Thursday, December 02, 2010

Music Library: I (Heart) Mekons!

I've held off on this post, even though half a year has passed since I listened to all of these.  First I found the task daunting.  Then I simply got out of the habit of blogging.  But I'm back, and I want to talk about The Mekons.  The Mekons are very special to me - one of my favorite bands, in fact - and I want to do them justice.  Sadly, it's hard to find justice in this mean old world, so this is what you get.

When I wrote about The Fall (Dog Canyon link for a more complete Fall reading experience), I mentioned that I thought of The Fall and The Mekons as being quite similar.  My pal Chris Estey disagreed, pointing out that they are exactly opposite in many respects.  I think we're both right.  The Fall is built around one person, one ego (Mark E. Smith, natch), and everyone else is completely expendable.  The Mekons are a revolving collective with almost as many members over time as The Fall, but the near-utopian belief in the contributions of all members.  There are a few guiding figures, to be sure: Tom Greenhalgh and Jon Langford are the longest-serving members and primary songwriters.  Sally Timms has played the chanteuse since the mid-80s.  Rico Bell plays the accordion and provides a fourth harmony voice during the Mekons' many choral-style sing-alongs.  Might as well mention the rest of the more recent stable line-up: Steve Goulding (The Rumour) on the drums, Sarah Corina (Gang Of Four) on bass, Susie Honeyman on violin, and Lu Edmonds (The Damned) adding little to the music but enthusiasm with his oud.  I first saw them on the Me tour in the late 90s.  Not their best album, but man alive, their show was a revelation.

The Quality of Mercy Is Not Strnen (1979).  The best of the early Mekons singles are on a compilation called Fast Product (which was the name of the label), also featuring singles from the Gang of Four, the Human League, and a few other punk bands from Leeds.  But this album, the first full-length Mekons album, is no slouch.  The songs have a strangely cinematic sense, even though the band could barely string together chords at the time. Langford was the drummer of the band at this point, too.  My favorite track is "Dan Dare," about the comic that gave the band their name.

Devils, Rats, and Piggies: A Special Message From Godzilla (1980).  Oh man, I used to hate this album.  Here the Mekons went in for synth sounds in a big way.  Between the primitivism and the harsh late-70s keyboards, it did nothing for me.  But it's grown on me considerably over time.  And that's about all I have to say about it.

It Falleth Like The Gentle Rain From Heaven: The Mekons Story (1982).  This is a compilation of singles that is stronger than the first two albums put together.  Some of these tracks were re-recorded elsewhere, but these versions are generally pretty good.  Standouts: "Trouble Down South," Fight The Cuts," "This Sporting Life," and the sublime a capella track "The Building."  Also cool: the title completes the mangled quote from the first album.

The English Dancing Master EP (1983).  Only two of the four tracks, actually.  These are more like the early Mekons than the genre shift that was about to occur.

Fear And Whiskey and Live 9 November 1985 (both 1985).  Then the Mekons decided that the three chords and working-class outlook of country music was very similar to the three chords and working-class outlook of their politically charged punk music.  Being British college kids from a tough town, their version of cowpunk was quite unlike the separately conceived ideas of American artists like the Meat Puppets, more intellectual, less fluid.  But this is utterly vital music, about as important and visionary as punk gets.  The songs are a great leap forward from the early Mekons music, perhaps aided by having Langford move from the drum set to the frontline with his guitar.  The lyrics race through chauvinism, depression, war, darkness and doubt, and land on Leon Payne's "Lost Highway."  Six stars out of five.  I have to throw out some special love to "Flitcraft," for being such a wonderfully obscure reference, being - essentially - based on a story-within-a-story told by a minor character in Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon. The live bootleg is poorly recorded, but great to hear as a historical document of the Mekons grappling with their new style.

The Edge of the World, Crime And Punishment EP, and Slightly South of the Border EP (all 1986).  More six star out of five material.  With this album and these EPs, the Mekons introduce Sally Timms as co-lead vocalist (her song "Oblivion" can break a man), delve further in country music (Don Gibson's "Sweet Dreams" is another heartbreaker), and through in self-mythologizing ("Ugly Band"), a sea shanty, a Luke The Drifter cover, and a touch of Tejano.  Crime and Punishment is excellent, with the foot stomper "Beaten and Broken," the abortion-rights screed "Chop The Child In Half", and the brilliant track "Hey! Susan," which deserves its own cultural studies text, simultaneously alluding to "Hey Jude" and retelling the story of Thomas Hardy's Jude The Obscure.  Slightly South of the Border has the coalminer's lament "Coal Hole" and a cover of Gram Parsons' "$1000 Wedding."

