To: "passenger side"
Subject: Mekons Music, Part I (long)
Barry Mazor, whose by-line I remember encountering in Crawdaddy
some years ago, writes:
> I've got Original Sin CD and the Waco Bros, love both, and given what Gary
> obviously knows about these one-ofa-kind guys, I wonder which other of
> their very many CDs he recommends. Rock & Roll and Hoinky Tonkin' are
> usually brought up here most. Whaddayuhsay?
It's an innocent question, Barry, but now you've really let the monster
out of the basement. But hey, if Don can hold his head up walking us
through screen after screen, track after agonizing track of the Garth
Brooks oeuvre, I certainly feel no shame gassing on about the Mekons.
First let me salute Keith Harrison for making the following observation:
> Last night's Lounge Ax show was incredible -- impassioned, freewheeling,
> and just downright celebratory. I haven't danced and
> smiled so much at a show -- or seen musicians doing the
> same -- since, well, the Mekons New Year's Eve gig here.
See, this is what I've been trying to tell you guys . . .
We can debate the question of the Mekons' country credibility
until the cows come home, but if this band is in any sense country,
they surely embody the most "insurgent" strain of that music we
have seen to date. As punks, honky tonkers, ambivalent alterna-
careerists, or flat-out warehouse rockers, the Mekons have never
failed to flail their way into some loopy aesthetic crevice,
scrambling for a comfortable place beneath the genre subfloor.
Contrast their initial singles--NEVER BEEN IN A RIOT (Fast 1978),
WHERE WERE YOU (Fast 1978), and WORK ALL WEEK (Virgin 1979)--
with those of Wire, the Sex Pistols, or the Clash. Early Mekons
may be the least technically accomplished musicians of their UK
peer group, but they are also different in other ways. Yeah,
they're often angry, but also sound like any minute they're going
to burst out laughing at their own militant pretensions. Even
the overtly political stuff is more bemused than furious; in
32 Weeks, the singer calculates the number of hours he has to
work to buy a bed, a beer, etc. In Never Been in a Riot, he
stands in the toilet with his pants around his knees, "pissing
out the noise," and struggling to be heard over the Clash's
own White Riot. Even as punks, the Mekons don't quite fit in,
can't quite resist the impulse to pop the punk bubble.
Neither does their first album, THE QUALITY OF MERCY IS NOT STRNEN
(Virgin 1979), sound like any other punk record you have ever heard.
Already their songs can barely contain the explosive imagination
that is the Mekons' trademark. The guitars thrash some, but they
also noodle funny little melodies behind singers struggling earnestly
with girlfriends, boredom and isolation. Punk attitude abounds, but
so do killer pop hooks, Supremes quotes, falsetto doo-wop harmonies
and demented football cheers (Drinks! Fags! Fun at night! Dirty
books and Ford Cortina! Randy girls in plastic shoes!) There is
a playful warmth to this record--a daft, ragged sweetness that prompts
me to play it more often than any of its punk contemporaries. Album
personnel includes the duo who remain the heart of the Mekons today:
Jon Langford, drumming and singing backup; and Tom Greenhalgh, who
sings the lovely After 6, which they still sometimes perform in
concert. THE QUALITY OF MERCY is available on a CD that also includes
the TEETH EP and both sides of the WORK ALL WEEK single. (That's the
Gang of Four, not the Mekons, on the cover, although accounts vary
as to whether the photo appears through a Virgin gaffe or a band joke;
the two Leeds outfits were in each others' pockets in the early days.)
The revamped sound of the next three releases--TEETH (Virgin EP 1980),
DEVILS RATS & PIGGIES (Red Rhino LP 1980, also known as THE MEKONS),
and THIS SPORTING LIFE (CNT EP 1981)-- feature stripped-down
keyboards, electronic effects, occasional horns, and stark,
eerie vocals. The violin appears here for the first time in the
Mekons' music, but sounding for now more Bartok than bluegrass.
The one track that breaks out of this minimalist mode is Institution
(DR&P), a weird rock and reel w/fiddle that foreshadows twangier things
to come, and features Langford taking his first lead vocal. These
are the Mekons recordings most likely to alienate your spouse,
draw blank stares from your friends, and annoy many folks on Postcard2.
I love them for their rampant imagination, the funny/scary universe
they create, their abundance of humor, mystery and surprise. DR&P,
originally pressed in small quantities by a record store in England,
is now available on CD from Cherry Red Records, Bishops Park House,
25-29 Fulham High Street, London SW6 3JH.
