Jan. 20, 2004
'Punk Rock' was recorded in Chicago, NYC and Amsterdam in late 2002/early
2003 by Ken Sluiuter, Aadam Jacobs & Avery Lerner. Mixed on the-last-night-of-kensize
by Mekons & Kengineer at Western Sound Labs chicago.
Artwork by Michel Casarramona
The Mekons were very interested in punk rock and punk rock was very interested in them for a few glistening months back in the white powdery heat of late 1970s anarchy UK, a different time so eerily similar to NOW in the madness of the mad professors busted up time machine, but THEN it wore off as they grey day 80s come down crashed. But may be there‘s a white hot liquid silver thread that runs, trickles and spurts all the way back to that particular THEN through the collaborations and experiments of the 80s, 90s and Zeros, maybe there isn‘t, but when at lastilt came time to rework their early output for the great 25th anniversary shows in NYC, Chicago, San Francisco, Amsterdam, Zurich, Vienna, London & Leeds these half forgotten tunes & texts were dusted down and probed for life, blow torch applied to the musty stink and backward thrust of nostaigia, made gleaming spanking sparkling new again, revealing gurgling naked, an optimism for the NOW. The current, immediate, present, necessary hammer on the nail ofNOW bursts forth for NOW the Mekons are very interested in punk rock again. The Mekons wrote these songs THEN and recorded them NOW. Colln Stewart, September 2003
British indie legends the Mekons have returned to their raging roots for Punk Rock, which comes out January 20. The album features re-recorded versions of some of the first tracks they ever wrote. The band was inspired to rediscover the past after last year's career retrospective 25th anniversary tour. The Mekons will tour North America again in March.
The new Mekons CD is called Punk Rock and it draws on material from the first
4 - 5 years of the Mekons career. We covered some of these songs for shows in
Europe and the UK for the 25th anniversary last year and were struck with how
fresh they sounded when we played them now - years of cobwebs and dust blown
away to reveal gleaming jewels of punk rock pleasure...
The legendary Mekons have dusted off 15 songs written during their brief flirtation with punk rock back in the '70s and recorded them nearly 30 years later, professing a new interest in one of rock's most misunderstood, over-hyped and, sadly, tired genres. The resulting album sounds dated, of course, but deliciously so. Punk Rock is essential listening for punk fans who gracefully bowed out of the cultural phenomenon before commercialization and lame-ass hyperbole killed the music, which is to say shortly after the Clash released their last great record, 1982's Combat Rock: four years after the Ramones' last great gasp.
Together for 26 years, the Mekons are becoming the musical equivalent of those old folk who are periodically discovered in some out-of-the-way hamlet living life to the fullest in spite of being, oh, say, 104. Once discovered, they inevitably spend the rest of their days suffering pilgrimages of younger folk who first marvel over their vitality ("You mean you're 104 and you still walk every day? Wow!") and then ask the same question, over and over: "How did you do it?" Equally inevitably, the 104-year-old has no one definite answer.
While 26 years is remarkable in the life of a band in general, it's not exactly unheard of: The Rolling Stones have 15 years on the Mekons; U2 is just one year shy. Still, the Mekons' longevity is notable because they began as a British punk band in the nascent days of the scene. Nihilism was (and generally still is) a basic part of the punk ethos, making it a genre - and hence a time -- with a notoriously short band shelf life. So with an acknowledging nod, on January 20th the Mekons will release Punk Rock (Quarterstick), a collection of live versions and studio remakes of some of their earliest songs. All the songs come from the pre-Fear And Whiskey (1985) era. Most, like "Corporal Chalkie," "Teeth," "Trevira Trousers," "Work All Week," and, of course, "Never Been In A Riot," will be familiar for fans. Some, however and in true Mekons' style, are fresh-from-the-vault and newly blinking at the light of day. All, however, stand out as sharp, vital, and fresh.
You mean they can still play those songs, and they're even better than before? Cool!
Punk Rock is an outgrowth of the 25th anniversary shows in NYC, Chicago, San Francisco, Amsterdam, Zurich, and London that the current lineup of the Mekons (Steve Goulding, drums; Sarah Corina, bass and vocals; Sally Timms, vocals; Tom Greenhalgh, guitar and vocals; Jon Langford, guitar, drums and vocals; Rico Bell, accordion and vocals; Lu Edmonds, assorted instruments such as saz and vocals) performed in 2002.
"We did the 25th anniversary and people wanted - some people suggested -- we do a Greatest Hits. Like, what would be on that album?" Jon Langford laughs. "But then it was the question of, 'Do you want to just make a new album?' We did the lyric book last year and I was surprised at the old lyrics we could include. I haven't listened to many of those albums for five or 10 years. Some of the music was like, 'Wow!' It brought back a lot of great memories. It was kind of weird, to go and try to play those songs from the old period. The older stuff -- we never really touched that for a long time. The originals are almost unlistenable. We were all laughing."
