The Mekons - Biography
By Oliver Hall
The Mekons are a left-wing socialist punk country electronic folk group made up of visual artists, folk musicians, writers, aging punks and other disappointed radicals. Their music has increasingly defied classification by genre, but they began as a Leeds punk band. Drummer Jon Langford, bassist Ros Allen, guitarists Ken Lite and Kevin Lycett, and vocalists Andy Corrigan and Mark White formed the Mekons in 1976 around the University of Leeds art school, taking their name from the villain of the the British science-fiction comic book Dan Dare. They announced their existence on the crude, funny punk single “Never Been In A Riot” (Fast Product 1978), also the first release on Rezillos stagehand Bob Last’s great Fast Product label, located in Edinburgh, with a focus on the best Northern English punk bands of the time. The Mekons’ second single “Where Were You” (Fast Product 1978) is a punk rant by an alienated subject with love problems.
Virgin signed the Mekons and in October 1979 released the punk single “Work All Week,” in which the Mekons’ singer promises his beloved the ultimate sacrifice: he will get an honest job. The band’s first album followed in November. Not the lucky infinite number, the chimp on its cover has almost, but not quite, typed a line from The Merchant of Venice: the quality of mercy is not strnen (Virgin 1979). Unlike most everything else the Mekons released, the instrumentation and songwriting on the quality of mercy is not strnen observe the conventions of the contemporary English postpunk idiom. Bassist Ros Allen left after the first album to form the Delta 5, and the lineup started to take the form of Langford playing with whomever he liked, with frequent contributions from Kevin Lycett, Ken Lite, and Mark White.
The band sounds much more like itself on the brilliant “Teeth” double 7-inch (Virgin 1980), on which synthesizers, violin, piano and studio effects qualify insistent grooves. On their second album, Devils Rats & Piggies—A Special Message from Godzilla (a/k/a The Mekons, Red Rhino 1980), the Mekons develop the sound of “Teeth” and display the first evidence of their interest in traditional folk music. Vocalist Andy Corrigan left after Devils Rats & Piggies. Following the “This Sporting Life” 12-inch (CNT Productions 1981), which sounds not unlike Public Image Ltd.’s The Flowers of Romance, released the same year, the group released the career retrospective The Mekons Story 1977-1982: it falleth like the Gentle rain from Heavnen (CNT Productions 1982)—the subtitle is another incorrect infinite-monkey permutation of the rest of the line from The Merchant of Venice—featuring mock-mock-hagiographic liner notes by Lester Bangs (“The Mekons are the most revolutionary group in the history of rock ‘n’ roll[….] THEY ARE BETTER THAN THE BEATLES,” Bangs writes, kidding on the square) and bibulous, nearly coherent between-song narration of the band’s history by David Spencer. The album collects otherwise unavailable material from throughout the band’s first five years, notably a 1977 plea for airplay addressed to DJ John Peel and a 1982 détournement of Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild” that introduces the subject of beer. The English Dancing Master EP (CNT Productions 1983) includes “A Dancing Master Such As (Mr. Confess),” a dub-pop tune that should have been a hit.
The indelible audio image of the Mekons many fans fetishize, with good reason, is Fear and Whiskey (Sin Recordings of Brixton 1985), recorded between 1984 and 1985 with the legendary Dick Taylor, a founding member of the Rolling Stones and the Pretty Things, on lead guitar. Fear and Whiskey also introduces multi-instrumentalist Lu Edmonds (of Public Image Ltd.) and drummer Steve Goulding (of Graham Parker and the Rumour), who have remained in the band ever since, and it marks Langford’s switch from drums to guitar. The album was the first release on the band’s own Sin label, whose logo détourned that of Sun Records, and though Fear and Whiskey is not quite straight country and western, the musical and moral imperatives of the genre make their presence felt all throughout the album. Fear and Whiskey’s companion EP was Crime and Punishment (Sin Recordings of Brixton 1986), a Peel session. The Mekons pursued the C&W/traditional folk direction on the The Edge of the World (Sin 1986), an album that, if possible, improves on the Fear and Whiskey aesthetic, introducing violinist Susie Honeyman and accordionist Rico Bell, who remain Mekons 25 years later. The wonderful vocalist Sally Timms, also still a Mekon, is first prominent on The Edge of the World, though she had recorded with Langford in 1982. The album’s companion was the Slightly South of the Border 10-inch EP (Sin 1986), with a cover of Gram Parsons’s “$1,000 Wedding” and an appearance by Terrie Hessels of the Mekons’ Dutch anarchist comrades the Ex (q.v.) on “Rescue Mission.” Original Sin (Twin/Tone 1989), a CD compilation of Fear and Whiskey and tracks from Crime and Punishment and Slightly South of the Border EPs, is sadly out of print.
