central points and so on, are all there to think about if you’d like to, but the main thing is just to listen to them, which, as these things sometimes do, requires at least some background.
The basic line, which you may know, is that the Mekons formed in 1977 in Leeds as one of the first British bands to directly follow on punk and certainly the most conceptually interesting, a loose collective of art students who turned a legitimate inability to play, a fondness for and knowledge of socialism and theory, and a set of slightly arbitrary principles—”That anybody could do it; that we didn’t want to be stars; that there was no set group as such, anybody could get up and join in and instruments would be swapped around; that there’d be no distance between the audience and the band; that we were nobody special,” as one of them later explained—into about one and a half seconds of near-fame before ... something or other happened in the early ‘80s. They went quiet for a while and turned up in a very different iteration several years later, continuing to preach socialist principles while working in a pioneering alt-country style as a hard-touring independent act before going on to near-total commercial failure with a major label in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s during a straightforward rock ‘n’ roll phase before ... something or other happened. All this while, they were loved by critics when that meant something other than what it means now, and 38 years on, they turn up every few years at venues like Schuba’s in Chicago or the Bell House in New York with accompanying notices about their inspiring story of perseverance and their new record (the latest of dozens) and, occasionally, how much they mean.
This isn’t wrong, but it misses basically everything interesting about them, much and maybe most of which is hidden in those gaps where something or other happened: what they care about, why they care about it, and, mainly, what they’ve actually done. That fits, given what they are and always have been—an idea that almost incidentally worked, a critic’s band that critics have never really written all that much about as an actual band rather than as an abstraction, a cult band with a cult you could fit in a reasonably small room—but it leaves the would-be listener, who’s maybe just interested in them as a recording act, in a curious position, with absolutely no point of entry into their massive discography.
The Mekons have cut, depending on how you want to count, somewhere around two dozen full-length records. A few of those are curiosities, a few are terrible, most of them are somewhere between worth listening to and terrific, and many of them are truly great. While they’re very much an act in the present tense, though—there are people who will swear that some of their best records have been made over the past 20 years—what you’d start with is what they did between, say, 1981 and 1991, during which time they were maybe the best working band on the planet. That’s enough to keep anyone busy for a while, and for most people entirely. This is an index of those records (along with one that was recorded many years later but shouldn’t be left out), listed roughly in order of how much I like them. (Consumer note: Most of this stuff is available on Spotify.) If you wanted to know why the Mekons matter—and probably you wouldn’t, which is fine!—this is where you would start.
Fear and Whiskey (1985, Sin Records)
For the first seven years of their existence, the Mekons weren’t quite a band, even if they also weren’t, as myth came to have it, an anarchist collective of dozens whose Band-style role-swapping was meant as a critique of the individual’s role in an ordered society or some such. (“That’s bullshit,” singer Tom Greenhalgh once said. “There were various people sort of, like, in and out of the band, but that was just due to the fact that we couldn’t really pay anybody anything, so it was just that people did it when they could.”) By the end of that time, they were basically a few people getting together to play every so often who hadn’t released a proper record or played out much in years and were trying to figure out just what they wanted to do.
Things changed in 1984, the year of the British miners strike. Entire industrial cities looked on as pitched battles were held between miners and their allies and the forces of Margaret Thatcher’s government, thousands strong on each side and both not entirely wrongly convinced that control of this local corner of history itself was at stake. However doomed it may seem in retrospect, at the time this was a battle for the left to join, and Mekons of whatever description were meaningfully of the left, so they cohered into a basically stable band so that they could play benefit concerts for the cause. (Going with whoever showed up wouldn’t do.)
Given this background, Fear and Whiskey probably should have been earnest, strident, doctrinaire, and fixed in its time and place, but it really isn’t any of those things at all. It’s certainly about violence and repression—There’s trouble down south, metal keens through the air, one song’s narrator begins before being replaced by, in turn, a garbled security transmission (All personnel to neutralize the high negative environment) and a ranting citizen (Revenge is a red flag soaked in a brother’s blood ... Despots beware! This is the start of our freedom!)—but it’s not about anything so specific as a miners strike or even what it meant to be of a dead left in Great Britain in 1984, but more about failure and defeat generally, and learning to take the world as it is without giving in to it.
“I would love, and the rest of the band would love, to do something more,” founding Mekon Kevin Lycett would say of the broad idea of effecting change years after this record came out. “To feel that there is nothing coherent and constructive with which you can work is extremely frustrating. But that happens to be the case.” This is an admission that has ruined many lesser artists, but the Mekons made something of it.