"I wasn't in the band then," says Sally Timms. "I knew most of the songs, some of them less well than others. But it was really interesting to revisit them. It felt like we were uncovering someone else's songs, but I knew they were the band's songs. There was something really exciting about it 'cause it took me back to that period I remember. The songs have that kind of angular, odd punk aspect to them and so playing it on stage -- I really, really loved doing it. The first night we did them, we had all this tension because we didn't really know [the songs] and it was exactly like a show that would have been 25 years ago in some crappy venue in front of a load of people who were expecting you to kind of screw up."
From their start, the Mekons have been defined as much by independence and skeptical idealism as by their musical restlessness and prickly relationship with labels. Founded in 1977 by Tom Greenhalgh and Langford (who originally played drums), the lineup was relatively fluid until 1985, when the band took the first of its musical left turns into traditional country with Fear And Whiskey (also released as Original Sin). That album is generally credited as the beginning of the alt country movement. Certainly, with the additions of Timms, Goulding, Suzie Honeyman, and Edmonds, it's the beginning of the lineup most people know as the Mekons (Bell didn't make his appearance until the following year's Edge Of The World).
"We were all at art school together [in Leeds, England] in the same claustrophobic, disastrous little pond," Langford says. "We started off being really primitive -- three-, two-chord thrashes with bass and guitars. We did that for a few years. That got really boring."
"The Mekons were friends of mine," Timms begins. "So we used to go see them play all the time. I wasn't interested in the band at that time. We always thought they were kind of ridiculous because they couldn't play very well and had this very -- um -- pompous stage attitude. I had my own band for awhile, which was an all-woman band called The Shee Hees. That was just a really silly kind of joke band, but we were reacting against the extremely oppressive atmosphere that went on in Leeds at that time. But I used to sing country songs and as a joke we used to write very silly words to everything. And then the Mekons asked me to do occasional singing with them. Around '85-'86 they asked me to start doing more singing and I think that's when I joined."
Langford continues, "I was down in London a lot. We would listen to country music and we decided we really liked that and we started realizing we were still a band and we started talking about doing things and then we said we should try to play some gigs. We got Susie cause we'd written these songs and we really needed a violin. That went on for quite awhile and finally by '85 there was some money to put out an album."
Of all the musical gin joints out there, what was it about American country that so appealed to the English band? Although he has answered this before, Langford pauses. "I felt something similar to, some similarity with punk rock. I just felt punk was very simple music. Essentially it wasn't about complex musical structures and technical virtuosities and stuff like that. It was about the base. The core. Country's pretty simple songs, like folk songs. I realized the songwriting of people like Merle Haggard - they were actually speaking fairly directly to their peers . . .
-- M.S. Dodds
Is it just ironic that the Mekons, some 27 years into their journey from Leeds snot-nose guttersnipe art students to the elder statesfolk of barroom/club stage domination, have entitled their 2003 recording Punk Rock? Only partially. The truth of the matter: those Brit mischief-makers wrote these songs nearly 30 years ago; and some of them they've just come 'round to recording now in the no man's lands between Chicago and Amsterdam. These are authentic punk anthems, played by a band who actually knows how to play their instruments now. Inspired by their catalog, yet being unable to undo the effects of musical growth, the 15 songs on Punk Rock feel oddly out of time and place. There is a certain ramshackle grace in them that offers the ghostly hint of 1977's chaotic joy, but being played by people who no longer have the comfort of naivete as a cushion against the outside world. Certain songs, such as "I'm So Happy" capture the rage and bluster of the time, but take on new weight coming from the mouth of a man who has seen the clock come full circle: history seems to be repeating itself with an ironic vengeance in a post-Thatcher Britain that's been replaced by a Bush/Blair alliance and is ramming the "truth" down the punters throats. While the angry urgency written into these songs cannot be dredged up from time immemorial, the bitter laughter and tempered rage of seeing the enemy and his forked tongue coming whistling over the horizon once more is abundant. This is first and foremost a rock and roll record; check out the anthemic craziness in "32 Weeks," "Trevira Trousers," "This Sporting Life," an amazingly shambolic "Never Been In a Riot," and "Fight the Cuts," (with guests Eaglebauer, a Mekons tribute band). And then there's the tempered, post-punk, country strangeness and charm in "Corporal Chalkie," "Rosanne," and "Chopper Squad," to offer a fractured view of a band that has seen it all and played it all while never losing their sense of impropriety and disorder. Punk Rock is a fine album; if some of the material sounds dated, that's good because it showcases a music that was rather than something played for corporate dollars by kids who weren't born when the band were first kicking up a ruckus down Leeds way. Punk rock is now the very simulacra it railed against, and this album by the Mekons investigates and confirms that in spades. — Thom Jurek
From: New York Times:
MEKONS Jon Langford and Tom Greenhalgh were in the Mekons during the original British punk-rock explosion, and they're still in the Mekons. For the band's 25th-anniversary tour in 2002, they dug out their oldest songs. They couldn't escape becoming more musically competent, and they had to transpose some songs down from youthful shout to middle-aged growl. Nor did they turn back from their latter-day fondness for banjo and fiddle. But on "Punk Rock" (Quarter Stick) the Mekons still sound just as disgusted with the powerful, as sympathetic to outcasts and as full of questions as ever. And yes, they still rock.
