Fear and Whisky
Jonny Boy Langford
Dick Taylor with help from Jim Chapman
John Gill-Shelagh Quinn
Mark J. White
Carlton B. Morgan
Mekons reissue `Fear and Whiskey'
By Joshua Klein
Special to the Tribune
Published January 29, 2002
Compared to the relatively slick output of their fellow Class of '77 British punks, the Mekons might not have seemed like real contenders. When the Clash released their anthem "White Riot," the Mekons responded with their snide and sloppy single, "Never Been in a Riot." While the Sex Pistols sneered "God Save the Queen" all the way to the top of the British charts, the Mekons landed their own minor hit with the ragged "Where Were You?," a song about being stood up on a date. Considering the band's constantly shifting lineup and ultra-lefty politics, the Mekons just didn't seem interested in rising above its shambling and anarchic roots.
All that changed in 1984. After a brief period of inactivity, the Mekons re-formed to play a series of shows supporting striking miners. "We never really split up, but we didn't function much as a live band after 1981," said Mekons singer Jon Langford, who has lived in Chicago since 1992. "But during the miners strike, the Mekons wanted to get involved, and after we started playing a few gigs, we realized we needed something a bit more."
"When the yearlong miners strike of 1984-'85 came along, the Mekons were approached to play benefits in support of the striking miners, whose communities were being starved," wrote Tom Greenhalgh, the Mekons' other remaining founding member, from his home in England. "Having previously been known to get politically involved with the likes of Rock Against Racism and Anti-Fascist Action, we had to get a live band together and recruited then friends of friends -- Susie Honeyman, Steve Goulding, Lu Edmonds, Dick Taylor -- specifically for that purpose."
With renewed energy and a stable lineup, the Mekons convened to start work on a new album, but this time the group was more ambitious. "We spent a long time working on the ideas for that record, thinking about what we should be doing," said Langford. "We had been a professional band on a major label in the late '70s, and we were reluctant to become that again. But we knew we had to play the game a bit, or we would cease to exist."
"Once we started taking it seriously," he continued, "we tried to find strategies to write songs that made sense to us. The Mekons were always very good at knowing what we didn't want to do. Basically, we thought everything was crap, so we always ended up doing what little was left!" In the Mekons' case, what was left was an unlikely foray into country music.
"At that time -- the drab post-punk/new romantic early '80s -- people were looking for other music and finding things elsewhere in reggae, African music, German electronics, folk music and country music," added Greenhalgh. "One day I met Terry Nelson, legendary Chicago deejay, in my house in Brixton. He had been invited to stay, unbeknownst to me, by Hugo Burnham, the drummer with the Gang of Four. Terry was well into all the good country stuff and pretty soon the difference between the three chords of country and the three chords of punk became blurred."
"We were listening to a lot of country stuff, but we weren't really trying to play it," said Langford. "We just kind of steeped ourselves in it because it was interesting. With the Mekons, a lot of people always told us we [had influences] that we didn't even realize. You know, that we were really like a honkytonk band because all the songs were about bars!"
The result was the band's first masterpiece, 1985's "Fear and Whiskey." Originally released on the tiny Sin label, the record has been unavailable for years. Now thanks to the Mekons' current label, Chicago's Touch and Go, the disc is finally back in print for newcomers and fans to enjoy. The first half of the album introduced the band's then-new sound, while its second half let the group reveal the fruits of its fresh lineup.
Thanks to the pioneering fusion of country and punk, the album sounds as fresh and exciting today as it ever did. But in England, the band's stylistic shift was met with its share of doubt. "I think country and western is a big problem for a lot of people," said Langford. "Even if we didn't think we were playing country and western, the fact that it was even mentioned was a problem. We talked about people like Merle Haggard as influences, and the people in Europe didn't get that."
Some might have found the shift especially troubling coming from a group associated with radical politics, which didn't seem to have much in common with country music's seemingly conservative bent. Langford understands how some people might have gotten the wrong idea about country's political leanings. "I think we thought that ourselves, before we started listening to it," he said, "until we started hearing stuff like Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and George Jones. I mean, Merle Haggard sounds pretty right-wing on some of his songs, but after listening to him a bit I didn't think he was very right-wing at all."
Regardless, "Fear and Whiskey" hardly lines up with country music's right-leaning reputation. On the contrary, the record "is basically about Thatcher and Reagan, that sort of right-wing agenda which put all the lefties on the [defensive] for quite a long time," said Langford. "A lot of the songs sound like love songs, but they're also about something else."
The pairing of punk and country had been attempted before, by American bands like X and even the Mekons' UK contemporary Elvis Costello, but rarely with such originality or success. In a sense the Mekons helped make it safe for left-of-center bands to cover artists such as Gram Parsons and Hank Williams, which is one reason the group is now considered a father of the alternative-country movement.
Dealing with the politics
"I think for us, everything was so wide open with punk when it first started," Langford said. "I didn't like the politics of punk rock; I liked the freedom of it that let you do anything you want. I liked that you could be in a band, express yourself, say whatever you want, without having to play the music-industry game. That's where the Mekons really came in. We were non-musicians, and we played rock 'n' roll like it was some sort of primitive folk music."
"Fear and Whiskey's" success -- the album sold well, and was a critical smash -- sparked the band into a period of activity that continues unabated. "I mean, we didn't have anything better to do, so we got back into being a proper band," Langford joked. "We felt like we had the firepower we were lacking before."
"As a band, we were ready to go, making music that was really great to play and apparently great to get involved with as an audience," Greenhalgh said of that era.