If you went by its nominal subjects, you might take Fear and Whiskey for a catalogue of death and despair; there are dispossessed miners, survivors of a vaguely described conflict getting by in some kind of occupied ruins, people who abandon their own lives on a whim, and several victims of unrequited love. Lyrically, it can all run together a bit, as various people learn that nothing can be done about the state of things: I was out late the other night, fear and whiskey kept me going ... nothing here but the war ... looking at you in desperation, knowing nothing ever happens ... Going by how it actually sounds, though—which is hard to describe, one of the defining characteristics of a great record being that it doesn’t sound much like anything else—it can’t be taken that way at all. The actual argument is more that given the inevitability of defeat, and the lack of anything coherent and constructive with which anyone who wants to make a better society can work, the only thing to do is celebrate.
In theory this is one of the first alt-country records, whatever that means, but while that isn’t really wrong, it misses the point by a lot. There are flourishes here—honky-tonk piano, old-timey guitar, and Susie Honeyman’s beautiful fiddle—but given the ever-present mechanized roar underneath it all, it really ends up coming off less like a bunch of drunken Brits with an overriding obsession with various kinds of hill music than the kind of songs people in some bombed-out version of Leeds or Manchester might play 20 minutes into the future, stitched together out of half-remembered records from the past. Which is, sort of, what it actually is; over the few years before they made this, the Mekons had zeroed out everything they knew and figured out how to play music as if they’d never done so before, and then started working within remnants of traditions they didn’t know all that well, some of them half-forgotten. In its approximation of a dimly remembered past, it sounds a bit like the end of history might have in 1985 (or might now), which might be what makes it so endlessly listenable. The backwoods-dance touches on songs about state violence and love affairs that will never happen, and the sloshed approximations of American idioms learned third-hand come off less as the empty gestures they might and maybe even should be than as as a demonstration that it would take a lot more than defeat to ever stop anyone who’s decided getting by is worthwhile from doing so. Who worth talking to wouldn’t have a use for that?
Recommended: The entire thing
The Curse of the Mekons (1991, Blast First)
The Curse of the Mekons is almost willfully off-putting and occasionally perverse. This is a record where the shitkickers have lyrics like I represent commodity and Democracy is an alibi, that last in a song about a funeral being held for the wrong corpse that puts forth the questionable idea that socialism has never really been tried. It features an acid house number in which stalwart Mekon Tom Greenhalgh, in a ridiculous falsetto, accuses someone of being a bourgeois sorcerer, and the truly beautiful “Waltz,” on which Sally Timms sings, The sea turns black with robot’s blood, totally straight-faced. When they play it straight, though, they come up with songs like “The Curse” and “Funeral,” which come off like what the Clash might have done if they’d ever really meant it; the most intricate rhythm work the band ever did; and a version of John Anderson’s “Wild and Blue” that’s much better than both it has any right to be and the original. In all, it’s like they’re just daring the unconvinced to actually like it, probably because they more or less are.
“Wild and Blue,” 1991
If you wanted to do so, you could date the Mekons’ central myth—that they are, on a basic level, failures—to 1991, the year this record came out. Two years before, they released the undeniably great The Mekons Rock ‘n’ Roll, featuring five or so songs that could and maybe should have been the kind of radio hits that sell out arenas, on A&M. It sold 21,000 copies. The next one they turned in—this one—was at least as good, and the label, inexplicably convinced it was some kind of joke, simply declined to either release it or release them from their contract. Just as the United States was starting to listen to all sort of strange back-alley and underground acts, the Mekons had a great album out and no way for anyone there to listen to it as anything but an extremely expensive import. It was an irresistible narrative that no one resisted.
“The key to our success is our lack of success,” singer/guitarist/artist etc. Jon Langford told the Chicago Tribune at the time. “We survived because we weren’t supposed to survive.”
The subhed of that article summed up even the best of what was being written about them at the time. They’re the world’s best band that nobody’s ever heard of, and they have a secret to their success: failure. In the intervening 23 years, even as the record business has collapsed to the point that nearly everyone has given up not just on appealing to any sort of mass audience, but on selling anything at all, this line of thinking, which casually equates an inability to sell a commercial product with failure, has somehow become even more prevalent. Last year, for example, Grantland’s Steven Hyden wrote, apparently sincerely, that “an album that the majority of pop fans will have no interest in hearing (in part because it’s been rigged to turn those people off) can never be meaningful.” This is so vulgar—it’s a straight claim that mass appeal is the perfect metric by which to measure aesthetic significance!—that it can only be taken as a gesture at some entirely different idea. Even read generously, though, it seems to view art through the prism of the efficient-market hypothesis, as if the public were less a mass of individuals among whom musicians might hope to turn a few listeners on to what they’re doing than a crowd to whose wisdom they need to appeal; and if it’s surprising at all, it’s just because it presents as text what’s left as subtext in even your more refined cultural coverage these days.