From: Rolling Stone (3 stars):
Punk Rock collects fifteen songs written by these English punk aesthetes
nearly thirty years ago, recorded on the occasion of their twenty-fifth anniversary.
The sound shuffles between three-chord barnburners and mellower group singalongs,
and the memorable, politically minded tunes are a testament to the band's
bighearted collective spirit.
It’s not just interesting, it’s sometimes downright unbelievable that the Mekons not only continue to exist as a band -- now 25 years into rockdom -- but consistently launch records, art projects, tours and side-recording projects unique even within their own vast and -- let’s face it -- fucked-up history. A group that started out in 1977 as yet another bunch of Northern England-based art students interested more in racket and picket lines than chord structure has transmogrified into a confusing, but hardly ever confused, posse of musicians interested more in archetypes and themes than in dollars and sense.
In 1989, the Mekons, then known as post-punk founders of alt-country and leading folk-punk lights, released Rock & Roll, a major-label debut that slammed major labels; a theme record about rock that both hated rock and, well, rocked. Circa the band’s last album, OOOH! (as in Out Of Our Heads), the current -- and somewhat steady -- Mekons lineup was shown standing in front of Ye Olde Trip To Jerusalem, often touted as the oldest standing pub in England, having launched many crusaders on their medieval journeys. It was a fitting image for the band’s best album in years, a self-contained rallying cry to the ancient, be that voodoo or 17th-century English rebels. On Punk Rock, the titular theme would seem to be the Mekons’ own roots in class-of-’77 guitar-plowing: and in a way, it is. Now the two records have combined, become a record that the Mekons should’ve but couldn’t release in ’81 or ’84 -- thematically a blast at punk and a sacrifice to the elders. Punk Rock is a theme album about the Mekons -- Mekons as a Mekons tribute band. It’s so pop-will-eat-itself that it seems like a sick joke, a self-referential blag that happens to also include some great songs: in other words, the perfect Mekons record, again.
Punk Rock is a collection of the band’s punk-era songs, rerecorded with the new “look, we know how to play” Mekons. That’s not to say there aren’t some great moments of cacophonous punk simplicity: their two punk-est efforts, “Never Been in a Riot” and “32 Weeks,” are recorded live on the band’s 25th anniversary tour with possibly more drunken vitriol than their Carter-era originals. But for the most part, the accordions, tuneful harmony vocals, and atmospheric instrumental touches (Asian-sounding banjos and the like) seem a far cry from the band’s initial inabilities.
It just goes to show that, like many of their brethren, there really was
something special about the Mekons’ ’77-, ’81- and ’84-punk
eras: maybe they couldn’t technically express it, but they had a flurry
of ideas that stand on their own even today. Performed here by the thinly
disguised Sadies -- as Eaglebauer, a Canadian Mekons tribute act -- “Fight
the Cuts” has as much resonance (and more melody) as any political punk
of ’03. (It ought to be Pittsburgh’s theme.) Similarly, “Chopper
Squad” or the fantastic “What” could’ve fit well onto
OOH! -- post-punk, post-folk and lyrically post-modern. Punk Rock is so post-everything
that it’s almost pre-anything -- just the way they meant it.
From: Mojo Magazine, February 2004, Issue No. 123, page 101
Artists re-recording early material typically screams cash-grab. Not so here.
(How much money can there be in Mekons records?) Mekons began revisiting songs
from The Quality of Mercy is Not Strnen (1979) and Devils, Rats And Piggies
(1980) in prep for their 25th anniversary gigs last year and were intrigued
enough to commit the new takes to tape. Punk Rock isn't a replacement of those
early cuts, but a chance for the band to inhabit them anew, as different,
changed people (not to mention as a different, expanded line-up). The songs
they wrought a quarter-century ago with anxiety and confusion they render
against a backdrop of today with fear and anger. Teeth is still full of worry,
but now it's made muscular by hindsight. When Sally Timms takes the mike for
Corporal Chalkie, she turns the soldier's lament into a mother's mournful
meditation. Unessential, yes, but hardly uninteresting.
"Everything old is new again" is a banal sentiment at the best
of times, but it must be a particularly grating thought for music lovers,
who've endured enough stylistic revivals and rebirths to last a lifetime.
At this rate, our children's children will be scraping the back-side of the
barrel-bottom, left with nothing more promising or artistically viable than
a "banging rocks together and humming tunelessly" revival. (I hear
there are already a few assholes in Williamsburg who are dressing in animal
skins and duct-taping large rocks to their heads, but that could simply be
a side-effect of drinking too much Pabst.)
