History no. 238756:
There are probably a few people who think the Mekons have no place in roots music, but there are always a few blinkered souls in the world. This, after all, is a band that recorded with Bill Leader, who were playing country in their own fashion long before it became alt., and who strode daintily through roots music in their size 13s in the late Eighties - as well as releasing some of the most daring rock'n'roll recorded by a band without a safety net.
Now, with the release of To The End of the Night, they've come back to the plaintive idea of song in triumphant fashion. Back in 1976, the Mekons were fine arts students at Leeds University, and being in a band was just what you did - at least if you were a bit adventurous and alive to the possibility of punk, as exemplified by the Sex Pistols. It was certainly what Tom Greenhalgh and Jon Langford did.
"Until punk I had no idea I could be in a band," explains singer/guitarist Greenhalgh. "I mean, bands were big - big bands that you might go and see, but you never thought ‘That could be me.' But with punk that all changed."
In those days Langford was the drummer, and the Mekons (named, of course, for the green space alien with the large bonce in the old Dan Dare comic strip) were, he would say, "terrible, we couldn't really play very well. But we went on. We had spirit and enthusiasm and we were outspoken politically. We just wanted to be a support band. We didn't want to headline gigs. But then somebody wanted some records so we did some."
They put out a couple of singles on Fast Records (including the classic Where Were You, cited by none other than Dame Bowie as one of his all-time faves), were having a grand laugh, and ended up signed by Virgin, living on a wage of 25p a week while they issued an album - The Quality of Mercy is not Strnen.
Come 1980 it was time to think of a second record. And, given the parlous state of finances, it needed to be somewhere not too expensive.
"Our manager was just looking through the phone book for cheap recording studios for us to demo stuff for Virgn in," recalls Jon Langford, who's been one of the band's central figures (along with Tom Greenhalgh) since its beginning. "Leadersound was a little 8-track on the side of a hill out past Halifax. We met Bill Leader and Jon Gill there and decided to do our second album for Virgin there. The label was so disinterested in our sorry career they said yes, let us run up six weeks' of studio bills and them dumped us....'Fancy a bit of lunch, lads...er...how about a cheese sandwich down the pub?' Rough Trade had always said there would be a home for us there if we ever left Virgin, so we went on and finished what became Devil's Rats and Piggies, then Rough Trade dumped us and we had no money, several band members split and we owed Bill Leader a packet. I remember sitting down with him in the flat above the studio and him suggesting releasing it himself. What a lovely man."
Leader could see what the band themselves couldn't - that they fit well into the British folk tradition, and that they were, in their own peculiar way "a weird band operating in a well-trod folk tradition rather than a year zero punk-pop disaster."
In other words, DIY hadn't begun with punk, but was an active tradition going back hundreds of years, with the technical limitations and flaws of the players helping to define the music. "Jon Gill played us Walter and Daisy Bulwer's English country dance album that Bill recorded out in Suffolk somewhere and we began to get what he meant - passing the tunes and mistakes, technique and flubs down the generations."
Certainly Devils Rats and Piggies (aka The Mekons) showed a band that had moved far from Class of ‘77 punk, and was in pursuit of something new. But they'd discovered one set of roots. "We got into country music much the same way," Langford continues. "A DJ from Chicago came over to find his two favorite bands, the Pretty Things and the Mekons, got us hooked up with [ex-Pretty Thing] Dick Taylor (who would join the Mekons for a while) and told us we were a country band...drinking songs, simple structures, bare-bones approach, singing for your peers, politics through the personal."
That might have been a simplification, but it didn't stretch the truth too far. And when the Mekons took a break in the early Eighties, "we listened to Merle and George Jones and Johnny Cash (again) and thought we understood what he meant," Langford remembers. "We spent the early Eighties listening to a lot of early country, honky-tonk, reggae, and folk - trying to get the band into some sort of shape."
Pumping some musical iron obviously worked, however, as they emerged revitalized and renewed.
"It really was a different band by the time Susie [Honeyman], Lu [Edmonds] and Steve [Goulding] were on board for the Miner's gigs."
That was reflected most strongly in the Fear and Whiskey album and Complete Dancing Master EP, including the classic Hard To Be Human Again and a cover of Gram Parsons's $1000 Wedding, well ahead of the curve that saw Parsons given alt.country godhead status. It was a band that was rapidly finding themselves, having taken on board a lot of Americana without ever losing sight of the fact they were British.
And with the addition of Sally Timms' luscious voice to the mix, they were well and truly on their way.
"We did most of Fear and Whiskey in a day and I headed off to the US for the first time with the Three Johns," Langford continues. "Tom came as soundman, and we just got sucked into the whole America thing. Pearl-button shirts, pointy lizard-skin boots, the civilian uniform of the wannabe assimilated. [Bassist] Kevin Lycett did a tour with Red Lorry Yellow Lorry and came back with the same reaction. Rob Worby, our soundman and keyboard player brought back tapes of Cowboy Joe's radio ranch, we went to Alcala's Western Wear in Chicago, learned how to make Cajun Martinis, bought a million second-hand honky-tonk albums, and had parties round various houses in Leeds and Brixton dressed in our Western finery, baffling our slack-jawed friends."