After Honky Tonkin’ (Sin 1987), with “Sympathy for the Mekons,” came So Good It Hurts (Sin / Cooking Vinyl 1988), with something like pop production. The Dream and Lie of the Mekons 10-inch EP (Blast First 1989) was the companion to The Mekons Rock ‘n’ Roll (A&M / Sin / Twin/Tone 1989), the Mekons’ first album for a major label since their debut a decade before. The Mekons play the Ex and the Ex play the Mekons on the split single “Crap Rap / Keep on Hoppin’” (Clawfist 1990); Langford had produced the Ex’s albums Tumult (FAI 1983) and Aural Guerrilla (Ex 1988), and drummed on one of their singles. F.U.N. ’90 (A&M 1990) features vocals by the late Lester Bangs, who sings a bit of Hank Williams’s “Ramblin’ Man” on “One Horse Town.” The EP’s British release also included a reading from Walter Benjamin’s essay “Hashish in Marseilles;” F.U.N. ‘90 was the Mekons’ last release on A&M. The excellent LP The Curse of the Mekons (Blast First 1991), not released in the US until a decade later, includes Sally Timms’s great vocal performance of John Anderson’s country lament “Wild & Blue” as well as the Mekons’ perspectives on the apparently global victory of brutal free market capitalism.
I ♥ Mekons (Quarterstick 1993) was the first of many subsequent releases on Chicago’s Quarterstick Records, a label change that coincided with the Mekons’ move to Chicago. Quarterstick has since reissued all of the Mekons’ early albums, other than the quality of mercy, which has not been issued on CD since Virgin pressed a few in 1990. After Retreat from Memphis (Quarterstick 1994) there was Pussy, King of the Pirates (Quarterstick 1996), the Mekons’ collaboration with the radical Burroughsian writer Kathy Acker, who died of breast cancer the following year. The band’s next project was documented in mekons united (Quarterstick / Polk Museum of Art / Ellipsis 1996), the catalog to a Florida art show devoted to the Mekons’ paintings and music; the book also included the CD album of the same name. me (Quarterstick 1998) explores subjectivity under late capitalism. After Journey to the End of the Night (Quarterstick 2000) came OOOH! or Out of our heads (Quarterstick 2002), based on the Mekons’ art show about severed heads. The band celebrated its 25th anniversary with a series of shows, the book hello cruel world: selected lyrics (Verse Chorus 2002), and the album Punk Rock (Quarterstick 2003), which consisted of early songs re-recorded with new arrangements. Heaven & Hell (Cooking Vinyl 2004) is a 2CD best-of collection that is a fine starting point for someone unfamiliar with the band’s work. The Mekons’ most recent album, the acoustic Natural (Quarterstick 2007), marked the band’s 30th anniversary.
Many of the Mekons have solo careers or other bands, not to mention art careers. Jon Langford has been the most productive of the Mekons, playing in and recording with the Three Johns, the Waco Brothers, Pine Valley Cosmonauts and numerous others. Sally Timms and Rico Bell have each released several solo albums, and Lu Edmonds rejoined Public Image Ltd. in 2009.