So...does that mean that everything old, far from being new again, actually sucks ass? Of course not. Case in point: in 2002, when the Mekons were rehearsing for their 25th anniversary tour, they decided to dig out a handful of their oldest songs -- tracks from the late seventies and early eighties -- and give 'em a whirl. To everyone's delight, these relatively ancient Mekons tunes didn't reek of gratuitous nostalgia, but sounded fresh and vibrant and surprisingly relevant. Emboldened by their success, the Mekons resolved to re-record their now-modernized material. The resultant Punk Rock bears little resemblance to the commodified dross that passes for punk in 2004; it's proud, smart, defiantly working-class stuff that'll remind you why the movement mattered.
Culled from early Mekons singles and the group's first two full-lengths, and stopping short of Fear and Whiskey's sidelong lurch into the badlands of proto-alt-country, Punk Rock is an eclectic delight. Opener "Teeth"'s driving (but melodic) desperation is bluntly one-upped by "I'm So Happy"'s hypnotic groove, shouty vocals and burgeoning background conflagration of guitar, saz (sic) and accordion. Songs like this are almost a lost art: it's danceable but never deliberately so, angry but never overwrought, earnest but never showy. A modern hardcore song packs ten times the angst, but can't match the sincerity.
There's another nice juxtaposition later on. In "32 Weeks", an irate Jon Langford (I think) details the amount of time a typical working stiff will need to work to earn the cash to buy the necessities of modern life (two hours to buy a bottle of whiskey, a week to buy a mattress, 32 weeks to buy a car, and so on); after all, every man wants to "get a job / get a car / get a bird!" There's something in the song's matter-of-factness that makes you want to do the math yourself -- and the numbers still add up (as long as you're talking about a used car). When their value is expressed as chunks of your own life, your possessions seem rather pointless, don't they? It's ironic, then, that "Work All Week"'s protagonist is so willing to "work all week to buy your ring / extra hours to get real gold / You know I'll buy you anything." The song's cheery calypso melody hides a nugget of cynicism -- the protagonist's plan to impress his wife (or would-be wife) with an endless stream of gifts is as shallow as it is earnest -- but the sheer good-naturedness will make you smile as you listen. Then again, "32 Weeks"' clinical approach may be safer; in the credit-strapped 21st century, the guy from "Work All Week" will have to work 3,124 weeks to pay off his $10,000 in revolving credit card debt...
Other highlights include the trance-inducingly resonant "This Sporting Life", all charged atmosphere and borderline a capella vocals, and a trio of quintessential punk tunes: the yobbish "Never Been in a Riot", "Fight the Cuts" and the epochal "Dan Dare". These last few, along with "I'm So Happy" and "32 Weeks", are the songs you'll want to play for every slack-jawed fifteen year-old would-be punk-rocker you know, because they embody the best things about punk rock: they are gloriously chaotic, ramshackle and real, and sound like the work of people who cling desperately to day jobs because they've got rent and other bills to pay.
25-odd years after they first recorded these fifteen songs, the Mekons have hit middle age. They've endured the major label meat grinder, earned boatloads of cred and a massive, cultish fanbase, and their successes have been hard-won -- infrequent, but unsullied by compromise. Perhaps that's why Punk Rock rings so true: the Mekons may be older, but their values haven't changed.
-- George Zahora
And take this: From Groove.no
White riot flashback!
Det er flere enn The Damned som stadig kommer tilbake, når det gjelder gamle helter fra slutten av 70-tallet. Både Wire og The Fall har nylig levert solide nye album og turen har nå kommet til The Mekons, hjemmehørende i Leeds. På midten av 80-tallet i post-punk tiden måtte de fleste av disse finne seg opp på nytt igjen for å henge med. The Clash klarte det ikke, men The Mekons fant fram gamle Hank Williams og Gram Parsons plater og kom tilbake med Fear & Whiskey (1985), en heftig blanding av ku-pønk og aggressive, politiske viser som talte Reagan og Thatcher midt i mot.
Mangt et år har svunnet hen siden da og The Mekons viser seg å være like seiglivet som influensa-viruset. Denne gangen mimrer de om opprørske somre i årene rett etter at den illsinte spirit-of-1976-ånden slapp ut av flasken. Det ser ut til at mutter'n omsider har ryddet gutterommet og kommet over materiale skrevet mellom 1977 og 1981 og sendt en hyggelig brevpakke til Jon Langford og Tom Greenhalgh, de eneste gjenværende medlemmene fra den epoken. Dette har gitt råvarene til The Mekons store 25-års jubileumsturné i Europa og USA. Opptaker var det også plass til på turen, og albumet med den fantasifulle tittelen Punk Rock ble innspilt i Chicago, New York og Amsterdam.
