The scene: Leeds, England, 1977, an ambling factory town in southern England. The streets are crowded here, the skies dark ... There isn't much hope of finding anything small or unusual, yet something lurks. At first glance, it's nothing, really, except the plod of feet, the stomp of coal-miners as they shake their pantlegs for soot. The air is cool, the taste in the air is of salt and grit. But there are rumors ... In London, not so very far away, groups of disenfranchised teenagers have been forming their own sort of rock-n-roll bands for nearly two years now- groups like The Sex Pistols and The Clash, and, to the north, in Manchester, The Buzzcocks. These groups have been shaking up the airwaves and the English press, and, even in places like Leeds, the sensibilities of likeminded youths.
Enter a loose collaboration of Leedsian art-students. They are an unseemly lot, given to philosophizing about the world around them in lofty terms, as angry about certain political situations as their slightly less verbose counterparts to the East, but more willing to mutter about them in reference to things like Situationism and Postmodernism. Taking Punk Myth # 1 - Thou Shalt Learn to Play No Instruments - to new heights, The Mekons adopt their name from an evil, alien race in old Dan Dare science-fiction serials and join the bloody fray. Sharing rehearsal digs and borrowing equipment from another noted Leedsian punk band, Gang of Four, The Mekons are forced by their own amateurishness to adopt something unique from the get-go.
Although the actual numbers of band-members have ranged, at times, from five to possibly nearly twenty (though this is a fact misconstrued by the band's frequent use of zany pseudonyms on their record-sleeves), the original lineup included Jon Langford on drums, Tom Greenhalgh and Kevin Lycett on guitars, Ros Alien on bass, and Andy Corrigan and Mark White on vocals. Langford and Greenhalgh, the only founding members remaining in the band, are easily pegged as the ringleaders and constants throughout other personnel genesis in the band's lifespan. Langford claims otherwise, however: "It was always meant to be a collaborative effort. That was very important. It's always been very important. I mean, the first slogan of the band was "No Personalities Emerge!" which is impossible in the end, I think. The idea that there wasn't like a lead-singer with a backing-band, which was quite a revolutionary idea in 1977. Things have changed since then. People can accept a band as the sum of its parts now."
In 1978, The Mekons released their first singles--"Never Been in a Riot," a response to The Clash's "White Riot" posturing, "32 Weeks," and "Where Were You" on Fast Records. These singles were feet testing water, lacking even the desire for polish, let alone the stuff itself, but betraying the same, wry, intelligent sense of humour and astuteness that would typify the group throughout the body of its lengthy and choppy career. Virgin Records took notice and, in 1979, released the band's first full-length LP, The quality of Mercy is not Strnen. The title, a play on the axiom that an infinite number of monkeys at an infinite number of typewriters would, eventually, recreate the works of Shakespeare, is indicative of the album's quirky tone. A herky-jerky sub-rant, it is not wholly pleasant to listen to and only occasionally unveils Greenhalgh and Langford's promise. They, themselves, are not fond of the record.
"The first album was a lot of songs that had been really good about a year before," says Langford, "then we went to a big, posh studio, and--I don't know. I don't listen to that album. We had somebody producing it, we weren't really involved. I was just, like, playing the drums. Just being twenty years-old, or something like that. I think the waste of money recording that album and the way the energy was sucked out of those songs, because we'd been playing them for so long, [was a shame], but we had to kind of make that album before we could do something else by then. That is, to want to get involved in production ourselves. There's one track on it I really like, which is the first one Tom ever really sang, which is 'After 6.' I think that was kind of, like,'Wow! That was really good!' And the rest of it was stuff that was exciting about 1978. And we were sitting, like, a year later in 1979 trying to do it for a major label .
"It was what we'd been playing for a while on the live set. But we'd been playing too long, and we'd gotten pissed off with playing live as well 'cos the scene got so violent and horrible. It was an interesting element to punk when it first started, like, it brought the football hooligans in, but, by about 1979, the football hooligans had taken over, you know, and you had that Oil stuff going on and a lot of fascist bands and stuff like that."
