PREVIEW: Post-punk piss-takes from The Mekons, Jesse Locke, FFWD Weekly, July 23, 2009
Nostalgia and Eagles-referencing from the original punks-gone-folk
From vapid professors to the British National Party, prog rock superstars to the music industry at large, The Mekons have never shied away from kicking against the pricks. Formed from the same group of University of Leeds art students that spawned Gang of Four and Delta 5, they’ve transformed their sound from scrappy post-punk to folk and country rock over their 32 years together, but have never lost their do-it-yourself ethos or the fire in their bellies.
“I went to art school preparing to be a painter,” explains guitarist and founding member Jon Langford. “But we were all swept up by punk rock and I got disillusioned with painting almost immediately, instead taking off for 15 years in a van. Our intention back then was a reaction against the closed-off club of 1970s progressive rock. You’d go to stadiums every 18 months to see people playing very fast, impressive songs — it was all fucking bullshit!”
As avowed non-musicians, The Mekons also took inspiration from Ernest Tubb, a country singer who kept his songs simple so “the boys on the farm could sing them.” Nonetheless, Langford and his bandmates certainly weren’t aiming to please all potential listeners and their first single, “Never Been in a Riot,” was written as a political piss-take on The Clash’s “White Riot.”
“In those days, punk was defined by that London scene — The Clash, Siouxsie Sioux, The Damned — and that was like Hollywood compared to our Siberia up north,” Langford says. “‘White Riot’ was about solidarity with rioting West Indian kids. We felt the same way The Clash did, but back in Leeds it became an anthem for fascist groups and we learned early on that you have to be careful what you write. Irony doesn’t translate very well, so we wrote our song as a sad admission of being middle-class art students. Having said that, I have been in a couple of riots since.”
After signing with Virgin for its debut album, The Quality of Mercy is Not Strnen (featuring a photo of Gang of Four on the back cover as yet another piss-take), The Mekons became dispirited with both the record industry and the punk sound the band was known for, deciding instead to embark into the unexplored territory of folk and country. The results found the band dropped by Virgin and losing much of its fan base, but it also marked a creative reawakening.
“We went to a folk studio in East Yorkshire after finding it in the Yellow Pages, switched instruments and started writing songs on the spot,” Langford recounts. “The engineer was John Gill, an accomplished folk musician, but he had also engineered the Dave Goodman Sex Pistols sessions. Then we met the Chicago DJ Terry Nelson, who told us we were a country band because we played three-chord songs about going to bars and failed sexual relationships.”
“Most people in punk rock thought it was Year Zero and that they were reinventing the wheel,” he continues. “We realized there were other traditions we could attach ourselves to, instead of becoming heavy metal kids with Mohicans and studded leather jackets. Gang of Four went the funky way, but we were pitifully equipped to deal with funk.”
Fast-forwarding to 1993, the band finally linked up with a label that shared its ways of thinking: Chicago’s Touch and Go. Sadly, with those stalwart supporters of underground rock shutting down earlier this year, things have come full circle for The Mekons. Langford remains confident, as the band has survived through much worse, yet his only lament is failing to cash in on a reunion tour.
“We should have split up at some point!” he laughs. “There was never a chance, though, because even when we weren’t active, we were still friends. People have drifted in or drifted out, but we’re like the Hotel California. You can check in, but you can never leave.”