Det vi har med å gjøre her er dermed musikkdagboka til gamle tregrepshelter med vedvarende opprørstrang. Plata er fylt med pub-punk, hardcore og folk-punk som av og til tar sideveier mot ska og reggae. Et par av de sporene som er innspilt live gir deg dermed en god indikasjon på hvordan The Clash kunne høres ut på en imaginær gjenforeningsturné med hyppige ønskerepriser fra deres beste periode.
Teeth er en høyoktansåpning der den melodiske gitarlarmen fyller hele rommet og gjør det vanskelig å oppfatte sangen. Corporal Chalkie skaper en dynamisk motsetning der Sally Timms leverer sang lidende nok til å bli tatt alvorlig av alternativ-country fansen. What følger denne retning videre og utforsker instrumenter som ikke vanligvis forbindes med denne genren (trekkspill og mbira, et instrument fra Zimbabwe med en viss likhet til xylofon) I'm So Happy er klassisk tregrepspunk som skrikes ut og gjaller i veggene. Politiske tekster finnes det naturlig nok en god del av her, fram for alt på Fight the Cuts, 32 Weeks og Work All Week. Sistnevnte er platas ska-punk høydepunkt som akutt framprovoserer et snarlig gjenhør med gamle Clash-plater for denne anmelderens vedkommende. This Sporting Life er platas mest eksotiske spor med banjo, mbira, håndklapp og en monoton underliggende tone. Oppfinnsom backpacker-punk, dette her!
Å klore seg ut en musikalsk nisje midt mellom The Clash, The Pogues og Chumbawamba høres ikke ut som noen dum ide, og Mekons beviser i praksis at det her har vært et hull i vår musikalske bevissthet. De føyer seg dermed pent inn i rekka av gamle storheter som ikke har sviktet det urgamle opprøret som definerer ekte punk-rock. Dette danner en skarp kontrast til de patetiske gjenforeningskonsertene til Sex Pistols som bare ble gjennomført for å gi Johnny Lydon sårt tiltrengte drikkepenger.
- Dag Erik Asbjørnsen, 19.01.2004
From: Lost at sea:
When I was in high school there was a girl I hung out with a bit. I would go over to her house and pine after her, but after some time going over to her house became more about hanging out with her dad, who had converted a bedroom into a music room. The walls of the bedroom were painted red and had pictures of Mike Bloomfield, Sonic Youth, Leonard Cohen, and other mythical characters I, in my youth, had only heard of. I would go over to the girl's house and promptly ignore her, instead playing chess with her dad who, in turn, would burn me CDs that would ultimately serve to expand my musical horizons.
We would talk about the Clash and Television and Tom Waits. His tastes were so diverse and while his daughter just got into the punk rock, I tried to absorb the whole spectrum that he had to offer. The girl's dad had a list of certain bands that could, in his opinion, do no wrong. One of those bands was the Mekons. He would talk about them and claim that in the late seventies they had been a savoir of rock and roll for him.
I had assumed the Mekons had been a punk rock band, not yet aware of the full scope of their vision. With Punk Rock the Mekons return to that place, 27 years after first spilling out of speakers, showing the youngsters how it is done. Punk Rock is an all around solid outing, with even the straight ahead punk songs retaining a grittiness and quality that bands using the label "punk" today could never muster.
Reviewed by Sequoya Yiaueki
Take a look at the political similarities between now and 1979. The most obvious: turmoil in the Middle East. It was in November 1979 that Iranian students seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran -- setting off the Iran Hostage Crisis. That same year that the makers of some of the best rock ever (yes, ever), The Mekons, emerged from Leeds University and began a 27-year career that continues with the release of this month's Punk Rock.
Punk Rock? Seems like another similarity to 1979. Punk rock is all over the radio, right? Sure, but the punk blaring from MTV is the very stuff the punks of 1979 sought to fight against -- a bland, monotonous marketing creation that is three parts image, three parts, "Who cares?", four parts shameless "What the fuck?" As in the, "What the fuck?" you scream at the television news when they show another stupid story about some fad diet or cop chase through suburban streets.
Many critics and "true" punksters whine that today's Good Charlotte, Sum 41 and Simple Plan groupies should look into the past and understand that music of the 70s was an impassioned plea for change amid growing disenfranchisement, not whining over a lost girlfriend. What the critics miss is that the musicians of the last 10 years have been reflecting the shallow voices of their own generation. Much like the punks of the 70s reflected the anger of their own.
It was, to use the cliche, truly "about the music". It was about feeling, anger, thought. It was about a lot of things that are hard to comprehend in the tech-savvy, me, me, me, conservative world of 2004.
But here the Mekons -- older, more experienced, and certainly more knowledgeable of the world and its cold harsh realities -- tap into that feeling once again. The come not only with a message, but with skilled instrumentation. These 14 tracks are sometimes catchy, sometimes broken down. But the casual listener can follow them. One doesn't need a sophisticated Radiohead ear, a lust for the orchestral symphonies of recent Flaming Lips discs or an obscure Sigur Ros passion to find the Mekons enjoyable.
