Reprinted from Option Magazine, No. 40, Sept./Oct. 1991
Tango, Lies and exploitation
Mekons - damned, damned damned
by Gordon Anderson (Option, Sept. Oct. 91)
When Langford, after introducing the "disco dance" section of the show, executed a few kickboxing moves and then left the scene it looked like things were about to peter out entirely. The stage flooded with roadies and dancers, as various unknown musicians joined Ruth Cochran and John Langley, the Mekons' rhythm section on loan from the Blue Aeroplanes, in laying down a throbbing groove. Then, without any visible cue, the beat shifted to something more... more meanacing. Greenhalgh stepped forward, and in an eerie falsetta, recalling that of the Band's late Richard Manuel, began to sing:
He's a sorcerer, he's a bourgeois sorcerer Miraculous and magical His world is also demonic Terrifying swinging wildly out of control Oooh! The abyss is close to home. . . Oooh! I got shivers down my spine; apocalyptic shivers, the kind I hadn't had since I saw Johnny Lydon and PiL way back in 1982. It was a moment worthy of an outfit that had once dubbed itself a "Dance Band on the Edge of Time," made all the more powerful by the sheer artlessness of singing on a stage full of babbing bodies. The sun sat like a fat man on the back of my neck, and as I looked at the dark, silent, sentrylike skyscrapers towering through the noxious, white haze just beyond the outer fringes of the pork, it seemed not just that it could all go up in smoke at any moment, but that maybe it had already begun to. It could have just been the heat, but the Curse of the Mekons is strong stuff indeed.
This curse, this message-cum-celebration of doom, cuts both ways, because the '90s have not been the best of times for the Mekons. In fact, in the space of a year and a half, they've lost their American record label and their rhythm section. And now they have a new album aut that you'll probably have a hard time finding. How this came to pass says a lot about what the music business is, and about whom the Mekons are.
But first, Jon and Tom, what say we all have some bagels and a spot of tea? And how about a little bit of history?
It's noon on a Thursday, a few days after the Mekons' Central Park sorcery and — of all days, of all dates — it's July 4, the Mekons' favorite holiday. Jon Langford and Tom Greenhalgh, looking not-so-fresh from a 7 a.m. arrival back in New York City after a gig in Boston the night before, have come to nosh'n'kibbitz among the bombs bursting in the air. I myself am gearing up for the group yell scheduled for 8 p.m. in honor of the returning Gulf War soldiers.
"It was a stupid joke, really," chuckles Langford, about his group's choice of a name. And Greenhsigh explains: "It comes from this comic called The Eagle. One of the characters in it was called Danny Dare. He was a space pilot of the future, and his arch-enemy was the Mekon, who had a big, green head and sat in a flying saucer and went around doing evil deeds." "He was like a sort of Nazi-stroke-Communist bogeyman," continues Langford, who is beginning to wake up a bit, due in no small port to the brick of firecrakers that just went KER-POW-POW-POWPOW-POW-POW outside my kitchen window. "And Dan Dare was like a Battle of Britain fighter pilot who somehow got into outer space — sort af a British imperialist fantasy." It's not surprising the Mekons chose to identify with the villain in this space opera. The Mekons have made a career out of pillorying imperialist funtasies (and speaking of stupid jokes — read any of their liner notes recently?). But such irreverence comes naturally to a band with roots in the late '70s British punk explosion; in fact, the Mekons are among the only bands from that lot who are still going without an interim "comeback."
"There was the Anarchy tour of the Sex Pistols, the Clash, Johnny Thunders, and the Damned," ssys Greenholgh. "It was like a package, and it came around to Leeds in about December of '76, and it was the first punk thing..."—he trails off—"...and then by about May of '77 we had a bond. Suddenly, it seemed possible."
