Success is the thing that kills bands. We haven't had any success.
October 30, 2014 11:42 AM   Subscribe

So there's this UK punk band. First wavers, '77. Cohorts of Gang of Four (whose pictures were inadvertently printed on the back of their first album). Rivals of The Clash, to whom their first single was an answer record. Their energy is so gregarious, their working-class politics so pointed but relatable, they make a mark for themselves despite the limitation of barely being able to play. They get to the part where they're supposed to break up or fade away. Instead, they learn to play, to play very well, even. They become an ever-shifting collective, picking up new members, people from The Rolling Stones, or people who'd played with The Buzzcocks, Elvis Costello, The Cure. They made roaring post-punk records, shimmering power pop, pint-raising Irish/British folk, and booze-saturated country records. They found a fascination with folk music, American country music in particular. Actually, they may have accidentally invented alt-country. Lester Bangs says they're "The most revolutionary group in the history of rock n' roll." Hyperbole? Nah. Hyperbole was when he called them "better than the Beatles." 37 years in, they're still making records that odds are, you either love dearly, or have never heard of at all. They're The Mekons, friend, and Joe Angio's new documentary looks at them in all of their shambling, lovable, raucous glory.

Currently sporting a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes with glowing notices from The Village Voice and The New York Times, Revenge of the Mekons is currently playing the Film Forum in NYC and hits selected US cities in 2015.

Bonus: a complete live show from 2001 at Chelsea Musicplace in Vienna.
posted by DirtyOldTown (39 comments total) 82 users marked this as a favorite
Well, I tried to help. The Quality of Mercy is Not Strnen has been one of those albums I've listened to regularly since I got it in 1990 or so. And tried to foist on others as well. The Mekons, they rock.
posted by chavenet at 11:48 AM on October 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

My better half (MeFi's own Comrade Doll) and I went to see Mr. Langford just a few weeks back. It happened to be his birthday, so she brought him cookies. Langford posed for this pic with her and thanked us kindly, assuring us that "The macaroon is truly God's food."
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:53 AM on October 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

So looking forward to this. The Mekons have been lifelong heroes of mine.

posted by mykescipark at 11:55 AM on October 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Langford is the brother of the science fiction critic/fan Dave Langford.
posted by Chrysostom at 11:56 AM on October 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

That should say "2011" on the live show link. But then, it wouldn't be a DirtyOldTown post without at least one typo, would it?
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:57 AM on October 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Have we really never had a Mekons post before? MetaFilter, you disappoint me. One of my favorite bands, and yeah, they rock. But not so much in The Quality of Mercy is Not Strnen, which—trust me on this—is not a good way to introduce someone to the group. (I was just trying to provide historical context for Fear and Whiskey, which I was listening to obsessively at the time, but my friend was so repulsed by "Never Been in a Riot" he flat-out refused to try anything else by them.) I look forward to investigating the links and watching the documentary!
posted by languagehat at 11:58 AM on October 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

Also, I knew two lines into the post what band you were talking about.
posted by languagehat at 12:00 PM on October 30, 2014 [5 favorites]

The ideal Mekons record to use to introduce someone to the band varies. Fortunately, no what genre you most enjoy, the Mekons probably have made a fantastic record in that style.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 12:00 PM on October 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also, I knew two lines into the post what band you were talking about.

Well if you knew and were grinning, I was doing it right.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 12:02 PM on October 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

Saw the movie a few months ago, with Jon Lanford and Sally Timms fielding a Q&A session afterwards. I don't remember if it was in the movie or the discussion, but I loved the story of how impressed with they were with themselves with the sales of Rock 'n' Roll, and then they went to an A&M industry event and realized how low-tier they were.

It's still strange to me that they moved to Chicago, of all places, and they are the only quasi-celebrities I can reliably spot. I used to share a bus commute with Timms, and of course Langford is everywhere.
posted by hydrophonic at 12:29 PM on October 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

The Mekons Rock'n'Roll is an album that lives up to all the cliches, including the "This album was one of those that changed my life" one. The lyrics alone are worth it. That album really closed out the 80s with a bang, not to mention a big and deservedly strident middle finger. Hat's off to 'em, ever may they shine.
posted by blucevalo at 12:36 PM on October 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

Mekons at the Mutiny in Chicago.

2nd leg of the Hideout-Mutiny split show, Oct. 12, 2007.

