The question Hitsville has always wanted to ask Jon Langford is this: When the Mekons reinvented themselves in the mid-80s, with the ragged, entrancing Fear and Whiskey, where did that countrified, punky, sprawling sound come from? Fiddles and power chords, drawls and shouts--it seemed to have no provenance.
"Well, we were interested in country and western, but didn't know how to play it," says Langford. The transplanted Briton is contentedly munching on a Tecalitlan taco and talking up his band's new album, I Love Mekons. "A friend who worked for some folk labels told us that this type of music is all oral, so any mistakes people make get passed down. In the end the mistakes overpower the original songs, and you get this weird, strange, almost distorted idea of the tune. He was trying to explain to us that that's what the Mekons are like."
And so they are: From their garage-punk beginnings to their unstable but still defiant status today, the Mekons have evolved in not-so-splendid isolation that's kept the members' hands clean and heads high but pockets empty and morale somewhat inconsistent. At the same time, they've produced a glorious sort of pan-Atlantic electric folk music that, over the course of that isolation, sounds like little else. What Basque is to languages, the Mekons are to rock 'n' roll.
Langford and guitarist Tom Greenhalgh started the self-consciously radical band Leeds in 1977. Some early singles, notably the coarse and irresistible "Where Were You," established their punk bona fides, but Langford says they were soon in a bind. "It was the dog-end days of punk. We wanted to do something different, and people would just come in spitting at you, 'Play louder, play faster.' It got kind of dull. We were never another leather-jacket shaven-head punk band."
Years of anguished inactivity followed. The British miners' strike of 1985 got the band playing live again, to do benefits. And America entered on a couple of counts to inspire the group: first in terms of their strange but valuable take on country and western, second in the person of one Sophie Bourbon, a Chicago-area woman who, legend has it, heard her daughter playing a Mekons record and sent the band some money to start a record label. The label was Sin--a pungent parody of Memphis's Sun--and the first record was Fear and Whiskey, which introduced the world to the brave new Mekons, complete with the redolent, aching voice of Sally Timms. In the wake of that renaissance--which also produced the immortal Mekons Honky Tonkin' in 1987--the band entered a brief association with A & M that neither party liked or profited from. But it did produce The Mekons Rock 'n' Roll, in which the band left C & W behind for a series of fearful song-dreams recited against a full-throated rock roar, impressionistic but still decipherable meditations on the various collaborations involved in playing rock 'n' roll not just in a capitalistic society, but in a world of capitalism triumphant:
East Berlin can't buy a thing
There's nothing they can sell me
I walk through the Wall
No pain at all
I'm born inside the belly
Of rock 'n' roll!
A culmination of the band's weird journeys--political, musical, geographical, and romantic--finds Langford in Chicago, where he lives with his wife, an architect in training at UIC. Partner Greenhalgh remains in Leeds, and Timms is in New York, but the band presses on. I Love Mekons, recorded with the customary ad hoc rhythm section, finds the group's gaze turned from rock 'n' roll to affairs of the heart, with predictable acidity. Love, it turns out, is a cold war. A honeymoon? "Unwanted gifts, coded messages," wails Greenhalgh. Sex? "Firing small arms in the night." True love? "I'll betray you with my body." Musically the band remains one of the strongest, most unnervingly captivating rock 'n' roll ensembles in the world, from Timms's evil crooning on "I Love a Millionaire" to the growling guitar lines of "I Love Apple."
The record's coming out on Touch and Go, and for once in its 15-year career the band may benefit from a number of happy circumstances. A competent label is putting out good product at a sensible time of the year (school's back in session). The members are ready to tour, and an always complicit press stands ready to sing their praises once again. At the same time the epic chronicle of the band's past, a movie called The Mekons Story, is ready, though they still have to come up with the dough to get prints struck.
In the meantime Langford has an extremely impressive show of paintings up at the World Tattoo Gallery. It's a series of portraits of old country and western singers, each face a bit uncomprehending as it looks out through the years and layers of, as Langford puts it, "historical snot." There are hints of that stuff on the Mekons as well, but the band remains vibrant, and for now Langford's at peace with its place in the new world order. The Mekons have never been happy about selling themselves: the poster for The Mekons Rock 'n' Roll contained the prominent legend "Packaged and sold in all formats for your convenience like any other commodity." Now, concedes Langford, "I want people to be able to buy our record. It's one of the few choices we have left in this society." But he still dreams of a better way. "I wish the whole thing would shrink smaller, so that we could just go around and play at people's houses." The prospect seems unlikely, but Langford presses on. "We could just make hand-carved wooden records for people."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.