Music journalist Chris Nickson catches up with the Mekons in their 35th anniversary year and takes a look back at the band’s long and colourful career.
For a certain group of music lovers, 1977 was the big bang, all about the major names of punk. The Sex Pistols and the Clash inspired and fuelled thousands of angry young musicians up and down the country. It caught the spirit of the time. But not long after that a young Leeds band put out its wry, honest answer to Strummer & Co.’s White Riot, the seven inches of glory that was Never Been In A Riot.
And so the Mekons were born. Thirty-five years later, when their compatriots have all fallen by the wayside, they’re still going, releasing music and touring, the cult band par excellence. Named after the evil alien in the Dan Dare comic strip that was required reading for boys in the 1950s and ‘60s, and formed from the same pool of Leeds University students that gave the world Gang Of Four (whose instruments the Mekons borrowed to record their first album) and Delta 5, along the way they’ve had their run-ins with a couple of major labels (Virgin and A&M) and happily spent time sniping at the establishment from out on the margins.
They’ve put out 18 albums covering all manner of musical ground, a few compilations, and now there’s even a documentary about them, Revenge Of The Mekons, that might find release this year.
These days only two of the original members remain – Jon Langford and Tom Greenhalgh –and the band is scattered across a couple of continents. Currently an eight (or so)-piece, the musicians have side projects galore, and Langford, in addition to being part of the Waco Brothers, Pine Valley Cosmonauts and the revivified Three Johns, has also developed careers as a solo performer, producer and a highly-regarded artist.
Whatever the industry’s expected, the Mekons have usually done the opposite. In 1980, for example, they recorded their second LP with folk producer Bill Leader, a name not even on the radar of most punks. A few years later they were covering Gram Parsons, dipping a toe into world music, and then, as grunge broke, rediscovering their inner rockers. And in 1996 they collaborated with the late writer, Kathy Acker, on Pussy, King Of The Pirates, a bizarre opera of sorts.
“We met Kathy Acker at a hotel cocktail bar on the night Clinton got elected [in 1992],” Langford recalls. “We were playing in San Francisco and all ended up back at her house… We were pretty bored of the album/tour/poverty cycle at this time and when Kathy said she was writing a lesbian pirate opera we of course leaped on board. We did the project [art installation The Loss Of History Makes You Horny] with Vito Acconci in NYC around then too and the various Mekons art shows – we were bored with being a band really – wasn’t till the 1998 tour for the ME album (which was kind of a response to working with Kathy and the freeing up of our salty sailor mouths) that we decided being a band was probably alright after all.”
Pussy, King Of The Pirates was as much about art as music. “There were two lots of scenery made for it,” remembers band member Rico Bell. “The first lot I helped make in Leeds with a friend of ours Ali Allen who we also commissioned to make the giant head for the OOOH show [she’s also Brendan Croker’s partner]. That scenery got lost on its way to Seattle. The next year we performed Pussy for the last time at MOMA in Chicago. I made the second set of scenery for that show in the workshops there. After that we donated it to a schools project in Chicago. I know it got used for a few different events and it may well still exist though it might now be a little the worse for wear.”
By then, they had a couple of decades under their belts, as explorers in different genres, but still seen as one of the seminal punk bands. As founding member Tom Greenhalgh noted in fRoots (no. 292, Oct 2007), “Until punk I had no idea I could be in a band. I mean, bands were big – big bands that you might go and see, but you never thought, ‘That could be me’. But with punk that all changed.”
After a couple of well-received singles (Where Were You was cited by David Bowie as one of his favourite records), they followed in the footsteps of larger bands and signed with Virgin, but not for big money – Langford insists the wage amounted to 25p for each member per week. They released The Quality Of Mercy Is Not Strnen, a glorious flop, and found little budget for the follow-up.
“Our manager was just looking through the phone book for cheap recording studios for us to demo stuff for Virgin in,” Langford recalled back in 2000. “Leadersound was a little 8-track on the side of a hill out past Halifax. We met Bill Leader and Jon Gill there and decided to do our second album for Virgin there. The label was so disinterested in our sorry career they said yes, let us run up six weeks’ of studio bills and then dumped us… ‘Fancy a bit of lunch, lads… er… how about a cheese sandwich down the pub?’ Rough Trade had always said there would be a home for us there if we ever left Virgin, so we went on and finished what became Devils Rats And Piggies (better known simply as The Mekons), then Rough Trade dumped us and we had no money, several band members split and we owed Bill Leader a packet. I remember sitting down with him in the flat above the studio and him suggesting releasing it himself. What a lovely man.”
Snow from The Mekons (1980)
Leader saw something in the band that went way beyond punk bombast, but which was another link in a chain stretching back hundreds of years, “a weird band operating in a well-trod folk tradition rather than a year zero punk-pop disaster”.