The Quality of Mercy didn't fare well either for The Mekons or for Virgin, who even went so far as to accidentally print a picture of Gang of For on the back sleeve of the album. Shortly after the record's release, The Mekons were dropped from the label. Its release also marked the hightpoint in their discontent with the Punk scene in England. „We'd been a pretty political band, in terms of being anti-fascist and stuff like that." Says Langford. „but we got to the point where we were doing gigs and people would churn it up. It was just horrible - skinheads and people getting stabbed and shit, you know. I think that album came out too late. It was a disappointment because I thought this band was good and really interesting, and by the time the album came out, what we were doing was pretty redundant. We were just learning. I rather like to think that song 'After 6' was kind of like a little, you know, well, it made me think about what we could do."
Greenhalgh agrees:"(We weren't a directly sloganizing, political band because we had a bit of a problem with that whole slogan-type thing. You know, it runs into other problems. It's kind of more like politics in the sense of everyday politics, or everything-is-politics, so sometimes that actually does merge with the bigger picture. A political view of everything rather than Political with a big „P" and party-politics and everything."
Then, in 1980, The Mekons recorded their second LP the uncornfortably-titled Devils Rats and Piggies: A Special Message to Godzilla.. The Mekons' approach to this album differed greatly from The Quality of Mercy says Greenhalgh.
"The first album was recorded In a sort of conventional way, going into the studio with fully finished songs and trying to achieve as good a rendition of [the songs] as possible, whereas the second album was done completely differently, where we going into the studio without any preconceived idea of what was going to happen. And. basically. Just building songs up from anything you could start off with, any sort of element and building it up like that. And also doing in a small studio in Halifax, which was a lot cheaper which meant that we could record over a long period of time, and so, basically anyone who felt like going into the studio that day--which could be, like, two or three people--would go and just find what was on the tape that someone else might have done previously without any idea of what their intention was and just working on it. So it built up like that. In the kind of raw, experimental approaches that were happening post-the initial Punk phase."
Devil 's Rats and Piggies is, in fact, a formative album on which The
Mekons, as they have come to be known, can first be discerned. In songs
like "Institution" and "Chopper Squad," both the raving melodies of Jon
Langford's vocals and the thin melancholy of Tom Greenhalgh's-instant
and long-time hallmarks of the polar opposites at work in the band's
community-are apparent. And the inclusion of the English folk standard,
"The Trimdon Grange Explosion" (also later covered on The Mekons' LP,
Honky Tonkin', in a much more traditional style) illustrates the band's
early association with various political causes, particularly the
Miners' Rights movement. Langford says it best:
"Yeah, I love that album! We remastered it just recently [re-released on Touch & Go.]. Going back to the original tapes and putting them on was, like, fantastic. Because we only had crappy vinyl copies, you know, the shitty pressing, the way it originally came out, so the CD is much better. We added a couple extra tracks that were lying around, which I really like as well. There was just, like, a total kind of release doing that.
"[The album meant] that we could do whatever we wanted ... The ideas of punk didn't have to be some kind of ranting, guitar-based, drums, you know, that other people turn it into."
After Devil's Rats and Piggies, The Mekons slipped into a period of hibernation that stretched from 1981 to 1984, during which the band-members delved into various side-projects (most notably, Jon Langford's involvement in The Three Johns) and did not perform together as a unit at all. In rather a piecemeal fashion, though, a third LP was released in this interim--The Mekons Story, a.k.a. It Falleth Like the Gentle Rain From Heaven--in 1982.
"Well, that's one of my personal favorite records because, again, it's a kind of deliberate sort of decision that, at the point we did The Mekons Story, the Mekons had more or less sort of fizzled out of existence," says Greenhalgh.
"Basically, the band had broken up, without going into the whole story, and there was only three or four of us left still in the band, and we weren't playing live, we weren't actually functioning as band at all. All we were doing was doing bits and pieces on our own, or with two other people in the band; that was me, Kevin, Jon, and, occasionally, [others]. And so The Mekons Story was an album that was completely flying in the face of absolute non-interest from anybody, anywhere. It was almost like a kind of game to create a sort of fable of the band, and we deliberately thought of The Motown Story, with a kind of cheesy narration and stuff and did a kind of version of that. So it comes out at this very strange time. And, actually, even putting the record out on this really tiny label [CNT], no one really knew about it."
Jon Langford agrees on the measure of the album's significance: "I think that's another great time, when we did that, because we didn't even really believe we existed. We were just doing out of pettiness, so a lot of that was real bedroom, DIY-type stuff."
