Punk’s reigning contrarians, the Mekons, were formed in Leeds, England, in 1977 by art students Jon Langford and Tom Greenhalgh. Their first single, “Never Been in a Riot,” took dead aim at one of punk’s sacred cows, the Clash’s “White Riot,” and the Mekons have gladly been outsiders ever since. The group has survived countless personnel changes, miserable fortune with record companies and a constant state of near-poverty by adapting to the times, its music expanding beyond punk to embrace twisted versions of country, reggae and electronica. And singer/guitarist Langford has become a pivotal figure in the underground rock and art scenes, as a producer, songwriter, bandleader, sideman, cartoonist, painter, writer, critic and all-around instigator. (He was also one of the first to make multiple band membership a habit, starting with the Three Johns.) All the while, the Mekons have continued to put out records of bewildering variety, erratic musical quality and enormous heart. These function almost without exception as critiques of power and the abuse of power — whether in government, the record industry or, less frequently, the bedroom.
The early albums are significant for their socialist bent and utter disregard for Brit-punk fashion. The Quality of Mercy Is Not Strnen, a major landmark erected by one of the few late-’70s British bands that didn’t want to be either the Sex Pistols or the Clash, suffers from the screamed vocals, which obscure both the music and the left-wing lyrics: minimalism is one thing, but rank amateurism another. (The CD reissue adds a half-dozen single sides from ’79 and ’80.)
On the second album (more commonly known as The Mekons), the group moves into danceable synth-pop, with protest lyrics attacking bourgeois culture, the army and hollow lives. The Mekons Story is a retrospective album of old tracks and outtakes, punctuated by inter-track narration. Among two-chord screeds, avant-garde rumblings, folkish musings and the sound of one man shouting above the din of his own foot stomping on a floorboard, a voice slurs and giggles as it reads the band’s contract with Virgin Records. More than just denouncing how art is inevitably reduced to commerce, the Mekons poke fun at themselves: put a price on this bilge, sucker.
Ending the first chapter in a very long story, the Mekons ceased performing in 1981 and cut back on recording work after that 1982 release, although a core trio of Langford, Greenhalgh and bassist/guitarist Kevin Lycett kept the band in occasional vinyl circulation. After several years of near-silence, Fear and Whiskey and The Edge of the World established the Mekons in North America. Mutant country records haunted by the long shadow of the Reagan-Thatcher era (as epitomized by singer/guitarist Greenhalgh’s cry that “It’s hard to be human again”), both albums and two companion EPs (Crime and Punishment and Slightly South of the Border) collect bleary-eyed waltzes, ballads and mid- tempo mood pieces. For spice, there’s the occasional stomper.
Fear and Whiskey is a ragged album with sturdily memorable tunes that mix equal parts of electrified rustic country dance music and cow-rock, using fiddle, piano and harmonica as well as guitars and drums. Sin’s label design mimics Sun’s; the sounds are likewise Americanized and, characteristically for the new Mekons, a cover of Hank Williams’ “Lost Highway” closes the LP on an appropriate note. Nothing (well, only some things, perhaps) could be further from the Mekons’ early noise days. Crime and Punishment offers four songs (including the Robyn Hitchcock-like “Chop That Child in Half” and Merle Haggard’s “Deep End”) from a John Peel session.
On The Edge of the World, Sally Timms joins full- time as the band’s third principal vocalist, her crystalline tone providing just the right touch of unflinching world-weariness between Greenhalgh’s going-down- slow croon and Langford’s beery bawl.
Following the four-song 10-inch Slightly South of the Border, Honky Tonkin’ (named for the Hank Williams lyric quoted on the back cover) finds a cast of dozens (actually one dozen) working its way stylistically towards the Pogues’ drunkenly revisionist folk-fundamentalism. A case of the sillies (“Sympathy for the Mekons”) competes with responsible topicality (a remake of the 19th century miners lament “Trimdon Grange Explosion,” first done on The Mekons; “Kidnapped”; “If They Hang You,” which eulogizes Dashiell Hammett for refusing to name names at the HUAC hearings) and conspicuous literacy (“Hole in the Ground,” “Charlie Cake Park”). The extensive liner notes for each song cite relevant books, movies or artworks for those undaunted by intellectualism. The genially appealing music, a well-organized wash of fiddles, accordion, guitars and simple drums, makes few demands but keeps the folky standards high.