Langford was affected mostly by the punk attitude. "The things the Sex Pistols said in interviews, and things that were said in the papers, were maybe more interesting than the sound of English punk rock music," he says. "It was just the idea of the possibility of being able to do it, because before bands were like the Rolling Stones and the Who, which were massive and come around once a year. And then there were all these stupid punk rock bands which we liked.'' Thus a scene was born. The Mekons joined the Gang of Four and the Delta 5 in making Leeds a hotbed of arty, dissonant punk rock. It was a close-knit scene; the three groups shared a rehearsol space and collectively built a PA system. It was maybe even a little too close-knit. The Quality of Mercy Is Not Strnen, the Mekons' maiden 1979 release, is notable not only for its humor, intelligence, and determined lack of melodicism, but also for the picture of Gang of Four on its back cover. Grouses Longford, "People always thought that was us; Virgin obviously did when they put that record out without even talking to us about it. 'Here, have a big picture of the Gang of Four on the back of your record."' It would be the first gaff in a career remarkoble for its bad luck with record labels.
It is a commonly held misconception that Fear and Whiskey, their fiddle-drenched 1985 masterpiece, represented some sort of miraculous stylistic departure for the Mekons, a sudden embrace of Hank Willisms by a band previously known more for its inchoate amuteurism and politisal acumen than for its interest in country music. It is true that the Mekons emerged from a recording hiatus of several years with something approaching stability for the first time ever. As Langford says, "That's when we were actually working on trying to get a band together, 'cause that's when the miners' strike was on. We were trying to do benefits for the coal miners." Fear and Whiskey does sport a revamped line-up anchored by ex-Rumor drummer Steve Gouiding bassist Lu Edmonds, and a full-time violinist in Susie Honeyman. But the band did not, as Village Voice Mekons acolyte Robert Christgau would have it, coalesce willy-nilly out of some anarchist commune. "That's bullshit," scoffs Greenhalgh. "It's in a lot of things and I don't know why. There were variaus people sort of, like, in and out of the band, but that was just due to the fact that we couldn't really pay anybody anything, so it was just that people did it when they could."
As for the new instruments on Fear and Whiskey, violin had appeared on Mekons records from as far back as 1980, albeit more as rhythmic instruments than anything else. Beginning with 1982's The Mekons Story — which, according to Greenhalgh, has "a lot of bits and pieces that kind of link up this period to later" — it became apparent that the band wasn't just, er fiddling around with the notion of hillbilly music. And with the 1983 release of The English Dancing Master EP, the idea of adding violin as a permanent component of the Mekons had crystallized. "John Gill played violin on The English Dancing Master in particular, and it was that sound..." — Greenhalgh trails off, pondering the sound, and then adds, "John couldn't always play with a slide, so that's why Susie joined."
With the new line-up intact, Fear and Whiskey took an unsuspecting underground rock world (at least in my corner of it) by storm. Christgau raved, giving it an A in his Village Voice "Consumer Guide."
Fear and Whiskey's greatness comes not only from the power of its songs, but also from the cumulative sense of dread that these were quite possibly the last ravings of a band of lost souls in a world gone mad. The feeling was also pedectly captured on the front cover, an illustration of a lonely highway leading to a collapsing city. Langford's line, "Searching for existence/in my red, red wine," on "Hard to Be Humun Again," typifies the mood of Fear and Whiskey, and of Mekons records in general. It's defiance mixed with resignation, a determination to cling to ideals coupled with an acknowledgement that there's little hope, that the "Darkness and Doubt" may prove too painful to withstand. "For us it was definitely about England, and about the Thatcher years, and about the miners' strike," says Langford. "So a lot of it is pretty depressing. It was right after the strike collapsed and things looked extremely bleak. They still do. '
That sort of depression would drive the average person mad if sustained, though the Mekons have generally made a career of it. Still, it was only naturol that the band's next record should signal a bit of a retreat. The Edge of the World is a subdued, even sod affair, awash in fiddle and accordion (from deputy Mekon Rico Bell), and notable for the first, tentative appearance on vocals of Sally Timms (although she had sung with an earlier lineup of the band in 1982). Both records were released on the Mekons' own Sin label with money scraped together from gigs, as their previous label, the Leeds-based CNT, had gone belly-up by 1984, making The Mekons Story and The English Dancing Master missing links in the band's mutation. Both records had been recorded in a hurry (Langford reports that the second side of Fear and Whiskey was actually recorded and mixed in one day!). News of a label deal, then, was wellearned and welcome, even by this gang of unregenerate do-it-yourselfers.