Between The Mekons Story and an impromptu performance at a benefit for the 1984 Miners' Strike, The Mekons slowly came back into being. Their next album, Fear and Whiskey, would begin a lengthy flirtation with country music that would define their burgeoning public persona and bring them their first tastes of attention from American audiences and beyond.
"That was the next phase where The Mekons became a band again," says Greenhalgh, "a band in the sense of a live band, partly due to a lot of involvement in the Miner's Strike, playing a lot of benefits and stuff. And the kind of material we were doing was very simple stuff that could be bashed out live without really rehearsing. And so Fear and Whiskev comes out of that, and we kind of started a new phase of The Mekons." Fear and Whiskev also marks a crystalization of The Mekons' core unit as it exists today-- Greenhalgh, Langford, drummer par excellence Steve Goulding (formerly of Graham Parker's Rumour, among many, many others), and, most notably, vocalist Sally Timms. It was the addition of Goulding that tightened the band into a viable, rock-n-roll unit and the addition of Timms that granted the band new levels of emotional depth. The Mekons, prior to this point, could incite and amuse with the best of them, but Timms' beautiful, weary vocals gave them the ability to inspire and empathise. With Steve Goulding not only holding things together at any pace but qualifying the mere texture of the music with his drumming, The Mekons, with Fear and Whiskey, became a musical force that could not only emulate their new heroes, Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, but could match them in quality, pound for pound.
"People said [Fear and Whiskey was like a countryish album," says Langford, "We'd been listening to a lot of country music at the time, a lot of roots music, a lot of Cajun music and stuff like that. But, listening to it now, it doesn't really sound country to me ... But the introduction of Susie [Honeyman] playing the fiddle was really important. Dick Taylor is playing guitar, but he's more like a kind of an R&B, pop guitarist."
Whatever the case, The Mekons soon became steadfastly associated with the notion of Country-Punk, and would even go so far, later on, as to record a benefit tribute album of Johnny Cash songs with various other artists, and Langford himself would release an entire album of Johnny Cash covers (Misery Loves Company: the Dark and Lonely World of Johnny Cash, Scout Records, 1995). It was an association that, for the time being, would only help The Mekons.
"I was out late the other night, Fear and Whiskey' kept me going ... Fear and Whiskey (later re-released in the Original Sin CD package) follows The Mekons Story's pattern of songs intermixed with bits of spoken dialogue, presenting The Mekons as a sort of soundtrack to themselves, a running commentary of a band constantly on the verge of reinvention. Exemplary among the album's musical tracks, however, are "Chivalry," a romantic, Greenhalgh-sung lament, and "Hard to Be Human"( "I came out of the bathroom/ looking for my ticket/ It's hard to be human again "), one of Jon Langford's prize numbers up to this point, a mainstay of The Mekons' live act for many moons after the album's release. In widespread use on Fear and Whiskey are accordions, violins, harmonicas, and other tools of the country-trade, and, while Jon Langford is certainly correct--it is not a true-to-form Country record--there are enough hallmarks of that genre to draw comparisons. Prior to The Mekons, the concept of country rock was reserved mainly for uninteresting, mid-Seventies bands like The Eagles and the occasional distractions of earlier precursors such as The Byrds, so a case can indeed be made for The Mekons, who have long since moved onward from that phase themselves, having paved the way for the likes of Uncle Tupelo and other "Alt-Country" bands of the late-Eighties and Nineties, despite what they themselves might have the public believe. Following in Fear and Whiskey's footsteps, two other excellent albums rounded out the so-called "country" phase of The Mekons' career, Edge of the World and Honky Tonkin '. Released in 1986, Edge of the World is a much more coherent album by traditional rock standards than any of The Mekons' previous efforts. Gone, for the most part (except for the Sally Timms' narrated "Garage D'or"), are the rambling, spoken-word tracks that characterized both The Mekons Story and, to a lesser extent, Fear and Whiskey. Instead, the album presents thirteen straightforward songs, each furthering country music a la The Mekons and makes for a more overall moving presentation than previous albums. Opening with Tom Greenhalgh's "Hello Cruel World" ("looking at a world/ that's shaken slightly/ My ears are filling with rubbish Can't Find it and make it work/ Hello, Cruel World ..."), a zydeco-flavored lament for a world that isn't what it pretends to be, the album is consistent in its tone, running thereafter through songs with titles like "Oblivion," "Bastard," and "Ugly Band." In keeping with the band's inclinations of the time; included also are covers of Don Gibson's "Sweet Dreams" and Hank Williams' "Alone & Forsaken." Along with zydeco, country, and barreling punk-rock (Langford's rollicking "Big Zombie"), Edge of the World also sports Spanish mariachi influences, particularly in the songs "King Arthur" and "Slightly South of the Border." The Mekons prove their capability at each of their varied influences on the album, yet still manage to retain their own voice throughout it all.
