Hard to be Human Again
You wake up in the afternoon to headlines about a goofy reactionary figurehead President, and his pal the British Prime Minister, both of whom are coddling the rich and scarring the world with unnecessary military ventures. They talk of an Evil that menaces the world, one that merits increased military spending. CIA operations in foreign countries continue covertly, with utter disregard for international law and local sentiments. The rich get richer. Homelessness is on the rise. Your purple hangover, and your damp sheets, prompt you to reach for the whiskey bottle anyway. It’s July 15, 1985—a dark, hot afternoon. One song keeps prodding your brain—a song someone was playing at the bar. A new tune—something called “Chivalry”—by this reunited punk band called the Mekons. “I was out late the other night / Fear and whiskey kept me going / I swore somebody held me tight / But now there’s just no way of knowing”. What a weird depressing song! But you just can’t shake it off. Its mourning fiddles and drunk-sounding vocals dance all over your hangover like a troop of sodden leprechauns. You’re paranoid, depressed, and still reeling from that schlocky Live Aid concert on MTV a couple days ago. You’ve got to find that Mekons album…
Needless to say, the Quarterstick reissue of the Mekons classic Fear and Whiskey comes at an opportune time, since 2002 parallels 1985, yet you can’t get with the manichean propaganda this time around. This is one of those rare instances where you don’t want to buy a reissue to complete your record collection, or to enhance your knowledge of musical history. You want Fear and Whiskey because it is the perfect soundtrack for 2002, a musical score for those who grimace at John Ashcroft, throw beer bottles at the telly when Don Rumsfeld starts talking, grow weary with every “precision bombing” mission gone awry.
The Mekons. By 1984 they were just a Leeds-based punk footnote, a rambling commune that had laid down some competent Crass-like tracks such as “Where Were You?”, “Fight the Cuts”, and the Clash backlash single “Never Been in a Riot” back when punk was still vital. They briefly flirted with arty agit-funk post-punk (á la Gang of Four or Wire) in the early eighties, but their righteous politics just didn’t mesh well with an elitist aesthetic. And their songs were becoming anonymous and forgettable. The Mekons fizzled, drifted into their own individual projects. In 1982, a “concept album” called The Mekons Story mocked the failure of their heroic commune by tossing together a grab-bag of individual experiments, old leftovers, and drunken rants to create the myth that the Mekons were ever relevant. They looked about to turn into a dull failed experiment in communal rock ‘n’ roll, a project that misfired and was perhaps best forgotten. But then they were invited to play a benefit on behalf of workers involved in the 1984 Miners’ Strike—a cause that Bob Geldof curiously ignored. The Mekons collective felt the stirrings of solidarity and creativity again, while Cold War paranoia and rapacious capitalism were screwing up the world. They popped some Cajun music into their cassette deck. They drank, shouted, practiced. Their creative juices flowed. Eschewing the formal constraints of punk or post-punk, they got wild and nasty with fiddles, harmonicas, accordions. After a couple weeks of existential paranoia and drunken jamming in the studio (and with ace Rumour drummer Steve Goulding keeping things on-the-one), they had assembled ten tracks for release as an album called Fear and Whiskey. They probably wanted the world to know that they were a band again, and to create a marginal soundtrack to a horrible time in history. But little did they guess that bored rock critics would pounce on the album as a new classic.
The opening track, “Chivalry” (the one that everyone thinks is the title track), begins with Sue Honeyman’s stoic fiddle, sawing itself into history with its minor-key hook. Tom Greenalgh mutters inaudibly a couple bars, then begins singing, a quavering warble that sounds punk, soused, and vulnerable. (Indeed listening to this song makes you newly aware that, along with Mark E. Smith, Shane MacGowan, and Paul Westerberg, Greenalgh was probably one of the definitive post-punk vocalists.) The song is a tale of being in a bar, getting drunk, attempting to hook up and failing. Waking and forgetting. “All I could remember as I walked down the street / Was the rain and tears on your face”. It is a lonely, sad, detailed song, like the best country tunes. But aside from the fiddle, it has no genre. As it fades out with mourning violins, you know you’ve been held captive by a strange classic, a tune as difficult and timeless as “Sympathy with the Devil”.
The next track is even better, an unforgettable soundscape for an inevitable Armageddon. “Trouble Down South” began as a lo-fi voice-and-keybs experiment that appeared on 1982’s The Mekons Story. This version retains the paranoia, but adds violin and a multi-tracked chorus of angels to create one of the most ominous, heart-rending anti-war songs ever recorded. Singer Ken Lite croons and recites a sad narrative about a helpless people menaced by random air bombings. Suddenly you hear the barking of a jarhead hawk (who sounds exactly like Major T.J. “King” Kong), issuing jargon-laden instructions through his walkie-talkie. A similar, more righteous shouting pops up alongside him, this from a punk freedom fighter who ends the song with an inspiring call to arms: “Despots beware: this is the start of our freedom!” In 1985, this was interpreted as a fantasy about America invading Britain, suffused with memories of World War II. A later version of the liner notes says, “Oh President oh CIA why must we be punished for crimes we did not commit?” The Mekons were neither genius nor prophet, yet it’s impossible to ignore the gut-wrenching resonance of a song that applies even more directly to the innocents killed in the “war against terrorism”, as well as the innocents killed by terrorists.
