There Is No Alternative
In 1950s Britain, comic-strip hero Dan Dare and his Venusian evil-scientist enemy the Mekon were the vision of a future that seemed far off: a late ‘90s world in which Dare’s RAF-style hot-blooded heroics were the necessary foil to the Mekon’s cold and calculated intellect. In 1970s Britain, the Mekon must have seemed like a snotty practical joke of a hero to the Leeds art-school cretins that took his name: An opposition to all the myths of empire and “owing so much to so few”, and a mockery of anti-intellectual, cock-rock, and football-hooligan Britain. Little did they know that, at the time of the real late 20th/early 21st century period of Dan Dare, the Mekons would still exist and would remain the skeptical and critical conscience of the once-vibrant punk-rock movement that had spawned them.
A quarter century ago, the Mekons weren’t punk in the mohawks and safety pins sense, nor in the gobbing and pogoing sense. In fact, the main connection between early Mekons singles like “Where Were You?” and punk rock was punk’s surgical removal of technical skill from the rock ‘n’ roll contract. But where bands like the Clash and the Sex Pistols had producers with the wherewithal to get decent takes and guitar solos out of their protégés, the Mekons really, truly didn’t know how to play. “Never Been in a Riot” wasn’t just a jab at punk’s “White Riot” complex that made black uprising a chivalrous aspiration for white working-class rockers and their middle-class student followers. “Never Been in a Riot” proved that, unlike some of these safety-pin-up lads like Billy Idol or punk-rock maestros like Mick Jones, the Mekons really were ugly bastards who completely fucking sucked—just like the hype said.
What people perhaps didn’t fully realize, people including Jon Langford and Tom Greenhalgh, who’ve maintained the Mekons ever since, is that the late ‘70s and early ‘80s Mekons were writing songs that expressed the cynicism, spite, humor and twisted optimism of punk as well as anyone else banging on a guitar at the time. What probably would’ve seemed even less likely is that those songs would stand up again, worthy of a recount, 25 years later—although Jon and Tom might’ve guessed that the situations that inspired punk would cycle back around, if they ever went away in the first place.
And thus it came to be that, in an age in which Tony Blair’s (and George W.‘s) Dan Dare, hot-blooded heroics of bold white men aesthetic has risen again to salute all kinds of flags with a tear in the eye, the Mekons have transformed themselves again. The band’s 2002 album OOOH! found a sort of revolutionary-gospel Mekons rediscovering silenced voices from the swamplands of southern America and the moors of northern England, reviving voodoo curses and English Renaissance rebels and ranters. On the new Punk Rock, the Mekons are rediscovering, well, the Mekons. This is Mekons as Mekons cover band, time traveling backwards, picking up their own past selves and fast forwarding to a time that needs them once again, like some kind of reawakening Merlin on the blag, needed once more to poke fun and spew venom at the dread of daily grind. Fifteen songs from the band’s 1977 and 1981 heydays, recorded in 2002-2003, just after the band’s ambitious 25th-anniversary tour.
The first thing we learn about the Mekons’ self-reassessment is that, while they’ve learned how to play, they haven’t simultaneously forgotten how to spit. Sure, relative newcomer Sally Timms (a Mekons-baby, with only about 20 years in the band) has a purrrty voice for singing it, but “Corporal Chalkie” is still simply brutal in its vitriolic, knowing indictment of the Heroic British Army: “And I know what happened before I was born / The Huns and the Nips got uppy with Blighty / And Tommy went out and beat them all home… The great big bloke from platoon 32 / Is calling me a poof and a stream of number two”.
Similarly, acoustic ditties like “What” and “Work All Week”—and Jon Langford’s live, shout-sung “The Building”—are less musically hurtful, but still emotionally devastating in their visualization of what the Mekons obviously see as a morbid state of regular life. As is referenced in one of Punk Rock‘s finest moments, the Asian-banjo and shruti-box drone of “This Sporting Life”, the Mekons’ art-school politics rove unrecognizably far from the modern idea of “political punk” and have more in common with the “kitchen sink” films of Lindsay Anderson and Ken Loach. Even in the more punk punk-rock days, Mekons songs like “32 Weeks”—redone here live onstage, and with a verve denying physical age—concentrated on specific, if humorous, ways of spewing about the working life rather than bitching about Thatcher. It’s no surprise that, although the Mekons as a band has barely ever made a dime, most of the band members—most famously painter/producer/indie-rock renaissance man Jon Langford—have found ways to avoid the nine-to-five, even if it means working longer and harder than a “job” would require.
Dan Dare’s fate has never been sealed: just like James Bond, the Mekon always seems to give that do-gooder bastard some complex, evil-scientist trap to escape from, rather than just blast the limey fuck with a shotgun. But the Mekon always manages to get away and live to pester the powers-that-be as well. And so too with our beloved Mekons: give ‘em enough rope, and they’ll build a rope bridge. Punk Rock is like that—a hangman’s-rope bridge across time, from the Now to the Then and back again. The Mekons’ Mekons tribute act is so post-modern that it’s almost circled back around again, to the point of a kind of futuristic prehistory. Next on the Mekons’ agenda: discover fire, build Stonehenge. And I, for one, can’t wait.