"I hold the sword, I hold the hammer/ In the winter of the World ..."
With Honky Tonkin' (Sin Records, 1987), The Mekons reached the climax of
their dalliance with country music. Their music, with this album, is now
pared completely down to a series of rather straightforward, late-
Eighties drinking songs and accordion-fiddle-guitar mantras. It's a
delightful album, raging from soulful, occasionally tongue-in- cheek,
country heart-bleedings ("Please Don't Let Me Love You") to full-on,
rock-n-roll blitzkriegs ("Sympathy for The Mekons"), beginning the
band's sidling away from this most constructive phase of their career.
The overall effect is a seamless, smoothly produced, and frankly
brilliant album covering the entire range of human emotion, and never
without a sense of humor. If one word can cover nearly any of The
Mekons' disparate recordings with equanimity, it is fun, and Honky
Tonkin' is at the top of that pile, to be sure.
"We usually come up with the title of the album before we've written any songs. I shy away from the term 'concept album,' though. It's got a bad rep. But it's quite good to have an adherent concept, you know," says Langford of the band's propensity for "holistic" album production.
In any case, Honky Tonkin crystallized a perception of The Mekons' that didn't always gel with the conception the band itself held. With their next release, So Good it Hurts, The Mekons drifted away from much of the instrumentation of their country phase, save for Susie Honeyman's serpentine fiddle, and explored the byways of standard-type pop music in songs like "Ghosts of American Astronauts," a showcase for Timms' stratosphere-straddling vocals. The album lacks the coherence of any of the "country" albums, wavering tentatively between styles, as also witnessed on Fear and Whiskey, but is still worthwhile for a few singular gems contained within, particularly the aforementioned "Ghosts," Greenhalgh's plaintive "(Sometimes I Feel Like) Fletcher Christian" ("Through the sun and sea, my skin is peeling/ But it don 't make the pictures fade/ Those shapes and symbols, I know their meaning/ The shameless riches of another world"), and a cover of The Rolling Stones' "Heart of Stone." The album is as jaunty and fun as any of their recordings, but, taken in chronological context with Honky Tonkin'. seems a bit retrograde in its production.
If seen as a bridge between two important phases in The Mekons' career, however, So Good it Hurts is an important album, in that it removed the band from the fetters of the conception that had built up of them through their association with Johnny Cash and Company and in that it made their next album, Rock and Roll- probably their finest recording-- and the next stage of their music possible.
„Destroy your safe and happy lives, before it is too late! The battles we fought were long and hard. Juts not to be consumed by Rock and Roll!" "[Rock and Roll] was, in part, a reaction to the way that a lot of people were talking about The Mekons as being a folk-band, or a country band, or even a reggae band, and we felt very strongly that we weren't really any of these things," says Greenhalgh. "We were just basically a punk-rock band, or even larger than that, perhaps--a rock and roll band, and that was the core of what it was about. It was just a big, obvious signal that if you write on the record 'rock and roll,' then that tells people what it is. And, again, a lot of the sound on it was very more guitar, bass, drums."
Though Susie Honeyman's fiddle is still present on Rock and Roll, the mix is indeed very much more oriented toward a traditional rock setup, and, with Steve Goulding at last set free to unleash the enormous power of his drumming, the album explodes from beginning to end.
The album's opening salve, "Memphis, Egypt," encapsulates the tone of the entire record, though it is, by far, the most hard-driving track present. Its initial command to "Destroy your safe and happy lives" sets the theme-- rock and roll as a cleansing, yet corrupting, force capable of transmogrifying one extreme to another. The Mekons, with this release, transmogrified themselves from an act of great semi-novelty--an English punk-rock band opting to "find themselves" in·the morass of country and folk—to something altogether different: a premier, electric live act easily capable of burying more commercially accepted groups of that nature with sheer energy. "Memphis, Egypt" and other songs from Rock and Roll quickly became staples of The Mekons' live set as they burned their way through the underground American tour circuit and continued to cull an already fairly well-established cult following into a fixed, dedicated number.
