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

It’s a rare occasion for the TVD reviews team to have weighed in on the same LP several years apart. We put them side by side today—with surprisingly similar results.Ed.

You don’t have to be a dyed in the wool Marxist to know that rock ’n’ roll is product—just another consumer item to be consumed by consumers who live to consume. It’s everybody’s not-so-secret dirty secret, as obvious as a turd suspended in Jello, but when push comes to shove only a limited number of bands—I can think of the Minutemen, the Fall, and Fugazi off the top of my head—have addressed the issue both in the way they do business and as subject matter in their songs. And no band has ever done it with such passion, fatalistic humor, and rage as The Mekons do on their 1989 walk on the riled side, The Mekons Rock n’ Roll.

Formedon in 1977 by a rowdy bunch of University of Leeds art students, the Mekons combined rank amateurism, left-wing politics, and a wry sense of humor (the title of their 1979 full-length debut, The Quality of Mercy is Not Strenen, doesn’t make much sense until the album cover reveals it to be a monkeys at typewriters producing Shakespeare joke). The Mekons gradually evolved, practically inventing alt-country in the process, but returned to their punk roots (at a stage in their career when most bands have settled into comfortable conformity) to produce what is both a howl of unbridled savagery and probably their masterpiece.

Upon first listen, The Mekons Rock n’ Roll is exactly what it purports to be—a rough and raucous celebration of the glories of rock ‘n’ roll. Except it isn’t. What it is a sly critique of rock as commodity, of sex as commodity, of a world where everything is commodity—a veritable “Empire of the Senseless,” to cite just one of the wonderfully intelligent and derisory tunes on this savage assault on capitalism disguised as an LP. “They took away our films and tapes and notebooks/But it’s ok ‘cos we’ve self-censored this song,” sneers Tom Greenhalgh, before running down a long list of the lies and deceits and casual everyday treacheries that constitute life in a materialistic society where everything has its price. As for the song itself, it boasts a great chorus, one wonderful melodica, and some truly brilliant fiddle by the wonderful Susie Honeyman.

The Mekons go for the jugular on the album’s standout track, the thundering rock ’n’ roll rave-up that is “Memphis Egypt.” Amidst mucho guitar zoom and white noise Jon Langford warns, “Destroy your safe and happy lives before it is too late/The battles we fought were long and hard/Just not to be consumed by rock’n’roll.” Then Greenhalgh steps in to bite the rock industry hand that feeds with the lines, “We know the devil and we have shaken him by the hand/Embraced him and thought his stinking breath was fine perfume/Just like rock ’n’ roll.” Is it possible that the best ever song about rock ’n’ roll could be a withering critique of rock’n’roll? Yes, it is.

Meanwhile, the surging and fiddle-driven “Club Mekon” opens with Sally Timms singing, “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.” And Timms ends the song with the damning words, “Name your price you’re up for sale.” “Blow Your Tuneless Trumpet” boasts some mighty power chords and a Clash-like feel, and takes a stab against both “stardom” and U2’s Bono with its lines, “We don’t want the glamour, the pomp and the drums/The Dublin messiah scattering crumbs.” And it features some exultant interplay between fiddle and guitar to boot. As for “Heaven and Back,” it’s as catchy as it is corrosive, with Greenhalgh howling over Honeyman’s fiddle and some big drums about being “handcuffed by history.” Meanwhile, the rough and tumble “Someone” ends with the mysterious lines, “The studio’s empty but the tape rolls on/C major chord floating through the air/Half finished vocals that no one will hear/It’s in there somewhere between death and slavery.”

“Amnesia” is pummeling proof that while rock’n’roll may be a commodity, it’s one helluva commodity indeed. A seafaring tale about a slave ship exporting rock ’n’ roll from England to America, it conjoins Eric Burdon with America’s violent history and concludes with the stunning lines, “Any old army high on drugs fighting that rock n’ roll war/Truth justice and Led Zeppelin heavy metal Marine Corps.“ And it boasts a great chorus that goes, “Bless my soul what’s wrong with me/I forgot to forget to remember.” “When Darkness Falls” is simply lovely, with Timms and Langford dueting over some sweet melodica and Honeyman’s always enthralling fiddle. As for “Only Darkness Has the Power,” it’s a powerfully wrenching heartbreak of a song sung by a guy (Greenhalgh, to be precise) who knows only that “This is how the story should end/The two of us living happily/But I doubt that will happen.” What can you say? The fairy tales of capitalism will eat you alive.

The Mekons Rock n’ Roll was such a ferocious dig at the powers that be that the powers that be—in the form of major label A&M Records—quickly dropped the Mekons from their roster. In short, the Mekons tried it the traditional record industry way only to find themselves, to quote a line from “Memphis Egypt,” “inside the belly of rock n’ roll.” To their credit, the Mekons not only refused to be consumed by the beast, they went on to produce an incredible rock ’n’ roll album in the process. The meek shall most certainly not inherit the earth. Nor shall the Mekons. But every band should be this deliriously pissed off about the fact that the game is rigged.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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