So Good It Hurts is a more polished, pop-friendly production, with Timms’ beautiful but unforgiving voice showcased on a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Heart of Stone” and “Ghosts of American Astronauts,” a surreal portrait of imperialism. Greenhalgh draws a poignant parallel between his band and another guy who bucked the system in “(Sometimes I Feel Like) Fletcher Christian.”
Original Sin provides a fine overview of this period, combining the entire Fear and Whiskey with all but one song off the two EPs and a track each from Edge of the World and the earlier The English Dancing Master EP. A handy sampler of the band’s mid- ’80s work.
US tours by the octet in 1986 and 1987 yielded the live tracks (and assorted audio ephemera, like commentary on various subjects by band members) compiled on New York. The material is mostly drawn from recent albums, although a version of the Band’s “The Shape I’m In” and a handful of otherwise unreleased items are also included. Motley but charming, it’s a casually enlightening trek.
The Mekons Rock’n’Roll is titled as though it were a genre unto itself, and it just might be. Elvis Costello once threatened, “I want to bite the hand that feeds me,” but the Mekons tear away an entire limb with this withering indictment of Rock’n’Roll Inc. Ushered in by the Motörhead-like roar of “Memphis, Egypt,” the disc’s mission statement is delivered with a doberman’s snarl: “We know the devil and we have shaken him by the hand / Embraced him and thought his foul breath was fine perfume / Just like rock’n’roll.” While the disc has its share of murky self-indulgences, the best moments — among them swipes at the “Dublin messiah” Bono in “Blow Your Tuneless Trumpet” and the grim excesses of “Cocaine Lil” — more than live up to the implications of the album title. It’s a tough, dark album that includes some of the best songs the band has ever written, plus some half-baked ideas mired in mud and feedback. (Released as “a preview of Rock’n’Roll,” the four-song Dream and Lie of… EP is of interest only for “Heaven and Back,” one of the two tracks (the other is “Ring o’ Roses”) left off the album’s American edition.)
F.U.N. ’90 finds the band thumbing its nose at a record-label executive who suggested they not take things so seriously. The offbeat four-song EP is swathed in acid-house beats and includes both a cover of Robbie Robertson’s “Makes No Difference” and a collaboration with the late rock critic Lester Bangs, “One Horse Town.”
The Curse of the Mekons compiles the ravings of a rock’n’roll Lazarus, a band too stubborn or too dumb to quit, even with its A&M deal down the tubes and no American distributor in sight. (The album still has not been released in the US.) “Call it intuition, call it luck / We’re right in all we distrust,” Greenhalgh sings, a Mekons manifesto if there ever was one. Despite the back- against-the-wall scenario, the album is among the Mekons’ most accomplished. The sound is all over the place, from the Stonesy-Cajun hook of the title song to the metallic anthem “Authority” to the plodding reggae of “100%,” complete with banjo, accordion and mariachi horns. Elsewhere, dubby psychedelia, drum machines, treated vocals, sound effects and spacey synths add colorful scenery to this bizarre sonic odyssey. Among the highlights are two numbers sung by the bell-toned Timms: the eerie “German for Secrets” and a straight cover of “Wild and Blue” by Nashville star John Anderson. The Wicked Midnite/All I Want EP is the sole remnant of an aborted deal with a fly-by-night California label: two songs from the then-forthcoming I Y Mekons album and ’91 live versions of “The Curse,” “Waltz” and “Amnesia.”