Anyway, the Mekons may have been performative in their references to the titular curse, playing up the idea that something had gone badly wrong for them (which, granted, it had, at least so far as they were people who had livings to make), and their inability even to get their records released may have had a lot to do with why several of them moved abroad to Chicago, San Francisco, and New York, ending their tenure as a more or less normal band and their time as maybe the best one going (though presenting Chicagoans, to the present day, the appealing prospect of spotting Mekons at bars all over town, sometimes playing and sometimes just drinking), and all of this may be why they’re so associated with failure. They may, either out of ideology or an inability to do otherwise, have refused to compromise to the point where it was self-defeating; they may, in giving themselves over to a sort of obscurantism right when they were at their peak, actually have rigged their records to turn off a majority of pop fans. Unless you’re truly committed to treating the public’s judgments as definitionally correct and so to denying not only the agency of the artist but the possibility of art, though, it’s hard to see, all these years later, why anyone would be anything other than happy that they did, given that the record is still right there to play.
Recommended: “The Curse,” “Wild & Blue,” “Funeral,” “Waltz”
The Mekons Rock ‘n’ Roll (1989, Twin/Tone Records)
“It feels like a job slightly too well done,” Tom Greenhalgh said of this record in 1991. “I felt we were making a coherent Mekons album; that for me isn’t as interesting as pushing a bit further and maybe making something that you lose control over.”
Greenhalgh made this point by way of explaining why The Curse of the Mekons, which was just out at the time, was a better record. Jon Langford, at this point the one other remaining original Mekon (I think), didn’t agree, but took the point. Curse, he said, was “more relaxed ... gentle in a way.” As an inverse description of Rock ‘n’ Roll, it works fine. This is a record about (well) rock and roll, done by people who if they don’t hate it certainly don’t trust it, and who sing and play as if they want there never to be another rock and roll record ever again.
In “Memphis, Egypt”—the record’s opener and single—alone, rock and roll is written off in enough ways to have you done with it. The battles we fought were long and hard, they proclaim, just not to be consumed by rock ‘n’ roll. The once-vital American form is written off as capitalism’s favorite child; as dead, dangling on the end of a rope with spots before its eyes; as the devil’s breath; as something to sell your labor for; and, finally as that secret place where we all want to go, which whatever it is doesn’t sound like any place that actually exists, which is of course the point. You can take this as a critique of capitalism’s ability to assimilate and commodify any critique of itself—and why not? the opening lines of the next song on the record are When I was just 17, sex no longer held a mystery; I saw it as a commodity, to be bought and sold like rock ‘n’ roll—or just as a pretty good joke, given that the song itself is literally the very thing it’s criticizing, the Mekons enacting their own complicity with a big, radio-friendly rave-up that could have served the very engine of commerce they so disdained.
“Memphis, Egypt” 1989
World-historically terribly video aside, there’s no obvious reason why this couldn’t have played on thousands of jukeboxes and millions of late-night drives; that it didn’t just makes it funnier.
This is basically how the whole record plays out, as a very good and very bitter joke; there are reasons why many aficionados claim this is the Mekons’ best record, and why they may be right. They were certainly never tighter, more confident, more focused, or better engineered than they are here; the whole thing is just a straightforwardly great rock and roll record, which they seem to be uncomfortably aware of. It’s hard to think they meant lines like Throw another rock n’ roll song on the fire, or This song ... is in a pretended family relationship with the others on this record and on the charts all that sincerely, and while they may have been mocking a gringo military fighting a rock and roll war, you know they had a little sympathy for them, too. The Mekons may not have wanted to be a great rock and roll band, but they were, and perhaps consequently, they were too honest to either moderate their view of rock and roll as an expression of imperial capitalism’s worst impulses or to take it at all seriously.
This all comes together in strange ways—in how, for instance, “Blow Your Tuneless Trumpet,” wonderful enough just as straight mockery of the tunelessly trumpeting Bono at a time when he was merely aspiring to join the transnational elite of a bad Times columnist’s fever dreams (We don’t want the glamor, the pomp and the drums, the Dublin messiah scattering crumbs), does itself one better by being, in its own right, a better U2 song than anything U2 was actually doing. The best, though, has to do with a song that wasn’t even on the record.