Hell, you could pop this on and clean the apartment to this. But if you really sit down and listen, really listen to what's going on here, you might find yourself discovering something that has long been missing from something with "Punk" in the title. What's that you ask?
Robert Christgau in Blender magazine:
Old British radicals celebrate anniversary by
relearning old songs
There are no new songs on Punk Rock, just new live and studio performances generated by the nominally alt-country radicals' 2002 twenty-fifth-anniversary tour, when they got their mad fans out to successive shows devoted to successive phases of their multifarious career. It's no surprise that the Mekons of 1977 were as besotted with the Sex Pistols as every conscious young Briton. The surprise is that the realist rage of material they had barely thought about in years feels so right in the age of Dubya. The tunes that enliven memorable punk don't magically materialize now. But as writing--as examples of articulated rage--the likes of "Corporal Chalkie" and "I'm So Happy" were why cell leaders Jon Langford and Tom Greenhalgh chose rock & roll. And why they choose it still.
by Justin Hopper
There Is No Alternative
In 1950s Britain, comic-strip hero Dan Dare and his Venusian evil-scientist enemy the Mekon were the vision of a future that seemed far off: a late '90s world in which Dare's RAF-style hot-blooded heroics were the necessary foil to the Mekon's cold and calculated intellect. In 1970s Britain, the Mekon must have seemed like a snotty practical joke of a hero to the Leeds art-school cretins that took his name: An opposition to all the myths of empire and "owing so much to so few", and a mockery of anti-intellectual, cock-rock, and football-hooligan Britain. Little did they know that, at the time of the real late 20th/early 21st century period of Dan Dare, the Mekons would still exist and would remain the skeptical and critical conscience of the once-vibrant punk-rock movement that had spawned them.
A quarter century ago, the Mekons weren't punk in the mohawks and safety pins sense, nor in the gobbing and pogoing sense. In fact, the main connection between early Mekons singles like "Where Were You?" and punk rock was punk's surgical removal of technical skill from the rock 'n' roll contract. But where bands like the Clash and the Sex Pistols had producers with the wherewithal to get decent takes and guitar solos out of their protégés, the Mekons really, truly didn't know how to play. "Never Been in a Riot" wasn't just a jab at punk's "White Riot" complex that made black uprising a chivalrous aspiration for white working-class rockers and their middle-class student followers. "Never Been in a Riot" proved that, unlike some of these safety-pin-up lads like Billy Idol or punk-rock maestros like Mick Jones, the Mekons really were ugly bastards who completely fucking sucked -- just like the hype said.
What people perhaps didn't fully realize, people including Jon Langford and Tom Greenhalgh, who've maintained the Mekons ever since, is that the late '70s and early '80s Mekons were writing songs that expressed the cynicism, spite, humor and twisted optimism of punk as well as anyone else banging on a guitar at the time. What probably would've seemed even less likely is that those songs would stand up again, worthy of a recount, 25 years later -- although Jon and Tom might've guessed that the situations that inspired punk would cycle back around, if they ever went away in the first place.
And thus it came to be that, in an age in which Tony Blair's (and George W.'s) Dan Dare, hot-blooded heroics of bold white men aesthetic has risen again to salute all kinds of flags with a tear in the eye, the Mekons have transformed themselves again. The band's 2002 album OOOH! found a sort of revolutionary-gospel Mekons rediscovering silenced voices from the swamplands of southern America and the moors of northern England, reviving voodoo curses and English Renaissance rebels and ranters. On the new Punk Rock, the Mekons are rediscovering, well, the Mekons. This is Mekons as Mekons cover band, time traveling backwards, picking up their own past selves and fast forwarding to a time that needs them once again, like some kind of reawakening Merlin on the blag, needed once more to poke fun and spew venom at the dread of daily grind. Fifteen songs from the band's 1977 and 1981 heydays, recorded in 2002-2003, just after the band's ambitious 25th-anniversary tour.
The first thing we learn about the Mekons' self-reassessment is that, while they've learned how to play, they haven't simultaneously forgotten how to spit. Sure, relative newcomer Sally Timms (a Mekons-baby, with only about 20 years in the band) has a purrrty voice for singing it, but "Corporal Chalkie" is still simply brutal in its vitriolic, knowing indictment of the Heroic British Army: "And I know what happened before I was born / The Huns and the Nips got uppy with Blighty / And Tommy went out and beat them all home... The great big bloke from platoon 32 / Is calling me a poof and a stream of number two".