"That was a pretty important moment for the band," Langford said of "Fear and Whiskey." "It's our 25th anniversary [as a band], and we really wanted to get that one out and available. That's an album I can put on and not feel any particular feelings of embarrassment."
Living With Fear
Nearly two decades later, reissue of the Mekons' Fear and Whiskey has the same resonance and relevance as when it first came
by:By Bill Friskics-Warren
The social and political breach into which the British
collective the Mekons launched 'Fear and Whiskey', their epochal
country-punk salvo, was as gaping as any in decades. The year was
1985. Thatcher and Reagan were waging class war in England and the
U.S., campaigns that relegated multitudes to the dole or the streets.
People of color, people living with AIDS and the uteruses of women
were targets of repression, as were the third world nations where the
U.S. was engaged in covert military operations. This mix of what felt
like civil war at home and renewed imperialism abroad was enough to
make any person of conscience wanna holler. With beer-soaked yowls of
"It's hard to be human" and "There's trouble down South," the Mekons,
a DIY band of anarchy-loving art students from Leeds, were bent on
being the loudest--and most trenchant--of the lot.
Not all that much has changed in 17 years. In place of the tyranny
of Reagan and Thatcher came more of the same from Clinton, Bush and
Blair, and militarism is still rampant, albeit more out in the open.
Intolerance and malaise likewise remain pervasive, making the newly
reissued 'Fear and Whiskey'--a record that was available briefly
in its day, and only as a hard-to-find British import--just as acute
now as it was in '85. It's hard, in fact, to imagine the Mekons'
critique of capitalism and their corresponding politics of resistance
not being dead-on for decades to come--indeed, for the duration of
what, for lack of better terms, we call the post-industrial and
Yet lost amid talk of 'Fear and Whiskey's enduring social and
political relevance has been any mention of the durability, if not
universality, of the record's larger take on the human condition.
Although it owes plenty to Continental philosophers from Adorno to
Marcuse, the tragic vision of existence the album articulates is more
in keeping with the doctrine of original sin, minus the God-talk.
Doubters might cite the Mekons' Marxist leanings as evidence to the
contrary, but it wasn't for nothing that the band called the
augmented 1989 reissue of their opus 'Original Sin'. (That title
is also a play on the name of the label, Sin Records, that originally
issued 'Fear and Whiskey'.)
No less than Susie Honeyman's hoedown fiddling or the group's ravaged
cover of "Lost Highway," the album's preoccupation with human
finitude also underscores why 'Fear and Whiskey' is
'country'-punk, as opposed to merely punk, in orientation. Given
their origins as willful amateurists trading in brittle dance-funk à
la Gang of Four, the Mekes' hard-charging din might not, at first
blush, seem all that country, especially the borderline musique
concrète of "Trouble Down South" and "Psycho Cupid." Their love of
waltz-time and boom-chuck rhythms notwithstanding, it certainly
doesn't sound like the cowpunk of Jason and the Scorchers or, for
that matter, any fusion of country and rock before or since.
Country, of course, isn't the only genre of music that pays
particular attention to human shortcomings and limitations--to the
seemingly fundamental inability of people, especially those in power,
not to hurt or exploit each other. Nevertheless, country tends to
take a decidedly sobering outlook, one that affords plenty of reasons
to drink; compared with the transcendence and release afforded by
rock 'n' roll, it's easily mistaken for fatalism. Not that there
isn't more than a fair share of defeat in country music, or in the
Mekons' caterwauling twang. Darkness and doubt often follow our
heroes about; sometimes all that keeps them going is, well, fear and
whiskey. Or comfort in knowing, as the female narrator of the
nightmarish "Psycho Cupid" puts it, that "there's got to be one
breath after which there doesn't come another."
Yet losing battles, or even fearing you'll never win again, isn't the
same as being resigned to that fate, especially for the Mekons, who
always seem to be spoiling for a fight, their unsinkable idealism
buoyed by a steady stream of liquor and beer. Writ large in both
their bluster and their blare, it's just this spirit that makes
'Fear and Whiskey' such a touchstone of the post-punk era.
"Zip your suits, take your pills and secure full mask," goes the call
to arms in "Trouble Down South," a fractured dispatch from the front
punctuated by tom-toms bursting in air and shards of guitar noise
that evoke air-raid sirens. "Pull back the branches and tear up the
roots / That's the part I like the best," ringleader Jon Langford
roars to the forcebeat waltz of "Country," relishing the prospect of
diving into the fray. Langford also delivers the reverberating cry,
"This is the start of our freedom!," that gives way to the record's
moment of truth, "Hard to Be Human Again," an indomitable breakdown
which, lyrics to the contrary, makes the struggle in question sound
like a good-natured riot.
Ultimately, it's this imperious racket the Mekons make--jabbing
guitars, atavistic rhythms, careening voices, Honeyman sawing while
the world burns--that grounds their resistance and enables them to
gain a measure of something akin to transcendence. It's a defiantly
collective attack, one that achieves definitive expression not just
on this album, but in "Ugly Band," a track from 'Fear and
Whiskey's successor, 'Edge of the World'. "In the middle of
the night, with a light behind the door," singer Tom Greenhalgh
blurts, setting the scene in the bunker-like outpost in which the
ugly band in question, the Mekons, are "listening to the country boys
and dancing on their graves." Dogged by fate yet railing against it,
the Mekes aren't just embodying their beloved country-punk dialectic;
they're charting a course for how to be human again.