In 1988, the Mekons signed with Twin/Tone, a formerly independent label known for promoting acts like the Replacements and Soul Asylum, which at the time operated as a boutique affiliate of A&M, which a) didn’t mind the odd prestige project, and b) certainly had in mind that there might be some profit in mining the underground for acts that had both cachet and a sound you could imagine crossing over. The trouble was that even so, they remained a big, faceless record label, and while A&M somewhat inexplicably allowed the Mekons to record just what they intended—a “savage critique of the music business which would probably be the last record we’d ever make,” as Greenhalgh described it—they wouldn’t allow them to release it as they wanted. The first objection had to do with an image of Elvis Presley on the record’s sleeve; the second, for whatever reason, was that the record had 14 songs rather than an even dozen. The label won out, and Rock ‘n’ Roll came out, in the United States at least, with pretty dire artwork and without one of its best songs.
“I Have Been to Heaven and Back,” 1989
Like a lot of the Mekons’ better songs, there’s no special reason why “I Have Been to Heaven and Back,” with its army-of-God chorus and big, crashing riffs, couldn’t have been a barroom classic. Why anyone would decide that this just had to go is a mystery that surpasses all understanding, not least because it’s the song that makes sense out of the entire record, the one point at which the Mekons stop trying to heighten the contradictions and instead say something as if they mean it. Maybe that’s what the big faceless label didn’t like! It’s a great song either way.
Recommended: “Memphis, Egypt,” “Club Mekon,” “Amnesia,” “Blow Your Tuneless Trumpet”
The Edge of the World (1986, Sin)
Whether or not the public noticed (not really) and whether or not it mattered (definitely not), going into 1986, the Mekons may have been the best band in the world. Usually, the point when you can say that of anyone in any field is the exact point where they start fucking up badly. The Mekons didn’t; they were actually getting better in some ways.
The Edge of the World is the least conceptual of their best records; they’re not really trying to convince anyone of or demonstrate anything in particular, and they seem to have (mostly) forgotten their theory. As you might figure, this is therefore at least as straightforwardly fun as anything else they did, beery and raucous and full of piss and vinegar. It may not be hook-filled by conventional standards, exactly, but it does have some great refrains—Don’t mutter at me you bastard, I’ve got cheap emotions, e.g., or, on a lament for the miners’ defeat, No one ever says good-bye these days, we’re all too busy running scared—and if you give them some time they’ll stick. In 1992, a writer described the Mekons as being to rock and roll what Basque is to languages, which was, and is, about right. This record is one where you can pretty easily make out what they’re talking about.
One of the better, if less convincing, of the many versions of the story about how some pretentious art punks came to play sort-of (and, in its own way, unquestionably authentic) country is laid out in that same piece. “Well, we were interested in country and Western, but didn’t know how to play it,” claims Jon Langford before comparing what the Mekons were doing to folk tradition, where songs are passed on orally to the point where the song itself is lost and any given version is a highly distorted version of the original. This is actually a pretty good description of The Edge of the World. It’s far more inflected by straight country than, say, Fear and Whiskey, but the style still comes off as a deranged variant, more what you might come up with if you listened to something done by someone copying something done by someone who’d heard the thing itself than anything else. (The versions of “Sweet Dreams” and “Alone and Forsaken” here, with their skronky guitar and dead-flat drawls, capture something important that pretty much everyone else has always missed in the originals, but really sound nothing at all like them.) There’s also some clever misdirection going on here, though; as my theory goes, the reason things worked was that the Mekons actually knew what they were doing.
“Big Zombie,” 1986
Along with the various art school types, dubious leftists, and would-be seedy drifters who always made up the better part of their act, the Mekons had, at this point, brought on a few professionals. On drums—and given their catalogue’s deceptive variety in style and tempo, this mattered a lot—they had Steve Goulding, one-time drummer for the Rumour, a ridiculously tight group of hired guns who backed about half the British singers worth listening to (Graham Parker, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe) throughout the 1970s. Among their guitarists was Dick Taylor, a founding member of the Rolling Stones, of all things, whom they (supposedly) met in a studio. He (supposedly) didn’t even know any of the songs, but would just turn up places with his guitar and amp and add the kind of touches that make something better than really good. (It may be that this isn’t actually true, but it’s the sort of thing that should be, and anyway it probably is.)
Perhaps most important, Susie Honeyman, the classically trained violinist who had been a Mekon for years (while also playing with the indescribable English eccentric Vivian Stanshall), had by this point gone well past the sort of basically textural flourishes she’d previously provided, working up a style that seemed to have no provenance and was exactly perfect for those old country songs the band couldn’t (or wouldn’t) quite play right. A refrain like the one on “King Arthur” works as well as it does because Honeyman is right there in it, just as the shanty that gives the record its name—With a yo and a ho and the wind starts to blow, as we float off the edge of the world—works thanks to Rico Bell’s accordion, just as you believe Langford when he claims I’m just not human tonight! largely because of the snares behind him. Shambolic ineptitude takes work.