Similarly, acoustic ditties like "What" and "Work All Week" -- and Jon Langford's live, shout-sung "The Building" -- are less musically hurtful, but still emotionally devastating in their visualization of what the Mekons obviously see as a morbid state of regular life. As is referenced in one of Punk Rock's finest moments, the Asian-banjo and shruti-box drone of "This Sporting Life", the Mekons' art-school politics rove unrecognizably far from the modern idea of "political punk" and have more in common with the "kitchen sink" films of Lindsay Anderson and Ken Loach. Even in the more punk punk-rock days, Mekons songs like "32 Weeks" -- redone here live onstage, and with a verve denying physical age -- concentrated on specific, if humorous, ways of spewing about the working life rather than bitching about Thatcher. It's no surprise that, although the Mekons as a band has barely ever made a dime, most of the band members -- most famously painter/producer/indie-rock renaissance man Jon Langford -- have found ways to avoid the nine-to-five, even if it means working longer and harder than a "job" would require.
Dan Dare's fate has never been sealed: just like James Bond, the Mekon always
seems to give that do-gooder bastard some complex, evil-scientist trap to
escape from, rather than just blast the limey fuck with a shotgun. But the
Mekon always manages to get away and live to pester the powers-that-be as
well. And so too with our beloved Mekons: give 'em enough rope, and they'll
build a rope bridge. Punk Rock is like that -- a hangman's-rope bridge across
time, from the Now to the Then and back again. The Mekons' Mekons tribute
act is so post-modern that it's almost circled back around again, to the point
of a kind of futuristic prehistory. Next on the Mekons' agenda: discover fire,
build Stonehenge. And I, for one, can't wait.
from pp. 134-135
All The Fame Of Lofty Deeds
The hardest working man in show business? That's easy: Jon
Langford. Since 1998, he's been the key man on more than a dozen
albums with the Sadies, Pine Valley Cosmonauts, Waco Brothers, Sally
Timms, and perhaps first among equals, the Mekons, the infinitely
evolving, organically changing entity that sprouted from the first
wave of British punk in Leeds in 1977.
Common to all of Langford's prolificacy is his dart-aim with
increasing accuracy at the junction where art, intellect, politics
and fun meet. That he success so convincingly on his first two
albums of 2004 is not just reason to cheer, but reason to suggest the
singer/writer/musician/painter for a MacArthur Fellows grant.
ALL THE FAME OF LOFTY DEEDS, credited as a Langford solo album,
shares some texture with last year's MAYORS OF THE MOON by Langford &
His Sadies. For me, MAYORS generated deeper, richer emotional
resonances than any of his previous work. LOFTY DEEDS comes close.
With typical erudition, the title comes from Andreas Gryphils' 17th- century poem "All Is Vanity": "The fame of lofty deeds vanish like a
On this song-cycle, Lofty Deeds is a character, a country music
archetype whose story of "drink and pills and Nashville Radio" is the
Hank/Elvis rocket arc from poverty to glory to a premature funeral
A confident country and midwestern sound runs through ALL THE FAME OF
LOFT DEEDS, as in many of Langford's now-Chicago-based projects
combining rural instrumentation and urban grit. Frequent sidekick
Jon Rice adds dobro, mandolin and guitar, and the Pine Valley
Cosmonauts turn up on two tracks, but foremost is Langford's full- throated Welsh-accented singing.
Langford stays in character on upbeat ravers such as "Hard Times"
and "Over The Cliff", but he seems to be speaking from the outside
on "Sputnik 57", which connects the space program to American
imperialism, and "The Country Is Young", a cultural critique in which
he plays sentimental good cop to DeTocqueville's bad cop.
There are two covers. The 1927 classic "Trouble In Mind", the
template here from Bob Wills, offers an appropriate valedictory,
while Procol Harum's "Homburg" is a deliciously left-field but
Enriching the mix on tracks such as "Last Fair Deal Gone Down",
Langford seems to be plucking a mbira, the Zimbabwean metal-strips- inside-a-gourd finger piano, which is also listed as one of his
instruments on the Mekons' new album. PUNK ROCK is a new collection
of old songs (circa 1977-81) the Mekons dusted off for their recent
25th anniversary concerts. Once performed with "rank
amateurishness," as TROUSER PRESS puts it, these songs now benefit
from the Mekons informal skillfulness.
Drummer Stephen Goulding, a great player even before he anchored
Graham Parker's Rumour, gives a steady backbone for Langford and
Mekons co-founder Tom Greenhalgh to rank on noteworthy artifacts such
as "Never Been In A Rio", as they keep shouting for social justice
and against hypocrisy. The demands need to be made now as much as
they did all those years ago, and Langford and company still have the
sense to make them -- not on behalf of any Party, but as an
invitation to a party.