"Rock and Roll came out in 1989, after we'd been touring solidly through 1988, and it was quite a good process," says Langford. "We'd actually really enjoyed playing live. I have some live tapes we did of a gig in Berlin, I think in September, 1988. This woman, Claire, was our sound-mixer, and she used to tape, as a matter of course, every gig. We were listening to those tapes, saying it actually sounds really good, we should make a record that just sounds like this, you know. They sounded better than some of the records. That pushed us into doing, into trying something very live, like Rock d Roll."
But along with Rock and Roll's power, it also maintains the textural qualities that make nearly all of The Mekons' albums great. A lesser band, attempting to recreate themselves in such a way, might have been tempted to overdue things, turning the volume on each and every song up to ten, but Rock and Roll also features some excellent quieter moments and some of Sally Timms' finest singing yet. The best example of this is the album's fourth track, the fondly sad "Learning to Live on Your Own," a stirring, mournful song, full of that Leeds industrial air and capable of reducing a listener to tears within seconds, ranking Timms--along with her other work on "Club Mekon" and "I Am Crazy"--right along with the likes of Fatsy Cline and Maybelle and Anita Carter.
Almost too appropriately, though, along with being a landmark album for both their sound and production, Rock and Roll was also The Mekons' major-label debut, released on Warner Brothers' subsidiary Loud Records. If the band had chosen to write about any other subject than rock and roll as an industry and a lifestyle, with songtitles like "Empire of the Senseless" and "Blow Your Tuneless Trumpet," for their major-label debut, the outcome of that lone pairing with Warners would not have been so ironic.
But, as it was, the experience could not have been more true-to-form. Which is to say, more awful! The Mekons set out touring for the record only to find that they were playing towns and states in the U.S. that had not even had a glimpse of it in record-stores. In the end, the album went unsupported by Warner Brothers and left The Mekons wanting for money for sometime to come, another case of life reflecting art in the music industry.
Thereafter, The Mekons returned again to independent-land, to release an EP, FU.N. '90, which explored the world of Acid House via The Mekons own, particular pair of binoculars, and a full-length LP, The Curse of the Mekons, on Blast First Records.
"Your dead are buried, ours are reborn/ You clean up the ashes, we light the fire-- The Curse of the Mekons oriented The Mekons' sound away from a live-performance paradigm to a studio-recording-based one. Its title an indication of their feelings toward their direction in the post-Warner Brothers stage, the album finds the group returning to instrumentation involving flute, bagpipes, violin, banjo, and a full-blown horn-section on some tracks, without forsaking the bare rock sound developed on the previous album. It's an excellent follow-up to Rock and Roll's bombast, reigning in the chaos to snub Warner Brothers with sheer quality. Much more politically-motivated than Rock and Roll, Curse lays waste to the governmental landscapes of Western Europe and the United States, simultaneously mourning and mocking the death of socialism ("Her surrender is her guarantee/ She loves to know she can 't be free'!), denigrating capitalism ("Rats eat the burger cartons/ Experiment on themselves out of boredom"), pointing out covert governmental organisations' role in the international drug-trade ("Now a clown steps over the Berlin wall With a burning cross and pills to go"), and shaking their collective heads at the world-wide television culture("My mindless far away through the limpid realms of space/ equally insensitive to the suffering of human kind/ The infinite expansion of infinite things/ continues luminous serene, through the dark tedium/ Of a million nights ").
And Sally Timms' vocalisation of John Scot Sherrill's "Wild and Blue" is a faith-shaker, guaranteed to leave them weeping in the aisles, and still a mainstay of The Mekons' live show today (an atheist friend of this article's author once commented that listening to an inebriated Sally Timms singing "Wild and Blue" late at night in a dark club was the closest he'd ever come to believing in God!). Always one of their most positive features, The Mekons song lyrics, with Curse, reached a highpoint, standing as some of the best-crafted and most insightful ever published, to a point where the final track on the LP, "100% Song," was performed as a deconstructive, conceptual art-piece in New York with performance-artist Vito Acconci. Sadly, the album was never released in the U.S. Available on import only, it is a well-kept secret.