Recommended: “Bastard,” “King Arthur,” “Big Zombie,” “Slightly South of the Border”
The Mekons Story, 1977-1982 (1982, CNT Productions)
I have no idea what to tell you about this record, which I really love even though large parts of it are purposefully unlistenable and a lot of the parts that aren’t make no sense outside of a context that mainly consists of other records no one should listen to. It’s an odds and sods collection—demos, B-sides, outsides—from a band that, at this point, barely had any proper records; an assortment of home-brewed no-wave, rudimentary punk, burn-out folk, and between-tracks narration that includes, among other things, lengthy recitations from a recording contract; and it captures the entire ugly process of people figuring out what they want to say by figuring out how to say it.
All of this entails a lot of experimentation with primitive synths that sound like they’re rusted out and/or about to short in service of songs, some of which just consist of announcements that a song is going to be played, about dole cuts, whether things like love and heaven can or do exist, and whatever else. Everything they would become is implicit on here (“Trouble Down South,” one of the better songs on Fear and Whiskey, is actually on here in a compelling if quarter-assed version), but very little of it is fully formed. Conceptually, that’s probably for the best—listen in as bright people figure out how to make music works well enough—but it also obscures just how good the best of what’s on there is, because it’s exhausting. Whatever, you figure it out; just writing about this record turns you into an asshole. Here, for example, is what three well-known critics, each invested in and sympathetic to the Mekons, had to say about it:
A few of the tracks forge form from the refusal of technique, with the thirty-four-second hotel-room punk of “Letter’s in the Post” and Mark White’s mad-busker voice-and-footstomp revery “The Building” more convincing candidates than any of the rough postpunk or folk-rock or Anglodisco numbers. But unless you’re heavily into the byways of anarchist negation, most of it demands more consideration than there’s any reason to expect from the ordinary harassed citizen, social worker, journalist, or record executive.
That’s Robert Christgau, and while it reads like the product of an aphasiac fit, this is an accurate description of the record, which is in fact filled with mad-busker voice-and-footstomp revelry and Anglodisco that forge form from the refusal of technique in service of anarchist negation. Make what you will of his ambivalence toward the idea of demanding more consideration than you have any reason to expect.
The Mekons Story ... begins from the premise that expression is a natural right with no obligations to world-historical significance ... and moves back and forth across a terrain where that self-exculpatory idea attaches itself to an obligation to discover what it is one really wants to say—and an obligation to discover the most interesting ways to say it, and who one wants to say it to. In other words, expression turns into politics.
This is from Greil Marcus, who understood the Mekons better than nearly anyone, and also finds himself unable to describe what they’re doing in terms anyone might believe. The Mekons Story actually really is about expression as natural right and the obligation to discover what one has to say and interesting ways to say it, but also sounds like it was recorded by drunks on a Walkman, which should be taken into account if you want to, say, convince people that “Building,” an a capella rant that sounds like what you might hear a literate beggar singing on a street corner, is the culmination of the English Civil War.
The only critic I’ve read who put this record in terms that made sense was Lester Bangs, who wrote the liner notes. I’m not convinced he actually listened to it, mind you; it’s hard to imagine him passing up the chance to write about, say, a song that starts John Peel, what we want to know, is will you play our record on your show? and then demands that the listener dance and drink the Mekons. But whether or not he did, he definitely understood what the Mekons were up to—years later, they would posthumously collaborate with him, setting and recording a (pretty bad) song they’d written together—and he wrote about it exactly as it deserved:
The Mekons are the most revolutionary group in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. They are also the finest artists ever to have graced this admittedly somewhat degenerate form with the grace of their aesthetic sensibilities ... THEY ARE BETTER THAN THE BEATLES ... I have never heard this album. I never will. I have better things to do ... I never listen to music and neither do the Mekons. They make it instead. Everybody has to do something. My advice to you is to kill yourself.
Recommended (?): “Not a Bitterman,” “Bomb Train,” “Eden,” “Walking Song”
New York on the Road 86-87 (1987, ROIR Records)
The Mekons are a great live band, and not just on the brief tours they take every few years, during which they play fairly small rooms filled with people who adore them, so that every show is a bit of a homecoming. Last year, for instance, I saw Sally Timms and Jon Langford perform in The Moon Men of the Moon, a short musical, in a side gallery of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. (“When Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon for the first time, was he a futuristic explorer, brutal conqueror, cultural imperialist, or all of the above?” accompanying materials asked. “How was indigenous Moon Art influenced by this traumatic encounter with the ‘heroic’ Astronaut?”) They wore paper masks, assistants held up a painted sheet representing the surface of the moon, and Timms dropped heavy sheets of painted clay depicting the effects of America on the moon men at the feet of bewildered museum-goers.
