“The Mekons are the most revolutionary group in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.” — Lester Bangs
Years before the term “collective” became a convenient and gradually more irritating shorthand for bands seeking a novel descriptor, there was the Mekons: a genuinely anarchic co-mingling of multi-media artists rampantly talented in the disciplines of music, visual arts, prose writing, and general hell-raising. Convened at Leeds University during the first wave of punk rock and eventually relocated to their adopted home of Chicago, the Mekons are a group of thinkers, agitators, political muckrakers, and brilliant songsmiths who have quietly generated some of the greatest music of the past forty years. That music has unfailingly been rendered on their own terms, and on their own timetable. To the extent that this has inhibited their commercial fortunes, it can mainly be seen as going to plan. Inculcated with a punk band’s proud paranoia regarding the music industry at large, and coupled with an aggressive (but hardly naïve) socialist bent, the mainstream option for the Mekons was likely foreclosed from the gate.
Still and even, there is a comic-tragic element to the pronounced obscurity under which the Mekons have labored during their storied tenure. Less cosmopolitan but equally trenchant as the Clash, tougher and more uncompromising than the Jam, equally tuneful but not as pretentiously mannered as Elvis Costello — there is a shadow history of rock and roll in which the Mekons represent the true standard bearer for the great outpouring of British talent that was the class of 1977. That they never approached anything resembling the notoriety of these contemporaries is attributable to any number of factors — creative restlessness, years of fallow activity, and a general fuck-you indifference to name but a few. In any case, history will record the Mekons’ greatness, and the Mekons are nothing so much as historians themselves. No other band has had more to say about the way we live now and the ways we might have avoided it. Maybe if the Mekons had been U2 we wouldn’t be in this bind.
Early Mekons releases combined tuneful aggression with a pronounced self-awareness that tended to cut off punk’s messianic bombast at the knees — their first single “Never Been In A Riot” took direct aim at the Clash’s risible, obnoxiously bourgeois would-be call to arms “White Riot.” The full flowering of their talent came later, with the indispensable run of albums beginning with 1985’s devastating Fear And Whiskey. That record has a justifiable reputation as an early exemplar of the insurgent country movement, eventually inspiring the subsequent heroics of the Old 97’s, Ryan Adams, and Chicago’s crucial Bloodshot label, which almost singlehandedly rescued C&W from Nashville’s greedy maw.
Great albums followed, one after the next: 1988’s So Good It Hurts was just that, a diverse and lacerating release that widened the band’s palate and sharpened their satirical tongue. Better still was the acid genius of 1989’s The Mekons Rock ‘N’ Roll, a record as vicious as it is catchy, and easily one of the best of its decade. The Curse Of The Mekons split the difference in 1991, co-mingling brilliant roots rock with an authoritative swagger resembling their closest cousins the Pogues.
For all of the resonant seriousness of their work, there is something of the ensemble comedy to the Mekons: Jon Langford’s raging exertions playing off the knowing vocals of Sally Timms and the wry counter-accusations of his opposite songwriting number Tom Greenhalgh. Sundry characters drop in and disappear, but the main thrust never changes. Ours is a capricious, even cruel existence, one that exacts a savage toll on all those who elect to move forward. Despite it all, there is honor in the fight, no matter how mad and quixotic.
This is the gift of the Mekons. Ten of their best lie ahead.
10. “Where Were You?” (1978 Single, appears on Where Were You? Hens Teeth And Other Lost Fragments Of Popular Culture, Vol. 2)
Early on the Mekons demonstrated that their considerable ambitions would extend well beyond the stringent confines of first-wave punk. That creative restlessness was never more evident than on 1978’s brilliant and slyly self-effacing single “Where Were You?” Pitched someplace between the populist major-chord reverie of Sham 69 and the awkward plainspoken overtures of the Modern Lovers, this is punk rock stripped of its dubious, tough-guy stance. Taken more broadly, the exhortation of “where were you?” is a leitmotif for all the group represents. As one atrocity follows the next, they seem to want to ask, where in the hell were any of us? The answer seems to be: too alienated to care, too ineffectual to make a difference.
9. “Space In Your Face” (from Ancient And Modern)
The galloping, upbeat “Space In Your Face” is 3:30 of pure, uncut pop pleasure replete with hooks and thrilling energy that belies the fact that it was released nearly forty years into the band’s career. While sounding perfectly fresh, the song is still vintage Mekons: It covers everything from the tragedy of the 1910 bombing of the L.A. Times, to the universal indignities of romantic betrayal, to Langford’s own dark appetites and behaviors. It could be speculated that the band’s longstanding success is the result of a precise alchemy of intellectual ambition, artistic curiosity, and social conscience, but also the product of their unique, utopian and positive approach to anarchy. They were merely “tempted to believe,” they tell us in “Space In Your Face” — it’s up to the listener to decide if they ever did give in to those temptations.
