Langford, Jon

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Jon Langford

Singer, songwriter, guitar player

Whether fans love, hate or are simply indifferent to his political views, Jon Langford has been able to mine rock 'n' roll gold from his socialist leanings. From the early politically charged releases of the Mekons, which drew fitting comparisons to the Clash and Gang of Four, to his work with the agit-prop trio The Three Johns in the 1980s, Langford has never shied away from intelligent, thoughtful, and witty examinations of the economic and political forces that affect humankind. Langford's style has shifted from blistering punk rock to lovingly crafted tributes to American folk and country music traditions. These have included full-length country efforts with his band the Waco Brothers, and entire albums dedicated to the music of country legends Johnny Cash and Bob Wills, and back again to punk. Attuned to a wide spectrum of musical genres, Lanford has never closed the door on any of the musical entities he has been associated with: the Mekons and the Three Johns have never officially broken up, and no one would be surprised to hear that Langford was once again playing and performing with these groups. He has also continued to create one-off bands such as the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, Skull Orchard, and Ship & Pilot to perform both cover and original material.

Langford was born in Wales and studied art in Leeds, England. In 1977 he and several friends spontaneously decided to play music at a pub with the instruments of the the Gang of Four, the current band performing there. The makeshift group became the Mekons, and were quickly categorized as a leftist political musical group alongside fellow groups Delta 5, Another Color, and the Expelaires. Langford's politics became even more strident in the trio The Three Johns, which he formed in 1981 with John Hyatt and John Brennan. After moving to Chicago, Langford was asked to contribute a song to an anthology produced by the Chicago label Bloodshot Records, and Langford assembled a group called Hillbilly Lovechild. Nan Warshaw, a Bloodshot co-founder, subsequently asked Langford to record a full-length CD, and the Waco Brothers were borne.

As a solo artist, the Welsh-born British emigrant to the United States constructed a song cycle, Gold Brick: or, Lies of the Great Explorers; or Columbus at Guantanamo Bay, which examined the cultural diaspora of an artist at odds with the current cultural climate. As noted by a writer for Michigan's Royal Oak Daily Tribune, "The artistically ambitious Gold Brick resembles Nobel Laureate St. John Perse's 1920 poetic masterpiece, Anabasis, of which T. S. Eliot wrote: 'The poem is a series of images of migration, of conquest of vast spaces in Asiatic wastes, of destruction and foundations of cities and civilizations of any races or epochs of the ancient East.'" Langford's vision for Gold Brick was similar to that of Anabasis. "I wanted to explore the idea of exploration and discovery," he told the Royal Oak Daily Tribune. "That idea of discovery is what drew me to America in the first place. I wanted to capture the whole concept of people moving from one place to another, exile and economic displacement."

Langford admitted that the songs on Gold Brick developed organically over the course of five or six years. "I wrote all of these songs without consciously realizing they fit into a sort of pattern…. [They] are about what I think affects me directly, things I've seen and what I've read in history books," he said. "It became clear to me that history is repeating the same mistakes over and over again. Things kept nagging at me, the fact that people have to move for various reasons, especially bending under the weight of economic pressures. Why did Columbus come here? Because he was looking for gold, and I believe in a similar fashion we went to Iraq for oil."

Langford moved to the United States in 1992 to be with a girlfriend, and eventually became a mainstay of the alt-country scene in Chicago. According to the Daily Tribune writer, "The beauty of Gold Brick … is that it shuns polarized political vitriol in favor of perfectly crafted pop-, rock- and folk-tinged gems, including a riveting cover of the Procol Harem chestnut, 'A Salty Dog.'" While nailing the difficult vocals of "A Salty Dog," Langford's voice on the other songs on Gold Brick resembled more closely the distinctive styles of Shane MacGowan and Joe Strummer, all embellished with Langford's trademark rolled "r's." The result is a comfortable, lived-in feel that mitigates the song's political messages. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the album's closing song, "Lost in America," which was recorded for public radio's "This American Life" program and for live performances of the same name. Langford did a brief tour to support the release of Gold Brick, with a band he christened Ship & Pilot, which featured former Graham Parker and the Rumour drummer and Waco Brother Steve Goulding, Mekon and solo vocalist Sally Timms, violinist and vocalist Jean Cook, and former Pere Ubu bassist Tony Maimone.

