In the mid-1990s, two decades after their formation, the U.K. rock band the Mekons were still struggling to pull their career together. Once again, they seemed on the verge of breaking through into the mass market. They released an album in 1993 titled/♥ Mekons, which recalled the ferocious despair that first sparked England’s punk movement. Sometimes dismissed as remnants of the punk flameout in the 1980s, the Mekons lost a few musicians since their debut in 1977. In the 1990s the group had a new label, Quarterstick/Touch and Go, after years of static and, according to the band, neglect from other record companies. They followed the prickly romance cycle/♥ Mekons with the 1994 effort Retreat from Memphis, chronicling their rear guard action against the musical establishment.
Lead singer Sally Timms is a willowy blonde with a broken glass voice. Guitarist Tom Greenhalgh supports her with tenor harmonies. Jon Langford, lead guitarist and cofounder of the group with Greenhalgh—they were both art students in Leeds, England—lends exuberance to the stew. Back in the days when “New Wave”
Members include Sarah Corina (replaced Ross Allen ), bass; Tom Greenhalgh , rhythm guitar; Susie Honeyman , violin; Jon Langford , lead guitar and vocals; John Langley (replaced Mark Lafalce) , drums; Sally Timms (joined group, 1986), vocals. Other original members included Andy Carrigan and Mark White on guitars.
Group formed in 1977 by Langford and Greenhalgh; played the bar scene in Leeds, England; toured extensively in England and the United States. Langford settled in Chicago and Timms became a resident of New York City; Greenhalgh stayed in London. The band changed labels and styles repeatedly but developed a cult following in both Europe and America.
Addresses: Record company —Touch and Go, P.O. Box 25520, Chicago, IL 60625.
was being invented, the Mekons wrote a cynically humorous response to the Clash’s “White Riot” entitled “Never Been in a Riot.” Released in 1977, it was their first “hit” single.
The Mekons are an urban guerrilla band in a bleak, moonlit landscape. The band’s nom de plume comes from an English comic strip, The Eagle, in which imperialist adventurer Dan Dare flees evil space invaders called Mekons. The band scorns the commercial romance favored by their older British compatriots, Paul McCartney and Phil Collins. When the Mekons speak of love, the word is ironic but somehow innocent, like badly applied lipstick. In the song “Millionaire,” Timms croons, “Everybody’s so in love, but they don’t touch or meet.” The band’s attitude recalls the political outrage that spawned punk—the anger now tempered with grief.
It is difficult to pigeonhole the Mekons’ sound. Early in their career, the band featured dissonant anti–music— guitars crunched into sledgehammer drums. The Leeds bar scene also produced bands such as Gang of Four with similar orchestrations. The Mekons’ first album was The Quality of Mercy Is Not Strnen, a play on words echoing the aphorism that a monkey could create the works of Shakespeare if given enough time. In the punk ethos, it did not matter if rockers could sing or play their instruments better than the members of the audience. The theory was that people on stage were the same as their listeners, a deliberate revulsion from the rock-star syndrome.
Later, the Mekons became more polished, added the soulful Timms in 1986, and used keyboards, horns, and drum machines. They incorporated the sounds of reggae, blues, folk and American country. In some incarnations, the Mekons abandoned their trademark confrontational blasts of sound but invariably pushed the boundaries of convention. At times, the band exhibited a demented honky-tonk style with fiddles and country and western embellishments, as in 1987’s Honky Tonkin’.
The later albums with Timms exude a baleful intelligence. There are always punk echoes, but a melodic interest that salutes the great songsmiths of Tin Pan Alley and Nashville is also evident. The Mekons changed their methods frequently, searching for a formula that combine pop and punk. Fear and Whiskey, released in 1985, spat out a message of hallucinated gloom: “darkness and doubt just follow us about.” Rock and Roll (1989) was an electric blitzkrieg through the corridors of industry power and the mirrors along them. Curse of the Mekons (1991) employed a more subdued acoustic mix with banjo, violin, accordion, and bagpipes.