One of my all-time favorite shows.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 12:36 PM on October 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Posting this link because, although it's not Mekons per se (it's on one of her solo albums), Sally Timms's rendition of John Cale's Half-Past France is stunning.
posted by grounded at 12:41 PM on October 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

Fun fact: Fred Armison's varied resume includes a six-year run as Mr. Sally Timms. (1998-2004)
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 12:42 PM on October 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

I love The Quality of Mercy is Not Strnen - it was the first CD I ever bought, and I had to special order it and it took forever. I used to get my then-boyfriend to drive me down to the local (semi-local, a couple of towns over) alternative record shop (later shut down as it was also the semi-local place to score coke) and then I'd leaf through this giant book of things they could special order and look for bands I wanted to hear (since there was no internet and there was effectively no way to find out about old or obscure music if you lived in the suburbs....I got all my information either by extrapolating from album sleeves or from scraps of information gleaned from newspaper articles where they might mention something interesting). And anyway, Rock'n'roll had just come out, and so I was trying to get more Mekons albums but nothing else was in print, and that was the only one they could order.

Years later, in college, I was at Oarfolk Records in Minneapolis where they had a teeny-tiny locked wall-mounted case of cassettes (even then, it was either CDs or vinyl) and I was looking at it and there...were...two...old cassette copies of Honky Tonkin' and So Good It Hurts!!!! I got dizzy for a moment, and I was literally shaking when I got the girl at the counter to unlock the case so that I could grab them - I felt like someone else was going to get them somehow in the mere moments this took. And they are so good. So good! Of all the albums I liked back then, there's not much I still listen to regularly, but how I love those!

I was so relieved when they came back into print a few years ago so that I never have to risk being without them again.

I think my two favorite Mekons albums are Devils, Rats and Piggies, because it's so claustrophobic and sad and has such a sense of shutting down and failure of ideals and Honky Tonkin', which...every single song is perfect and right-on and beautiful.

I had dinner with a friend and Lu Edmonds once in the late nineties - my friend was very interested in the oud and had chatted with Edmonds on some message board, and then he was in town to play a show and my friend brought me along because of the Mekons. He was really nice and I was dazzled. Lu Edmonds is probably the most famous person I've ever met, come to think of it, and I suppose I'd better not meet any more famous ones because some of them are bound to be jerks.
posted by Frowner at 12:42 PM on October 30, 2014 [6 favorites]

Released in 1985, Fear and Whiskey is credited as the album that began the alt-country marketing category.

Oh come on. Lone Justice? The Long Ryders? The Flying Burrito Brothers? The Byrds? All doing "alt-country" before 1985.
posted by thelonius at 12:49 PM on October 30, 2014

Fun fact: Fred Armison's varied resume includes a six-year run as Mr. Sally Timms. (1998-2004)

Also occasional live drummer for The Mekons.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 12:51 PM on October 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

The answer is in the question, thelonius. That sentence doesn't imply that record invented the sound. It says it began the "marketing category." No one's saying they created the sound. They were just the people standing up front when folks finally decided the thing needed a name.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 12:52 PM on October 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

...a different name than "cowpunk," for what it's worth. But whatever, naming styles of music has never been a rational system.
posted by hydrophonic at 1:04 PM on October 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Did they take their name from a Michael Moorcock creature?
posted by Splunge at 1:07 PM on October 30, 2014

> Well if you knew and were grinning

Damn right!

> Lone Justice? The Long Ryders? The Flying Burrito Brothers? The Byrds? All doing "alt-country" before 1985.

I don't really think of any of those as "alt-country"—they're country rock, or that's what we used to call it. When I think of "alt-country" in the Mekons sense I immediately think of the Meat Puppets and "Lost" (early 1984, and later covered by The Minutemen!).
posted by languagehat at 1:08 PM on October 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

Did they take their name from a Michael Moorcock creature?

No, from this cheerful fellow.

posted by TheWhiteSkull at 1:11 PM on October 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

One of the greatest and most criminally underappreciated bands of all time. Saw them at one their very first American shows, in Philadelphia, where Jon Langford introduced Sally Timms as "The albeeno lad to my right". Loved every show of theirs I ever saw, love the band, love this post -- thanks, DirtyOldTown!
posted by newmoistness at 1:43 PM on October 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Consistently the most fantastic live shows I have seen. As a group of friends, they have so much (contagious) fun on stage that the fact that their music is amazing is almost secondary. I have always considered Jon Langford to be a spiritual uncle.

