United - reviews
The Independent (London), January 27, 1999, Wednesday
BY: By Fiona Sturges
Picture a composition not unlike Leonardo Da Vinci's The Last Supper. In it, Christ's disciples are replaced by a gaggle of drunken musicians in the midst of a celebration. Their table is crammed with steak, sausages and gnawed fish, and their cups overflow with red wine. In the place of Jesus sits a man in a cowboy hat with "666" stamped on his forehead, and a man sporting devil's horns is slumped with his face in a plate of food. Splayed carcasses dangle off the walls, and they are waited on by angels with mohicans.
This seedy allegory, "The Mekons Sign Their Contract", bears testament to this punk band-turned-art collective's abject opinion of the music industry: that by signing a record contract you give yourself up to a life of inebriated irresponsibility and voracious meat-eating.
The Mekons were one of a group of bands to come out of Leeds University art school in the late Seventies - others included the Three Johns and the Gang Of Four. This group of students rejected traditional art-school practices in favour of a series of riotous live shows in the guise of The Mekons - a name borrowed from the alien baddy in the comic strip Dan Dare.
The following 20 years saw the Mekons produce a string of albums, during which they moved from punk to synth pop, folk, country and experimental music. Throughout this time they also took part in a series of collaborations with novelists and performance artists, and pursued their own careers in art. A multimedia exhibition based around their work was first displayed at the Polk Museum of Art in Lakeland, Florida, in April 1996, since when it has travelled around the USA, where the Mekons are held in the same esteem as The Clash. At the end of next month, a reduced version will be on show in London. This will be the first time that The Mekons have exhibited collectively in the UK.
"At the start, the band wasn't anything to do with success, just possibility. At that time, it was possible to form a band without having any musical skill at all," explains singer Tom Greenhalgh. "We didn't see any separation between art and music and our hostile attitude to art matched the ethic of punk."
After their first gig in 1977, The Mekons were approached by a tour manager who was preparing to set up his own label. They were snapped up by Virgin records and put out their first single, "Never Been In A Riot", a rousing rejoinder to The Clash's "White Riot", soon to be followed by their first album, The Quality Of Music Is Not Strnen (sic).
But the Mekons' artistic aspirations took a back seat as they found themselves caught up in the bureaucratic wrangling of recording and publishing contracts. "We made lots of tactical errors," says Greenhalgh. "The main one was getting involved with a major label. Our emphasis in getting a contract that gave us control and a high percentage of royalties meant that our record company wasn't interested in promoting us."
By 1981, the increasing thuggishness of the live arena forced The Mekons virtually to cease stage performances, and though the band never formally split, they became involved in individual projects and only met in the studio. It wasn't until the late Eighties that their interest in art was revived. "As far as we knew, nobody was interested in us so we just carried on doing our thing. We were quite happy being on the outside," assures Greenhalgh.
By this time various members of the band had come and gone: drummer Jon Langford had relocated to Chicago while Greenhalgh had moved to London. They had also been joined by a new vocalist, Sally Timms. But they maintained close contact and sporadically met to record new material and swap ideas.
Having abandoned their record company, they started their own label, Sin Recordings, and began to work collaboratively on the posters and album covers. Out of these projects, a visual arts collective emerged and they began working under the moniker Mekons United.
During concerts, the Mekons took the DIY ethic of punk to the extreme by allowing anyone in the audience to pick up an instrument and join them on stage. This collective ethic has carried through into their art as up to seven or eight people can be involved in creating a single work. Their paintings juxtapose vividly opposing styles where you can imagine different members of the group piling in with their paintbrushes and vying for space. A Frightened Horse II sees a canvas divided into 16 panels, where burlesque images of people being crushed under horses' hooves are placed alongside boxes of scrawled text and figurative representations of clouds.
Other works allow for a more individual style: there is a sequence of oddly conservative landscapes entitled Sometimes I Feel Like Fletcher Christian, while there are a set of images drawn from indecipherable pixillated photographs.
"It's work in progress with no set formula," says Greenhalgh. "I might make a painting entirely by myself but what has gone on conceptually would have been discussed as a group. In other instances, we might all work on one piece." But he is unwilling to point out which paintings are his.
This chaotic modus operandi makes it difficult to gauge exactly what unites The Mekons. The word "collective" usually denotes some sort of unity in style or agenda, but The Mekons resist such a dictatorial practice. "We try to avoid sloganeering, but we reject the idea of possessive individualism," explains Greenhalgh. "Our aim is to make art collectively but within those boundaries we encourage each other to work individually."
Viewed as a whole, it's possible to see some running themes in The Mekons' work, despite their stylistic disparity. Their distrust of the record industry is continued in a series of paintings depicting the conflict of artistic and commercial interests. There are a series of pointillist drawings of the country legend Hank Williams: one depicts him signing his record contract in what looks like an abattoir. In another, he is shot through the neck with arrows as if paying the price for his folly. Abstract expressionist-style depictions of Elvis Presley recur which, from a distance, look as if he is suffering from an incurable skin disease.
The Mekons' work has also travelled beyond painting into writing, discussion and performance. They collaborated with the late novelist Kathy Acker in a performance of her book, Pussy, King of the Pirates. It was rejected by her British publishers as too graphic so Acker took instead to performing and recording parts of it with The Mekons.
In 1996 they published a book, Mekons United, an exegesis of the members' philosophy, with contributions from punk commentator Greil Marcus as well as essays written by members of the band.
Greenhalgh admits that The Mekons' stylistic differences and mixed media might seem impenetrable from the outside. "We've always had problems with people who have tried to sell The Mekons, because they are never sure what it is they're selling. But that's what keeps it interesting."
'Mekons Untitled' is at the Spitz Gallery, Barbican, as part of musicalliance '99, from 19 Feb-15 March. 'Mekons United' is published by Ellipsis
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