Mekons Honky Tonkin' and New York: On The Road (both 1987).  Only slightly less great than the two albums that preceded it, Mekons Honky Tonkin' is more focused on country to the exclusion of the other elements that made Edge of the World so damn much fun.  Not that it isn't fun, but it suffers a little in comparison.  New York is a collection of live tracks and audio collages from their 1987 tour of America.

So Good It Hurts (1988).  Here the Mekons embrace shimmery guitar pop with a touch of Cajun music and calypso.  Coming as it does between the halcyon cowpunk period and the fiery attack of the next period, it's doomed to never be one of my favorite of their albums.  Some of the songs herein are extraordinary, though.  "Ghosts Of American Astronauts" and "(Sometimes I Feel Like) Fletcher Christian" have been part of their live set for a good reason.

Mekons Rock 'N' Roll (1989) and Crap Rap/Keep On Hoppin' 7" (1990).  Everything that the Mekons had ever done or heard contributed to this album.  I'll just say it: this is one of the finest rock albums ever made.  Drenched in feedback, power, and noise - as if rock music were some sort of ancient magic - the Mekons distilled their essence into a major fuck-you to everything that people do to control themselves and each other.  The opening track "Memphis, Egypt" could be a manifesto: "Destroy your safe and happy lives before it is too late/The battles we fought were long and hard/Just not to be consumed by rock and roll."  The second track, "Club Mekon," is a sex dream driven by ennui: "When I was just 17/sex no longer held a mystery/I saw it as a commodity/To be bought and sold like rock and roll."  Of course, the comparison to rock and roll is about debasement of something vital.  This theme culminates in the utterly amazing "Heaven And Back," which is quite often my very favorite song.  I don't really understand it, but the mystery feels quite profound: the story ties political oppression with personal transcendence.

Even now, watching this video, an audience recording with bad sound, this song hits me on such a powerful level that I write this with a lump in my throat.  This is the first video I've put in this post, but I think I need to go back and add more examples now.  Here's "Memphis, Egypt."  Rock and Roll!  Reminds me of a story: my old band Trouble Down South covered this regularly for a time.  We ended with it one night at Ego's in Austin and the bartender came over afterwards and asked, "Did that song have only one chord?"

Curse of the Mekons/F.U.N. '90 EP (1991).  Rock, country, polemics, anger, fear, frustration, humor: it's all here.  Curse of the Mekons is the lesser sister to Mekons Rock 'N Roll, but only by a hair.  Less than a hair.  Brilliant.  The attached EP includes a lovely cover of The Band's "It Makes No Difference."

I Love Mekons and Millionaire EP (1993). This one is a concept album about love and commerce, but it is also, unfortunately, a pretty weak tea compared to the previous two albums.  Not bad, by any stretch, just a little colder and less fun.  The single "Millionaire" is great, though, as is "I Love Apple."

Retreat From Memphis (1994).  This, I'm sad to say, is a Mekons album that I simply do not like.  Allmusic recommends it as a good gateway into the Mekons, and I think they could not be more wrong.  None of the songs really stand out, and the whole effort feels tired and lackluster.  Maybe I'll come around someday, but in 12 years of giving it a try, nothing has ever clicked.

Mekons United and Untitled 1 and 2 EP (both 1995).  Mekons United is a disc that accompanies a book of Mekons memorabilia.  Both it and this EP are very much oriented towards experimental synthesizer-based music, but neither is very interesting as such.  Mekons United does include the epic track "Orpheus," but the version on this album fails to reach the heights of the live version.  I'm sad to say that YouTube does not have a live version of "Orpheus" available, so I strongly suggest that you, the theoretical reader, attend a Mekons show to experience this song for yourself.  Important lyric to yell along with the band: "LOOSE THE MEKONS, CAME THE CHEER!"

Pussy: King Of The Pirates (with Kathy Acker, 1996).  Few bands choose to create operas about bloodthirsty feminists along with one of the leading experimental novelists of their day.  Which is probably why this album is such a hot mess. Well worth a listen for fans of either the Mekons or Acker, but most likely never a favorite for either.

