There was a time, as the editor will tell you, that lads (and the occasional lass) who got to hear the real blues wanted to take up the guitar and transform themselves into sixty-five year old sharecroppers. A bit later, many who heard the Beatles bought electric guitars and learned how to play (with varying degrees of success). In 1976, some who saw the Sex Pistols understood a revolution was happening and went out and did it themselves.
Back then the Mekons were fine arts students at Leeds University, and being in a band was just what you did. 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."
Back then 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 Virgin 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 then 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 home for us there if we ever left Virgin, so we went on and finished what became Devils 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 their own 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, and 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."
Obviously it worked, because when they re-emerged in 1984, the Mekons had absorbed all these roots into a sound that was distinctly and defiantly their own.
"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 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-jaw friends."
After all, America was very much the enemy at that time. And here was one of the more political bands to come out of punk embracing bits of the culture -- the supposed redneck bits at that. It was all so confusing. But the Mekons have never toed any political line -- quite the opposite. The music they were hearing was as direct as anything to come out of '76 and '77, and a lot more affecting, to boot.
"We even tried to do country nights as clubs and pubs in Yorkshire -- no one got it," Langford says. "But me and [accordeonist] Rico [Bell] learned a bunch of Buck Owens songs that have stood us in good stead. You hit your late twenties and country songs start to make a lot of sense -- drinking, cheating, loving and losing -- oh yes, that was our lives at the time." One outlet for all this music came with 'Til Things Are Brighter, a Johnny Cash tribute that saw Langford and Goulding heavily involved, and Sally Timms and the Mekons contributing tracks.
The middle and late Eighties proved to be a very fertile period for the band. The elements of roots music had all come together and fused with their own sensibility. From Fear And Whiskey, they moved light years ahead to the grim beauty of Honky Tonkin'. It was as if they'd finally found their place in the universe, both on their own material, and choice of covers -- their idiosyncratic version of Gram's Sin City sounded like it had come straight from the barstool, and their second attempt at the traditional Trimdon Grange Explosion really nailed it. John Gill was still involved, as was Dick Taylor. They'd developed into something powerful and messily beautiful as they looked outwards, both to the past and the future.
"Basically right through the Eighties we felt like we could poach and pinch from wherever, 'cos all this stuff was as old as the hills and we were just channeling stuff that we liked through our own bizarre filters. Honky Tonkin' was recorded in Rico's cellar, and I can still smell the damp when I listen to it."
It came with a reading list, one of the few albums to cite an Indian vegetarian cookbook, the writings of Ulrike Meinhoff, and Dashiell Hammmett. Think and dance.
For a year or two, the Mekons had noticed that as they embraced Americana as part of their sound, America was embracing them. England had moved on to other things, and the band were no longer flavour of the month, or even of the decade. So it was natural to turn their attentions somewhere they were welcome, and critically hailed as one of the great indie bands. New York, recorded during U.S. tours in '86 and '87, showed them as a proper band, turning in a scorching cover of the Band's The Shape I'm In among their other work. There was a whole new spirit and attitude, and that came through in So Good It Hurst, which cast its net of influences wider and absorbed them into the Mekon-ish whole. As Langford explained to Robert Gordon at the time, "[It] rounded off a lot of ideas for me. We're not going to do another LP in this series. We'll make the changes now rather than in two years' time find ourselves doiong more of the same."
The changes they made were quite major. In America they were signed to Twin/Tone, a small Minneapolis label, and it was because of that they found themselves involved again wih a major record label -- A&M.
"We accidentally got signed to A&M through some deal they had with Twin/Tone... it was very weird and we knew straight away that we should make an album about the music industry/our situation. All the poncy faux politico acts of the time (Sting/Bono, etc.) Never managed to discuss their own position in the capitalist septic tank... Feed the world -- revive my career, etc. We felt the music industry was part of the problem not the solution -- part of the drive towards totalitarian corporate greyness that we endure today" (and if you don't believe that, just think of McDonald's, Nike, Disney, the lowest common denominators of global commerce).
The record that came out, The Mekons Rock'n'Roll didn't so much bite the hand that was (supposedly) feeding them as attempt to take large chunks out of the arm. It was a rock'n' roll album in spirit as well as fact, which meant that the label didn't have a clue what to do with it. The plaudits came in for the music, but it didn't sell in mass quantities. "Nobody at A&M knew what the fuck to do with us," Langford explains, "and we finally persuaded them to let us leave. Stupid decisions and legal hassles dominated the early Nineties."
Which didn't mean the band has lost their teeth; far from it. There was the excellent The Curse Of The Mekons, the type of curious country-fried rock the Stones aspired to but never managed, followed by some major changes when Langford, Timms, and Goulding all moved to America, making the logistics of recording somewhat harder. But not impossible, at least when the band settled down with Quarterstick Records in Chicago.
From that point on they've continued to tread their own, very individual path. They collaborated with the late Kathy Acker on a record/production called Pussy, King Of The Pirates, dabbled with the electronics of ME, as well as flirted with the very dark edges of rock on Retreat From Memphis. They've published a book (Mekons United) and seen all those pesky B-sides and elusive tracks rounded up on a pair of compilations. Not bad for a group who had no aspirations to headline gigs.
There have also been the side ventures. As fRoots readers know, Sally Timms has released a series of gloriously dreamy solo albums, Langford wrestles country to the mat with the Waco Brothers, as well as being lauded for his artwork, and even Rico Bell has issued a record of his own.
And twenty-three years after the fact, the Mekons, having taken endless lickings, keep on ticking. The new Journey To The End Of The Night picks up in many ways from where they were in the Eighties, roots firmly showing but fully assimilated with some remarkable songcraft.
They get older, they get busier, and they get better. Even if Britain seems to show little interest in the Mekons these days, in America they can still pack the clubs when they decide to tour. They've survived and grown, a band that's listened and learned.
"When Fear And Whiskey came out in 1985 it was the sales in the USA that made us wake up and think this might be worth doing properly again," Langford reflects. "Now, despite severe geographical challenges we are at the very peak of our powers and ready for the next twenty years."
He means it, too.