As well as leading the Mekons, Langford also represented (along with John Hyatt and John Brennan) one-third of the 1980s agit-prop group The Three Johns. He produced recordings by Cud and Gaye Bikers on Acid, and currently fronts the Chicago-based alt-country bands the Waco Brothers and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts. Langford is also an accomplished artist, producing the cover art for Gold Brick and Nashville Radio, a book-length collection of his artwork and writings. He also hosts "The Eclectic Company" on Chicago radio station WXRT.

For the Record …

Born on October 11, 1957, in Wales.

Guitarist and songwriter with group The Mekons, 1977–; formed The Three Johns with John Hyatt (vocals) and John Brennan (bass), 1981; emigrated to the United States, 1992; formed the Waco Brothers and released solo album Misery Loves Company: Songs of Johnny Cash, 1995; released Gold Brick: or, Lies of the Great Explorers; or Columbus at Guantanamo Bay, 2006.

Addresses: Record company—Bloodshot Records, 3039 West Irving Park Rd., Chicago, IL 60618; phone: (773) 604-5300; publicity: Angie Mead, [email protected]

Selected discography

With The Mekons

The Quality of Mercy Is Not Strnen, Virgin, 1979.
The Mekons, Virgin, 1978.
Fear and Whiskey, Sin, 1985.
The Edge of the World, Sin, 1986.
The Mekons Honky-Tonkin', Sin/Cooking Vinyl, 1987.
Mekons Rock 'N' Roll, Blast First, 1989.
Mekons F.U.N. 90, Blast First, 1990.
The Curse of the Mekons, Blast First, 1991.
Retreat from Memphis, Quarterstick/Touch and Go, 1994.

With The Three Johns

Atom Drum Bop, LABEL, 1984.
The World By Storm, Abstract, 1986.
Crime Pays … Rock and Roll in the Demonocracy: Singles 1982–1986, Abstract, 1986.
Live in Chicago, Last Time Round, 1986.
Death of Everything and More, Caroline, 1988.
Deathrocker Scrapbook, Roir, 1988.
Eat Your Sons, Tupelo, 1990.

With The Waco Brothers

To the Last Dead Cowboy, Bloodshot, 1995.
Cowboy in Flames, Bloodshot, 1997.
Do You Think About Me?, Bloodshot, 1997.
Waco World, Bloodshot, 1999.
Electric Waco Chair, Bloodshot, 2000.
New Deal, Bloodshot, 2002.
Freedom and Weep, Bloodshot, 2005.

Solo albums

Misery Loves Company: Songs of Johnny Cash, Scout, 1995.
Skull Orchard, Sugar Free, 1998.
Salute the Majesty of Bob Wills, Bloodshot, 1998.
The Executioner's Last Songs, Bloodshot, 2002.
The Mayors of the Moon, Bloodshot, 2003.
The Executioner's Last Songs, Vols. 2 & 3, Bloodshot, 2003.
All the Fame of Lofty Deeds, Bloodshot, 2004.
Gold Brick: or, Lies of the Great Explorers; or Columbus at Guantanamo Bay, Reachout International, 2006.

Sources

Books

Country Music: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides Ltd., 2000.

Rock: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides Ltd., 1999.

Periodicals

Bangsheet, May 1999.

Daily Tribune (Royal Oak, MI), April 21, 2006.

New Musical Express, October 8, 1983.

Sounds, January 1989; September 1989.

Online

Bloodshot Records Website, http://www.bloodshotrecords.com (April 25, 2006).

"Jon Langford," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (April 25, 2006).