Their ability, or lack of it, didn’t matter. “Jon Gill played us Walter and Daisy Bulwer’s English country dance album that Bill recorded out in Suffolk somewhere and we began to get what he meant – passing the tunes and mistakes, technique and flubs down the generations.”
It acted as an eye-opener. Music didn’t need to have boundaries. And with that the band broke out of the strait-jacket imposed by punk and the fads that succeeded it. Fear And Whiskey, Edge Of The World and The Mekons Honky Tonkin’, a trilogy released in the mid ‘80s after singer Sally Timms brought a new voice to the band, saw them diving headlong into country music at a time when it was generally seen as musical anathema – the province of Jim Reeves and Don Williams.
Even Langford agrees: “I thought it was right-wing crap for old white people till I actually bothered to listen to it. Our pal Terry Nelson, a DJ from Chicago, made us some cassette tapes called Honky Tonk Classics featuring Merle Haggard, Ernest Tubb, George Jones, Jerry Lee Lewis and that tipped us over… I’d listened to Hank and Jimmie Rogers a bit before with Tom, and obviously Johnny Cash was a huge figure in the UK but I didn’t really understand that he was anything to do with country & western. Terry Nelson told us that we were a country band because songs like Where Were You were about drinking in bars and failed sexual relationships… I don’t think we really tried to imitate country music as much as we just became obsessed and it permeated every corner of our sad Mekon world.” And it still does: with his other bands, especially the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, Langford has delved deeper in country, and his artwork revolves around country icons.
It was music that wore its broken, disillusioned heart on its sleeve and seemed to tap into a Zeitgeist front by American country-punk bands like the Long Ryders and Green on Red, who were operating at the same time, but approaching the material from an American perspective – the start of roots rock, if you like. The Mekons’ approach was far more shambolic. They even drafted in former Pretty Thing and Rolling Stone Dick Taylor for a while, pulling material they liked from wherever they could find it and adding their unique touches – Honky Tonkin’ came with a reading list that included Dashiell Hammet and Ulrike Meinhof, along with an Indian vegetarian cookbook.
(supplied courtesy of Ian Anderson at fRoots magazine)
It was about this time that Rico Bell – also known as artist Eric Bellis – fell into the Mekons circle. He’d moved up to Leeds from Bristol and already knew band founder Kevin Lycett. “It wasn’t long before I started playing with a few different local musicians,” Bell says. “One wacky outfit in particular were the She-he’s with one Sally Timms. They were quite unique, doing crazy versions of Dolly Parton songs one minute then jumping into improvised stuff, with Sally doing all manner of operatic vocal contortions the next. Whenever possible, Sally would cajole Jon into playing drums with them and I was similarly roped in and asked to play accordion. I had never played accordion up till then, I just happened to have been given one which was old and a bit knackered but didn’t sound too bad. As I could already play keyboards, it wasn’t too difficult to get away with sounding like I knew what I was doing.
“I got to know Jon, and subsequently Tom, better around this time and one night they heard me singing Sweet Dreams with a band called Johnny Jumps The Band Wagon. It was the Tommy McClane version I’d learned from an album called Another Saturday Nite which happened also to be hugely influential in the… lead up to the making of Fear And Whiskey. Anyway, due to my strained vocals and my fudged accordion playing, plus the fact that we all really hit it off socially etc, they started inviting me to play live at a few local Leeds gigs and it went on from there. Pretty soon I was a band member.”
“Basically, right through the eighties we felt like we could poach and pinch from wherever, ‘cos all this stuff was as old as the hills and we were just channelling stuff that we liked through our own bizarre filters,” Langford recalls. “Honky Tonkin’ was recorded in Rico’s cellar, and I can still smell the damp when I listen to it.”
Hole In The Ground from the album Honky Tonkin’
It was a time of barely-organised chaos, as Bell testifies: “Around that time the band could swell to upwards of nine people, then on another night be down to five. When it was nine there would be four guitar players (including Dick Taylor) and two violin players, one being Susie (Honeyman) and the other John Gill. It was mayhem but fun. Lu and Steve had joined the band around the time of recording Fear And Whiskey; I was living with Kevin as his lodger by then and though I didn’t play on Fear And Whiskey I became a fixture soon after it was released. Over the next couple of years we toured regularly, that included the current line-up’s first US tour.”
But the music had to move on, and from there, after a swift pass into international sounds with So Good It Hurts, they did the least likely thing and signed up with major label A&M to release a pair of rock ‘n’ roll albums that have all the grit, if not all the drugs, of Exile On Main Street.