Me (1998).  Speaking of hot messes, here's where I became a Mekons fan, but in hindsight, the album is only so-so.  It's a concept album about selfishness, basically, and perhaps also masturbation.  Some top notch dance music, too, but there's a lot of repetition, and some of the best tracks are wordless.  Here's the killer opener, "Enter The Lists," a great and hilarious example of how the Mekons can create and destroy a killer riff.

I Have Been To Heaven And Back and Where Were You? Hen's Teeth And Other Lost Fragments Of Popular Culture, Vol. 2 (both released 1999, covering 1978-1999).  These are not so much collections of hits as collections of outtakes.  Both have delightfully chaotic cover images snapped at live shows.  The former is the better of the two, though, with more interesting and fun tracks, while the latter is more of a crutch for completists.  Both, though, have their share of otherwise impossible-to-find tracks.

Journey To The End Of The Night (2000).  This is a concept album about apocalypse, but it's a surprisingly gentle and sweet one.  And funny, always funny with them.  I was going to point out the highlights, but there's not a weak song in the bunch.  My favorite, though, is "Powers and Horrors," which is a drinking song which improbably stands it own against death and oblivion.

OOOH! (Out Of Our Heads) (2002).  Like many rock bands, the Mekons are interested in history and social dialectic above all else.  OOOH! is preoccupied with the advent of the Age of Enlightenment, which, as you may recall, involved not just an explosion of inquiry and knowledge, but also royal beheadings and people in weird religious cults seizing power.  Although this may be a misremembering, it seems that the first time I heard these songs was during the Mekons' 25th Anniversary shows in NYC.  I had recently finished E.P. Thompson's The Making Of The English Working Class, and was inclined to mention it to Jon Langford when I saw him sitting at the bar after the show.  But I had also recently embarrassed myself by talking about a highfalutin' work of history with Mike Watt, and I decided against it.  Heard them on the radio the next day citing that book in particular as an influence on the album.  Of course, the freakin' Mekons are reading works of socialist history!  Stupid me. Here's "The Olde Trip To Jerusalem," the title of which is at least partially a reference to a very long-running pub in London.

Mekons 25th Anniversary Chicago/NYC (September 12-14 and 19-21, 2002).  These are bootlegs of the very shows I just mentioned.  For their 25th anniversary, the Mekons played three nights of shows in Chicago and again in NYC.  Each night focused on one specific major period of Mekons history.  They also sprinkled in some acoustic day shows and readings, and generally had a freakin' blast.  As an audience participant, I can say that it was fun for me, too.  I saw Bob Christgau at the show at the Mercury Lounge, too, but I was a little too intimidated to talk with him.

Punk Rock (2004).  The Mekons had so much fun playing their old songs that they released this album of live and studio re-recordings of classic cuts.  Sounds better than the originals in many cases!  Three of their best singles from back in the 70s are collected only on the compilations from the Fast Product label that I'll have to get to only when I make it to the compilations albums.  I can't find the re-recording on YouTube, so here's the original of "Where Were You?"

Natural (2007).  They reportedly have another album in the can, but their label has folded so they have no way of releasing it right now.  So this is the most recent Mekons album, a Journey To The End Of The Night-like effort that features a lot of acoustic guitars.  Pretty great stuff, even if it has never grabbed me quite like their first tier.

Wow!  I finished this post.  Months in the making and yet still wholly inadequate: my gift to you.


Joe 9:14 AM, December 03, 2010  


I [heart] this post! You really nailed it. I'm making a documentary on the band, Revenge of the Mekons, which i'm currently raising funds for on Kickstarter. The Mekons and many others involved in the film have donated some amazing rewards—including dinner with the Mekons when they tour the U.S. next year!

i'd be grateful it if you could help me to spread the gospel by sharing this link, below, with your friends.

Joe Angio

more info here:

Hayden Childs 12:03 PM, December 03, 2010  

Thanks, Joe! That's an amazingly cool project. I promise to proselytize about it far and wide.

virag 9:51 PM, March 29, 2011  

great post. the mekons rock. thanks.

Steve Barton 1:43 PM, June 15, 2011  

(Heart) your post, thx!

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