From: Globe and Mail: Thursday, January 31, 2002 – Print Edition, Page R4

A rare sight of a cult legend


More a legend than a band. It defines any number of groups in history: Strays in the scratchy dawn of recording. Barroom heroes known only by rumour. One-hit wonders whose hooks still resurface. Cult oddities like the Shaggs. Post-facto eminences like the Velvet Underground, or the Flatlanders (Texas teens Joe Ely, Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore) who grew up to solo renown and eventually reissued their debut as, yes, More a Legend than a Band (now due for a sequel, 30 years late).

But then there's the Mekons, now in their 25th year, yet still name-dropped far more than heard. Born in Leeds in the first toilet-flush of punk rock, they brought reggae, socialism, sea shanties, new-historicism, funk, country music and epic poetry to a Clash-like pub-chant sound in ways that would influence indie-rock (and "alt-country") worldwide, like some half-forgotten dream.
Twenty albums on, not to mention books, art shows and side projects, there will always be a Mekons, it seems, no matter how many continents apart its half-dozen core members live, no matter how much they are fired, sued and bruised by the biz -- a pattern long ago dubbed "the curse of the Mekons." They're British collectivists, not Texan loners, and that has made all the difference.

Meanwhile, Jon Langford, the group's unofficial front man, now hangs out in Chicago, painting desecrated portraits of Hank Williams, making records with various groups, boozing and generally behaving as though his world remained one big Mekonian artistic-communal oyster. He makes a rare appearance Saturday in Toronto (Horseshoe Tavern, 370 Queen St. West, 11 p.m., $8) backed by locals the Sadies. There's no saying what he'll play, though I guarantee salty repartee at the expense of G. W. Bush, and other clowning around. (Like Billy Bragg, whose stuffed-up singing sounds a bit like Jonboy's, the Mekons have always known it takes a spoonful of goofing to make the socialized medicine go down.) I'd like to request See Willy Fly By, the Waco Brothers number that swiped a line from Appalachian ballad The Cuckoo and bent it into the one great anti-Clinton anthem ever written, a study in class betrayal: "He's the exception that proves the rule,/ All your dreams are a lie,/ How much will you swallow/ When Willy flies by?" No doubt he'll feature his new Pine Valley Cosmonauts project, The Executioner's Last Songs, on which Steve Earle, Neko Case, Richard Buckner and various Mekons take the perverse tack of singing old murder ballads to oppose the death penalty.
And what about Tina, Langford's crudely catchy tune on the last Mekons album, Journey to the End of the Night? "It looks like an accident/ Caused by the government," it begins, but we never find out what -- something about road-building poisoning the water? The punch comes later: "And I want nothing/ It's what I'm trained to believe in." The accident, the state's cruelest stroke, as Langford sees it, is to foster popular despair.

Yet the Mekons can, too. They used to call themselves "a dance band at the edge of time," and most of their songs invoke collapse, enacting it in herky-jerk rhythms, avalanches of historical reference, images of floods, riots, ghosts and betrayal. Langford, though, strikes a more stubbornly optimistic note than fellow-travellers Tom Greenhalgh and Sally Timms, and often gets surprisingly more from generalizations than they do from more-precise mythopoeia. It's probably too much to hope for -- though in Langford's book there's no such thing -- but what I most long to hear live are the words that launch the best Mekons album, 1989's Rock and Roll: "Destroy your safe and happy lives/ Before it is too late/ The battles we fought were long and hard/ Just not to be consumed by rock 'n' roll." Now, that is bombast in the best rock anti-tradition -- and it's what becomes a legend most.