‘Revenge of the Mekons’ is a portrait of punk survivors
Normally I’d recommend a rock ’n’ roll documentary to the band’s fans, but since the cult of the Mekons is infinitesimally small, if fanatically devoted, I have no problem recommending “Revenge of the Mekons” to everyone who hasn’t heard of the group. All 99.9 percent of you.
That the band is still with us nearly four decades after its founding — the only one of British punk’s class of 1977 still standing — is remarkable in itself. More endearing is that the Mekons’ shaggy, jaded-but-jovial communal ethos still holds strong, embracing alt-folk, country-punk, pub-rock, leftist rage, boozy humor, a rotating cast of men and women, and a dedication to taking nothing seriously but the music and the moment.
“How do you have an amateur band as a career?,” wonders one onlooker here. Probably by not worrying about the career part. “Success is what usually kills bands in the end,” deadpans singer Sally Timms at one point. “And we haven’t had any success.”
As director Joe Angio tells it, the story begins at the University of Leeds, where a politicized student body was further ignited by the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK” tour of ’77. Out of that flashpoint came one great band — Gang of Four — and a group of incompetent malcontents who picked up Gang of Four’s instruments when the group wasn’t looking and who called themselves the Mekons after a sci-fi movie villain. To everyone’s shock, they scored a record deal first. “I didn’t want a proper band,” recalls Fast Product label head Bob Last. “I wanted the Mekons.”
The group’s first iteration was a purposefully sloppy mix of mangled power chords and ideological messages, some of them aimed at the punk revolution itself; the Mekons answered the Clash’s “White Riot” with the reality bites of “Never Been in a Riot.” They played benefits for striking miners and fought hard against the short sharp shock of Margaret Thatcher’s domestic policies. And then they got tired of rampaging concert crowds and were dropped from their label, and that seemed to be that.
The band’s discovery of folk music and honky-tonk in the early ’80s recharged them for the long run; the Mekons v. 2.0 expanded to include fiddle player Susie Honeyman, accordionist Rico Bell, and multi-instrumentalist Lu Edmonds. Drummer Jon Langford stepped to the fore as guitarist, vocalist, and cherubically cynical conscience of the group. Timms arrived, her voice wicked with the weight of class warfare and long nights drinking at the local. Guitarist Dick Taylor, a greying elder who’d been in the very first Rolling Stones lineup, provided rock ’n’ roll punch.
The albums of this era — from “Fear and Whiskey” (1985) to “I [heart] Mekons” (1993) — are majestic works of roots-rock entropy, angry and exhausted, daring and funny. A useful reference point for the uninitiated might be the Dropkick Murphys, but wiser with the years and exuberantly raw. “The Mekons Rock ’n’ Roll” (1989) may be the high-water mark, its title perfectly ironic, the songs reminding listeners of the slave ships from which this music originally came. Once you’ve heard “Amnesia” — “From Bristol to the Ivory Coast/Then on to Jamaica/Down in the hold there is no sound/Bringing rock and roll to America” — Led Zepplin just doesn’t sound the same.
“Revenge of the Mekons” interviews just about everyone who is, was, or will be in the band, and it gathers testimony from onlookers like Gang of Four drummer Hugo Burnham (now a professor at the New England Institute of Art) and big-name fans like novelist Jonathan Franzen and writer Luc Sante. We learn that band members are spread across the globe these days, living in Chicago, New York, LA, London, and Siberia (!), and convening to play when the whim strikes. (2011’s “Ancient and Modern” was the last proper release; its recording is captured here.) We learn that Timms was married for six years to “SNL” comic Fred Armisen — who knew?
Above all, the movie celebrates a band that half-heartedly tried to be rock stars and became people instead, singing people’s music with the fervor and affection of companions together as night gathers and closing time nears. Leave it to Franzen to preach the true gospel of the Mekons: “They teach you how to be gracious and amusing losers.”
The last quote was previously misattributed. It was said by Jonathan Franzen.