Graded on a Curve:
The Mekons, The Mekons Rock ‘N’ Roll

The Mekons are one of the very few ‘70s-era punk bands still extant as something other than a cash-cow regurgitating pale imitations of past glories. They’ve achieved enduring relevance by adapting and keeping things fresh, and if a steady flow of personnel changes have occurred along the way, the thrust and verve that’s always made their records worthwhile remains intact. Perhaps the band’s best LP was released in 1989, a batch of unruly and often sprawling songs that was collected under the title The Mekons Rock ‘N’ Roll.

It’s not hard to understand why folks, the writer included, get a little wrapped up in the idea of firsts when considering the great big wallop that is the history of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s an idea that extends to the appreciation of art forms in general, and it’s often due to the clarity they provide in absorbing exactly what happened way back when and how it all relates to where we are right now.

So many noteworthy firsts served as the impetus for all kinds of subsequent reactive activity, being new directions that provided a springboard for others to create their own unique perspectives upon fresh ideas and alternatives. They were game changers that eventually became historical markers, their significance effectively squashing any doubts over the regenerative qualities of art. And when the reading, looking and listening remains absorbing over the span of time, they transition into selections in a grand smorgasbord of options that help bring fulfillment to our numbered days.

Rock music can get all tangled up in the mentality of firsts. Sometimes this inspires debate that’ll never be absolved; what’s the first rock ‘n’ roll single? What’s the first example of hard rock becoming heavy metal? What release effectively marks the end of the proto-punk era and signifies the beginnings of self-conscious punk rock, and what song or album distinguishes the emergence of hip-hop from the fertile soil of old-school rap?

These are the kind of questions that can’t be easily answered by consulting the internet, instead providing the potential for some spirited group discussions, particularly while knocking back a few in a noisy bar or tavern. But the interest in rock firsts also extends to the celebration of so many band’s initial releases, be they either single or album, and that’s so often because those records offer music that’s more inclined to take chances or just displays a higher level of inspiration or energy than the more well-mannered or calculated stuff that came later. In fact, a persuasive argument can be made that the truly great rock acts are those who either extended or bettered the quality of their notable firsts.

And The Mekons have some spectacular firsts to consider. For starters, there’s that debut single on Fast Product, “Never Been in a Riot” b/w “32 Weeks” and “”Heart & Soul.” If I needed to communicate to an inquisitive and benevolent space alien exactly why the concept of punk rock was so startling and odious to so many, I wouldn’t play them The Ramones or The Sex Pistols or The Saints or The Damned, and I certainly wouldn’t play them The Clash. Instead, I’d seriously consider playing them this record, a document of enduring mayhem made by a bunch of barely competent amateurs hopped up on an idea and executing a sound that comes off like it’s held together by safety pins and phlegm.

Sure, the next single, “Where Were You” b/w “I’ll Have to Dance Then” is better (by a nose), providing an all too rare example of growth heading towards something like competence that doesn’t disappoint or betray punk principles. But that first single is a true peach. Same goes for their first album The Quality of Mercy is Not Strnen, a record that joins with some distinguished company to establish that great punk albums, if a rare breed, were indeed a reality.

And their 1985 LP Fear and Whiskey is a double first of sorts, for it is arguably the beginnings of the alt-country phenomenon (though an example of the style that ultimately gives not a squirt for the defeating concerns of authenticity) along with being the album that effectively began their long trip as punk-era survivors, a journey that continues right up to this day without giving even a passing glance to the diminishing returns of the punk rock nostalgia circuit. I’d go so far as to state that The Mekons remain more punk in later age than the vast majority of their drippy-nosed cohorts were way back in 1978.

But The Mekons have more than just firsts up their sleeve. For the chapters of their considerable discography provide a never less than very interesting progression of albums, and maybe the best one is a first and a last all at once. That record is 1989’s The Mekons Rock ‘N’ Roll, their first album for the major label A&M, an LP so loaded with inspired disgust and strikingly restless invention that it saw them jettisoned back to the land of the indies for their trouble, denied the opportunity of recording a follow up long-player.

I didn’t help that The Mekons Rock ‘N’ Roll sold little more than squat, even though it was promoted fairly heavily, at least as far as scruffy albums that were farmed from the ‘80s indie label infrastructure go. In The Mekons’ case the indie was Twin/Tone, the initial home for such names as The Suburbs, The Replacements, and Soul Asylum, the imprint acting as the subsidiary for A&M’s brief dalliance with a group that quickly proved too formidable for record exec comfort.

Right from the jump, the album sets a tone so severe that to this day I remain perplexed as to why A&M even bothered. Opener “Memphis Egypt” is a steaming mess of advanced punk action that seethes in both its form, possessing the stirring additives of a braying mouth-harp and the wicked splatter of a cheap synthesizer, and its content, expressing disdain for far more than just moribund musical proficiency or the shackling manacles of authority and normalcy.

