You see them all over town. Leftover punk rockers, both survivors and wannabes, wearing motorcycle jackets with the Damned or the Sex Pistols emblazoned across the back, and T-shirts that proclaim "Sid Lives."
Crocodile, Friday, July 10
You'll never catch those crusty punks sporting Mekons logos. That's because, of all the British punk bands that started in the late '70s, the Mekons may be the only one to evolve beyond the angry amateurism of its roots. While their peers died off, or broke up only to reunite in the service of costly nostalgia, the Mekons have been busy moving forward. Currently the premier purveyors of post-punk folk, they draw from world music and especially American country and western to create not just music, but also art exhibits, theatrical events, and novels. It's no wonder that prescient critic Lester Bangs once called the Mekons "the most revolutionary group in the history of rock 'n' roll."
Formed amid the late-'70s Leeds University scene that also launched the Gang of Four, the Mekons (named for a character on the British TV series Dr. Who) began as an aggressively unpolished punk band whose first single, "Never Been in a Riot," took aim at the Clash for the lofty politics of its hit "White Riot." Twenty-one years later, the band members' critical attitude and "non-aligned lefty" politics remain the same, though their music has become much more interesting. And their roster has changed. The only founding members still around are singer/guitarists Jon Langford and Tom Greenhalgh (as well as bassist/guitarist Kevin Lycett, who records but no longer tours with the band). Yet most of the rest of the current lineup have been in the band since 1983, when the Mekons began to explore American country on records like Fear and Whiskey. Throughout the band's career, members have used different pseudonyms and credited all writing to "the Mekons."
Since the mid-'90s, about half the band—including Langford—has lived in Chicago. "Not since 1989 has [the Mekons] been our main thing," Langford explained recently from a pay phone outside of Columbus, Ohio. "We work in blocks. We set aside a certain amount of time, maybe a month, [and] we work very intensely. We do that about twice a year."
The band has done two projects since its last full tour of the US four years ago: Pussy, King of the Pirates, a 1996 collaboration with the late novelist Kathy Acker that included both an album and a theater piece; and an art exhibit/record/catalog, Mekons United, which was, according to Langford, "a completely crazy project, because it was very expensive to do, and very expensive to sell. People were kind of annoyed with us because the price was so high, but we couldn't have made it any cheaper, or we'd be losing money.
"We encourage other activities," said Langford, who plays in not just one but two side projects: honky-skronk band the Waco Brothers and the more rock-oriented country-punk outfit Skull Orchard. "Rico [Bell, a.k.a. Eric Bellis] did a solo album. Sally [Timms] has done a lot of solo stuff. Lu [Edmonds], who's playing with us on this tour—he's doing a Siberian project—it's throat singers from Tuva. He actually does some throat-singing in our set now. It's great—it kind of hushes the room, and people slowly back away from the stage."
This actually happens during the track "Gin & It," a midtempo epic chorale from the band's current record, Me (Quarterstick). A lot of the record's other songs read like soft porn, but Langford said the record's meaning goes deeper: "It's about the construction of self—how you come to be who you are.... There's a lot of sex in it, yes, but there's also death. And a mindless listing of products as well."
He's referring to the album opener, "Enter the Lists," which contains a scientific-sounding recitation of a drugstore's worth of "health and beauty aids": Molding Mudd, Sun In, Tampax, Dexatrim, et al. The lyrics are the result of a weekend of collaboration in Leeds. Langford said the band members initially came up with titles—for the album and individual songs—then decided what each one should be about. It's an intriguing picture: four or five rock musicians gathered around a computer to come up with lyrics for a song called "Tourette's." (It's got a lot of unprintable words in it.)
"It's not such a big 'message' album," Langford opined, "but the lyrics are really descriptive.... It's about the myth of self-expression in our society—how you can be an individual by buying a pair of Nikes."
The product lists on Me aside, it's a safe bet that you won't be hearing the Mekons hawking Advil anytime soon. Langford has some definite opinions about consumerism's faux rebellion and its use of rock music as a signifier. You may be hearing the Verve when the latest $150 pair of shoes comes up on screen, but those who proclaim that rock is too "pure" for such commercial use Langford calls "naive." "I don't think you can just make grand statements and sidestep the involvement of commerce and capitalism in rock 'n' roll," he pointed out. "It's a lot more complicated than that. People like U2 make grand political statements, and really, they're the problem."