Bassist Sarah Corina, as quoted in Interview magazine, has stated that if you love the Mekons, “you could take it as loving an alien,” a practice she viewed as good for extraterrestrial relations. Many reviewers have loved the Mekons throughout their career. Dave Jennings of Melody Maker described the/♥ Mekons album as “simultaneously a brilliant, exhilarating pop record and an exploration of the assumptions behind other people’s pop records.” The band bewailed its distance from success, turning it into a metaphor for the failures of the heart.
Most critics agree that it is rare to find a rock band that considers ideas in its music. The Mekons persistently challenge the demise of rock as a spiritual quest that involves the mind as well as the viscera. The band asserts passion as the fundamental human condition and resists social conditioning and hero worship. While acknowledging the band’s intellectual side, Langford still likes the “sonic stuff,” according to Net magazine. He pointed to the band’s celebrated live performances as his ideal mode, stripped to guitars, drums, and bandmember Susie Honeyman’s violin. In their head-banging guise, driving for “truth, justice and Led Zeppelin,” as the chorus from the song “Amnesia” puts it, the band could shake the rafters for its devoted following. “Memphis, Egypt,” one of their standard set numbers, advises: “Destroy your safe and happy lives before it is too late.” The audience howls its assent.
Greenhalgh tried to summarize the band’s cerebral-cum-intestinal style for Request magazine: “The whole punk-rock approach has a certain distance; it’s not as simple as early rock ’n’ roll. So coming from that background, it makes sense to have a certain distance in the way you work…. The real world is infinitely more complex than we can ever imagine.”
The Quality of Mercy Is Not Strnen, Virgin.
Mekons, Redmek, 1980.
Fear and Whiskey 1985.
Honky Tonkin’, 1987.
The Mekons’ Rock and Roll, A&M, 1989.
Mekons New York, ROIR, 1990.
Curse of the Mekons, Blast First, 1991.
I♥ Mekons, Quarterstick/Touch and Go, 1993.
Retreat from Memphis, Quarterstick/Touch and Go, 1994.
(Contributors) You Are What You Shoot, 1995.
Billboard, January 27, 1990; December 8, 1990.
CMJ, September 27, 1993.
Entertainment Weekly, October 22, 1993; May 6, 1994.
Interview, November 1993.
Metro Times (Detroit), June 1994.
Net, October 1993.
People, December 18, 1989.
Pulse!, December 1993.
Request, November 1993.
Rolling Stone, July 2, 1987; October 14, 1993; February 10, 1994; June 1, 1995.
Spin, November 1993.
Stereo Review, September 1987.
—Paul E. Anderson
"The Mekons." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 17, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/mekons
"The Mekons." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved January 17, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/mekons
Formed: 1977, Leeds, England
Members: Jon Langford, vocals, guitar, drums (born Newport, South Wales, 11 October 1957); Tom Greenhalgh, vocals, guitar (born Stockholm, Sweden, 4 November 1956); Sally Timms, vocals (born Leeds, England, 29 November 1959); Robert "Lu" Edmonds, bass, guitar, vocals (born Hertfordshire, England, 24 September 1957); Steve Goulding, drums (born South London, England); Susie Honeyman, violin; Rico Bell, accordion (born Wallasey, England); Sara Corina, bass.
Genre: Rock, Country
Best-selling album since 1990: I Love Mekons (1993)
The Mekons are an ever-changing collective of musicians hailing from the punk era of late-1970s England. Although they never had a hit, their relentless experimentation brought them a fiercely loyal following. The band's extensive discography includes forays into punk, folk, country, reggae, techno, synth pop, straight-ahead rock and roll, and the occasional artful pastiche combining all of the above. From the start rock critics championed the group's incendiary live shows and strident working-class politics. The Mekons associated themselves with marginalized pockets of society, performing benefits for unions and death-penalty opponents. The group has a history of bad luck with recording labels but was rejuvenated when most of its members relocated to Chicago in the early 1990s. There the Mekons were reborn, rushing out albums on the Chicago
label Quarterstick, participating in numerous side projects, and enjoying a new audience that appreciated their history and eclecticism.
