The Mekons -- punk rock's aging but irrepressible street urchins -- have yet to surrender to time. Holding forth from the stage of a smallish rock club in Northern Virginia on a recent March night, one could never tell that the band had started its career way back in 1978.
Their latest release, Punk Rock, is a grab bag of songs from the band's early years as art school punks in Leeds, reworked (or "worked over") into more sophisticated idioms. Many of these songs ("Never Been in a Riot," "32 Weeks") have been rarities for decades, existing only as glorious rock hearsay in the writings of critics such as Lester Bangs. After a few singles and three records, the group imploded into an arty mess of shards sometime in the early 1980s.
The songs revisited on Punk Rock predate the body of work for which the Mekons are best known. In 1985, at the tail end of the nationwide miners' strike in the United Kingdom, lead Mekons Tom Greenhalgh and Jon Langford picked up the jagged remnants of the band and glued them back together with a sticky blend of country music, soiled decadence, and strong socialist affinities. The resulting records, Fear and Whiskey (1985), The Edge of the World (1986), and The Mekons Honky Tonkin' (1987) became building blocks of the "alternative-country" scene of the 1990s. Their next record, 1988's So Good It Hurts, veered off into dub, calypso, and flat-out rock. It was snazzy enough to land the band a major label record deal, which led to A&M's release of the band's most powerful and cohesive work, The Mekons Rock 'n' Roll, in the spring of that portentous revolutionary year, 1989.
Rock 'n' Roll is at once crunchier and more melodic than any other record that the band has made before or since, playfully betraying its pointed lyrical critique of rock as commodity. ("Throw a rock 'n' roll song on the fire," trills vocalist Sally Timms on "Learning to Live on Your Own.") The band's other lyrical concerns also darken and intensify on this record: the sex drive lurches between cynicism and desperation, and the record's politics froth with righteous anger and battling idealism.
If the Mekons' decadent camaraderie (fostered in part by their boozy live shows) attracted listeners, the band's leftist politics also permeated their albums. The Mekons wrote or covered overtly political songs (So Good It Hurts' "Ghosts of American Astronauts," Rock 'n' Roll's "Heaven and Back," two versions of the 1890s miners' anthem "The Trimdon Grange Explosion"), and politics invaded the marrow of most other songs as well. The Mekons' brand of socialism didn't merely sport a human face, but active loins, street smarts, bad teeth, and smelly armpits. They brazenly updated Shelley's "Mask of Anarchy" on So Good It Hurts' rollicking "Robin Hood": "Rise like lions/shake your chains, babe/Ye are many, they are few."
At times, the band's pronouncements were damn near oracular. Take "Memphis, Egypt," the opening song on Rock 'n' Roll. The song is about precisely what its chorus proclaims -- the seedy, redemptive power of rock 'n' roll -- but politics also runs thick in its lyrics:
Can't buy a thing
There's nothing they can sell me
Walk through the Wall
No pain at all
I'm borne inside the belly
The prescience of this lyric is astonishing. After all, the same Wall came crashing down just five months after the song was recorded -- in no small part because of the cultural force exerted by rock 'n' roll. But socialism's collapse also created a profound change in the Mekons' ambitions and fate. It was a transformation that I hadn't quite divined until reading MIT professor Charity Scribner's new book, Requiem for Communism (MIT Press), which tracks the attempts of socialist artists inside and outside the Eastern Bloc to shape responses to the end of European socialism.
Scribner's book is an opinionated romp through the varied attempts by leftist filmmakers, graphic artists, and writers to grapple with the fallout from 1989. She finds that a multiplicity of narratives -- of kitsch, nostalgia, mourning, or melancholia -- have emerged, but few of them have proven in any way redemptive or forward-looking.
In examining British response, Scribner focuses on Mark Herman's 1996 film Brassed Off, John Berger's trilogy Into Their Labors, and Rachel Whiteread's provocative sculptures. But she could just as easily have chosen The Curse of the Mekons (1991), the band's follow up to Rock 'n' Roll. Curse is among the angriest political dirges on record, mourning socialism and the triumph of "bourgeois sorcerers" with equal measures of bombast (at one moment, a horn section!) and quiet bitterness.
It was largely unheard music, however. The band's ironic run-in with record company capitalism-run-amok during Curse's gestation is part of rock folklore. In short, a vicious scrum between the Mekons and A&M escalated into a rejection of Curse by the company as "technically and commercially unsatisfactory." The record remained unreleased in the United States until its 2001 reissue.
As the Mekons' requiem for socialism, Curse runs the gamut of emotions. There's the blatant rage of "Funeral," in which Langford barks, "They're queuing up to dance on socialism's grave/This funeral is for the wrong corpse!" Other songs ("Blue Arse," "Brutal," "Authority") catalogue capitalism's horrors, but Curse reserves its most exquisite savagery for its tenderest moment. "Waltz" is the ultimate lullaby for the leftist politics swept away by the fall of the Wall and the twin triumphs of Thatcher and Blair, its lyrics sung by Sally Timms with a laconic ache:
A pair of giant's hands
Sink into the sand
And tear out the family silver
To pay off the stooges we hired
For all of Curse's brilliance in essaying the dead end reached by leftist politics, Scribner's book compels a reexamination of what the Mekons and other artists have done in the aftermath. She makes one sharp stab at diagnosis in the afterword to Requiem for Communism, pointing out that a "transit from collective, material production to a life channeled by the symbolic exchange of the global cybereconomy" is already underway. "Postindustrial and postcommunist societies in Europe," she writes, "have already registered the first shocks of this shift: as full digital agency is effectively limited to privileged individuals, the rest are left to feel shut out from the future."
Since the recording of Curse, isolation, evasion, and retreat have been dominant themes in the Mekons' work. These records have been entertaining and edifying, but a sense that history has snipped the thread of political idealism and anger in the band's music is inescapable.
For instance, the band's immediate follow-up to Curse was a decidedly apolitical concept album of love songs called I (Heart) Mekons. The band also fell back on its arty roots on numerous occasions over the last decade, collaborating with late po-mo lit queen Kathy Acker and conceptual artist Vito Acconci. They've recapitulated their legacy with two collections of rarities and loose ends and a slew of rereleases (including Curse.)
When the Mekons have taken a political turn in the post-Curse years, it has been toward precisely the dynamic that Scribner describes -- lamenting the fate of the puny and disenfranchised citizen at the brutal hands of power. It is a new political thread running from songs such as 1994's "Insignificance" (found on the aptly-title Retreat from Memphis) to the final song on 2000's Journey to the End of the Night, entitled "Last Night on Earth":
Life is a debt that must someday be paid
Born where we were born
Has left us helpless and self-obsessed
One of the crucial observations in Scribner's work is that many artists on the left still grope for ways to make sense of their collective post-1989 experiences. While the winners write history, the losers are denied clean and comprehensive narratives of their own. That the Mekons are still grappling with the hangover of socialism's collapse is inevitable, even enviable. But at a moment when the online shopping site philosophyfootball.com sells retro "miners' strike" t-shirts ("Remember Season 1984/85") and the Mekons blow dust from their back catalogue, it's fair to ask whether a band that has so stubbornly refused to surrender to time has finally surrendered to history.
Richard Byrne is an editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education. His
work has appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, Time.com, and
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