IT FALLETH LIKE A GENTLE RAIN FROM HEAVEN: THE MEKONS STORY
(CNT LP 1982), assembled amidst the breakup of the original band,
collects previously unreleased live and studio material strung
together in the fashion of the Motown Story box set. A blotto
bandmember provides foggy narration of the band's pseudo-stellar
history, collapsing in laughter reading the band's contract with
Virgin, and on the verge of passing out at the end of side two,
confuses the Mekons with the Eagles. The music is a wonderous if
tattered mix of punk raves, odd minimalist melodies, and outright
rants. Langford and Greenhalgh once explained to me that the
record's eerie, schizophrenic soundscape is the result of their
endless tinkering with the original tracks, layering and deleting
instruments and effects. (The Building, Mark White's startling
acapella stomp inspires an awed response from Greil Marcus in his
books Lipstick Traces, and Ranters and Crowd Pleasers.) Sally
Timms makes her initial, albeit obscure, appearance here on
the album's most irritating track. Demented liner notes,
--some from Lester Bangs, who dubs the Mekons the greatest
rock and roll band in history--include the first detailed
account of personnel and instrumentation, some of which is
homemade. This one is not for timid souls. The CD release is
supposedly available from Feel Good All Over, PO Box 148428,
Chicago, IL 60614; although they cashed my check and never
sent me a copy. NOTE: There is a mighty reward in store for
anyone who can locate me a vinyl copy of THE MEKONS STORY.
THE ENGLISH DANCING MASTER (CNT EP 1983) contains early
hints of the roots-orientation that would blossom on subsequent
releases, but it jostles here against dub and a wild melange of
other sounds. Titles, however, are telling: The Last Dance, No
Country Dance, and A Parson's Farewell. One song from the otherwise
unavailable EP, (A Dancing Master Such As) Mr. Confess, is included
on the ORIGINAL SIN compilation.
Langford claims that the impulse to reassemble a version of the
Mekons grew out of members' involvement with the English miners'
strike, and a desire to support the strike fund by playing benefits.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of this grueling,
protracted strike in shaping the worldview that finds expression on
the Mekons' recordings for Sin, their own label. These are FEAR
AND WHISKEY (LP 1985), CRIME AND PUNISHMENT (LP 1986), THE EDGE OF
THE WORLD (LP 1986), and SLIGHTLY SOUTH OF THE BORDER (EP 1986).
Steeped in misery and the darkest imaginable view of human history, these
albums find the Mekons defiant in defeat, clinging to a faith in community
and collective action that even the ruthless repression of Margaret
Thatcher (to whom Langford used to refer onstage as "the sweat from
our bottoms") can extinguish. Joining Jon and Tom on guitar at this
time are former Rumour drummer Steve Goulding, accordianist Rico Bell,
singer Sally Timms, and violinist/fiddler Susie Honeyman, expanding
the mix of musical voices and laying the foundation for the "country"
edition of the band.
But the Mekons are, of course, no more conventionally country in
this incarnation than they were conventionally punk a decade earlier.
Several songs, for instance, veer into the realm of American crime
fiction. The song Flitcraft is a reference to a character in a
Dashiell Hammett novel; If They Hang You (on the later, but also
somewhat country-influenced Honky Tonkin') lifts passages from
The Maltese Falcon and Lillian Hellman's memoirs of Hammett; while
Big Zombie cannibalizes The Little Sister, by Raymond Chandler.
The sound of the records is resolutely low-fi--side two of FEAR AND
WHISKEY was recorded and mixed in one day--and while the basic
instrumentation adheres to the country rock configuration described
above, the roots effect is often undermined by treated vocals, the
occasional saxophone, the strident quality of the guitars. The lyrics
are emotionally taught, even desperate, articulating highly personal
events set in a desolate spiritual wasteland. There are even a
pair of gripping spoken word pieces floated over an instrumental
backing track; Sally's Garage d'Or is especially powerful.
These qualifications aside, Sin songs like Flitcraft, Country,
Abernant 1984/85, Last Dance, King Arthur, Beaten and Broken,
Chop That Child in Half, Hey Susan, Slightly South of the Border
Hello Cruel World, The Letter, as well as the classic country
covers, mine traditional country song structure and themes, transposed
though they may be into the Mekons' own unique musical dialect.
The affinity with traditional country practice evoked by the
instrumentation is also reinforced by the strong storytelling quality
of the Sin-era Mekons, but here we edge into territory that is
difficult to relate without playing you the songs themselves.
The Sin recordings are now available on two CD's: ORIGINAL SIN,
which includes FEAR AND WHISKEY, CRIME AND PUNISHMENT (minus one
cover, Deep End, probably not available for copyright reasons),
SOUTH OF THE BORDER, and one song, Mr. Confess, from THE ENGLISH
DANCING MASTER. THE EDGE OF THE WORLD is newly reissued by