In wit, invention, longevity, spunk and sheer numbers, few bands can match
At a time when the Clash ruled punk London and Joy Division was launching its ascendance from grimy Manchester, the Mekon‘s initial core coalesced from a gaggle of aspiring painters thrown together by art school in Leeds.
Throughout the 80s and 90s the band recombined its membership, reinvented its sound, and repeatedly escaped the slobbery jaws of various major labels. They played rock, folk, funk, dub and just about everything else, and—perhaps unwittingly—made a country-punk masterpiece, Fear and Whiskey, that was studied by a generation of alt-aspirants.
Today, only guitarists Jon Langford and Tom Greenhaigh remain from the band‘s baptismal configuration, but the current lineup—including SallyTimms, Rico Beil, Lu Edmonds, Steve Goulaing ana Susan Honeyman—has been mostly constant for more than I5 years. Together they‘ve maintained a steadfast fan base and won an enviable bedrock of respect from both critics and peers.
Until a recent resurgence with the albums Journey to the End of die N:ght
and 000H!, however, the band‘s own output was overshadowed by the extracurricular
activities of its constituents. Among the various side pro jects, solo albums
and art exhibits, Langford‘s work earned the most notice; in the past
few years he‘s helrned the Waco Brothers and the Pine Valley Cosrnonauts,
served as godfather to the roots-rock scene in bis adopted home base of Chicago,
gained renown as a visual artist, and led efforts in the arts cornmunity to
oppose the death penalty.
Last year, following a tour to commemorate the quarter-century anniversary of the Mekons, the
band recorded an album‘s worth of new versions of its oldest material. Here, Langford and Sally Timms sit down to discuss those early days, the decision to revisit them on stage and in the studio, and the disc that resulted, which is simply dubbed Punk Rock.
HARP: In 2002 you marked the 25th anniversary of the band with a
series of shows in some of your favorite cities. Each of those gigs focused
on one period in the band‘s history; and you matched the songs you played
to the venue you played in—for example, you did your earliest material
at CBGB in New York. Did the new Punk Rock album come out of those shows?
Jon Langford: It actually started when we did the lyric book [Hello Cruel World]. I don‘t think anyone in the band really listens to the Mekons, but to do the lyric book, we bad to actually listen to all of the stuff—we had to go listen to the words and transcribe it. Everyone got certain albums that they had to do, and there was nothing, no lyric, that anyone said, “This is embarrassing. We‘re not going to put this one in.“ Everyone was like, “This is really good.“ I was really proud of it, in a funny sort of way. But I don‘t know how we got the idea to do the [gigs focusing on] different periods. I think it was just—
SaIly Timms: Excuse rne?
JL: Was that your idea?
ST: Yes. I‘m good for some things.
JL: Well, I think it was the most interesting part of the tour.
ST: The early stuff was really exciting because we had to learn to play it like the band played it then. Jr sounded really cool—like us, hut not like us. lt was a very tense and exciting thing to do.
JL: The songs that were successful in their original form, that‘s how we play them now. But others are completely different, because they were horrible in their Original form, and we thought we could reinvent them. Like “Work All Week,“ the first single we did for Virgin, and “What,“ a track on the first album, they‘re great now. Lots of others were really quite good like “Chopper Squad“ from the second album, the Devils, Rats and Piggies album [I980].
That whole album we produced ourselves—we went to a studio and all swapped instruments. I‘d play a bit of drums and make a loop out of it and we‘d work from there. This guy John Gill who was the engineer—he just died like two weeks ago—he‘d actually engineered the Pistols with Dave Goodman, and then he worked at this folk studio. We just found it in the Yellow Pages and we went over there and met him. The guy that owned the studio ran Tractor Records; he was like the English Alan Lomax, a legend in a sphere that we bad no contact with whatsoever. The first things we did were just with him, and he brought John Gill in because he didn‘t know what the fuck—he was this guy who was probably in his late 50s then, wore these chunky cardigans and drank a little glass of wine.
ST: I‘ve been listening to it a lot lately, and that record sounds fantastic. It sounds completely contemporary. All those bands that are laboring away in New York, sounding all angular, it sounds just like that.
JL: [On Punk Rock] we covered a couple of those songs— “Chopper Squad,“ “Corporal Chalkie“ and “Teeth.“ And “This Sporting Life“ was from the same period. All these songs, even the ones that sounded dreadful, are actually quite good, so when we went to do this, the point for us was that they could be saved.
