Few artists exemplify indie integrity like the Mekons. Less a “band” than a collective of like-minded friends—a mobile musical kibbutzim spread across two continents—the British punk rockers have kept alive the post-punk dream (of restless experimentation and political critique leavened by a self-mocking sense of humor) through, paradoxically, a deep immersion in American roots music. You could say the Mekons invented alt.country—their classic Fear and Whiskey (1985) married Clash and Cash two years before Uncle Tupelo existed—and though they’ve experimented widely before and since, conducting a ragged march across genres ranging from reggae and techno to salsa, they’ve never since strayed far from the blend they pioneered. In fact, their last few albums have featured some of the band’s strongest country work yet, rooted as always in the contrasting vocal styles of the sweet, melancholy Sally Timms, the hard-charging punk yelper (and part-time Waco Brother) Jon Langford, and Tom Greenhalgh, the very voice of whiskey-sodden regret.
So what drove this restlessly creative outfit to do an album of self-covers?
“Last year, we decided to try and do some shows just playing the early songs,” explains Langford. Expecting to be embarrassed, Greenhalgh said they instead found the songs “quite satisfying to do, like archeology.” Langford agrees: “There was sort of a strength to them,
a continuity [with later work] we didn’t really know existed.”
This continuity is especially surprising because Greenhalgh and Langford are the only holdouts remaining from the late-’70s Mekons lineup that first recorded the songs exhumed and reworked on Punk Rock (Quarterstick), the group’s 21st album. As part of the fertile, creative Leeds, England, punk scene, the Mekons quickly tired of the typical chugging sound of their early releases. “I was kinda bored with going dudda dudda dunt,” says Langford. For the second album, the band “all swapped instruments and made songs up in the studio,” Langford continues, leading to “the beginning of the Mekons as I think of it.” But audiences didn’t know what to make of the new material. So, says Greenhalgh, “We went underground and refused to play live.” Langford elaborates—“Around ’81, ’82, we had this sort of secret bedroom band. We didn’t think anybody wanted to hear us, but we just used to make recordings for our own pleasure.”
Circumstances—and praise from unexpected sources—changed that. “By the summer of ’83 there was this kind of weird backwash of interest, actually, from the States,” Langford says, with critic Greil Marcus praising the band in Artforum and Lester Bangs writing the liner notes for the under-the-radar The Mekons Story (1983). The group returned to live gigging during a miner’s strike, which it hoped to support by playing at benefits. By this time, Langford was experimenting with “writing some quite tuneful songs,” some influenced by Hank Williams.
No one was quite prepared for the records that resulted—Fear and Whiskey, Edge of the World (1986), Honky Tonkin’ (1987) and the Crime and Punishment EP (1986). Critics like Marcus and Bangs noticed a certain humor and vision in the band’s earlier material, but the Mekons’ expansive, imaginative revision of country was something new. They could be cerebral to the point of didacticism, but they also conjured the plainspoken power of Williams and Cash. One had only to listen to the horrifying “Big Zombie”—Langford howling the words “I’m just not human tonight!” over an amphetamine country stomp while the band full-throttles the tune into a ditch—to see that the Mekons’ manic punk roots allowed them to fully explore the current of nihilistic, destructive desperation that always ran through classic country.
But the band was heading for a ditch of its own. After a successful run of independent releases, the Mekons signed with A&M, which failed to promote the anti-music industry Mekons Rock ’n’ Roll (1989). Corporate censorship? “Corporate ineptitude,” says Langford. A&M then refused to domestically release the group’s stylistically diffuse followup, Curse of the Mekons (1991). After another troubled courtship with Warner Brothers, the group decided cashing in wasn’t worth it. “The worst times,” says Greenhalgh stoically, “have always involved proximity to major labels.”
In the 1990s, the band made up for lost freedom, retreating from country on Retreat From Memphis (1994) and trying every style imaginable on later records, while group members pursued various side projects, even doing art shows and (in Langford’s case) the comic strip Great Pop Things. With half the group now living in America and the other half in the UK, they’ve found certain procedures that work well. “Due to geography, etcetera, it helps to identify some themes and rules to work from, so we usually have a strong idea of what we're about on a particular project,” says Greenalgh. This explains the inner cohesion of albums that vary widely in style: the pop-rock of I [Heart] Mekons (1993), the slicked-up techno-glam of Me (1998), the return to country-rock on OOOH! (Out Of Our Heads) (2002).
These days, Langford delights in the unexpected relevance of the old material that makes up the Mekons’ new album, finding that a song like “Corporal Chalkie” still resonates with the current situation in Iraq. But don’t expect this band to stay in one place for too long. “We’re gonna go on tour in March. It might not be a punk rock tour—it’s kind of a deliberate attempt to counterpoint styles from that time with the possibility of doing totally different things. That’s what we do. No limits, maaan,” he says, laughing. As for the next record? Greenhalgh, who’s also writing songs for a side project of his own, says “We want to work on the next album in a different way from the last few … to base it much more on a live-band sound,” he says. “Like a bulldozer—a great big monster demolishing everything in its path.”