Up in the rafters, a rope is dangling, spots before the eyes of rock and roll

When I moved back to San Francisco in 2005, a couple of people in my gaming circle developed the misapprehension that I might be fun to be around under other circumstances, and one night they invited me to the Bottom Of The Hill to drink beer and listen to music.  Who's playing, I asked, and they gave me a list of bands I'd never heard of.  The Waco Brothers?  The Pine Valley Cosmonauts?  Sounds country and western, I said.  Jon Langford?  Who's he?  But the allure of beer was strong, and so I tagged along.

That is how I became initiated into the mysteries of the Mekons, a band that I still have never seen in person.  They're one of my favorite bands, even though I have never owned any of their records.  I'm going to try to tell you why.

In 1977, the Sex Pistols came to Leeds and showed the energetically-grumpy leftist art students going to university there that literally any idiot could get on stage and make noise.  Out of that large circle of friends, a few were talented musicians.  Those people went on to become Gang Of Four, one of the most exciting and influential bands to emerge from England's era of punk.  

The Mekons were the other people in that circle of friends.  They used the Gang Of Four's instruments while the real musicians were at the pub.  This is not even an exaggeration, I've seen an interview with Hugo Burnham where he literally says, "The Mekons would use our instruments while we were at the pub."

They couldn't play, they couldn't sing, all they could do was scream and write manifestos and get drunk, and for several years that was enough.  They got a record deal.  John Peel played their single.

The cover of their first record features a picture of a chimpanzee sitting at a typewriter.  Its title, typed across the top, was "The quality of mercy is not strnen".  This was an accurate picture of their abilities, their attitude, and their compositional technique.

Nobody bought this record, starting a pattern that has held true for forty years.  

What makes a band continue making music for forty years with no success whatsoever?  The answer is:  it depends on what you mean by "success."  The Mekons don't make records for anyone except themselves, really.  If you like their record and buy it, they'll be happy, but it's not their goal.  Their goal has always been to make what they're interested in making.  

Along the way, they learned how to play.  Better musicians joined them.  Members who couldn't get with the learn-how-to-play program left.  The first time they played in Dublin, U2 opened for them.  They made more records.  They discovered English folk music, and discovered that the attitudes in generations-old songs from Norfolk fit right in with the mining strike that Thatcher was breaking.  Along the way they invented alt-country.  Fear and Whiskey came out in 1985 and taught Jeff Tweedy everything he knows.  They also became a great rock and roll band.  The Mekons Rock And Roll came out in 1989, as dead a year for rock and roll as there ever was, and disappeared without a trace despite the fact that "Memphis, Egypt" is a stupefyingly fantastic song, a song that would have been a #1 hit in 1979, or 1999.  But their timing was, and is, perfect.    They made a record with Kathy Acker (Pussy, Queen of the Pirates).  They played the part of "rock and roll band" in a conceptual-art piece at BAM.  

The members of this band don't just have day jobs, they have day careers.  The band is just something they've ended up doing with all of their free time for their entire adult lives.  Susie Honeyman and her husband have been running an art gallery in London for decades.  Lu Edmonds works with musicians in Tajikistan and owns a house in Siberia.  Jon Langford is a painter, and also plays in three or four different bands at any given moment.  Steve Goulding has been a session drummer in great demand for his whole career - that's him introducing Elvis Costello to the world on "Watching The Detectives."

This gets to what made them so appealing to me, that night in 2005.  I've still never encountered any other people who both care so passionately about something that they've dedicated their entire lives to it and who also literally do not give a fuck about who likes them.  

Wherever they're playing, if you're in a Mekons show you have come into their house.  They will play the music they want to play, and they will play it as well as they feel like playing it.  They are dedicated to being the best Mekons they can be.

The Mekons recorded their 22nd album this year, and it's one of the best records they've ever made.  Buy it now and you'll be one of the only people who did.  Go to a Mekons show and it will change your life.

Here's Jon Langford and a band full of Mekons and non-Mekons, performing a wonderfully squalid song called "Nashville Radio."  (This is, pretty much, the band I saw in 2005.  It wasn't the Mekons, but it was Mekon-adjacent.)  Savor the disconnect between his accent and the song's content.  God damn, I love the way he pronounces "Grand Old Opry."  This is one of my favorite songs in any genre, and I really can't tell you what the genre is.  "Blood on the walls, glass on the floor, don't even think I made it on stage."

Here's the Mekons, with Jon being a complete asshole in a dumb pith helmet and stupid T-shirt, playing in Chicago in 2015.  The song is "Now We Have The Bomb," from 1995.  "Forgive them, they are young, and rich, and white," sings Sally Timms.  She is charming and dissolute, and by the end everyone is doing her stupid dance, even the people on stage.

This is the woefully eighties music video for "Memphis, Egypt," which features the fantastically explosive electric guitar intro, a couple of truly unfortunate costumes, fireworks, Elvis, and a song that's just indelible once you've heard it a couple of times.  "Destroy your safe and happy lives" may be the greatest punk-rock opening lyric ever written.

Here, finally, is the Mekons in Vienna, in 2011, performing a song they wrote in 1985 to a half-empty pub full of geezers who start pogoing like mad when the band finally counts off the start of the song.  This makes my hair stand on end every time I see it.  "Well I've been punched and beaten, though it never shows" is a great lyric all by itself, but six people singing it in unison changes it from a bit of bitter self-pity to something that applies to everyone.


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