In his essay "Debord in the Resounding Cataract of Time" (collected in the City Lights anthology Revolutionary Romanticism), political theorist Daniel Blanchard writes: "In the case of a group of revolutionaries, however small, the form of its organization, the way it functions, the content and modalities of its action, all prefigure, as in a microcosm, the desired state of the world." In other words, if you want to change society, change yourself, or your selves.
If Blanchard has it right — and if an art collective doubling as a touring rock band counts as a group of revolutionaries — then the ideal city once the Mekons have overturned the existing order will have well-stocked libraries, better-stocked bars, and roaming patrols randomly enforcing the Mandatory Belly Exposure Ordinance of 1987. In the post office, volunteers switching envelopes on love letters to the strains of Johnny Cash and King Tubby. At the gates, the recently liberated heads of Sting and Bono perched on crossed spikes in warning. (No word on how the new regime will handle world debt or rain-forest depletion.)
The "form of organization" dictated by the Mekons’ fluid line-up borders on the nonexistent. "I met them when I was 20, and I thought the band was a joke," says Sally Timms, who added "odd bits and bobs of singing" to several albums before reaching full Mekonhood in the mid ’80s. "I had been hanging out with them, and singing in my own right, and they just seemed to get integrated. There was certainly no audition committee. You just kind of fade into this band, and once you get in for any length of time, you don’t get out."
A full tally of Mekons past and present runs into the low 50s, and the current eight-member core disperses across two continents between projects. Guitarists Jon Langford and Tom Greenhalgh are the sole holdovers from the band’s early days as Leeds University art students back in 1977, Britpunk Year Zero. (Co-founder Kevin Lycett, a/k/a "Ken Lite," still participates in their visual and conceptual projects.) Since the late ’70s, the Mekons have explored British folk, American country, dub, calypso, and electronic collage, often simultaneously, not to mention Rock ’n’ Roll, their 1990 debut (and swan song) for A&M. And though most if not all of the surviving clash-of-’77 Britpunks have faded away altogether or taken on music as a part-time gig, the Mekons have, through all their changes in sound, line-up, and geographical situation, remained in near-constant operation. This year, 2002, marks the band’s 25th anniversary, as well as the release of a new Mekons Touch and Go CD and touring art show, both entitled OOOH!, and the publication of Hello Cruel World (Verse Chorus Press), a 218-page volume of selected Mekons lyrics.
You may not be able to get out for good, Timms says, but "you can go on leave for a while." And drift off they do. Accordionist Rico Bell performs and shows his paintings in San Francisco; former Graham Parker/Poi Dog Pondering drummer Steve Goulding gigs with Garland Jeffreys and Burn Barrel in New York; bassist Sara Corina works with Screaming Blue Messiahs’ Bill Carter in England. And the Chicago-based Timms has recorded a string of sad, spooky country albums, with and without other members’ contributions. Greenhalgh and Lycett seem most content with their low profiles outside the collective.
But Langford has held the band’s side-project record ever since co-fronting the faux goth outfit Three Johns during a short, early Mekons hiatus. More recently he’s established himself as a visual artist with his mixed-media paintings (fragmented images of Hank Williams and Bob Wills signing away their souls), and as a published writer with his rock-history-satirizing comic Great Pop Things (authored with Colin Morton, and collected in a Verse Chorus Verse book of the same title). He plays a key role in the loosely convened Pine Valley Cosmonauts, whose recent anti-death-penalty benefit disc The Executioner’s Last Songs Vol. 1 (Bloodshot) features guest vocalists from Steve Earle to David Yow. And there’s the Waco Brothers, the visceral honky-tonk outfit that began as a beer-money outlet for Langford and some fellow Chicagoans with equally atypical country-music pedigrees, including Wreck guitarist Deano Schlabowske, former Jesus Jones bassist Alan Doughty, and Goulding.
The Waco Brothers’ recently released New Deal (Bloodshot), their sixth full-length, continues their one-band assault on the Nashville-centric taming of a once-rebellious music. "AFC Song," written with Wilco’s Jay Babcock, sums up the Waco Brothers philosophy: "Pump some new blood through the veins/Of cowboy hats and leather boys/To stimulate its brains." Like the Mekons, the Wacos spread the songwriting and vocal duties around, but Langford’s stamp is unmistakable on tracks from the punked-up two-step "Blink of an Eye" ("The president’s just half a man") to the gadfly call-to-arms "Poison" ("It’s time to break wind where the shrinking violets grow"). This is country music minus the time-worn frontier iconography and plunked down in a Midwestern blue-collar barroom; as Langford once quipped, "Merle Haggard was never on a horse."