1993 found The Mekons in slightly better circumstances. Having signed with Chicago-based independent label Touch & Go's subsidiary, Quarterstick Records, The Mekons had at last found a record company to suit their unique voice. With the release that year of/ r The Mekons, a relationship began, based more on the strength of good words than the cardsharks and contracts of Warner Brothers, which continues to this day.
I r The Mekons drops the politics for a concentration on matters of the heart, as befitted by the LP's title. Launching with Sally Timms' album highpoint, "Millionaire," a gorgeous love song that never fails to leave audiences chanting "I love a millionaire, I love a millionaire" along with her in concerts, the album is the peppiest of all The Mekons' records. It swings from the softer edge of things ("Love Letter") to the harder ("I Don't Know"). Many of its tracks, with the album's focus on the travails of interpersonal relationships and uncomplicated sound, could fit neatly onto the soundtrack of a John Hughes movie, right along with bands like The Psychedelic Furs or Modern English. If The Mekons didn't exist so totally despite standard naming designations, I r The Mekons could easily be called their most "commercial." As it stands, however, it paved the way further for their cult acceptance in the American record market. Their first Mekons LP not nearly impossible to find in U.S. record-stores, it allowed a slightly younger, possibly less hip audience access to the band for the first time.
"The giant stirs the whirlpool/ a it closes in on truth ..." The Mekons' next LP, Retreat From Memphis, solidified their relationship with Quarterstick and with the record-buying public. Their most "rock-n-roll" LP since Rock and Roll, it is tailor-made to generate concert-suitable material. From the infinitely catchy ode to conspiracy theory, "insignificance," to the fiery "The Flame that Killed John Wayne," to "His Bad Dream," a swinging paean to the occasional listlessness of rock-musician life ("The Day's Inn on Diversey is a very nice place to stay/ When you're in Chicago with nothing to do all day!"). Tom Greenhalgh explains the band's motivation behind the album: "That just came out of us, basically, doing a lot of touring in the States. And we thought it would just be interesting to try to record as a live band, and I think The Mekons, in general, have swung between recording as a live, playing band to a lot more experimental, studio stuff. I think it's interesting to really immerse yourself in one thing and then, as you kind of float, to refresh yourself, you go and do the exact opposite. Once you've done that, you feel like doing the other thing."
As for these "other things," The Mekons have generated no shortage of them since Retreat From Memphis was released in 1994. Their next few projects were altogether different from anything they'd done previously-- a multimedia exhibit featuring the music and art of The Mekons at the Polk Museum of Art in Florida; Mekons United, a CD/ book package--including an excerpt from the long-rumored Mekons novel and twenty-three otherwise unreleased tracks!-- meant to accompany the art- showing; and a collaborative LP with the late author Kathy Acker entitled Pussy, King of the Pirates, based on Acker's novel of the same name. How did The Mekons go from guitar-thrashing to art- house hob-nobbing?
"It just got to a point with touring--putting an album out, going on tour--it was pretty boring by 1994," says Langford. "We did a big, long tour for the Retreat From Memphis album as a five-piece, which made sense economically, but, you know, wasn't rewarding as it should be. It seemed like things were shrinking in a way, turning in on themelves--just guitar, bass, drums. It wasn't what we wanted to do. Certainly, driving around in a van all the time wasn't what we wanted to do, either. We were on tour for about six months of that year. I was sick of it. It wasn't a good time to be touring. Sometimes there's a good time and sometimes it isn't. We just thought we'd get out the van and see what happened. So when these (multi-media] things started popping up, it was quite nice.
"Usually, we sit around waiting for things to fall into our lap. That's a kind of band policy. We kind of instigated a few things. There wasn't a great plan to do certain things, but we'd met Kathy Acker, we'd met Vito Acconci, we'd met people from the Polk Museum in Florida. It was also nice because it was something that Touch & Go were interested in as well. They were very open for us to do different things; they were very supportive. Especially when we did the Mekons United book, they pumped loads and loads of money into that. It was above and beyond the call of, you know, what they had to do."