As seen in the Museum of Contemporary Art, 2014
At one point, a guard, clearly unconvinced this was a museum-sanctioned activity, got involved.
As this suggests, and as you’d expect of a band founded in part in opposition to the idea of distance between musician and audience, there are aspects of performance the Mekons don’t take very seriously, and never have. At one of their first-ever shows, they brought a couch up on stage to represent a spaceship, getting the point across by painting the word “spaceship” on it, and as they went on, things stayed in this spirit, encouraged by the art-school crowds they were playing for. (At this time, and for a while afterward, the Mekons were part of what was more or less a collective with Gang of Four as Leeds played host, for a couple of years, to possibly the best and almost certainly the smartest and/or most pretentious scene anywhere.) “Lyrics, read off a piece of paper, devolved into improvised gabble. Friends wandered on and offstage,” Simon Reynolds wrote in his postpunk history Rip It Up and Start Again. At one gig, “the set disintegrated because the setlist had been inadvertently written out in a completely different order for every band member.”
New York, their only officially released live record, sounds exactly the way you would expect, given all this. Documenting a U.S. tour taken in 1986 and 1987, it’s poorly recorded—the fidelity isn’t helped by its having been released on ROIR, a cassette-only label notorious for having managed to add a dim patina to every release—and haphazardly laid out. Songs disappear beneath the general murk and the between-songs sketches consisting mainly of drunken tour-bus banter; drunken hectoring; and drunken, ominous stage announcements. (“Let the Mekons … fear the Mekons!”) You could miss the actual band underneath all the din and racket.
A lot of the best songs here—”Trouble Down South,” “Flitcraft,” “Hard to be Human Again,” etc.—are off Fear and Whiskey, and they’re some of the best the Mekons ever wrote, but you can hear something entirely different coming together, too. This is the point where they were finally figuring out what the United States, the country with which they enjoyed a strange relationship involving one-sided fascination and mutual loathing, actually sounded like. There are rootsish covers (the Band, Merle Haggard) and slight reworkings of stand-bys, but also originals like “Beaten and Broken” and “Revenge” that aren’t even necessarily any good in their studio versions and rate, as played here, among the better things they ever did. Whatever their pretenses to amateurism and claims about having learned to play folk and country by mishearing it, they could by now really swing in a totally straightforward way, and Timms, in particular, had come into her own. It’s hard to not be a little terrified when you hear her sing, Revenge ain’t so sweet, but it’ll have to do or Like your first sweet kiss, hate has lost its charm over a backing that could have come out of Bakersfield in the 1960s, and one of the best things about it is that it doesn’t work just as a piss-take, but as the thing itself.
At one point here Langford says, “Apart from being an art performance troupe, we play music,” which is a pretty good joke in part because he wasn’t kidding. But however seriously they may or may not have taken performance conceptually, they got very good at it. Whether they would have been done so if they’d been playing for larger crowds is perhaps a question for those who would have taken the existence of such crowds as a kind of validation to think about.
Recommended: “Revenge,” “Beaten and Broken,” “Not Long Ago,” “Sophie”
The Mekons (1980, Red Rhino Records)
Three years after their first show, the Mekons had a few perfect if comically inept singles and one dire if professional-sounding long-player to show for their efforts. This was fine given that they were a highly unserious band, less so given that they did have some ambitions past being the punk rockers who truly couldn’t play at all. Years later, Jon Langford would talk about The Quality of Mercy Is Not Strnen, their first proper record, as something they had to atone for.
“The records we made on Virgin ... were absolute crap; really boring. I was ashamed,” he said. “It was just like, ‘What is this?’ Let’s do something interesting. And then we went and did the second album, and we went to a little folk studio in the hills near Halifax just outside Leeds, and then, that was brilliant. We all decided we would just swap instruments, we wouldn’t have any songs, we would just make shit up in the studio. That was much better.”
It was! The problem with the first record, aside from its sterility, is that it could have been the work of basically any half-competent punk-inflected band in the United Kingdom who could count a few years in art school between them. The second one—which was originally known, incidentally, as The Mekons, and is now known as Devils, Rats & Piggies: A Special Message From Godzilla for no reason I’m clear on—
wasn’t like that at all. It actually doesn’t sound too much like anything else they, or anyone else, ever recorded, and it’s the first time they sound recognizably like themselves.