“[Side project] The Three Johns split up in 1988,” Langford relates, “and that had always been a great release for my inner Hendrix, so when the Mekons came to make Rock N’ Roll in 1989 we just decided to turn the guitars up and go for it. We were reading Hammer Of The Gods at the time and thought we should try to make an album as exciting as the descriptions of Led Zeppelin in that book, although strangely enough we had no real idea of what Led Zeppelin sounded like!
“We’d just signed to A&M in LA at the time so we decided to make a rock ‘n’ roll record about how crap the rock ‘n’ roll industry is. Also we’d been gigging a lot for the previous couple of years and Lu had just rejoined the band on bass and him and (ex-Rumour drummer) Steve Goulding were just so ridiculously powerful as a rhythm section it was easy to flex the muscles a little. Strange that that album and The Curse Of The Mekons hold up so well despite the intense misery, confused expectations and lingering stench of personal failure that went along with being a major label act… Susie Honeyman and Sally’s contributions to Curse are huge I think and A&M never released it!” (It appeared on the indie Blast First label.)
Bell took a break from touring with the band for several years, but remained part of the recording group: “It’s always been us, the same people making the records since 1985; there’s an awful lot of history between us and we’re still really good friends. Despite all of our solo projects, I think we all feel that creating and playing together as the Mekons is so enjoyable and unique that we never want to stop.” He remembers: “During the time when I wasn’t part of the touring band a lot of things happened. After Rock N’ Roll was released, there were great expectations that the band would move up the financial ladder with major label backing etc, but all that fell apart with Curse Of The Mekons, a great record which was unfortunately beyond the comprehension of the establishment.”
For Lu Edmonds, whose musical pedigree as a member of the Damned, Three Mustaphas Three, Billy Bragg’s Blokes and now the re-formed PiL is impeccable, in making those albums, he says, “I don’t remember that we tried to deliberately record in any particular way or with a theme, or in a more adult manner, but for this record we did tour through Germany playing the songs incrementally (i.e. every night another new one) so by the time we went into the studio we almost knew what we were going to play, more or less, and could let as much chaos as we wanted into the process without sinking into utter confusion which is the danger when let loose.”
From there the band was prolific, touring regularly, especially in America, releasing six albums in the next nine years, including dipping a toe into the waters of electronica, and OOOH! (Out Of Our Heads), which included Thee Olde Trip To Jerusalem, not a homage to Nottingham’s oldest pub, but some British gospel music that’s also a history of English radical thought crammed into a few short, spiky minutes, and is probably the only song to ever mention the Muggletonians.
Thee Olde Trip To Jerusalem – The Bull and Gate, Kentish Town, 3rd April 2009
After a diversion back into punk rock, which saw them revisiting songs from their early history refracted through the prism of age and greater ability, the flood of recordings has turned into a drip. 2007 brought the widely-praised Natural, along with a short 30th anniversary tour, including a home town Leeds gig, while last year brought forth Ancient & Modern, a politically-charged disc that compared and contrasted England now and before the Great War.
“I don’t think the big historical picture is much on anybody’s mind in this glorious digital age,” Langford muses, “but we started seeing parallels to that great era of complacency and distraction just before the First World War and thought we should either make a really fucking angry album or get shiny new iPhone apps installed up our sad middle-aged arses.”
And angry it is, with the quiet fury of people who’ve seen their dreams and hopes sold down the river by politicians and bankers.
Time has wrought its own changes. The way they write material, for instance, has altered, and “the recent albums have been almost totally improvised,” Edmonds recounts. “In the studio we just start playing and everyone knows how to get their own parts quite quickly and as a result it all works together with a certain flow, which keeps it fresh. The secret ingredient to this is called Steve Goulding who makes everything sound good by somehow glueing everyone together (ask him how he does this mystic stuff). I particularly like the way the saz, accordion and violin get to interact of late, with Jon’s guitar also weaving in. The last two records have been home-made acoustic B&B recordings for three days, a few weeks listening/editing, then layers of overdubs, perhaps drums and then a final vocal-overdub/mix/mastering.”
Geeshie taken from the album Ancient & Modern (Westpark)
That’s worked very well, and the creativity certainly seems to spark when they’re together. It’s the actual getting together, with everyone in the same place at the same time, that’s become the problem. Half the band now make their homes in the US, the rest are based in England. Everyone has other involvements, and so the Mekons, for all their stature and no matter how beloved by music critics, have become a part-time occupation. That’s the only way it can work.
As Edmonds wryly notes, “The fact ‘it’ even stands is the main thing, medals all round. It (whatever it is) becomes part-time because everyone has to eat; there is no mammoth music industry any more, casting its leftovers off the Table of Plenty to cockroaches like the Mekons; now we all live in different time zones; with increased costs of visas and air travel = we are unable to do anything else. No choice. And then it seems in this wonder world of internet and download, there are not enough people in the world able (or willing) to support a little experimental old band like us, who are anyway unable or unwilling to ruthlessly promote themselves ‘by any means necessary’. So I would say if we stand that is enough”; or, as Langford puts it, “it ebbs and flows and sometimes there is money to get together and the will to overcome huge obstacles and sometimes there isn’t… this is our 35th anniversary and we’re not doing anything.”
