Although formed in the punk era, and--like another Leeds band of similar vintage, the Gang of Four--originally known for abrasive guitar funk more concerned with content and politics than commercial niceties or style, the Mekons (not to be confused with the Manchester Mekon, a minor class-of-'77 outfit) covered a lot of ground in the '80s, and have grown into one of the most venerable and entertaining post-punk institutions.
Ring-led by singer/guitarist/producer/etc. Jon Langford (also one of the Three Johns, and a major force/influence in underground and indie-rock circles), the Mekons have held true to the same precepts they started with, but have wisely moved with the times in a number of significant ways.
The first album--a major landmark erected by one of the few late-'70s British bands that didn't want to be either the Sex Pistols or the Clash--suffers from the screamed vocals, which obscure both the music and the left-wing lyrics: minimalism is one thing, but rank amateurism another. (The CD reissue adds a half-dozen single sides from '79 and '80.)
On the second album (more commonly known as The Mekons), the group moves into danceable synth-pop, with protest lyrics attacking bourgeois culture, the army and hollow lives. The Mekons Story is a retrospective album of old tracks and outtakes, punctuated by inter-track narration. Ending the first chapter in a long story, the Mekons ceased performing in 1981 and cut back on recording work after that 1982 release, although a core trio of Langford, guitarist Tom Greenhalgh and bassist/guitarist Kevin Lycett kept the band in occasional vinyl circulation.
A large new incarnation returned the Mekons to prominence and much international critical adulation in 1985 with Fear and Whiskey, a ragged album with sturdily memorable tunes that mix equal parts of electrified rustic country dance music and cow-rock. Fiddle, piano and harmonica join the guitars and drums for a sound that is reasonably comparable to a less loopy, more rocking version of John Otway. Sin's label design mimics Sun's; the sounds are likewise Americanized and, characteristically for the new Mekons, a cover of Hank Williams' "Lost Highway" closes the LP on an appropriate note. Nothing (well, only some things, perhaps) could be further from the
Mekons' early noise days. Crime and Punishment offers four songs (including the Robyn Hitchcock-like "Chop That Child in Half" and Merle Haggard's "Deep End") from a John Peel session.
Following the four-song 10-inch Slightly South of the Border, Honky Tonkin' (named for the Hank Williams lyric quoted on the back cover) finds a cast of dozens (actually one dozen) working its way stylistically towards the Pogues' drunkenly revisionist folk-fundamentalism. A case of the sillies ("Sympathy for the Mekons") competes with responsible topicality (a remake of the band's old "Trimdon Grange Explosion," "Kidnapped," "If They Hang You," which eulogizes Dashiell Hammett for refusing to name names at the HUAC hearings) and conspicuous literacy ("Hole in the Ground," "Charlie Cake Park"). The notes for each song cite relevant books, movies or artworks for those undaunted by intellectualism. The genially appealing music, a well-organized wash of fiddles, accordion, guitars and simple drums, makes few demands but keeps the folky standards high.
US tours by the octet in 1986 and 1987 yielded the live tracks (and assorted audio ephemera, like commentary on various subjects by band members) compiled on New York. The material is mostly drawn from recent albums, although a version of the Band's "The Shape I'm In" and a handful of otherwise unreleased items are also included. Motley but charming, it's a casually enlightening trek.
So Good It Hurts has its share of fiddle tunes but also expands the band's stylistic repertoire to embrace reggae, straight rock and calypso. The results suggest certain portions of the Clash's later career, as well as the Boomtown Rats and other musical adventurers. The slickest, most accessible album in the Mekons' long career, it holds fast to a politely delivered but tough-minded political consciousness (Richard Nixon is mentioned in more than one song), pausing to include the Stones' "Heart of Stone." Although unsettling in its normalcy, So Good It Hurts is a stimulating new chapter in
this unfinished saga.
Original Sin is a remastered CD of Fear and Whiskey plus the whole Slightly South EP, three-quarters of Crime and Punishment and one song each from The English Dancing Master and Edge of the World. A handy sampler of the band's mid-'80s work.
The Mekons Rock'n'Roll is an unexpected development at this stage of the game: a punk-rock concept album filled with eloquence and passion. The subject, as announced in the title, is here in all its sordid glory, from lines about "Eric Burdon stunned in Mississippi on the Animals' U.S. tour" (from "Amnesia") to a dig at Bono ("the Dublin messiah scattering crumbs," in "Blow Your Tuneless Trumpet") and the grim morality tale of "Cocaine Lil." It's a tough, dark album that includes five of the best songs the band has ever written, plus some half-baked ideas mired in mud and feedback. (Released as "a preview of Rock'n'Roll," the four-song Dream and Lie of... EP is of interest only for "Heaven and Back," one of the two tracks (the other is "Ring o' Roses") left off the album's American edition.)
The Curse of the Mekons is another leap forward for the band, extending the worldbeat forays of So Good It Hurts, the surprising techno-dance experiments of F.U.N. '90 (a four-song response to acid-house that covers songs by the Band and Kevin Coyne and includes a track co-written with Lester Bangs) and the attack of Rock'n'Roll into the group's most melodic collection to date. Among the highlights are two numbers sung by the bell-toned Timms: the eerie "German for Secrets" and a straight cover of "Wild and Blue" by Nashville star John Anderson. The sound is all over the place, from the Stonesy-Cajun hook of the title song to the metallic anthem "Authority" to the plodding reggae of "100%," complete with banjo, accordion and mariachi horns. Elsewhere, dubby psychedelia, drum machines, treated vocals, sound effects and spacey synths add colorful scenery to this bizarre sonic odyssey.
Sometime lead singer Sally Timms' solo releases distance her impressively from the Mekons camp (although she's backed by three members of the band on the album). "Horses" and the countryish "Chained to the Anchor of Love" on Somebody's Rocking My Dreamboat could be stray Mekons tracks, but the rest stakes out very different ground, a more mainstream, electronic-based rock over which her cool, clear voice soars. Occasionally clunky but worth seeking out. The title track of the three-song This House is a duet with Marc Almond, while the four-song Butcher's Boy includes a version of "Long Black Veil."
'Til Things Are Brighter is an uneven AIDS-benefit album of Johnny Cash covers, with the Mekons backing folks like Almond, Michelle Shocked, Pete Shelley, Stephen Mallinder of Cabaret Voltaire and sometime Mekon/Notting Hillbilly Brendan Croker. The Mekons themselves do "Folsom Prison Blues" and Timms contributes "Cry, Cry Cry."
(Graham Flashner, Ira Robbins, Wif Stenger)
Taken from Trouser press