Mekons related articles from CT pt.4
WHY THE MEKONS MAY BE THE MOST ADVENTURESOME PUNK
BAND OF THEM ALL
* Greg Kot.08/23/96
Chicago Tribune(Copyright 1996)
Jon Langford is sipping beer on his back porch in between
bouts with a summer breeze that keeps loosening a wicker shade from
its moorings. It becomes quickly apparent that Langford is no Mr.
Fix-It, and the wind-battered shade flaps free every few minutes as
though mocking his feeble efforts to tie it down.
Sally Timms laughs. She has seen this sort of thing before --
after all, she and Langford are members of the Mekons, a band that
has been left to twist in the wind more than a few times in the
last two decades but that somehow manages to always make the most
of a bad situation.
"Beautiful day, innit?" Langford says, squinting into the sun.
It is for the Mekons, a band based as much in Chicago
nowadays as it is in its native Leeds, England. In its 19th year,
this bicontinental collective of underground art-punks has never
seemed more vibrant or less conventional. In recent months, they
have busied themselves with changing perceptions yet again for how
a rock band is supposed to act, what it can create, where it can
explore. If punk's sole rule was that there are no rules, than the
Mekons just may be the most adventuresome punk band of them all.
Certainly, this year they're one of the busiest.
In the last eight months, the Mekons have already released a
CD in collaboration with feminist author Kathy Acker, "Pussy, King
of the Pirates" (Quarterstick), and the solo debut album by
accordionist Rico Bell, "The Return of Rico Bell" (Bloodshot).
Langford has composed the music for an adaptation of Gertrude
Stein's version of Faust by the Chicago theater company Doorika,
whose production of "Bathe Me, Gertrude Stein's Doctor Faustus
Lights the Lights!" runs Sept. 12-28 at Chicago Filmmakers. And the
band's apocalyptic honky-tonk classic, the 1986 "The Edge of the
World" (Sin/Quarterstick), has been issued domestically for the
first time on CD.
Also, the first major exhibition of the Mekons' artwork at a
gallery in Lakeland, Fla., to be followed next year by exhibits in
New York, Leeds and possibly Chicago. Coinciding with the exhibit
is a lavish catalog and an accompanying CD of the same name,
"Mekons United" (Quarterstick), which is now available at Chicago
book and record stores.
The artwork, through primarily contributed by Langford, Bell,
Tom Greenhalgh and Kevin Lycett, is credited to
the Mekons as a collective. "Tom did most of his in the back
room of the museum in Florida while we were hanging up ours on the
wall," Langford says. "He suddenly said, `How do you make green?
What colors do you mix to make green?' `Well, Tom, you mix blue and
Adds Timms, dryly: "Hence the collaborative aspect of it."
Langford: "The interesting thing about that was that Tom
wasn't joking. This from a man who spent four years in art college
and got a degree."
It was at art school in Leeds in 1977 where Langford and
Greenhalgh formed the band, and the Mekons have operated as a
free-form art project ever since, their peculiar brand of agit-prop
rock informed as much by literature, modern art and avant-garde
culture as it is by the punk revolution that swept them into
The band's refusal to follow the traditional path of
recording and touring has ensured their ongoing obscurity, even as
it has produced a handful of post-punk masterpieces: the 1985 "Fear
and Whiskey," the 1989 "The Mekons Rock 'N' Roll" and "The Edge of
the World." The Mekons have always been interested in tangents --
welcoming writers, artists, radicals and roadies into their
inner-circle and making art that suits the moment rather than any
particular career objective.
"Mekons United" is a union of that high- and low-art world,
encompassing everything from a dense treatise on aesthetics by
their art teacher in Leeds to a hilarious minute-by-minute account
of a tour manager's night in rock 'n' roll purgatory. The book also
presents the notorious Mekons novel, a continual work in progress,
and writings from associates and fans such as Greil Marcus and the
late Lester Bangs.
Letters to Mekons benefactor Sophie Bourbon from her daughter
-- alternately oblivious, condescending or simply outraged -- serve
as a running commentary about the band and are a fairly accurate
summation of how the group has been viewed by the world at large.
"Yes, I mind sleeping on the floor with a bunch of ugly,
wasted people I don't even know, shouting all night, crashing into
each other, playing stupid hillbilly music, doing drugs or
whatever!" the daughter rages after her first close encounter with
The music on the accompanying CD is loaded with electronic
filigree, a shadowplay between the past and the future with bits of
older works "cannabilized" and reconfigured into new, ghostly
soundscapes. It is the sound of people shouting all night, crashing
into each other and playing stupid hillbilly music, only with
sequencers, synthesizers and tape loops. It is not a CD for
initiates to the Mekons world, but it's more than an indulgence.
Together, the book and CD that make up "Mekons United"
present an entertaining road map, not so much of the Mekons'
history but of its working method. As Timms explains, "What we do
is not really an open net, even though it seems that way sometimes.
It's just that discussions and interactions we have with other
people get dragged into whatever we do, because nothing exists in a
vacuum. The book pulls in all those little threads."
Adds Langford, "There's never an issue with the Mekons like,
`Oh, we don't do that sort of thing.' When we say no to something,
it's usually because it's not interesting to us because it's been
done by someone else. We don't really close off something because
it's not `our style.' "
What is no longer part of the band's style is the meatgrinder
tradition of cranking out albums and touring the country for six
months at a time in a van. After touring for most of 1994, the band
was demoralized and discouraged.
"We no longer had an accordion and a violin in the band, and
the music just wasn't very good," Timms says. "I suppose a lot of
bands at that stage would've split up, but there are other options.
If something isn't working, that doesn't mean we can't make
something else work. Somebody suggests something and we're off on
"This kind of purist tradition that you're supposed to burn
out and die as part of the great glory of rock is nonsense,"
Langford says. "There are more complex problems to deal with.
"In America, there are Bob Wills and Hank Williams to look at
as models, with Williams as the classic romantic story who died
young, and Wills as the guy who died in his wheelchair in his 70s
after a very long and successful career. He was a cool guy who
dealt with adversity in a really good way.
"He'd say when we stop playing we're just going to get a
ranch and set up on the porch and play all night. We'll have
retired but we'll just keep playing for ourselves, the antithesis
of that crash, burn mentality.
"I suppose we had that when we started. We never thought we'd
get past the first single, but now that we have, it's a dilemma,
isn't it? Do you just pack it in and try to get a job for some
security, or do you try to do something interesting?"
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