The recorded output of these endeavours have been semi-controversial
within the context of The Mekons' admirers. The Pussy, King of the
Pirates LP in particular, drew a certain amount of fire from critical
circles, mainly for being outside the ring of what was expected of the
band, Tom Greenhalgh thinks:
"Without putting a big label on it, I think you can approach making music in all sorts of ways. There's all sorts of other facets to it. I mean, you can be just a straight-ahead band and that's it, or you can include the whole process, including making different album-cover art or using the space on a sleeve to write stuff. Then there's the whole live dimension, and you-name-it. I think, if you're naturally interested in doing things, you don't have to restrict yourself to one thing, like music."
The album, which featured The Mekons primarily--outside of authorship of the songs--as a backing-unit to Kathy Acker's spoken-word recitations of the lyrics she'd penned, is highlygeared toward a non- mainstream, feminist perspective and is not always pleasant to listen to. "We were attracted to someone who was as far out away from the commercial mainstream as we were," says Langford.
"Basically," adds Greenhalgh, "we just met Kathy via Paul Smith, who was working with her at the time, and we used to play quite a lot out on the north coast. Kathy would turn up, and sometimes we would be staying in San Francisco for a few days, and we'd just hang out together. And then it was almost casually that she mentioned that she had songs in this new book she was writing. They weren't so much songs as just bits of lyric, really, so we had an idea that it would be nice to do something together."
Langford defends the project vehemently: "For me, it was one of the best records we've done, but we got slagged off for it. I think the content was a bit hard for a lot of American rock journalists. A lot of people get very threatened when you do something outside your field, as well. People want you to stay inside your box and do what you're supposed to do, as well. That's kind of surprising, because when we did the art-show and the United book, we got more criticism from the rock world than we did from the art world. People in the art world tended to like what we were doing. I found it really interesting. People in the rock world were kind of like,'What are they doing?"'
That sort of reaction does little to fate The Mekons, in any case, never having been a band to do the expected.
"We're open to doing whatever we feel like doing whenever we feel like it," says Langford. "That's always been the reason for The Mekons. That's why going on so when we didn't feel like it was kind of the antithesis, you know. That was bad, and everything that's gone on since has been really good."
The Mekons are now gearing to release their fifteenth full-length album, including the United package, and their fourth with Quarterstick. To be entitled Me, the album finds The Mekons, again, turning in a new direction.
"[The] concept [for the new album] came out of discussions about the kind of songs we'd been writing, and we felt there was a kind of pattern emerging, or where there was a kind of standard Mekons-type lyric, which was very personal, in a way," explains Greenhalgh. "We wanted to attempt to write a completely different kind of song, so that the approach was that it would be incredibly impersonal, if you like, so that having a title like Me- actually the idea of creation of Self in a modern, capitalist culture where the Self isn't this whole, organic thing. Self can tend to be this very fragmented, dislocated thing where a person's Self is as much created by things like advertising, pornography, that kind of thing, which, in a very insidious kind of way, bites into what a person is. So it was attempting to deal with those kind of ideas." The new album promises to turn The Mekons, as with Curse of The Mekons, again toward a more studio-oriented approach. While many of the songs on the new LP will fit in beautifully with past Mekons landmark songs, others are starkly different, focusing on electronic capabilities suitable for that environment and not necessarily the live one The Mekons have primarily clung to since releasing Rock and Roll.
"We did a live show where we used some backing-tapes and drum machines and stuff in Chicago just recently," says Langford, "and there was just three of us singing and all these machines. Half the audience really hated it. So I thought that was great. Just separates the sheep from the goats, I think. And we want the goats."
Goats of a sort themselves, The Mekons began on an innovative foot and haven't shifted gears in that single regard since. Whatever stance they take on future albums and on the band-members' respective solo-efforts, they may always butt horns with the music industry, their record companies, audiences, and themselves. But, whatever the case, the band's continual reinvention of itself will likely ensure that they will remain one of the brightest points of England's original Punk Explosion, and, certainly, the one still most capable of making music to challenge and undermine certain shamefully predetermined ideals. "The Mekons have always tried to take risks and work out what they're doing later," says Langford. "Most interesting cultural practices do that. It's a role for instinctive behaviour. The Mekons have always lived on their wits a little bit, which you have to do when you're fighting a rearguard action, trying to save a little space for you to operate in, which is what we've been trying to do over the years. Trying to keep a few lines of communication open in a world that doesn't really encourage that." And have they succeeded? "Well, we still exist," answers Langford. "We still do things, so yeah. I don't know what it means at the end of the day, but yeah."