Langford is probably up to at least some self-mythologizing when he says the Mekons made all of this up in the studio (though who knows, given that they’ve been claiming for a very long time that they more or less just write up lyrics as necessary while recording). Either way, they came up with an impressively coherent set of songs, which aren’t only even more obscure than usual but seemingly lack any external referents, so that the whole record seems like a closed system. With the vocals as muddied as they are, it takes active effort to pick out what any of it is actually about, much less what any of it has to do with anything. But once you get past the stray horrifying phrase floating up out of the muck (When we cleanse the state of his corruption ... chamber music in a bungalow ... these illusions disillusion me ... money chatters, the sound of guns ... I never see the relevance ...) there’s a clear internal logic to the way it all describes a society much like, though not quite like, our own by focusing on its far margins: country murders, pederasts, mine explosions, riots in the aftermath of revolution, nationalists, the workings of capital, and so on. It’s folk music out of some tradition that only ever existed in the Mekons’ heads, and so, among other things, a working sketch for Fear and Whiskey. If it was all written on the spot, that just shows these people were on to something.
“The Trimden Grange Explosion,” 1980
The claim about everyone having just switched instruments for this one, for its part, seems almost obviously true. The Mekons is bleak, affectless, and mechanical; despite bringing in strings and horns and, for the first time, hints (and sometimes more than that) of country and English folk, it still all sounds dirty and heavily processed, as if people had worked out parts they weren’t entirely sure of and put them all together regardless of the line of best fit. That makes this record very different from the ones that would follow, which if nothing else sound very warm and lived-in, maybe in part because they were made by people who’d recorded one where nothing sounds right at all, even if that didn’t hurt it a bit.
Recommended: “Snow,” “Institution,” “The Trimden Grange Explosion”
Punk Rock (2004, Quarterstick Records)
There aren’t many ideas worse in theory than a band getting together to do a record full of new versions of their quarter-century-old songs, and the Mekons would seem especially poorly suited to it. In a general sense, you’d prefer them to do something original rather than reinterpret their own past, and they’re too uncompromisingly committed to forward motion for the idea of a nostalgia revue to make any sense anyway. In a narrow sense, the lack of a constituency for most of their songs makes it all seem a bit like a case of revisiting past glories that never were.
The Mekons, ca. 2003, re-recording 15 songs from their first four or so years of existence works very differently in practice than it did in theory. Given that a lot of these songs weren’t played or recorded very well in the first place—The Quality of Mercy Is Not Strnen, from which a near-majority of these songs come, was apparently recorded by someone who thought that clean rooms and clear sounds would make them seem professional rather than killing everything interesting about them—this ends up less as a case of George Lucas-type revisionism and more just a ramshackle outfit excavating some weird old records (as recorded on Punk Rock, some of these songs are older than the Mekons were when they wrote them) and having fun with them. The only unusual thing about any of it is that the records are, at least nominally, their own.
Maybe it works as well as it does because only two members remain from the band’s earliest days, so that they’re basically playing other people’s music, or because these Mekons take themselves even less seriously than their predecessors did. Who knows? Whatever the case, not only is this iteration of the band able to rescue the songs from the fussy production and generally mannered performances of the older versions, but they’re able to have all sorts of fun with anachronism. (“Rosanne,” for instance, seems a lot more like the arrangement Gang of Four used to play live than like the original; it’s functionally a band covering a different band covering an entirely different version of itself.) They’re also able to take second chances. If the original version of “Dan Dare” sounds a little embarrassed by its own stupidity—Outer space, it’s a really nice place! Dan Dare! Oh yeah! goes basically the entire lyric—the newer one (rightly) exults in it, as the older one should have done all along.
Those little changes in pitch can do wonders. In its 1979 version, “Work All Week,” the monologue of a man willing to work as hard as he has to to buy his beloved the things he needs to buy her, is a straightforwardly sardonic critique of the idea of romantic love as an essentially commercial transaction, the same sort of thing Gang of Four was always going on about, with all the jumpy riffs and grim delivery typical of any British bands of the time that read lots about commodification. The 2004 version is just as bitter but much funnier when played by people who know enough to subordinate the lyric to a delightfully chirpy and witless arrangement that, syrupy-sweet and silly as it is, manages to tease out a bit of humane sympathy for its deluded lover/victim of capitalism. They even got to lip sync it on Top of the Pops.
