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More than any band that came out of late-'70s England, the Mekons (the name taken from the popular sci-fi comic Dan Dare) have perhaps the most devoted fans of any band even remotely connected to punk rock.
And why not? Over the course of several decades, this band, with an ever-shifting lineup (only Jon Langford and Tom Greenhalgh remain from the original), produced some of the best rock & roll on the planet, be it amateurish rock-noise, cool synth-driven pop, guitar rave-ups, or postmodern country & western, the Mekons have done it all and done it with style, grace, and a ribald sense of humor.
Emerging from the same Leeds University "scene" that begot Gang of Four, the Mekons weren't as overtly political as their Marxist-inspired brethren, but their punk rock pedigree and unsubtle anti-Thatcherisms and anti-Reaganisms did set them apart from the post-punk world's innumerable careerists and posers. Their early recordings were exceedingly lo-fi affairs that valued emotion and energy over anything that remotely resembled musical proficiency. Songs like "Never Been in a Riot" and "32 Weeks" sound as if the band entered the studio, arbitrarily decided who was going to play what, and started the tapes rolling. It was fun, challenging, and anarchic -- principles to which the band has clung, musical genre notwithstanding, ever since their inception.
From the time of their debut album, The Quality of Mercy Is Not Strnen, the Mekons had turned into a slightly more accomplished post-punk band that, like their pals in Gang of Four, wielded trebly guitars and shouted vocals over semi-funky rhythms tracks. The songs lacked focus, but this was a bizarre record that, for all of its oddly ingratiating music, offered little insight as to whom was making it. This remained true for a couple of years or so as the band (basically Langford, Greenhalgh, Kevin Lycett, and whomever else they could rope into a session) made one exciting, enigmatic, and extremely difficult-to-find record after another.
In 1985, after it seemed the earth had swallowed them whole, the Mekons released the startling Fear and Whiskey, a ragged country album influenced by the ghosts of Hank Williams and Gram Parsons that was unlike anything they'd ever recorded. Thus began the second coming of the Mekons, who finally began to reach an underground/alternative rock audience that had missed them the first time around. Soon they began touring more frequently, putting on clamorous, exciting shows. Talented new members jumped on board, like violinist Suzie Honeyman and singer Sally Timms, and even former Pretty Thing Dick Taylor was a Mekon for a while; records started coming out with more frequency and, despite considerable trouble from major labels that sent them back to the indies, could be found in nearly any record store. From Fear and Whiskey through subsequent records including The Mekons Rock 'n' Roll, Curse of the Mekons, Retreat from Memphis, and Natural, they continually reinvented themselves: sodden country band, wiseass folk-rock band, cranked-up guitar band, trouble-making punk band. Whatever the scenario, what has remained consistent throughout the Mekons' existence has been great music.
After an extended recording break of four years, and Touch & Go's Quarterstick imprint reissuing key titles in their catalog, the Mekons returned to recording with the same lineup they'd employed since the mid-'80s with the concept album Ancient & Modern: 1911-2011 on Bloodshot. The set tracked history -- via the Mekons' deadly sense of humor and politically astute, ironic rock & roll -- from the Edwardian era just before the First World War to the humanitarian crisis in Sarajevo, to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to surveillance cameras being used in virtually every metropolitain community in Great Britain. The group's next two projects confirmed that the Mekons still had a taste for adventure and experimentation. Arriving in 2015, Jura was a largely acoustic collaboration with American singer/songwriter Robbie Fulks, entirely written and recorded during a monthlong stay on an island off the Scottish coast whose principal employer is a distillery. And 2016's Existentialism was recorded during a gathering of friends, admirers, and collaborators during a special performance in Red Hook, Brooklyn, using the guiding concept "Why should a record take more time to record than it does to listen to?" Both albums were originally issued in limited editions, and then made available in 2017 in more readily available versions by Bloodshot Records. ~ John Dougan, Rovi


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