No, at its core Mekons Rock ‘N’ Roll is a concept album that unwinds as a highly developed screed against the general direction of the society of its time, far more in the tradition of the Dadaists and the earlier punk manifestations of that movement’s inspiration, a gallery that includes such names as Kleenex/Lilliput, The Raincoats, The Slits, The Pop Group, and yes indeed, the initial burst of activity that was the early Mekons. So, it’s no wonder a major thinker like Greil Marcus was so solidly in the band’s court.

But by 1989 The Mekons were a very different band from the one that spit out “Never Been in a Riot.” For evidence, one can just soak up the goodness of this record’s second cut “Club Mekon,” a song that endures in this writer’s mind as one of the small handful of non-problematic attempts at country-punk.

It’s got some fabulous fiddle from Susie Honeyman that brings an element of real honky-tonk splendor to the proceedings, but from the opening lyrics sung so beautifully by Sally Timms; “when I was just seventeen/sex no longer held a mystery/I saw it as a commodity/to be bought and sold like rock ‘n’ roll,” it carries an atmosphere, one of lurid visions of vampires and the soulless sating of desires, a gush of imagery that would very likely freak out the average Loretta Lynn fan.

And from there the vibe of infectious pessimism continues to blossom as it gets wed to rock instincts that are just plain exceptional; “Only Darkness Has the Power” has multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Tom Greenhalgh finding solace in negativity and alienation as the band gnaws on a gruff mid-tempo groove, and the following track “Learning to Live on Your Own” finds Timms back on the mike in prime morose mode and making it all sound positively attractive. If The Mekons Rock ‘N’ Roll is a mess of disenchantment and unpolished sonic explorations, as it plays, the LP connects like shots of strong homemade hooch; sure, it burns going down, but it burns real good.

That’s the situation with “Cocaine Lil,” which details the sordidness of drug addiction by reducing it to a nursery rhyme as snidely delivered lament, and in the process seems to be lampooning rock ‘n’ roll’s, and for that matter contemporary culture’s, undying fascination with excess. From there, “Empire of the Senseless” takes its title from a book by Kathy Acker, arguably the greatest of punk novelists and an artist with whom The Mekons would later collaborate, releasing the very cool 1996 LP Pussy, King of the Pirates.

Musically the song is right on the money, but its best aspect lies in its stinging lyrics; “boring Ollie North down in the subway dealing drugs and guns/turning little liars into heroes, that’s what they’ve always done” or directly thereafter “this song promotes homosexuality/it’s in a pretended family relationship/with the others on this record/and on the charts and on the jukebox/and on the radio/and in the radio.” If it reads as dyspeptic, well, that’s because it is. But back in ’89 it was nearly impossible for an alert mind to not be confronted with just how wrong things were in the world (but ain’t it always that way?), and “Empire of the Senseless,” and this record as a whole, felt like a tonic.

Opening side two, the sauntering “Someone” does relax the mood somewhat, if only briefly. It’s surely a catchy ditty, holding some almost playful backing vocals that reveal as sense of humor that while hard to locate on The Mekons Rock ‘N’ Roll, is still in the details. “Amnesia” kicks things back into high gear, a torrid rocker with lyrics that feature a wide mélange of subjects; the slave trade, imperialism, drug running, segregation, war, and in consort with the album’s concept, popular music. In total, it’s quite a spillage of topical imagery.

Some have taken issue with the aura of proletarian bookworm agitation The Mekons specialized in during their second, more mature (not the word, really) phase, but to my ear the ambitiousness, even when occasionally unwieldy, works like a charm, and particularly on this record, where the group maintained an unusually high level of consistently to conjure a nearly flawless aural document.

But consistency in this case doesn’t entail a lack of disparate elements, and often in the same track. For evidence, please see the Timms-fronted “I Am Crazy,” which is a three-way split between C&W, femme-voiced folk-pop, and shimmery ’80 synth-wave. It’s simply beautiful. And with different vocals (Langford sings like the lifetime punk he is) and minus the violin “Blow Your Tuneless Trumpet” could’ve been a mild college-radio crossover hit, but in this incarnation it shapes up as just another of this record’s off-kilter rockers.

“Echo” might be the best song on the whole record however. Throughout the tune, the tone of Greenhalgh’s burdened voice is exquisite, the drums carrying the steady punch of bottom-end momentum, and the squiggly, agitated guitar of the instrumental sections remains a lovely thing to hear. After that is the comedown closer “When Darkness Falls,” a pretty little duet for Timms and Greenhalgh with some of Honeyman’s best fiddling on the album.

In addition to everything enthused about above, The Mekons Rock ‘N’ Roll even features the guitar of “Deputy Mekon” Dick Taylor, formerly of the everlastingly majestic UK beat group (and more) The Pretty Things. That just might’ve been the straw that broke A&M’s will. Actually, the label did release The Mekons’ 4-song EP Fun ’90 not long after this came out, but it was pretty obvious the company’s heart wasn’t in it. It seems they’d already been defeated by one of rock music’s finest albums.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A+

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