“Work All Week,” 2004
This makes for a nice parallel to, say, “32 Weeks,” which, even more than “Never Been in a Riot”—their first single, and a great slap at The Clash’s rebel posturing—is the anthem of the early, deliberately ridiculous Mekons that really holds up and defines them, the 32 weeks of the title being the amount of work they figure it takes to make enough money to buy a car. Reeling off the amount of human life it takes to buy various purportedly necessary consumer products— Get a car! Get a bed! Get drunk! And eat!—they manage to spell out the precise value of accommodating yourself to a society that, as Margaret Thatcher liked to say, didn’t even exist. It was a good joke in its first version, and the older Mekons, redoing a bunch of old songs that mainly hadn’t worked, knew well enough to know it, and play it just as straight, or not, as their predecessors had. Which was a point of real continuity: In any version, they always meant their rejectionism enough to never take it more seriously than it deserved, which is probably why they grew with rather than out of it.
Recommended: “Teeth,” “32 Weeks,” “What”
So Good It Hurts (1988, Twin/Tone)
I probably wouldn’t recommend this record to anyone, including you, mainly because I’m not sure whether or not I like it. After a long time, I’ve nearly come around on it, but if I have, it’s almost more in theory than practice, which is to say this is the record on which the Mekons sound to me the most like I suspect they do to other people. It’s ... questionable.
The likeliest explanation here is the simplest. Like Honky Tonkin’, which I also don’t believe, this captures the Mekons in a transitional period, where they weren’t working on their own terms quite so much as they were on Fear and Whiskey and The Edge of the World, and weren’t yet ready to confront popular radio as confidently as they would on Rock ‘n’ Roll and Curse of the Mekons. (A more specific and non-contradictory theory is that at this point they were down a few of the wrong rabbitholes; the reggae and calypso inflections here in particular just don’t work, which isn’t much helped by every other song or so being so inflected, so that at points it sounds like late/bad Talking Heads.)
For all that, you wouldn’t have to be any kind of obsessive to get into this, and not just on the general grounds that a great band working out issues is usually, and here actually is, better and more interesting than an okay one getting everything as right as they can. For one, not everything here gets dubious world-music inflections, and some of what doesn’t is great, like “(Sometimes I Feel Like) Fletcher Christian,” to this day a live staple. For another, this is the record where a standard off-hand Mekons joke involving a contrast between harmless tune and horrifying lyric gets worked out most and best. In “Robin Hood,” i.e., things take a sudden turn from an archaically phrased and gleefully self-parodic chorus commanding medieval peasants to rise and take from the rich to, for no evident reason, a brief history of the United Kingdom’s 20th century— Images of Spitfires strafing Greek resistance fighters; Winston Churchill gunning down the South Wales striking miners; kn green we fought the black ‘n’ tans and beat them back to Ulster; an 18-year-old Argentine, lungs filled with cold water—which isn’t just pretty good, but echoed everywhere else in completely random asides that are about as sharp as they’d like to be. (Daddy’s in the Falklands, he don’t love you any longer, say, or Trapped in history, like piss in the snow.)
A lot of these asides involve your worst world leaders—Reagan and Thatcher are praised for being dead, and Nixon is spotted arriving somewhere with Hitler as a special guest—coming in for derision on principle. They work and don’t, but set up and play off of “Ghosts of American Astronauts,” by far the best and strangest thing on the record and easily one of the best and strangest things the Mekons ever did (and for which, wonderfully and inexplicably, they made a video):
“Ghosts of American Astronauts,” 1988
As the broader Mekons story goes, the significance of this record is that it’s where Sally Timms, who for the last 30 or so years has been the best (and slyest) of their various singers, established herself as such on record, with, among other things, a brutally straight (and thus funny) version of “Heart of Stone” that just by being as straight as it is makes Mick Jagger out to be even more of a frightened, insecure little boy than he actually was. More specifically, though, it’s that this is the record “Ghosts of American Astronauts” is on. There’s no real telling what’s going on here; I’ve listened to this more times than I’d like to admit and still have no idea what, exactly, it’s about. Richard Nixon sucks a dry martini; John Glenn stages the moon landing in a factory and heads off to Saigon to drink cocktails with God; dead American astronauts float above military complexes in rural England; and the Mekons, on a record where they celebrate Reagan’s death while he’s still in office, write a lovely, rueful song that manages to critique all the worst horrors of American empire both directly and from oblique and infinitely suggestive angles without really saying anything at all. As they ask, who says the world isn’t flat?
Recommended: “Ghosts of American Astronauts,” “Heart of Stone,” “(Sometimes I Feel Like) Fletcher Christian”
Honky Tonkin’ (1987, Sin)
This one never did much for me.
Recommended: “Sleepless Nights,” “Sin City”
Top photo via Facebook