8. “Millionaire” (from I Love Mekons)
While the Mekons are the furthest thing from predictable, they are never less than humorous. “Millionaire” is a fantastic example of the band’s innate ability to be incredibly hilarious while sounding unbelievably cool to the point of almost — almost — seeming indifferent. Timms’ laconic delivery of vicious lines like “Lust corrodes my body/ I’ve lost count of my lovers/ but I can count my money forever and forever” is abetted by a propulsive, downright danceable rhythm section, driving guitars and some sweet plinky strings. One almost does wonder, as she sings the infectious and ecstatic refrain of “I love a millionaire,” if this socially conscious band actually kind of does feel just the slightest affection for idle wealth. Maybe she’s being funny — but who amongst us doesn’t love a millionaire? This is Madonna with 30 more IQ points (and we already knew Madge is very smart).
7. “The Curse” (from The Curse Of The Mekons)
Beginning with a winsome, Chieftains-like violin figure and baptized with the unforgettable initial gambit: “Magic, fear and superstition/ this is the curse of the Mekons,” 1992’s opener to the brilliant The Curse Of The Mekons is an equal opportunity account of a band that has ostensibly failed in conventional terms but succeeded in all of the ways that really mattered.
6. “Powers And Horror” (from Journey To The End Of The Night)
Shedding for a moment the hard armor of their overarching cleverness, this devastating, piano-driven ballad is a wounded confessional told from the perspective of an estranged lover who has neither country nor relationship to call his own. The implied terrors invoked by the title are a cancer that destroys relationships both intimate and societal. And there is little analog in popular music to compare with the mutually assured destruction of Langford’s crushing assessment of his former paramour’s new love interest: “The young man loved you so passionately/ He had to leave the country.” This is rough trade, brutally honest and possibly verging on cruel. As it should be. For the Mekons, cruelty and beauty are often handmaidens, and occasionally indistinguishable.
5. “Hard To Be Human Again” (from Fear And Whiskey)
If there is a foundational text to the Mekons’ experience, a kind of combined New and Old Testament, surely it must be the lacerating, blues-driven “Hard To Be Human Again,” a bruising travelogue and cautionary tale that reveals with utter certitude that no one is to be trusted, and god bless them for that. The Mekons’ world is one in which betrayal and viciousness are expected and only judged on the basis of their relative impact. “Well I’ve been punched and beaten,” sings Langford. He hastens to stipulate: “It never shows.”
4. “Waltz” (from The Curse Of The Mekons)
The Mekons possess an almost savant-like gift for catchy, upbeat rock, so it is strange to consider that much, if not most, of their best work occurs when the tempo slows. Such is the case with “Waltz,” whose Orwell-echoing sentiment “You animals can’t see/ your own activity” is the desperate highlight of The Curse Of The Mekons album. Right from the opening couplets’ sad advice to “pick on whoever you want,” this is a crushing song that seems to suggest that there is no home truly worth going back to. As if to pound the nail in harder, Sally Timms’ reading is typically spot on and poignant, representing the unlikely halfway point between Emmylou and Edith Piaf.
3. “Thee Olde Trip To Jerusalem” (from Out Of Our Heads)
The lead track to 2002’s Out Of Our Heads is perhaps the best existing commentary on 9/11 and the tragic, ultimately fruitless wars that followed in its wake. With razor’s edge acuity, and fashioned over a tribal beat like something out of Paul Simon’s worst nightmares, the band makes the case that the march to endless war is apiece with 3000 years of tragic, disastrous human history. “The seed of the devil/ lives on in men,” Langford sings. And then more grimly and humorously: “The plunder and the killing/ over and over/ on the backs of the people/ now just try to be sober.” It’s good advice, not followed by a nation bent on misplaced, violent revenge.
2. “Ghosts Of American Astronauts” (from So Good It Hurts)
“Ghosts Of American Astronauts” is one of the Mekons’ most poignant and beautiful tracks. Ostensibly concerning NASA and the Apollo 11 moon landing, the song is really more about the awful sadness that plagued America in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Sally Timms, sounding positively ethereal in a lovely bed of late-’80s production touches, intones “It’s just a small step for him/ It’s a nice break from Vietnam/ Filmed in a factory,” indicating the absolute desperation of a country that was so intoxicated by the vaulting heights of social and technological progress of that time, and simultaneously so thoroughly depressed by the imperial cruelty of a senseless and tragic war that it damn near required every possible distraction, every small shred of hope, no matter how unbelievable.
1. “Memphis, Egypt” (from The Mekons Rock ‘N’ Roll)
The lead track from the band’s astounding, toxic triumph The Mekons Rock ‘N’ Roll is a distillation of the rage, humor, and irony that populates so much of the group’s greatest work. Over a driving riff and unforgettable refrain, “Memphis, Egypt” lays waste to rock’s mythologies while unapologetically indulging in its sensual pleasures. Here Langford brazenly and persuasively compares the birthplace of rock with the early foundations of human slavery, all with a beat you can dance to. Rock and roll might well be “capitalism’s most favorite boy child,” but that doesn’t make it any less “the place we all want to go.” “Memphis, Egypt” does not so much bite the hand that feeds the Mekons, as tear off its head and parade it around in an unhinged orgy of bloodlust. Elvis would be proud, were he not so very dead.
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