If the Mekons’ own output is less anarchic than their citizenship policy, there’s a good reason — some songs just sound better when everyone’s singing together. On "Thee Olde Trip to Jerusalem," which leads off OOOH!, the entire band, plus engineer Ken Suiter and alterna-country chanteuses Edith Frost and Kelly Hogan, call the title out in unison, like a New (or Old) England shape-note choir after an excess of wassail. (Going for extra cross-cultural irony, the track also features an electric saz, the long-necked Afghan lute taken up by one-time Mekon bassist Lu Edmonds.) Between shouts, Langford rails at "the landlords and the rulers with their foot on your neck" before rattling off a litany of radical English religious sects: "The Ranters and the Quakers and the Fabians."
Speaking from Chicago before their most recent tour, Langford links "Thee Olde Trip to Jerusalem" to the Mekons’ political concerns. "I’m speaking as an atheist, but that song is an attempt to find something positive in the Judeo-Christian tradition. When people hear ‘socialism,’ they think of Marx, but a lot of the socialism that actually improved people’s lives in Britain came from religion." The title derives from William Blake: "Jerusalem" was the poet/mystic’s code name for the free-living, free-loving utopia to come, and the "Trip" was the centuries-long struggle to reach it. Although, as Langford notes, "It’s also the name of a pub in Nottingham . . . "
OOOH! (short for "Out of Our Heads") shares its title with a collectively signed exhibit of painted and sculpted heads that toured England earlier this year. Langford allows, "I wouldn’t want to say ‘what it means,’ but to us the show was about the idea of the voice, and the power of music, maybe the way that a song can survive your death. Around Yorkshire there are all sorts of archaic stone heads that are supposed to have strange powers. So we dipped into a lot of things."
The show’s oversize "Singing Head," from which various members’ disembodied voices issued, was fatally damaged in storage outside Manchester by what Langford mysteriously terms "hooligan art critics." (Surviving work was recently shown in San Francisco, Chicago, and New York.) But the voices inside carry on: Greenhalgh’s unaccompanied moan ("I am the stone head") opens one track on OOOH!, and others echo the show’s theme of better living through decapitation. On "Dancing in the Head," Timms intones phrases from a Haitian zombie-making manual ("The head lives with an inner life of its own"). "Bob Hope & Charity" recounts the ancient tale of a British king whose severed head entertained his troops on the road back from battle.
Myth and buried history are hardly new interests, as Greenhalgh explains. "When we were recording our second album, in 1979, [engineer] John Gill told us, ‘You think you’re a punk band, but you’re a folk band.’ All we ever thought about British folk music was the cliché of bearded guys in jumpers, so it was inspiring to become aware of this rich vein of stuff." Since then, they’ve never met a legend they couldn’t subvert. On 1986’s The Edge of the World (issued in the US by Quarterstick in ’96), "King Arthur" imagines the knights of Camelot as leftists under siege in Thatcherite England: "No one ever says goodbye these days/We’re all too busy running scared." Two albums later, "Robin Hood" (from the 1988 Twin/Tone album So Good It Hurts) outed the Merry Men as omnisexual Marxists.
Despite these conceptual underpinnings, the Mekons are also capable of moments of aching intimacy. The new album’s somber reading of the public-domain chestnut "Lone Pilgrim" is a case in point. (The band learned the song from Bob Dylan’s World Gone Wrong; Dylan picked it up from Doc Watson.) From a traveler’s unmarked grave, an exhausted Greenhalgh sings, "The same hand that let me through scenes most severe/Has kindly assisted me home." Full of gratitude for the end of a difficult journey, the performance locates the solitary flip side to the collectivist spirit that fuels "Jerusalem."
As for the Mekons’ own long, not-so-lone pilgrimage, the past few years have found them marching at full strength. Steve Goulding returned for 1998’s difficult Me (Touch and Go), and their work since, including 2000’s grim Journey to the End of the Night (Touch and Go), is their best in a decade. At a recent LA show, the band sounded as vital as ever, shuttling between recent material and highlights from their punk and country pasts. The dirgy "Corporal Chalky," howled by Leeds-era member Mark White on 1979’s Devils Rats and Piggies a Special Message from Godzilla (UK Red Rhino), is now an arresting ballad in 12/8 time, thanks in part to Timms’s chilling precision.
The set’s centerpiece was even more obscure. First recorded in a heavily sequenced version for the costly book-and-CD set Mekons United (Touch and Go), the epic "Orpheus" slipped under even long-time fans’ radar. But at the LA show it turned out to be a crowd favorite, with the usually ax-less Timms strapping on Greenhalgh’s guitar, all four frontpersons trading verses, and all eight musicians breaking into a unison shout of "Loose the Mekons, came the cheer!" After the show, Langford observed, "There’s a lot of self-mythologizing rock and roll, and we’ve done our share, sometimes tongue in cheek and sometimes deadly serious." Either way, if any band have earned the right to sing their own legend, it’s the Mekons.