The Mekons signed with Twin/Tone in 1987, right about (or just after) the highwater mark of the American independent label scene. Bands like Sonic Youth and Husker Du had yet to make the jump to the majors, so, not coincidentally, labels like SST and Twin/Tone were still going strong. But the rot had set in, and within two years the Mekons were to feel the effects of an industry collapse that continues today.
"We played in 1988 when the album So Good It Hurts was out," says Langford. "We did a lot of touring that year. It seemed really futile because we went to San Francisco and you couldn't buy the record! At least we were doing our job properly; for once, we were trying to be vaguely professional." Adds Greenhalgh, "It wasn't their fault; their distribution collapsed. Somebody they were using on the entire west coast" — typically, neither Greenhalgh nor Lanford knows who — " just went bust when the album come out. The whole thing was such a piss-aff that when Twin/Tone made a deal with AßM it seemed worth a try at least from the point of view of getting better distribution, if nothing else."
So the most determinedly non-professionul band in the music business found itself at last with a major label's resources at its fingers. But success didn't go to these lads' (and lasses') heads; true to form, their immediate impulse was to self-destruct. "We had an idea to do a very straightforward concept album, and the title of each track was going to be like, 'The Agent,' 'The Manager,' 'The Roadie,"' says a grinning Greenhalgh. "'The Journalist' was also one of them." (Hmmm.) "We were going to name names and everything— savage critique of the music business which would probably be the last record we'd ever make." With all the bad intentions in the world, the Mekons nevertheless rewarded AßM with their second classic album of the decade. The Mekons Rock'n'Roll points a steady finger at the ravenous maw that is the music biz. "The battles we fought were long and hard/Just not to be consumed by rock'n'roll," Langford bellows in "Memphis, Egypt." And "Empire of the Senseless" is a hilarious, deadpon indictment of the values (or lack thereof) of Americon business and politics. Yet, in spite of itself, Rock'n'Roll also features three instant anthems "Memphis," "Blow Your Tuneless Trumpet," and "Amnesia," with the arrangements and songwriting more self-assured and eclectic than ever before. It also marks the real emergence of Sally Timms — on tracks like "Learning to Live on Your Own" — as one of the most enchanting female vocalists in rock music. Ah, but here's where the trouble starts, the sad part of the story, as they say. Actually, the Mekons' trouble with ASM began even before the album came out. First, there was the number of trucks. The Mekons had 14. ASM wanted 12. A&M won. And then there was the album cover. The Mekons wuated Elvis. ASM was afraid the King's estate might sue. The corporation won again. The American cover is a weird, ugly, splotchy postiche ("A dog's breath" is how Greenhalgh describes it) with His likeness completely obscured. The import version on Blast First, their English label, includes both the original cover concept and all 14 tracks.
After Rock'n 'Roll came out, there was that nasty matter of disappointing sales. And corporote indifference. And inexplicable business practices. And, perhaps, even downright deceit. The course and causes of the events obout to be related are subject to some dispute — there are, of course, two sides to every story — but here, without mincing words, is how the Mekons say they ended up without an American record deal.
"They were completely fucking useless," Greenhalgh says of A&M. "They didn't have a clue what they were doing. We were in Los Angeles on December 1 7th of '89, and we said we should come back and do more touring (to support Rock'n'Roll), and they said yes." But the record company didn't assist the Mekons in that regard at all; in fact, according to Greenhalgh, the company kept mum all during January and February. "We were continuously asking them for money so we could come back and tour, and then eventually they said we should have organized this." Then, to top things off, they later "refused to give us tour support because they said the album had died." Greenhalgh gets exaspersted just thinking about this stuff. "And then," he exclaims, "they said, 'Here's some money to make another record!"'