Almost half of the songs on Punk Rock date back even further—to
the earliest beginnings of the Mekons, when you were a group of pimple-faced
kids in Leeds in the late 70s. What do you remember about that time?
JL: I was a hick.
ST: At art school.
JL: I was the hick boy at art school, suddenly thrust into a world of—
ST: Posh people, who were pretending not to be. Furiously pretending.
JL: But the class barriers were still there. It was cool, though; it was a big mess, and it was very exciting. We were all at art school, and we were all in bands straightaway, as soon as the Sex Pistols came around. In fact the day I went off to art school, my mum and dad drove me [from South Wales], and we stopped at the motorway services and got the Daily Mirror. The headline said, “Punk rock!“ It was the first I‘d ever beard of punk rock, and it was the day I was going to college. It was really kind of scary.
ST: It was pretty strange in England at that rime, because punk was reported in a very mainstream way.
JL: Basically you bad one pop radio channel that everyone listened to, Radio 1—no one listened to anything else—and two or three TV channels. But most people didn‘t watch BBC Two; that was for, like, polytechnic lectures. Most people watched ITV or BBC. So with two TV channels and one radio, anything that happened, happened right in everyone‘s faces. When the Pistols came out, you couldn‘t not have an opinion about them.
That‘s the only rime me and the parents really fell out. I was this teenager who wasn‘t that much of a problem when I was hiving at home, but when I went away to college and punk rock happened, rhey just assumed that I was doing wbat they were reading in the papers—and jr was pretty wild. But all the time I was in Leeds, it was just about being in bands.
Sally, you didn‘t join the band until the 8Os. What were you
doing before that?
ST: Before I met the Mekons, I was going over to Manchester a lot. I met the Mekons through my cousin when I was about 20; prior to that I was hanging out with Pete Shelley [of the Buzzcocks]. I was friends with him, and I used to spend a lot of time going over there and watching shows.
JL: You saw the Sex Pistols.
ST: I didn‘t see the Sex Pistols. I went to see them once, in ‘78, and then we didn’t bother to stay.
JL: I didn‘t go when they played Leeds Poly; I couldn‘t be bothered. I saw them in a football stadium in Seattle in I996, and it was bloody terrible.
ST: We used to spend all our time going to Leeds University and Leeds Poly to see bands. We went to see bands every weekend— that‘s what you did. That’s what everyone did.
JL: Every night there’d be something you could go and see, and it would become your favourite band. The Buzzcocks are coming! Well, you had two singles by the Buzzcocks, which was all they bad out, and you‘d go and see them. And they‘d be amazing. It was about cutting up the bands you were supposed to like, the proper bands, so they didn’t matter anymore, and just making your own entertainment.
ST: There was a lot of energy. I think everyone just got sucked into it. You just wanted to throw something in there.
JL: When we started, we used to play in the north of England. It was quite a while before we went to London. We used to go to Manchester, Newcastle and all across the north. The whole Tony Wilson Manchester thing was pretty great, because punk was all about London, bur I think all the bands in the north of England were much better—especially if you look back at it now. But it was just this very small thing. I was making your own entertainment more than anything else.
How did the film about Wilson, 24-Hour Party People, do in portraying
Manchester and the Factory Records scene?
ST: It does capture the scene quite well. Everyone booked right. And it also did really capture how cruddy it was. I saw Pete Shelley recently, and we were laughing because when he was on Top of die Pops every three or four weeks, I‘d go and stay with him in this shitty back-to-back that he was hiving in. They were hiving in, essentially, squalor, and he was on Top of the Pops every other week! Nowadays that would never happen—people would instantly be in these gorgeous studio apartments—bur there they were. They bad basically no plumbing, and it stank and everyone just sat around drinking tea, smoking pot, and listening to Joni Mitchell until six in the morning. And then Tony Wilson would come round in his crappy Mercedes.
JL: Wilson was a news presenter on TV. At one point he was trying to make a documentary about us, and he puts his foot up on the front of our van and goes, ‘I’m standing outside the Russell Club! This is the Mekons‘ van!‘ And Mick, our manager, was in the van going [makes a face and waves two middle fingers]. We didn‘t think anything [Wilson was] doing at that time was going to be vaguely important.
