But the project misfired even before release, which was held up while the A&M legal department fretted over the unauthorized Elvis pic cunningly concealed on the cover, and to the predictable dismay of both sides, U.S. consumption topped out at around 23,000. Talk to founding Mekons Tom Greenhalgh and Jon Langford and you'll hear the sad old stories of fans who just couldn't find the thing in the shops: Blask First president Paul Smith, who became the only manager the band's ever had shortly after the record came out, complains about paltry tour support, about nonexistent ads in _Forced Exposure_ and _Your Flesh_ and _Musician_ and _Spin_. There are counterarguments, however. A&M couldn't stand Smith, whom nobody claims is easy to get on the phone, and promotionally, what touring the band did do was ill-designed -- it allowed no time for advance work, and instead of starting out by selling themselves to label honchos in L.A., the Mekons finished up there and immediately returned to Europe for more dates. By the time they came back that spring, _Rock 'n' Roll_ was dead meat, and when they told Ralbovsky they wanted to cut another album right away, he suggested they have some fun with an EP instead. Honoring this request to the letter, they dubbed the fourth EP of their oddly configured career _F.U.N. '90_: buncha covers, ghost vocal from early fan Lester Bangs, Anglodisco-style pulse that came as a shock after _Rock 'n' Roll_'s Clashlike aggression. A&M was baffled, and pissed.
So were the Mekons. In fact, they felt on the verge of breakdown or breakup, and when they flew over to play Tramps last November, they asked out of their contract. I won't bore you with the crossfire except to note that A&M insists the Mekons demanded sales in the hundreds of thousands and the Mekons deny it, and that A&M refused to let them go. Abandoning the clever scheme of withholding _The Curse of the Mekons_, which they'd cut on advances from Twin/Tone and Blast First, the Mekons eventually sent master tapes to A&N only to have them rejected as "technically and commercially unsatisfactory" -- commercially for the obvious reasons, technically because the tape arrived too late to release before alternative radio went home for vacation (not for sound quality, as the indignant Mekons believed). The album then reverted to the Amerindie limbo of Twin/Tone, which to no one's surprise failed to find another major-label distributor. If the group can get their catalogue back in return, _The Curse of the Mekons_ may yet surface as their Twin/Tone swan song. Otherwise, their 10th album will only be "available" here as a Blast First import.
This is lamentable -- even tragic. Since 1985's _Fear and Whiskey_, the Mekons have put out as much good music as anybody in rock and roll. Informed opinion differs -- in some parallel universe Lester Bangs is beaming up _The Quality of Mercy_, Greil Marcus still pumps 1982's _Mekons Story_ worktapes, and 1986's _The Edge of the World_ is much loved -- but for most of their cult (and also Langford, though not Greenhalgh) the peaks are _Fear and Whiskey_ and _Rock 'n' Roll_. The former is when a commune that harbored upward of 60 enemies of the state in the eight years following Johnny Rotten's con began to resemble a proper band, with former Rumour drummer Steve Goulding the linchpin, and also when their long since unfunkified anarchy turned hillbilly. Even _Rock 'n' Roll_ is drenched in fiddle, and though Langford says that record was merely an attempt to reproduce their raucous live energy in the studio, it functions as an exuberantly embittered celebration/critique of rock 'n' roll as capitalism's big beat. Commercial oblivion spoils the aethetic effect. And of course, that's not all it spoils. Oblivion is no f.u.n. for artists, especially artists working popular forms with putatively political intent, and it's hell on their protein intake. Materially, the Mekons have fuckall to show for their critically acclaimed studio output -- Husker Du made more money. At least people should be able to buy their records.
Far better realized than either of the Twin/Tone albums that got them to A&M, _The Curse of the Mekons_ is more sour than bitter and worth the hunt nevertheless. "This is our truth that no man shall stop," Greenhalgh warns soddenly near the top, and both "Sorcerer," about brainwashing, and "Funeral," about the death of false socialism, have plenty of truth to them. But unstoppable they obviously aren't -- the country stylings of Ms. Sally Timms, who delivers the drugs-in-history lecture "Brutal" and a painfully crystalline reading of John Anderson's "Wild and Blue," are more convincing in the end. Though the Mekons threaten "magic, fear and superstition," they never approach the goth-metal overdrive of their Leeds compadres the Sisters of Mercy. By the final cut, they're reduced to exhuming Jesus from Loch Ness to thank him for their beers, their careers, and the ditty at hand. Like all their records (_Rock 'n' Roll_ is the exception), this one fleshes out their anarchist principles by abjuring power -- it's messy, slightly inchoate, as unreconstructed and befuddled as their politics.
After all, how clear-eyed are they supposed to be in the year 12 A.T. (After Thatcher), having disseminated their message cheek-by-jowl with Madame Medusa for over a decade? At some level they must suspect that reifying their incoherence into a proper career -- making records that rock when they're supposed to rock and grin when they're supposed to grin, putting the same riffs and jokes across night after night -- would be an obscenity. Who wants to make a living preaching to the converted when the converted are such a miserable minority? Who stands a chance in bloody hell of teaching disillusioned R.E.M. fans what real disillusionment is? Of the very few bands who've stuck it out longer than Johnny Rotten -- longer than Husker Du, even -- these guys and gals are the most undefeated and the most lost.
