Sunday, September 27, 2015

A byproduct of confusion: Revenge of the Mekons

Rock documentaries tend to follow a highly conventional formula: Gather the remaining/surviving members of the band to recount its history, and a few Important People to testify to the band's significance. Intersperse the interviews with footage and photos of the band's origins and early success; descent into drug and alcohol addiction, mutual recrimination and breakup; and then eventual triumphant reunion/re-emergence (which is often the impetus for the documentary). Edit into a tidy 90 minutes, and you have your movie.

Joe Angio's Revenge of the Mekons (2013) conforms to much of this template, but the film explodes the limitations of its formula because the band that is its subject is anything but conventional. Although the Mekons are about to celebrate their 40th anniversary, they've never tasted mainstream popularity—either they've never aspired to it, or they simply have had no idea how to go about attaining it. As singer Sally Timms says when a clueless radio interviewer asks them to explain their "success," "The stock answer is the lack of it. Success is the thing that usually kills bands in the end. We haven't had any success, so we've had none of the attendant problems."

Of course, "success" depends on how you measure it, but four-figure album sales and the long grind of low-budget touring can also kill bands. The Mekons' good humor and mutual regard, though, seem to have survived their four decades together intact. They never got around to (or perhaps couldn't afford) the standard drug binges and resultant rock band acrimony, and they can't get back together because they've never broken up. As original Mekon Kevin Lycett told Spin magazine in 1986, "We couldn't be bothered." [1]

What they have done is continue to produce new music of consistently high quality. Depending on what you count they've issued something like 20 albums and nearly as many singles and EPs, and they now have a catalogue of well over 200 songs to draw on for their live shows.

Formed in 1977 by a group of leftist art students at Leeds University who hung out with the Gang of Four, the Mekons were initially more of a conceptual art project than a band. (The Mekon is the alien arch-villain of the futuristic Dan Dare comics.) None of the original members could play at more than a rudimentary level, and their sound was deliberately raw. In Angio's film we see Mary Harron (later a director and screenwriter) reading from a review she wrote of the band in 1979: "Although at times the Mekons sound wildly experimental, that's just a byproduct of confusion."

Despite (or perhaps because of) their defiant amateurism, the band was actually signed to Virgin Records and released an album in late 1979. The front cover showed a monkey sitting at a typewriter picking out the Shakespearean title of the album—almost (The Quality Of Mercy Is Not Strnen), while the back cover displayed a band photo of...the Gang of Four. Although the claim that this was an error by the record label is repeated in Angio's film, at the time the Gang of Four were on EMI, not Virgin—it sounds very much like a Mekons prank.

The Mekons were non-conformists even among punks: The Quality of Mercy includes the wistful "After 6," whose verse is a delicate tune that sounds like it could've have come from a less-slick version of Wire's 154 (the two albums were released almost simultaneously that fall). Clearly Virgin didn't really know what to do with them, and after releasing a double single (another Mekons paradox) let them go.

The band weathered the demise of punk rock by radically reinventing itself. When punk as both a social and musical movement began to ebb around the time of Margaret Thatcher's 1983 re-election and the miners' strike of 1984/85, the Mekons responded by incorporating elements of British folk and American country music into their sound. While the movie quotes Rolling Stone as saying that the Mekons invented alt-country, it isn't quite true. They weren't even the first punk band to go country: the Johnny-Rotten-less Sex Pistols had covered rockabilly Eddie Cochran in 1978, and in 1981 the Dils had re-formed themselves as the "cowpunk" Rank and File.

What made the Mekons unique was that they didn't attempt to turn country into punk, nor did they attempt to straightforwardly imitate country. Instead they found at the tail end of punk a kindred sensibility in classic country's pessimism, world-weariness and sense of inevitable loss, and they created a hybrid that drew on elements from both forms.