Same when the Mekons signed to Virgin—it was a lark. It was like, ‘Why on earth are they signing us? This doesn‘t make any sense whatsoever.‘ And now I listen to the stuff, and it still doesn‘t make any sense whatsoever. But no one knew that—it‘s like the major labels and the industry really lost control of what was going on. They were getting weird people to be the A&R men because no one knew what was happening. And that‘s how the Mekons ended up on Virgin, making a terrible album.
Virgin Records released The Quality of Mercy is Not Strnen, your
first LP, in I979. You look back on it as terrible?
JL: It‘s dreadful. Three or four songs on it are good songs, but it was all too late. Everybody else had moved on—and we‘d moved on, but we had to make this album because we had these songs. We had to go to this posh recording studio to make our punk rock album. And it was the summer of ‘79, after punk rock was pretty much finished.
The only song I like is ‘After 6,“ which was great because Torn sings it, and Tom can sing a rune. The fact that “Work All Week“ came out on Virgin as a single—at some tirne we must have thought it was a good song, but if you listen to the recording, it‘s fucking terrible. What were we thinking? What was Virgiri Records thinking? And the producer, it sounds like he‘s got penguins stuck in each ear.
Virgin signed you largely on the basis of “Never Been In A
Riot,“ your I977 answer song to the Clash‘s “White Riot.“
JL: I loved the Clash—we all did. We used to listen to the Clash all the time. In my house, the Clash‘s first album was on constantly.
ST: But it was an extremely political movement. Everyone was debating everything, so even if you liked something you were still poking holes in it.
JL: It was just hugely irresponsible of them that they made a song called “White Riot“ at that time. Maybe because they were in London, that could be cool, hut up in Leeds, to have a bad of fucking kids chasing you down the street with “White Riot“ written on their backs? There was so much violence at that time, so many people got really badly hurt. We were kind of lucky and I don‘t know why—Tom got his nose broken, but nobody
in the band got really badly hurt. I knew people who got brain damage and a guy who lost his eye just from sitting in the punk rock pub. People were idiotic fascists—they thought they were gonna get the fucking homo-commie pricks.
There was this club called the F Club where the guy used to let all the Nazi lads in. He said he didn‘t want to exclude anyone—he thought that‘d be worse. We had a big debate with him; we said, “You have to not let these people in,“ because they were using it to recruit kids and stuff like that. lt was this horrible scene. Well, one night we were standing outside there, and there was this fight. I saw this kid getting really beaten up—these Nazi guys had grabbed him—and we pulled him out. So we were walking up the street, he was bleeding, and he says, “That‘s the trouble with this town: lt‘s fucking full of fucking Nazis and Jews!“ I was like, ‘Should we beat him up now?‘
I was going to ask you to compare that time and place to contemporary
America, but it hardly seems appropriate.
JL: Now we‘re mollycoddled. Then, it was like the Colosseum or something. It was confrontational, and you didn‘t know what was going to happen. Now we just do gigs and people who like you come to see you. And now everyone has got their interests. If punk rock was going on in America right now, your parents would never know, because they‘d be watching the Food Channel.
ST: And where can you go, anyway? The only place to go now is back to the suburbs and wear a suit. You can‘t cover yourself with piercings and be a rebel.
JL: All my cousins back in Wales have piercings now.
ST: It‘s a badge of conformity. The suburbs are where it‘s at.
JL: That‘s where we‘ve gone, anyhow.
How did the Leeds and Manchester scenes, and the first bloom of punk
rock for that matter, come to an end?
JL: It came to an end pretty quick. The industry got the lid on again.
ST: I think in any movement there‘s a really short period where it‘s interesting, and then people always start recycling pretty quickly—even the bands that are interesting.
JL: It‘s like we say, if you‘re in a band and more than 400 people come to see your show, you‘re not going to like your fans very much.
ST: You’ll look out at the audience and think, ‘Who are these people?‘ If it‘s not really people you know, then you‘ve crossed the point. But I think nothing can last very long.
JL: t was really kids everywhere who kind of sussed it out. We used to have these kids following us round—they were like i6 or I7—and they were the Mekons Army before they started a band. Then they formed the Fire Engines and they made some really terrific records. lt was just this underground, really; people knew about it. Like the Gang of Four, everybody knew the Gang of Four were brilliant, hut they couldn‘t get anyone to put a record out by them. The Mekons bad a record out, and we were trying to tell the blokes, “You gotta put out the Gang of Four, they‘re a much better band than us.“ And they‘d be like, “Nat, it‘s too rock.“ When they finally put it out, it was great.
ST: It could only come together for a short time, hut it was very exciting.