Mekons

TrackAlbum
Letter's In The PostThe Mekons Story
Hard To Be HumanFear And Whiskey
King ArthurEdge Of The World
Prince Of DarknessThe Mekons Honky Tonkin'
Blow Your Tuneless TrumpetThe Mekons Rock'n'Roll
Heaven And BackThe Mekons Rock'n'Roll
WaltzThe Curse Of The Mekons
MillionaireI (Heart) Mekons
Thee Olde Trip To JerusalemOOOH! (Out Of Our Heads)
Space In Your FaceAncient And Modern

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Contributor: Richard Byrne

Critical darlings since they sprang forth from Leeds University’s art faculty with Gang of Four and Delta 5 in the same annus mirabilis of punk (1977), the Mekons are about to embark on yet another tour in the summer of 2015.

In the 38 years since their first single, Never Been In A Riot, the Mekons have veered wildly from shambolic punk to ragged country to ferocious alt-guitar rock. But the essentials have always been the same: politics (sexual, political), smarts (book and street) and a persistent sense of humor (dark, self-deprecating).

Summing up almost four decades of Mekons music is a tall Toppermosting order, but let’s give it a go, shall we? I’ll focus on the broad arc of the band and the inimitable qualities that have attracted fervent supporters such as Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus, Jonathan Franzen and other prominent music writers to hail them as one of the best – and certainly most human – bands in the genre.

 

 

LETTER’S IN THE POST
The temptation to go with early singles such as Never Been In A Riot or the spry Where Were You? (which remains in the Mekons’ live set after all these years) is strong, but this short ditty from the compilation of the band’s early odds ‘n’ sods (The Mekons Story) illustrates their early approach as the jokers in punk’s pack – barely able to play their instruments but wringing more humor and pathos and noise out of the genre than most of their competitors. Letter’s In The Post is precisely what Lester Bangs meant when he wrote the liner notes for The Mekons Story and concluded them by observing: “I never listen to music and neither do the Mekons. They make it instead. Everybody has to do something. My advice to you is to kill yourself. But buy this record first. It will make a nice coaster for your grieving relatives to put their Bushmills and water on.”

 

 

HARD TO BE HUMAN
The Mekons’ momentum petered out in 1982 or so, after their eponymous second record on Virgin (also known in some quarters as Devils Rats And Piggies A Special Message From Godzilla), but the 1984 miner’s strike was the catalyst for a much different-sounding group to reform. This time they were peddling a more rough-hewn and yet formally assured country-inflected rock that Hard To Be Human from their 1985 classic Fear And Whiskey captures perfectly. It was alternative country long before it had that name, and had some obvious links in spirit to the raggedly glorious demolition/renovation of Irish traditional music by the Pogues happening in precisely the same moment. Traditions (honored/subverted) provided the foundation for the band’s pungent examination of sex, world politics and the perils of Thatcherism – often within a few lines of the same song.

KING ARTHUR
“No one ever says goodbye these days/ We’re all too busy running scared.” One of the greatest songs of this period of the Mekons’ history, King Arthur is an anthem of a left broken by the miner’s strike and the exhaustion of the political energies of the 60s and 70s. What makes the song so compelling is the ache of failed compassion and solidarity that lingers in its finely-etched landscape of desolation and destruction. It’s one of the most staggering and poignant political songs ever made by a rock band.

PRINCE OF DARKNESS
“In a German seaport town / He takes his coffee in the red light.” There are two versions of this song on 1987’s The Mekons Honky Tonkin’ – one of the band’s most underrated records, and I prefer the more acoustic one for our playlist. A beautifully drawn character study in charcoal, brimstone and stale beer. It’s a sort of lingering farewell to the Mekons’ overtly country period as well, and the next album released by the band – 1988’s So Good It Hurts – was an intentional overhaul and expansion of the band’s sound to encompass reggae, calypso and overt gropings toward a more-explicitly alternative rock sound.

 

 

BLOW YOUR TUNELESS TRUMPET and HEAVEN AND BACK
1989’s The Mekons Rock‘n’Roll was a tour de force – a bruising, melodic, anarchic examination of rock music’s sexual, political and cultural resonances and ripples. Pretty much every song’s a triumph, but taken together, The Mekons Rock‘n’Roll ranks among the most jagged and acidic commentaries on the genre ever assembled. It’s an essential record for any serious collection – and the two songs I have chosen from it highlight the insouciant and ebullient challenge the band posed on the record (Blow Your Tuneless Trumpet) and the band’s continuing mastery of political songwriting that is shot through with compassion and anger and ferocious hope (Heaven And Back).

WALTZ
Part of the Mekons’ legend, of course, is their abysmal luck with major record labels. Their 1991 follow-up to The Mekons Rock‘n’Roll was a savage but lyrical reaction to 1989 and the death knell of socialism titled The Curse Of The Mekons. The record was rejected by A&M Records as “technically and commercially unsatisfactory” and released by Blast First records. Looking back, A&M clearly made a mistake, since the record includes the band’s much-beloved cover of John Anderson’s Wild & Blue and a highly-spirited title track that hearkened back to its reinvigorated reappearance in the mid-1980s. But the track I’ve chose off that record is the devastating Waltz, a ballad that showcases Sally Timms’ complete command of one of the band’s most complex and dazzling songs.

 

 

MILLIONAIRE
Sally Timms was also the star of the band’s next record in 1993– a sloppy and energetic dissection of the love song titled I (Heart) Mekons. Millionaire is a joyous upending of pretty much every cliché about love and money and Timms sells every nook and cranny of its delightful irony. I (Heart) Mekons also represented a shift in the band’s approach. After this record, the Mekons steered away both from conventional rock album and the lure of the big record label – preferring instead to make records with smaller labels. It’s been a strategy that has ensured the band’s continuing survival and vitality to the present day.

THEE OLDE TRIP TO JERUSALEM
Songs like this one, from 2002’s OOOH! (Out of Our Heads), show the dividends of the band’s retreat from the record label rat race. It’s a joyous celebration of the roots of Britain’s political radicalism – a mashup of Christopher Hill and E.P. Thompson and Fairport Convention and Billy Bragg. No other band makes music quite like this, effortlessly embracing history and humor and the human qualities of living in space and yet honoring what has come before you.

SPACE IN YOUR FACE
The Mekons are about to embark on a tour this summer that will also include the live recording of brand new material. Their last record, 2011’s Ancient And Modern, is also the best of their last 20 years. The song I’ve selected from that record (see clip below) is a buzzing and brutal Jon Langford track that shows the band still can summon up all the power, ferocity and feeling that have won them such a loyal following through the endless sheddings of skins and reinventions.

 

 

Club Mekon: fan website with discography

Revenge Of The Mekons trailer: a documentary by Joe Angio

Mekons – Complete Peel Session 5th November 1979

Jon Langford official website

Mekons biography (AllMusic)

Richard Byrne is a playwright and journalist in Washington DC. He has written liner notes for reissues of Uncle Tupelo’s No Depression and Anodyne, as well as R.E.M.’s New Adventures In Hi-Fi. Here is his website.

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