Jon Langford has certainly remained the highest profile of all the Mekons. That’s understandable, given his centre-stage role as main guitarist and singer with the band (although he did start out on drums). He’s become one of the go-to producers for alt. country bands and a very visible presence in the Chicago area. He’s recorded several albums with the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, and the Waco Brothers remain an ongoing entity, connecting the dots between country and gloriously ragged rock ‘n’ roll.
He’s also managed to squeeze out three solo albums over the last few years – just in case he wasn’t quite busy enough. The most recent, Old Devils, arrived hot on the heels of a reworking of his solo debut, Skull Orchard, expanded into a CD and book under the title Skull Orchard Revisited, and helped out by a Welsh voice choir.
“Skull Orchard Revisited was brewing for a very long time,” he explains. “The original Skull Orchard album had been unavailable for years and I had more songs that fitted with the original South Wales/exile theme and fell into working with The Burlington Welsh Male Chorus, a real Welsh male voice choir residing near Toronto…. I was also making paintings about the songs on the album and the whole thing ended up as a huge kitchen sink style mess including my late father’s photographs and some hilarious stuff that my more handsome and famous brother Dave wrote about growing up where we did. Steve Connell at Verse Chorus books (who did my Nashville Radio book back in 2006) turned the whole thing into a delightful, coherent package. The Old Devils album came together very fast around the time I started working with guitarist Jim Elkington – now we have an amazing live band called Skull Orchard featuring Jim, me, singer Tawny Newsome, Joe Camarillo and Alan Doughty from The Waco Brothers and long-time, left-hand woman and violinist Jean Cook.”
A feted regular with several of his bands at SXSW in Austin, Langford has also received acclaim for his artwork (he stayed at Leeds University long enough to acquire a BA in Fine Art). They’re mostly deconstructions of country music icons – Hank Williams as St. Sebastian, among others – or the tradition of country that Nashville’s swept away in a flurry of hat acts and glamour; The Death of Country Music as he put it in a Waco Brothers song. Scratched up, beaten and bruised, many are “ink drawings on paper that are stuck down to hardboard then painted on with various pastels, acrylics and white-out pens – glazed with scummy transparent nicotine varnishes, gouged, scratched, scraped and torn,” he told Addicted To Noise.
Keeping all the balls in the air is a crazy juggling act, and managing it is a “big question and I’m wrestling with it constantly,” he answers. “Most recently I’m trying to prioritise the things I do in an effort to keep afloat financially, be around my family as much as I can and follow the path of least resistance with regard to all the uncomfortable bullshit that lurks in this alleged business. I am very lucky in Chicago to have people who really support what I do and incredible musicians I can work with. Randy Franklin, the owner of Yard Dog (gallery) in Austin, has been like a little rock I can cling to when times get tough.”
All of which leaves the future of the Mekons hanging. It’s likely that the band will continue to exist, but exactly how and in what form remains very much in flux. They’ve been around long enough to become an institution (“We already start to imagine being in an institution, some sort of sheltered accommodation for Old Mekons where we can hang out, cook, bicker and play together,” laughs Edmonds), but there are “no plans at the moment,” Langford says. “We did three tours last year and I love being in the van with everyone, whizzing round Austria shouting and putting little plastic tequila bottle-cap sombreros on our heads so who knows – but there is no commitment to doing the Mekons just because we’re the Mekons. Sometimes it’s a lot easier to just stay in bed.”
“I guess we have to wait for something to turn up,” Edmonds adds. “There is not enough fan-demand for the Mekons in Europe to bring us over for another tour. We already did Germany/Austria/Czech Republic last year – the air tickets are simply too much, and similarly we did a few dates in the USA, where there is also a massive visa cost to consider. That means we depend on big festivals and wealthy sponsors, which are few and far between; having said that, anything is possible. We shall see…”
Perhaps Rico Bell sums up the spirit of the Mekons best when he says “We are, in essence, more than just friends, we’re a family and families have ties. When we tour these days it’s more like a family vacation but then that’s the intention too. By our standards we did quite a lot of shows last year to support the release of Ancient & Modern. Right now I don’t really know what our next project will be or how soon we’ll play together again; maybe we’ll be invited to some festivals later in the year, who knows. Something always comes along; it has to, otherwise we might not see each other and we’re too close of a family to allow that to happen.”
Words: Chris Nickson
Photos: courtesy of the Mekons and Ian Anderson at fRoots magazine