Unsung Mekons are a musical beacon of persistence and creativity
Born in art school at Leeds University in 1977, the Mekons long ago conceded that fame and fortune were outside their grasp, and it kind of shows. The band’s fan site, while kept current, is run by a guy named Nobby and looks like it was coded in 1996.
Unlike university peers Gang of Four, the Mekons are seldom cited as an influence by hipster punks. There hasn’t been a “Mekons revival.” Their fans are aging with them, and the rest of the world doesn’t seem to care.
Such creativity in the face of ambivalence is a central theme of “Revenge of the Mekons,” the aptly titled and engrossing documentary by filmmaker Joe Angio. The film traces the rises, falls and plateaus of the self-described British “fundamentalist punk rock art project,” whose eight current members are a mix of visual artists, writers, singers, gallery owners and field-recorders and are spread across three continents in Southern California, Chicago, rural England, London and Siberia. (Multi-instrumentalist Lu Edmonds is married to a Siberian.)
The film is having a brief run at the Playhouse in Pasadena, with additional screenings at the NoHo 7 on Monday and the Royal on Tuesday.
Over the last two decades, few artists in my accumulated jukebox have received as many spins, generated as many internal explorations — or received as many blank stares when I preached the band’s virtues. I never tire of their music, which roams genres usually through some combination of guitar, bass, drums, accordion, harmonica, fiddle and voice.
Their masterwork, the folk-based “Fear & Whiskey,” turns 30 this year, but it certainly won’t be getting a Rolling Stone collector’s edition. Among the public, the band’s most notable link to mainstream success is because of a failed union: Mekons singer Sally Timms was married to actor-comedian Fred Armisen and pushed him to pursue comedy.
At one early headlining gig in Ireland, an unknown but cocksure young band called U2 opened for them; needless to say, the legendary Mekons curse didn’t affect Bono. Others might recognize the magnificent artwork of singer-guitarist Jon Langford, whose distinctive portraits of classic country stars have earned him a following in the fine art world and have ended up as album covers. Eric “Rico Bell” Bellis is a painter and accordion player; he and his wife recently moved back to their home in Highland Park after four years in London.
Rather than quit, the Mekons have endured. Across the decades, the band has continued at a steady clip, an album every few years that generates oft-brilliant art to noble gushes but little more. “It’s no joke, I’m telling you,” sings co-founder Tom Greenhalgh in the aptly titled song “The Curse of the Mekons.”
“I can’t think of another band where there’s a bigger gulf between unanimous critical praise and this mass general public indifference,” Angio said recently, a few days before his film made its Los Angeles premiere.
Few would argue. But most of them would add that the band’s genre-spanning output has generated a miraculous series of albums that draw from British folk, Nashville country, punk, dub, dance rock and rock ‘n’ roll. The result is a uniquely Mekonian sound, one that dredges up hard emotions for the sake of exploring them.
“There’s no half measures with the Mekons,” said accordion player Bellis over a pint at the York in Highland Park. A handsome man with a soaring high tenor, the artist has been playing with the band since they united behind a contentious British miners’ strike. Since then, he’s helped propel midrange melodies across the band’s repertoire, one filled with wit and insight.
“Revenge ain’t so sweet, but it’ll have to do,” sings Timms on “Revenge,” on the necessity of the occasional “vicious, cold vendetta.” On the magical “Last Weeks of the War,” from their 2000 record “Journey to the End of the Night,” Timms wanders, lost in isolation. “The last weeks of the war/ Left me wondering how much more/ Could the loveliest creature bear?/ I’m not ruined but I need repair.”
“Darkness and Doubt” moves from a drunken night at a pub to an existential, naked-and-shivering abyss over a few choice verses. Often half a dozen members sing simultaneously; usually a few of them are wildly out of key.
I’m among the devotees, so I forgive them. I’ve flown to London in the late ‘90s to witness their raucous, shanty-based performance piece “Pussy, King of the Pirates,” composed with the late writer Kathy Acker. I’ve spent a string of blissful Chicago New Year’s Eve concerts at the Metro, traveled to Maxwell’s in Hoboken, N.J.; Memphis, St. Louis. They’re my Grateful Dead, and I could argue their virtues year by year.
That’s what Angio, who directed the 2005 documentary of Melvin Van Peebles, “How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It),” does throughout his film. A chronicle of the band’s entire run, including a through-story that captures the band making its 2011 album, “Ancient & Modern,” the director paints a loving ode to an unsung band of lifers.
Angio’s central question: “How does a band that’s never enjoyed any success by the conventional definition not only keep going, but why do they bother? No band would continue to pursue that, with the same core of people” for nearly 30 years. Through the film Mekons fans, including writers Jonathan Franzen, Greil Marcus and Luc Sante, chime in as Angio weaves biographical tidbits, band interviews and old clips that by the conclusion make a valid argument that the curse may be lifting.
“There’s no behind-the-music drug casualties, no big fights and someone getting tossed out,” Angio said. The worst stuff is the most boring to explore: label clashes. The band got dropped by Virgin after its debut, had a falling-out with A&M after a doomed partnership in the late 1980s. “The commercial aspect of it was never going to happen, and they made peace with that,” Angio said.
Many other acts have been active for nearly as long. Los Angeles duo Sparks have been going nonstop since the early ‘70s, to little mainstream success. Angular British post-punk band the Fall has released records at a steady clip since 1976 — but founder Mark E. Smith has burned through dozens of members. It’s not rare for a few friends to stick it out for some decades and earn a living. But retaining eight core players is quite the accomplishment, even if a few have taken years at a time off.
Unsurprisingly, the band has no plans to celebrate “Fear & Whiskey’s” birthday. Instead, they’ll be embarking on a 2015 tour of the Midwest and East Coast while writing their new studio album. The jaunt will culminate with a sold-out Brooklyn performance called Mekonception, where they’ll record it.
“We’re going really low-tech,” said Bellis at the York, “using one microphone, and the audience is going to be able to participate, as well.” He described the set-up as how bluegrass players perform. “One goes up to the microphone at a time. But they’re pretty smooth. Ours won’t be.”
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