Hell of a group of folks.

"it's a nice view"
"describe the view"
"it's very big"
posted by deadbilly at 2:10 PM on October 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

My first exposure to the Mekons -- I think it was the first time I went back to San Diego after moving away and I was looking for something to listen to, being separated from my music collection, and I ended up blind-buying Honky Tonkin' on cassette. Still one of my favorite Mekons albums. I adore many of of their albums -- So Good It Hurts, Rock 'n' Roll -- and find an almost equal number difficult to get through -- Me is tough for me, and Pussy, King of the Pirates is basically unlistenable.

But maybe my favorite album by the Mekons is OOOH! (Out Of Our Heads), which is a remarkable feat, being their 15th album, some 25 years into their existence. What band does that? Here, listen to the lead track, "Thee Olde Trip to Jerusalem" -- so good!

Anyway. Here's a photo I took in, I think, 2001 in Seattle. Playing around with the "panoramic" setting on my camera.
posted by Karlos the Jackal at 2:45 PM on October 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

stupidsexyFlanders: “Fun fact: Fred Armison's varied resume includes a six-year run as Mr. Sally Timms. (1998-2004)”

For whatever it's worth, I'm pretty sure that was about immigration status.
posted by koeselitz at 2:46 PM on October 30, 2014

"Success is the thing that kills bands. We haven't had any success."

That's because they sound like failure and cold water running.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 3:32 PM on October 30, 2014 [5 favorites]

There are many reasons to love the Mekons live. For example, Mr. Langford's dancing a la David Brent whenever they play Cockermouth.
posted by wmoskowi at 7:13 PM on October 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have no particular love for the Mekons but Sally Timms' voice is wonderful.
posted by rdr at 7:52 PM on October 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Holy shit, I have no idea how I've managed to miss these guys over the past 30 years. Listening to some of their stuff right now and it's great. A bit taken aback to know that I could have been putting it in my rotation this whole time and didn't.
posted by Ipsifendus at 9:41 PM on October 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

I remember Greil Marcus raving about the Mekons in one of his music columns in ArtForum (all together now: "O-o-o-ooh!") and saying that one of their albums ("Fear and Whiskey"? Sorry I forget...) was an homage/eulogy for The Band's Richard Manuel. That got my attention, but sadly I never did find that particular album. I did find "Honky Tonkin'" on cassette, however, and it was on heavy rotation on my Walkman for several years. I loved how the lyrics of "If They Hang You" sounded like they were lifted straight out of a Chandler or Hammett novel. And despite repeated listenings I never did figure out any of the the words to "Danton" (anybody? anybody?).
posted by e-man at 10:35 PM on October 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Hey e-man, I just thought I'd dig through my basement box of vinyl and take a look at the liner notes on Honky Tonkin, but alas there was no Danton to be found.
posted by gamera at 11:02 PM on October 30, 2014

Ipsifendus: “Holy shit, I have no idea how I've managed to miss these guys over the past 30 years. Listening to some of their stuff right now and it's great. A bit taken aback to know that I could have been putting it in my rotation this whole time and didn't.”

I am envious of you, because there's a whole world you get to discover. The Mekons mean so much to me.

I will say right now that I actually prefer the albums nobody seems to have mentioned here.

My first Mekons record ever was The Edge of the World, which I still hold close to my heart. Out of all of their songs from the 1980s, "Hello Cruel World" is the most haunting for me, and is, I think, the moment when they realized there was something deep, dark, insanely powerful that they were riding on top of – in other words, that they weren't a punk band shaking a fist at the man like so many others, or an angular art-rock band shouting signifiers to the in-crowd like the compatriots of theirs mentioned in the post above, or a bunch of experimental kids having fun with the country music they thought was neat but didn't even try to play the way it sounded on the records; they were troubadours of a certain cult of the soul, speakers of mysteries and keepers of a flame, giving voice to modern spirits that wandered over the wreckage in the desolate ruins of modernity.

The first time I ever listened to this record, I was driving to New Mexico – and to this day the Mekons still remind me of home, which is what New Mexico is to me now – this state at the edge of the world.