After those two instant classics, you’d think it would be hard for the album to keep up. But it does. “Hard to Be Human Again” is a post-punk drunken drive with the foot on the accelerator. Not only does it offer weird images, such as visions of Cromwell in the driving rain, but you get to hear Jon Langford shout earnestly as if he were George Jones showing up early for a gig. “Darkness and Doubt” is another Greenalgh showcase, beginning with a country ‘n’ western guitar signature (the sound of a sauntering horse), followed by a strange opening: “The room was filled flashing light / (They spoke in tongues there)/ Darkness and doubt just follow me around”. Then we’re off to a hypnotic churning guitar hook (again countered by Honeyman’s fiddle) and more images, which are apparently a heroic recollection of the Miners’ Strike gig that effectively reunited the Mekons. Shelagh Quinn narrates the last track on side one (of the original LP), “Psycho Cupid”, an engaging monologue—complete with burnt toast and a crying dad—that seems to center around the theme “I crave solitude”. Thus Side One of Fear and Whiskey ends with the line “There’s got to be one breath after which there doesn’t come another”, a grim encouragement to flip the disc over and groove to the shambling party that takes up side two. Of course, if you have the CD, there’s no need to do this.
Side Two of the original LP was recorded and mixed entirely in one day (Hüsker Dü, eat your heart out!), and sounds like a wonderful communal party, with fiddles sawing, vocals taking turns or shouting together, the barest thread of order (probably maintained by sturdy drummer Steve Goulding) keeping the proceedings from descending into anarchy. “Flitcraft” features an earnest Jon Langford declaring, “Take the lid off of life / Let me look at the works”, and lots of enthusiastic cheering. Soon Tom Greenalgh joins in on vocals, and their alternating lines seem to describe a changed identity, an escape from safety and comfort. But it’s one of those obscure creations that rewards repeated listening, as there is some insular reference getting detonated before us. “Flitcraft”? Is that just some sort of surname?
Though this album is revered by many of the cow-punk post-punks who created alt.country, the ghost of Lefty Frizzell will testify that there are no country songs on this album whatsoever. (No, not even the weird cover of “Lost Highway”.) The song entitled “Country” is no exception—a grungy, driving,. frightened rant that takes on the Mekons home country (as well as their adopted country) with the lines “I’m not ready for this / I am not ready for this / Over and over and over I’m really not ready at all”. Ready for what? you ask. Well if you woke up in 1985 you’d know the answer right off the bat, as the powers that be are unstoppable in their gutting of democracy and human decency. I think the same sentiments afflict most sensible people now in 2002.
“Abernant 1984/85” and a sloshed cover of the Hank Williams standard “Lost Highway” are two of the album’s lesser tracks, though they’re still necessary to cement the album together. Part of the anarchy/paranoia/solitude theme throughout Fear and Whiskey, both tunes give us a solid flavor of detailed rebellion (indeed the slow and low “Lost Highway” has become an occasional live favorite). But both songs frame the real treat on side two, “Last Dance”, one of post-punk’s greatest love songs. Sure, Morrissey sang about the frustrations of the disco, but this tune evokes a musty, shambling dance floor full of energetic drunks. And its kinetic fiddle hook takes you on an existential square-dance as Greenalgh takes ésprit d’escalier to new sublime heights. “I wanted to say, ‘Fall in love with me’” he warbles in the rousing chorus—but the dancers have all gone home and the floor is empty. Still, Greenalgh drops one of the most righteous bromides in rock ‘n’ roll history when he shouts “It’ll be alright!” as Honeyman fiddles energetically and Greenalgh let’s loose a “yahoo!” that’s more potent than Prozac.
Many rock critics have scribbled relentlessly about Fear and Whiskey as if it were some sort of coherent concept album. It isn’t. There is no story or concept here, and everything seems tossed together. Yet only a brilliant feckless collective liket the Mekons could slap the title Fear and Whiskey onto this wonderful mess and convince the intelligentsia that it’s a concept album. Certainly, it’s a lonely and paranoid album, evoking the saddest, drunkest, most frightening themes that Cold War anomie could churn up. At the same time, it’s a record that preaches solidarity in the face of overwhelming odds. It’s an album about bombs and broken hearts, fear and whiskey. But the Mekons never feel self-pity, and they’re always ready to join in the fight against authoritarian bullshit and hawkish subterfuge. In other words, it’s necessary again, maybe even more so. It’s certain to sell out, so buy it soon. . . .