The happy result af such "brilliant" business decisions wus F.U.N. '90, a four-song EP (of course, there were six on the English version), which pays tribute to some Mekon heroes, alive and dead, with covers of the Band, Kevin Coyne, and a ghostly taped appearunce of the late rock writer, Lester Bangs, moaning in the bockground Hank Williums' words, "When the Lord made me, he made a ramblin' man, out of tune, in a mix of rhythm tracks, dance beats, and a snaky Arabic vocal sample. The record was a brilliant reposte to the dance music craze sweeping England. Says Langford, "We thought it was reoaly good, but it didn't sound like Rock'n'Roll, so they just went, like, 'What the fuck's this? We're not interested.' He grimaces. "They wouldn't give us any tour support to do any gigs, or do a video, or promote it. And there's no press. So we said we will come over and sort this thing out."
Just whom the Mekons would sort things out with was unclear. A&M had been bought out by Polygram, and most of the old contracts had fled. "Basically, they hated us and they hated aur manager, Paul Smith," says Langford. "They had a real thing about him." Yet when the group come over to the States in November of 1990 to ask out of the contract, A&M refused. Point blank. "Their response was, like, damage limitation," Langford adds. "They just kept telling us what a good job they were gonna do, and how everything would be greut if Paul Smith were run over by a car."
Meanwhile, the Mekons had almost completed work on a new album, cut with advances from Twin/Tone and Blast First. "We were saying we don't want to give you the album because we've no confidence in you to do the job," says Greenhalgh. "And they said, 'No, no, no!,' and they kept sending us plans. It was all nonsense." Says Langford, "So we said, 'How much are you gonna spend on the morketing, tell us?"' Langford's stocky build and sharp wit would make him a formidable opponent in any confrontation. "We had to sort of make up a marketing plan und try and give it to them." Adds Greenalgh, bitterly, "In the end, we just said, Okay, we've got no alternative, we'll make the record.' So we give them the record und they drop us."
"We didn't drop them," said A&M product manager Celia Hirshman, in a later telephone conversation. Hirshman was the person whom Longford and Greenhalgh had deult with on the label's marketing plan. "They're still under contract with us," she added, "and they will be until November. We just chose not to put that particular album out."
All this back and forth with the record company started taking a toll on the other band members. Drummer Steve Gouiding, who'd been around since Fear and Whiskey, had become depressed with the recent events. He had aiready planned to get married, and, according to Greenhalgh, "decided that he had better things to do with his time." When Goulding packed it in, so did bassist Lu Edmonds. The telling reason A&M gave for not taking the album is probably as close to the truth as we'll get. In the label's view, it had — to use Frank Zappa's damning phrase— no commercial potential. After all, if the company couldn't sell something as instantly infectious as Rock'n'Roll, how would it sell this — this Curse? The final ironic twist to this tortuous tale is that The Curse of the Mekons, the new album that's available from Blast First only, is one of their best. In fact, its grim humor — the liner notes read as if they were written by Eric Idle and Aleister Crowley — and the apocalyptic imagery of songs like "Sorcerer," "Funeral," and "The Curse," conjure up the demons of Fear and Whiskey, except that the Mekons seem a little less inclined to romanticize their precarious stance on the edge of the world.
"This is my testimony/A dinosaur's confession," Langford sings before going into a defense of socialism, and presciently anticipating the use of smart bombs in the Persian Gulf. After 12 years af the music business and Margaret Thatcher, any quixotic cast to their politics has been drummed out. What remains is an unapologetic world view and a steely pessimism. "I'd say there's no cause for optimism whatsoever," says Greenhalgh, himself a "non-person" in the British government's eyes, since he failed to pay the poll tax. "Anybody who says otherwise, what's their evidence?"