With the group reduced to a quartet — Langford, Greenhalgh, Timms and violinist Susie Honeyman — I ♥ Mekons is built on a thrift-shop foundation of hip-hop loops, dub rhythms and assaultive polkas. But the resilient melodies and resonant vocals make it a minor triumph. A barbed-wire valentine for an era confronting AIDS and dabbling in virtual sex, the disc is the work of skeptics who refuse to cave in to cynicism. They see the “narrow snake…solid and defined” in the grass (“Dear Sausage”) and yet plead with a lover to “lead me into temptation” on the album’s finale, Lonesome Bob’s “Point of No Return.” Like the narrator in that song, the band has crawled from the wreckage enough times to know the risk of trying again, but refuses to turn away. The title song of Millionaire is the melodically irresistible Timms showcase from I ♥ Mekons. The EP is fleshed out with a track from The Mekons Story and live versions of “All I Want,” “Blow Your Tuneless Trumpet” and “(Sometimes I Feel Like) Fletcher Christian.”
The band regains its rock’n’roll gusto on Retreat From Memphis, the drum machine replaced by a newly recruited rhythm section. Like The Mekons Rock’n’Roll, the album was recorded immediately after many of the songs had been road-tested on tour and represents the studio Mekons at their most visceral. Thematically, Retreat From Memphis also works as a sequel to Rock’n’Roll, a meditation on power (the record industry) by the powerless (a lowly indie-rock band) in such songs as “Do I Know You?” and “Insignificance.”
Pussy, King of the Pirates is a bawdy collaboration between the Mekons and author Kathy Acker, who provides between-songs narration from her novel of the same name. Timms, in particular, attacks the explicitly sexual lyrics with relish, her voice breaking into an uncharacteristic rasp. The music ranges from the ghostly Caribbean atmospherics of “The Song of the Dogs” to the disco bounce of “Antigone Speaks About Herself” to the industrial grind of “Into the Strange.”
Mekons United packages a full-length CD of new material with a 200-page book containing the band’s novel- in-progress, full-color illustrations of paintings, film stills and written contributions from various associates.
Timms’ solo albums are well worth seeking out, as they showcase a voice that, while not especially agile or well- suited to uptempo material, has a clarity that can be both seductive and subversive. Somebody’s Rocking My Dreamboat is closer to mainstream pop than anything the Mekons have recorded, but that’s not a criticism. While “Horses” and the countryish “Chained to the Anchor of Love” would have fit on a Mekons album, the electronic framework for the lilting “Mombassa” and the dramatic reading of Dolly Parton’s “Down From Dover” are winning stylistic departures.
To the Land of Milk and Honey, recorded, like its predecessor, with heavy involvement from Langford and now part-time Mekons drummer Steve Goulding, is full of pretty — if stoic and unsentimental — ballads. The originals co-written by Timms and Langford are solid, notably the cabaret-style anti-torch song “Round Up” and “Longing, Madness & Lust,” a bilious commentary on unchecked desire. Four well-chosen covers, ranging from John Cale’s “Half Past France” to Procol Harum’s “Homburg,” round out a strong collection. The Timms album version of Stuart Moxham’s “It Says Here” is also the lead track of an EP of otherwise unreleased material: two studio originals and live acoustic covers of tunes by Dolly Parton and Tim Hardin recorded in New York.
The title track of the three-song This House is a duet with Marc Almond, while the four-song Butcher’s Boy includes a version of “Long Black Veil.”
In ’88, Langford (with Goulding on the traps) executive produced and performed on ‘Til Things Are Brighter, a tribute album to Johnny Cash with vocal contributions from Marc Almond, Michelle Shocked, Steve Mack of That Petrol Emotion and Cathal Coughlan of Fatima Mansions. In 1995, he did it again, without the guest stars. Using members of his side band, the Waco Brothers — as well as Timms, singer Jane Baxter Miller and others — Langford pays a sincere, sloppy rustic return visit to the shrine of Cash on Misery Loves Company. He gives somber, underworld country-rock readings to some of the Man in Black’s bleakest compositions (“What Is Truth?,” “I Still Miss Someone,” “Home of the Blues,” “Busted”), adding some of his favorite covers in the same realm (“Cocaine Blues,” Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down”), adding effective original touches but occasionally letting the songs do too much of the work.