In 1978 in Leeds, England there were three excellent post-punk groups emerging from a group of friends in an art program at the University of Leeds. Of course the biggest was Gang of Four, then the catchy and dancey Delta 5, and then there was the Mekons. As a post punk band they emerged and quickly faded away releasing a series of excellent singles and a couple of inconsistent albums from ’78 into the early ‘80s. Once they disbanded and reformed things were a lot different as they focused on trad folk and soon got into country music where they have stayed until this day.
As a post punk band, the Mekons were never a success like their compatriots in Gang of Four or, even, Delta 5; they didn’t even put out the consistently good material like their friends, they never even released a decent album. But the singles! The singles were outstanding. Songs like “Where Were You” and “Work All Week” were like amazing ‘76/’77 styled punk with the self
Never Been In a Riot
awareness spawned by the post punk scene. Near enough to punk’s origins to sound exciting, raw and legitimate, but removed, allowing them to stray from spitting political rhetoric.
Their first three singles were an exciting progression from snotty and noisy to more focused and still sloppy punk rock. The first was “Never Been in a Riot”, an off tune, off time, slacker anthem with the memorable lyric: “I’ve never been in a riot / Never been in a fight / Never been in anything / That turns out right”. As a direct response to the Clash’s suspect “White Riot”, it embodied post punk’s awareness, not to mention its conflict with punk’s original ideals.
The following two singles explored the vulnerability, uncertainty and defeatism first introduced here. Where punk groups were only able to show two emotions: anger and outrage, the Mekons and other post punkers were able to reveal emotions outside of that narrow scope, moving on to often complex and conflicting conditions. Beginning with “Where Were You” and moving onto “Work All Week”, we’ll go through a lyrical exploration of the Mekons’ early singles.
“Where Were You” is quite epic and anthem-like for a song written with two chords and one guitar riff. The song’s lyrics hit depths of desperation and loneliness while the song structure evinces power and stability.
Though the lyrics may have been a metaphor for punk elitism (Where were you in ’77? Though more aptly: Where were you in ’76?), when you take them literally they paint a conflicting and melancholy picture of a delusional man in love. As a punk metaphor they could be twisted to mean any number of things, maybe it’s about punk’s schizophrenic personality where it seems like it’s a solitary, outsider art but also wants to be liked, has a need for fame; like the lonely man in this song, punk rock wants company but is conflicted about explicitly asking for it. See how silly that was? We could all go on for days, so instead I’ll focus on the literal side.
Where Were You
The lyrical content deals with a) a guy who’s been stood up by a girl with whom he’s obsessed, or b) a guy obsessed with a girl with whom he has no contact. Either way the song is romantic with a desperate, pleading quality that makes you feel both leery of, and sorry for, the speaker. It starts off accusatory, leading you to believe that the speaker has been stood up: “When I was waiting in a bar, where were you? / When I was buying you a drink, where were you? / When I was crying at home in bed, where were you?” This introduction draws some immediate sympathy for the speaker. He went so far as to buy her a drink, even though she wasn’t there, and when he eventually comes to realize he’s been stood up he goes home to cry, a sad picture by most standards.
It’s emotional, vulnerable, and somewhat pathetic, but when the second verse starts, the sadness and pathos turns to suspicion as the speaker reveals his darker side: “When I was watching you from a distance, did you see me? / You were standing in a queue, did you see me? / You had yellow hair, did you see me?” It’s up to the listener to decide whether the speaker now sounds more like a stalker than a disappointed lover. He certainly doesn’t sound angry, still dejected and pleading. Though at times during the repetition of the lyrics his voice becomes more forceful, the youthful snottiness and neediness never quite leaves.
When the third verse hits, we’re taken to new levels of delusion, neediness and dejection: “I want to talk to you all night, do you like me? / I want to find out about your life, do you like me? / Could you ever be my wife, do you love me?” He, most likely, has not met this woman, and even when he’s expressing his desires, there is the uncertainty as to whether she’ll even like him. There’s a need for affirmation and acceptance displayed in his vulnerability. These last lines are sweet, naïve, and devastating as the speaker has brought himself to a new level of delusion while the listener has figured out that this is not the story of star crossed lovers; it’s a one sided obsession.
The musical accompaniment does not break for a second, leading from a long intro into a stable and pounding riff that continues throughout the whole song. While the speaker seems to fall apart and bear his true feelings, the song never strays from its pattern. The repetitious music serves as a perfect background to the speaker’s repetitious oration as if he’s caught up in a crazed cycle knowing nothing but what came before. But, after two times through the cycle the song follows the speaker’s vulnerable psyche and slowly dismantles. The bass drops away then the guitar and drums fade out just after the speaker has spoken his final plea, and though the object of his speech is still clueless, the listener has witnessed the unfolding of a sad obsession.
Tomorrow: Analysis of the third single “Work All Week”
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.