The founding and most consistent members of the Mekons are Jon Langford and Tom Greenhalgh. The two met while art students at Leeds University in Yorkshire. A local show by the founding British punk band the Sex Pistols inspired them both to put down their paintbrushes and pick up musical instruments—Langford learned drums and Greenhalgh the guitar. Soon they released the single "Never Been in a Riot," an irreverent response to the race conscious anthem "White Riot" by the Clash, Britain's ruling political punk band.
The Mekons were signed to Virgin but were subsequently dropped, a pattern that repeated throughout the band's career. As the band's continual reinvention was cheered by fans and the press, record companies could not figure out how to market them, or they went out of business trying. Subsequent albums hopped from label to label, some going out of print or held in limbo for years. Not until the late 1990s did most of their catalog become reissued.
The Mekons' most endurable incarnation was as a postmodern country band. Fear and Whiskey (1985) emerged as the blueprint for later albums and side projects. Its ghostly sound evoked archetypal American images like freight trains, outlaws, barrooms, and bleak landscapes. The Mekons continued to embrace Americana while twisting it into the perspective of a solitary outsider. The music evoked the loneliness of Hank Williams, one of country music's founders (they covered the Williams chestnut "Lost Highway"), but with drunken dance beats and erratic punk energy. Fear and Whiskey became an underground classic. It helped set a path for the alternative country movement of the 1990s, led by the Illinois band Uncle Tupelo and its later offshoots, Wilco and Son Volt. The music that bloomed in that period introduced old-time country music to a new generation that recognized it shared the working-class roots of punk.
Langford, who had since switched to guitar, admitted he became obsessed by America's musical roots through trips to Nashville, Memphis, and Chicago and by compilation tapes friends made for him. "I felt like someone scuba diving for the first time, it was amazing," he told the Chicago Daily Herald in 1999. "What I learned about America was that you have this rich culture here but you kind of pave over it. You're moving on so fast." Still a painter, Langford honored country music icons in his artwork and had gallery showings across the United States and Great Britain.
A majority of the band relocated to Chicago by the early 1990s and began forming side projects and recording solo albums for local labels that welcomed them to their roster. By that point the Mekons had all but retired, its lineup becoming a rotating door of musicians. The stability of a new home jump-started the band creatively, and the Mekons embarked on their most fertile and experimental period. Me (1998) lampooned materialism and pornography within a harsh techno backdrop; Journey to the End of the Night (2000) was a quieter collection of melancholic songs about capitalism in decline. Although OOOH! (Out of Our Heads) (2002) was recorded before the terrorism of September 11, 2001, its weaving of exotic rhythms, traditional Welsh and Celtic music, and harsh biblical imagery led critics to associate it with the attack's mournful fallout.
By the end of the decade, the Mekons' creativity looked limitless. In 2002 the group celebrated its history with a three-city tour. Each night showcased a specific period in the band's career: noisy punk; honky-tonk country; and avant-garde experimentalism. The tour was a testament to the group's legacy as survivors and as relentless provocateurs.
The Quality of Mercy Is Not Strnen (Virgin, 1979); The Mekons (Red Rhino, 1980); It Falleth Like Gentle Rain from Heaven: The Mekons Story (CNT, 1982); Fear and Whiskey (Sin, 1985); Edge of the World (Sin, 1986); Honky Tonkin (Twin/Tone, 1987); So Good It Hurts (Twin/Tone, 1988); Original Sin: The Mekons Rock 'n' Roll (A&M, 1989); The Curse of the Mekons (Blast First, 1991); I Love Mekons (Quarterstick, 1993); Retreat from Memphis (Quarterstick, 1994); United (Quarterstick, 1995); Pussy, King of Pirates (Quarterstick, 1996); Me (Quarterstick, 1998); Journey to the End of the Night (Quarterstick, 2000); OOOH! (Out of Our Heads) (Quarterstick, 2002).
"Mekons, The." Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Popular Musicians Since 1990. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 17, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/mekons
"Mekons, The." Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Popular Musicians Since 1990. . Retrieved January 17, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/mekons