-- WAYNE ROBINS
Return to Punk Rock
By Philip Christman
Few artists exemplify indie integrity like the Mekons. Less a “band” than a collective of like-minded friends—a mobile musical kibbutzim spread across two continents—the British punk rockers have kept alive the post-punk dream (of restless experimentation and political critique leavened by a self-mocking sense of humor) through, paradoxically, a deep immersion in American roots music. You could say the Mekons invented alt.country—their classic Fear and Whiskey (1985) married Clash and Cash two years before Uncle Tupelo existed—and though they’ve experimented widely before and since, conducting a ragged march across genres ranging from reggae and techno to salsa, they’ve never since strayed far from the blend they pioneered. In fact, their last few albums have featured some of the band’s strongest country work yet, rooted as always in the contrasting vocal styles of the sweet, melancholy Sally Timms, the hard-charging punk yelper (and part-time Waco Brother) Jon Langford, and Tom Greenhalgh, the very voice of whiskey-sodden regret.
So what drove this restlessly creative outfit to do an album of self-covers?
“Last year, we decided to try and do some shows just playing the early songs,” explains Langford. Expecting to be embarrassed, Greenhalgh said they instead found the songs “quite satisfying to do, like archeology.” Langford agrees: “There was sort of a strength to them, a continuity [with later work] we didn’t really know existed.”
This continuity is especially surprising because Greenhalgh and Langford are the only holdouts remaining from the late-’70s Mekons lineup that first recorded the songs exhumed and reworked on Punk Rock (Quarterstick), the group’s 21st album. As part of the fertile, creative Leeds, England, punk scene, the Mekons quickly tired of the typical chugging sound of their early releases. “I was kinda bored with going dudda dudda dunt,” says Langford. For the second album, the band “all swapped instruments and made songs up in the studio,” Langford continues, leading to “the beginning of the Mekons as I think of it.” But audiences didn’t know what to make of the new material. So, says Greenhalgh, “We went underground and refused to play live.” Langford elaborates—“Around ’81, ’82, we had this sort of secret bedroom band. We didn’t think anybody wanted to hear us, but we just used to make recordings for our own pleasure.”
Circumstances—and praise from unexpected sources—changed that. “By the summer of ’83 there was this kind of weird backwash of interest, actually, from the States,” Langford says, with critic Greil Marcus praising the band in Artforum and Lester Bangs writing the liner notes for the under-the-radar The Mekons Story (1983). The group returned to live gigging during a miner’s strike, which it hoped to support by playing at benefits. By this time, Langford was experimenting with “writing some quite tuneful songs,” some influenced by Hank Williams.
No one was quite prepared for the records that resulted—Fear and Whiskey, Edge of the World (1986), Honky Tonkin’ (1987) and the Crime and Punishment EP (1986). Critics like Marcus and Bangs noticed a certain humor and vision in the band’s earlier material, but the Mekons’ expansive, imaginative revision of country was something new. They could be cerebral to the point of didacticism, but they also conjured the plainspoken power of Williams and Cash. One had only to listen to the horrifying “Big Zombie”—Langford howling the words “I’m just not human tonight!” over an amphetamine country stomp while the band full-throttles the tune into a ditch—to see that the Mekons’ manic punk roots allowed them to fully explore the current of nihilistic, destructive desperation that always ran through classic country.
But the band was heading for a ditch of its own. After a successful run of independent releases, the Mekons signed with A&M, which failed to promote the anti-music industry Mekons Rock ’n’ Roll (1989). Corporate censorship? “Corporate ineptitude,” says Langford. A&M then refused to domestically release the group’s stylistically diffuse followup, Curse of the Mekons (1991). After another troubled courtship with Warner Brothers, the group decided cashing in wasn’t worth it. “The worst times,” says Greenhalgh stoically, “have always involved proximity to major labels.”
In the 1990s, the band made up for lost freedom, retreating from country on Retreat From Memphis (1994) and trying every style imaginable on later records, while group members pursued various side projects, even doing art shows and (in Langford’s case) the comic strip Great Pop Things. With half the group now living in America and the other half in the UK, they’ve found certain procedures that work well. “Due to geography, etcetera, it helps to identify some themes and rules to work from, so we usually have a strong idea of what we're about on a particular project,” says Greenalgh. This explains the inner cohesion of albums that vary widely in style: the pop-rock of I [Heart] Mekons (1993), the slicked-up techno-glam of Me (1998), the return to country-rock on OOOH! (Out Of Our Heads) (2002).
These days, Langford delights in the unexpected relevance of the old material
that makes up the Mekons’ new album, finding that a song like “Corporal
Chalkie” still resonates with the current situation in Iraq. But don’t
expect this band to stay in one place for too long. “We’re gonna
go on tour in March. It might not be a punk rock tour—it’s kind
of a deliberate attempt to counterpoint styles from that time with the possibility
of doing totally different things. That’s what we do. No limits, maaan,”
he says, laughing. As for the next record? Greenhalgh, who’s also writing
songs for a side project of his own, says “We want to work on the next
album in a different way from the last few … to base it much more on
a live-band sound,” he says. “Like a bulldozer—a great big
monster demolishing everything in its path.”