How about the new Mekons album? It's a fun record—fun in a sort of personal, stimulating way, like watching yet another Republican victory at a presidential election returns party with a group of drunken socialists. "Lyric" is as eloquent and plaintive an expression of despsir at an amoral world as you could find, and "Secrets" is a chilling probe inside the mind of a Nazi expatriate set to return to her East German home. But Langford, in modest fashion, downploys their wordsmithing talents. "We all bring a load of lyrics we've got on scruffy bits of paper and stick them together and see whether they work or not." That haphazard process surfaces in the music, too. Unlike the records of so many so-called "alternative" rock groups, Mekons albums (and The Curse, despite its surefootedness is no exception) never sound sterile or over-produced. There's a reason for that. The Mekons take a real pride in their status as part-time rockers. "We write to order when we get kind of a deadline," says Langford, proudly. "That's why the songs are often quite good; because they didn't exist till days before we recorded them." And they keep the songs simple — so simple, in fact, that any number of people can play on them. "Quite often there's quite a few people who want to come and play," complains Greenhalgh, good-naturedly. "So they're queueing up outside, and then they'll come and play all over every song and we have to, like, spend hours mixing them out.
"We've been trying to be more disciplined," he adds. And you can tell it, because the songs — written, as always, by Langford and Greenhalgh, with additional help this time around from John Gill and longtime Mekon Ken Lite — sail easily into unchartered waters, from Sally Timms' rustic folk reading of "Wild and Blue" to the acid house mutation, "Sorcerer." If it lacks the anthemic crunch of Rock'n'Roll, the lyricol acuity has never been sharper. Such creative anarchy in the U.K. sometimes sparks fireworks, and not the kind that are still popping outside my window here in honor of America, baseball, and apple pie. "There's thunderstorms in the studio," says Langford. "It's a process of, like, pain and pleasure. Stroking and scolding." Says Greenhalgh, "Sally likes to be told what to do." And Langford completes the thought: "Like clean the oven out."
This would be the perfect time to introduce the women Mekons, but they didn't come along for the breakfast. They're apparently celebrating their Independence Day somewhere else. Nevertheless, Langford's politicolly incorrect comment calls for something of an explanation. Sally Timms and Jon Langford have been an onagain, off-again couple for years. Lately, according to secret sources, they're of the "off again" status. This was evident during two of the Mekons performunces in New York City.
At the Central Park gig, in the midst of all the other chaos, Timms was playfully throwing things at Langford. A week later, during the band's performance at the downtown Tramps nightclub, a sullen, black-wigged Timms flipped Langford the bird after he made a comment to the effect that rock'n'roll was a great hair-restorer. And things can get rather stormy with the violin-playing female Mekon, as well. Says Greenhalgh, "We try to tell (Susie Honeymon) what to play, and she refuses absolutely and plays something else and we go along with it, really."
Indeed, for two leaders of a band recently wracked by personnel problems, Langford and Greenhalgh seem fairly blithe about any intra-Mekon squabbles. In true Mekon fashion, they are inclined to turn their bum situations into their own creative uses. "In the pipeline, as they say, is an album with a theme to it," says Greenhulgh. He pauses, smiling in the direction of Langford. "I dunno whether we should lift the wraps off, but actually it's a bit similar" — he points at the "I Luv NY" coffee cup in my hand —" to that mug. There's some Mekons stickers, 'I Love Mekons.' We're going for sort of a generic look."
"Cause we're all in love at some point... we're all in love," Langford cuts in, dripping sincerity. Greenhalgh finishes his buddy's sentence "With people!" And Langford continues, "We love people. We do love people." Greenhalgh: "Cause there's a lot of love in this band. Not between members of the band, I hasten to add..." — the emphasis is for Langford's benefit — "but members of the band and other people. Everybody in the band hates each other, but we're finding love outside."