By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
In their 20-plus years as a unit, the Mekons have been British punks; British post-punks; a "dance band on the edge of time"; a stumbling-drunk traveling-miscreant caravan; the first alternative-country band; a rock-and-roll band; a drunken-loser country band featuring a former member of the Pretty Things; the last punk band; a sad, pathetic mess; an accident waiting to happen; a transcendent, heavenly live band; geniuses responsible for the inevitable merger of polka and dub; and shimmering pop craftspeople. They released the first drum 'n' bass record -- so they say -- in 1983.
They've done all this without anyone noticing, except for a handful of diehards who gush-gush-gush at their output -- an album every couple of years these days, totaling somewhere around 20 -- and greet the news of each impending tour with an enthusiasm usually associated with the Dead. As with every fan base convinced that the object of its affection is the perfect object, it's hard to fathom exactly how the object known as the Mekons has eluded the affection of a deserved share of country, polka, dub, rock-and-roll and jungle fans. But they have eluded this affection for a long, long time now. Stubbornly, they've remained a band since 1977.
But, really, that's not hard to do. All you have to do is make records, then tour behind them. Once fame and fortune -- which, in the case of the Mekons, were never there in the first place -- are removed from the equation, the rest is gravy: Just gather now and then and toss off a masterpiece.
The Mekons 2000 consist of Tom Greenhalgh, Jon Langford (these two formed the band; the latter is also in the glorious Waco Brothers), Sally Timms (she of the angelic warble), Sarah Corina, Rico Bell, Susie Honeyman, Lu Edmonds, and Steve Goulding. This lineup has remained consistent through the '90s. Their gorgeous, somber new record, Journey to the End of the Night (released on Chicago indie Quarterstick Records), is one of the best records they've ever made.
The Mekons formed in the wake of the British punk explosion of 1977, but failed to make much of an impact. They signed to the same label as the Sex Pistols -- Virgin Records, which was then lapping up anything with spiked hair and a sneer -- released a couple of gloriously defiant singles, including the sardonic loser anthem "Never Been in a Riot," and promptly got dropped after their first album. Not that many people noticed, because not that many cared. After that, the band discovered synthesizers, violins, Dada, and horns -- simultaneously -- and melded them in a fashion that probably weeded out most of their early fans -- and failed to make an impact with anyone remotely interested in violins, horns, or synthesizers.
Their totally weird second album, one that's seldom mentioned because it's a bloody mess, simply titled The Mekons, is an exercise in chaotic experimentation, but deep underneath, a flat, screeching violin attempts to weave in some sort of half-assed melody. The screeching violin was proof that the Mekons were discovering American country music. It's a scary thought, mixing violins and punk rock -- is there any sound more frightening than unpracticed Dada violin? But it signaled something important: More than any other band that sprouted in the "anything goes" atmosphere of punk, the Mekons were one of the few to actually follow through on the promise. They were building something, gathering the sticks they would use to build the fire that was their great arrival -- seven years after they formed -- 1985's Fear and Whiskey.
It was a record that justified the experimentation. A strange dissonance is buried within, and the members of the band had learned how to play their instruments so that there was intent where once there was ineptitude. There was melody; a studied rhythm; and punk-rock, dub, and country music. And, rather than sounding like a mishmash of influences, it all made perfect sense.
This sense of wide-eyed adventure permeates the band's output and is the main reason the Mekons have remained vital and, more important, perpetually interesting. With every record, they stretch: From their brilliant ode to and indictment of rock & roll, 1989's Rock 'n' Roll ("Throw a rock-and-roll song on the fire!" they sing), to their collaboration with the late novelist Kathy Acker, 1996's Pussy, King of the Pirates, a new Mekons record is a stab in the dark. You buy it, but you don't know what you're going to get. You may get a cold, hard electronic-rock album -- 1998's Me -- or you may get pure, subtle beauty, like the brand-new Journey to the End of the Night.
Maybe one of the reasons singer-guitarist Tom Greenhalgh seems totally unexcited about doing another interview to promote the upcoming show is the simple fact that he doesn't have to. He and his bandmates have basically given up trying to make the Mekons a full-time enterprise, so what's the point? At one point, he says, the band was a semi-full-time affair, but no more. "It's been on-and-off, actually, at various points," he says. "Of late, it's obviously not been a full-time thing, and I think in a way that's also helped us to carry on doing it, because we're not really under any pressure to do this. Yeah, it would be nice to make a living, sure, to be doing something that you love doing. But that's certainly not the case currently."