Both Langford and Greenhalgh land the occasional cheapo production assignment, and Langford had enough capitalist in him to put down an advance from his 3 Johns side project on a house in Leeds, where one of his roomers likes to embarrass him by calling him "landlord" in front of his friends. Greenhalgh gets dole money and the occasional art or worker's education gig. Langford scripts installments of an anarcho-surrealist rock history cartoon. The computer-trained Timms holds down real jobs, currently "in an administrative capacity at a telephone dating service." And Goulding, the closest thing to a professional even to put down roots in the band, scraped by on session work until he moved to Chicago to marry a waitress -- at which point, Timms reports, he quit music for copywriting.
The vagueness of their take on the dilemma that is their material/profession/creative life is striking in such theoretical sophisticates, though no in such hard-drinking bohemians. Greenhalgh says he only wants "a little money to make things easier" and attributes the band's longevity to its propensity for "the short-term view." Bitterly, Langford imagines arts-council funding in an England where Shakespeare is looking like a charity case. Timms, Langford's sometime companion and a definitive contributor on vocal chops alone by now, also mentions this utopian fix, but retains a grip on the everyday: "People want some sort of security. You get to about 32 or so and it's not the same sleeping on people's floors." Although they grant that they could make a living at it if they were willing to tour like troupers, they're not that masochistic. "We'd survive," says Langford, the only principal who still resides in Leeds, "but I don't know what we'd survive as." Even Greenhalgh, who warms most readily to such a prospect, would want to do it their way: not opening for the Pogues or whomever but setting up a "Club Mekon" for more or less extended stays in more or less friendly locales.
Relieved of the psychic weight of A&M, which came down to vibes as much as biz, they're very together at the moment -- touring Europe for a month with the Blue Aeroplanes' drummer and the peripatetic Tony Maimone, in fact. Timms ventures that even if she were to go so far as have a baby the Mekons wouldn't really get in her way. But as far as she's concerned, "Jon and Tom are the Mekons," and Greenhalgh acknowledges that he's "been considering as carefully as possible whether to carry on doing it." Even Langford, who says he's positive they'll "just go on doing it," admits that he "can see a time when we might still pack it in." All naturally look to the hard-won numbers of the equally unconventional Sonic Youth as a way out. But Sonic Youth live on the road, and unlike the Mekons they have a truly distinctive sound to sell. Greenhalgh like _Curse_ because it's "enigmatic, a bit more open and broader" and even Timms, who loves the Mekons' records -- "They all bring in different strains, there's so much to get out of one album" -- allows that they're "rough sounding," not something you put on just "to listen to." They're not obscure, but they raise the question of just how commodifiable attacks on commodity can be -- even when they're acerbic, multileveled, and tuneful, and you can clog to them.
According to much of their press, the Mekons are politically correct purveyors of roots rock and roll, a collective as much as a rock band. After all, isn't this the group that deliberately chose a female bass player to create an even balance of the sexes within the group? Yet the band playing at the Marquee Saturday was a raucous outfit intent on having a boozy good time.
Sure, there were political references ("Good news. Adolf Hitler lost in Louisiana," announced Jon Langford prior to the much-deserved encore), but there were also humanity, energy, verve and wit ("Now we can find Trotsky, bring him back and make him president. Or Elvis," concluded Langford). So much for the myth of the Mekons.
The idea of Trotsky (or Elvis) becoming president is as likely as the Mekons' scoring a hit album. More than 10 years in existence, they still exist on the margins of the music industry, a nagging presence that refuses to go away. (The band was recently dropped by major label A&M, though it still records for the British independent label Blast First.) A lesser band would have succumbed to bitterness and cynicism. Not the Mekons.
Judging by Saturday's enthusiastic performance, the Mekons obviously love simple three-chord rock and roll and believe it can still be something more than global light entertainment. Yet, at the same time, the group is deeply suspicious of the music, an ambivalence well caught in its opening numbers, "Memphis, Egypt" and "Amnesia." These songs, from "The Mekons Rock N' Roll," provide a blistering critique of rock as "capitalismo's favorite boy child." As literate leftists, the Mekons know full well that rock and roll is irretrievably tied to consumerist energies, a strange mixture of liberating and reactionary elements.
Traditionalists without undue reverence for music history, the Mekons are one of the few bands that can incorporate folk elements without coming off as nostalgic. The cover of John Anderson's "Wild and Blue," a country waltz, was touching without being maudlin or lachrymose.
On "Blow Your Tuneless Trumpet," the group made fun of U2, "Big Zombie" evoked memories of the Clash and the delightfully catchy and sardonic "I Love a Millionaire," a new song, sounded like Blondie in its glorious heydey. Though it's rarely commented on, the Mekons can write incredibly catchy pop hooks when they want to. The sing-along chorus to "Fletcher Christian" echoed in my head hours after the performance was over.