The Mekons

14-28aI cannot begin to imagine what my life would be like if I hadn’t picked up the Village Voice one day in 1989 and flipped to the music section. There my eye happened to land on a Robert Christgau column whose title I’ve long since forgotten (and it doesn’t appear to have made the transition to a digital afterlife); it was about some British punk band called the Mekons, and their new album The Mekons Rock ‘n’ Roll. This, Christgau assured readers, wasn’t a straightforward turn toward mainstream rock, but an album that slyly deconstructed the rock ‘n’ roll myth while simultaneously being the rockingest album the band, which had emerged from its raw three-chord origins to become known for pioneering forays into country-punk, had made yet.

I had no idea what Christgau was on about — I seldom did, though I liked to let his words slide over my eyeballs — but it hit enough of my interests at the time (left-wing politics and loud guitars) to pique my curiosity. I headed down to whatever record store was most convenient (probably Tower or a Virgin superstore, as The Mekons Rock ‘n’ Roll had somehow ended up with major-label distribution) and picked up a copy of the CD. And then I went home and played it.

The first song was a revelation: an onslaught of guitars, multiple voices, driving beats, and weird electronic noises that immediately filled the room and my head with its message:

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 song was a revelation on top of a revelation: The multiple vocalists disappeared, to be replaced by a woman with a remarkable voice — Sally Timms, according to the insane liner notes, which folded out to reveal strange art surprinted over the hand-scrawled lyrics and a bizarre story about bored British youth and Khrushchev building giant sofas — singing of how “when I was just seventeen, sex no longer held a mystery; I saw it as a commodity, to be bought and sold like rock ‘n’ roll.” And of dance clubs, and shop window displays, and vampires. And there were ten more songs like this, each one both a densely packed essay on life under late-20th-century capitalism and a joyous rock song. I probably listened to the CD five times that night.

A few months later, I got my first glimpse of Mekons in the flesh, at Tramps in Manhattan, and discovered two other things about them: First of all, they were great live musicians, the mob of people crowding the stage including a mad-genius fiddle player and a drummer who, I later found out, had played on any number of hit songs like “Watching the Detectives” before joining this odd collective. Second, they were brilliantly funny — especially the pudgy fellow on guitar at stage left who yammered menacingly about Bono between songs, and the wiry guy on guitar at stage center who shared vocal duties with him (and Timms) and was more prone to occasional wry comments that would stick with you long after the show had ended.

And after that… well, after that. The Mekons are, as its fans have found out as well as its members, less a rock band than a way of life. (Nearly 40 years in, they’ve all taken to joking that “the only way out of this band is in a box.”) Many of my best friends are people I’ve met at Mekons shows, or on email discussion lists about the Mekons, or somewhere else in the real or virtual world when the magic word “Mekons” popped up, and we knew we’d happened across a kindred spirit. Probably half my music library is of bands that in some way I found out about via the Mekons or their various spinoff projects, especially after Jon Langford (the Bono slagger) began recording on a tiny Chicago label called Bloodshot Records that helped pioneer something called “alt-country.” I have been introduced to books and movies and political history through references in Mekons songs, which have addressed everything from the colonialist history of the drug trade to the perfectly agonizing push and pull of heartbreak to how to make a zombie to political terrorism in 1910 amid the terrors of modernity. (One album, So Good It Hurts, even contains footnotes, though in true Mekons style these are more hilarious than scholarly.)

It’s hard to sum up an entire way of looking at the world in just a few sentences. (Though filmmaker Joe Angio has done an admirable job in 95 minutes of documentary.) The best I’ve heard came from Langford, during an amazing multimedia piece he wrote based on his own life story, the history of country music, and the Illinois campaign against the death penalty (this is a more or less typical Mekonian mashup), in a section recounting the lessons he learned as a supporter of his local soccer club, the terrible lower-division Newport County:

The fact that they weren’t much good and were despised by my Welsh-speaking, rugby-loving uncles only increased the attraction. Soccer in the lower ranks was not about the big victory or big money or big success, it was about the lack of it, and getting by against the odds, and somehow, sometime scoring some amazing heroic victory — but often as not, not.

If there’s a better credo for trying to survive as an artist, as a music fan, as a political activist, as a human in the modern world, I haven’t found it. The Mekons didn’t invent laughing your way defiantly through pain, but they may have perfected it. I cannot begin to imagine my life if they hadn’t come together in Leeds in 1977, and if Christgau and others hadn’t championed them, and if someone at A&M Records hadn’t briefly decided to give them major-label standing (a decision that was immediately and decisively reversed, as documented by their followup album The Curse of the Mekons), and if they hadn’t perversely insisted on carrying on for all these years. If the Mekons didn’t exist, no one else could have invented them.