They incorporated traditional instruments such as the fiddle of Susie Honeyman (the Charlotte Rampling of rock) and the accordion of Rico Bell, but also employed pounding drums and squalling guitar feedback. For a taste, listen to the dueling vocals and guitars of Tom Greenhalgh and Jon Langford on "Hard to be Human" from their 1985 album Fear and Whiskey. (Since 1984 their excellent drummer has been Steve Goulding, formerly of Graham Parker and the Rumour; that's him, too, doing the famous drum part on Elvis Costello's "Watching the Detectives.")

They weren't remiss in paying homage to their influences: Fear and Whiskey includes a cover of Hank Williams' "Lost Highway," the 1985 Crime and Punishment Peel Sessions EP includes Merle Haggard's "(I'm Going Off Of The) Deep End," the 1986 album The Edge of the World includes a version of "Alone and Forsaken" which mashes up Hank Williams' original lyrics with the Velvet Underground's "Black Angel's Death Song," and in 1988 the Mekons and ex-Fall member Marc Riley collaborated on a tribute album to Johnny Cash, 'Til Things Are Brighter.

After four excellent albums in as many years on independent labels, the band had a brief brush with mainstream fame when they were signed by A&M Records in the late 1980s. In the film we see a giddy marketing promo done for A&M record pluggers, and a video for their song "Memphis, Egypt," that would have looked extremely strange on MTV (if it was ever aired). As Honeyman recounts in the movie, during the label's annual Christmas party all the new acts signed that year were announced—but the Mekons were somehow omitted from the list. It was an ominous sign of the amount of effort the label was going to put into promoting the band's new album, Rock 'n' Roll (which some of us still consider their best). As Honeyman says, "We left thinking, 'Back in the van.'"

After A&M unceremoniously dropped them, the band continued (and continued to change). They toured, participated in art installations, collaborated with author Kathy Acker (supplying bawdy sea shanties for performative readings of her 1996 novel Pussy, King of the Pirates), and periodically issued new albums. Angio's film has some remarkable performance footage of the Mekons over the years.

But "The Curse of the Mekons" (the title of their first post-A&M album) has continued to haunt the band to the present day. Their labels haven't adequately promoted their records, and critical raves somehow have never translated into robust album or ticket sales. At the beginning of Angio's film we see the band setting out on tour (loading their own instruments into the van; Langford says only half-jokingly that "We used to have a roadie, but he became too successful to work with us anymore.") In the middle of their set during the first show of the tour a classic Mekons moment occurs when they urge the crowd to come see them at the next night's show in Sheffield—only to learn from their fans that the gig has been cancelled ("There was an e-mail," the nonplussed band members are told).

Perhaps the most compelling sequence follows the writing sessions for their 2011 album Ancient and Modern. From a sentence in Arthur Machen's The Hill of Dreams ("He found himself, as he had hoped, afar and forlorn; he had strayed into outland and occult territory") we see the song "Afar and Forlorn" slowly take shape through the process of writing lyrics, rehearsing music, recording, and live performance. It's a stunning montage that takes perhaps two minutes in the movie, but spans at least a full year of real time. It makes you wonder just how long Angio spent shooting footage for the film; then again, the Mekons seem to inspire obsession in their fans and followers.

("Afar and Forlorn" is far from the only Mekons recording with a literary genesis; apart from the Kathy Acker project, the title of their 2000 album Journey to the End of the Night is taken from Céline's novel, Rock 'n' Roll's "Only Darkness Has The Power" is based on a passage in Paul Auster's The Locked Room, and Fear and Whiskey's "Flitcraft" on a parable told in Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon. I'm sure there are many others. Perhaps that's why the Mekons can count writers such as Jonathan Franzen, Luc Sante, and Greil Marcus—all of whom appear in the film—among their fans.)

So Revenge of the Mekons transcends its genre in the way that the Mekons themselves transcend theirs: by combining familiar elements in continually surprising ways. Highly recommended.

For more information:

1. Michael Kaplan, "Punks on the Lost Highway," Spin, October 1986, p. 12.

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