Right at the center of their canon, and probably their greatest album – will people argue with me on this? – is The Mekons Rock 'n' Roll, which is nothing less than a treatise on what rock music means, on which nearly every single track is stunningly vivid and compelling, each a world within itself. The first song is a swirling haze of distortion that resolves to the opening shout: "DESTROY YOUR SAFE AND HAPPY LIVES / BEFORE IT IS TOO LATE!" – before they utter invocations to the sacred gods of rock: Capitalismos, the favorite boy-child... we know the devil, we have shaken him by the hand... a microscope on that secret place where we all wanna go. The second song is a sexuality-twisting grind sung by Sally ("When I was just 17 / sex no longer held a mystery / I saw it as a commodity / to be bought and sold – like rock and roll") that resolves to a nightmare of coming of age. The third song is so good that it's not really even saying anything about.

But for all that, my favorite Mekons record – depending on the week, granted, but right now at least – is probably So Good It Hurts, which is not so unified; it's more a collection of these little jewels. There's a song about how the moon landing was faked; there are tunes with a jaunty reggae beat, one a contemporarily relevant cover of Ed Pickford's union song "Johnnie Miner," the other a twisted fantasy apparently involving Nixon and Satan at a pool party in hell; there's a gender-bent cover of the Rolling Stones, Sally Timms swearing vengeance on people, and probably the greatest socialist anthem ever written. And in the midst of all this is what is often my favorite Mekons song: "(Sometimes I Feel) Like Fletcher Christian." This song is just – I mean, it's a stunning image, right? Fletcher Christian, sitting on a foreign shore, knowing he can never return home – and slowly realizing that that might not be such a bad alternative. "In paradise – with the tables turned..." Sometimes I feel that way, too, and I never quite thought a song would be able to describe that adequately. "The shameless riches of another world..." Home is so very far away that maybe it isn't home anymore – living at the edge of the world can take some getting used to, but it has its perks.
posted by koeselitz at 12:43 AM on October 31, 2014 [4 favorites]

Personally confusing to me that none of the Mekons discussions/film reviews mention The Waco Brothers.
posted by stevil at 8:20 AM on October 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

Growing up in Leeds in the 1980's the Mekons were a part of life, they were the parents of children at school, the friends of your mate's dad, constantly playing gigs, at parties or putting on art shows. It is possible that the first gig I ever went to was a Mekons gig, as there wasn't any problem getting in, the venue was happy to look the other way rather than ask for ID to bolster numbers and there was always some unscrupulous friend of someone's dad who would vouch for your age if there was any challenge. I think we stayed at the bar enjoying the novelty of being able to buy drinks while the Mekons did their thing to the half filled venue and then someone gave us a lift back as we had missed the last bus. Seeing the movie last year it appears not a lot has changed, they are still their likeable selves, the music is still great and the venues are still half empty.

Revenge of the Mekons is great, even if you haven't any interest in the band it stands up as a great documentary.
posted by asok at 8:35 AM on October 31, 2014 [4 favorites]

All I know about the Mekons (a few songs aside) is that they lived above a chemist, apparently.
That may be a metaphor.

(And they were from Leeds).
posted by Mezentian at 8:41 AM on October 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

> Also, I knew two lines into the post what band you were talking about.

Two lines in I knew what band was being talked about and that I would find languagehat grinning in the comments.

I'm happy that the Mekons and/or their members' other projects play Philly on a fairly regular basis; we go pretty much anytime we can.
posted by desuetude at 10:48 AM on October 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

I also love the experience of reading certain books and experiencing a sudden disorienting deja vu when I hit passages that, thanks to the Mekons' practice of wholesale appropriation, I've already heard as lyrics to Mekons songs. "Country", for example, quotes Michael Herr's Dispatches, and "Only Darkness Has The Power" is right out of Paul Auster's The Locked Room. I've never looked for a complete list of their borrowings because I don't want to deprive myself of future happy surprises.
posted by newmoistness at 12:14 PM on October 31, 2014 [3 favorites]

That's why I stopped reading the bible. I read Matthew at the age of 22, realized the sermon on the mount was a straight plagiarism of The Life Of Brian, and swore right off the gospels. No spoilers for me!
posted by nickmark at 9:10 PM on November 5, 2014

« Older Goblins: how do they work?   |   Gangster Life – And Death – in London's East End Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments