Where Were You?

Posted: October 3, 2011 in Uncategorized

“Tasty, incomprehensible music.”

Yanno, an odd thing about the digital generation of music;  the procession of the songs doesn’t necessarily mean that much anymore.

But that sucks, doesn’t it?  Albums like Dark Side Of the Moon or Lamb Lies Down On Broadway are entirely configured around the idea that their listeners are e going all the way through, preferably on headphones, and stonage optional.

And I am as guilty as anybody.  The ebb and flow of an album is apparently being discarded, victims of the same waves that are destroying the old school music labels.  I will not miss the labels, but I also am curious to see if artists manage to arrive at a format that allows them to string songs together in a meaningful way.  I mostly listen to my music in some random playlist format or other, and while that makes for some interesting juxtapositions, it also destroys meaningful sequencing.  And sometimes, that sequencing matters.  In some case, it matter a LOT.

Or is that just a weird anachronism of the Album FM and gatefold double-disc era?  Is London Calling an epochal album only if you start with the title track?  And speaking of the Clash, is Sandinista’s weirder tracks only tolerable if mixed into a playlist?

It wasn’t all that surprising that the punk movement pushed back on the whole idea of concept albums and studio artistry. We can argue about whether that was a misguided notion or not; but   to me, moving the emphasis back toward amateur skills and  back into the live venue were certainly valid.   Abandoning the exalted musician levels.  Shoving into the political realm; and anybody can Do It Yourself.

Maybe the Sex Pistols were packaged, but the Clash learned their gig by listening to crap 45s, and the Ramones were a cover band that never were good enough to actually play covers.

Against this backdrop, punk and semi-punk bands were being swallowed up, packaged, and pushed out.  And there were a bunch of idealistic art school students, who borrowed instruments from the people who eventually become the Gang of Four; but they refused to actually learn any of their instruments, distilling  the DIY aesthetic to its essence.  And because record labels are run by idiots, they got signed.  And their first single was a piss-take of the Clash’s overly-earnest political stance, titled “Never Been In A Riot.”

And then they got weird.  They refused to be photographed; they refused to actually learn their instruments. Although  McLaren managed to make that into an twisted fashion advantage with Sid, that only worked as a marketing concept. When the Mekons recorded  their second album, and all traded instruments so nobody actually knew anything about what they were playing, Virgin was not amused and they were dumped.

And they sat around for a couple of years, until the UK miners strike of 84-85, and they decided to play some songs in support the strike.  And after that, they spent some time woodshedding with old country and blues albums, and were financed by a crazy fan (Sophie) to release the epochal Fear and Whiskey album; a weird amalgam of inexperience, passion, and respect for American music.

As I have documented over some time, in the interim, the Mekons have been most successful at one thing: making awesome music that major labels hate, while cultivating a fervent fan base of music critics and thirty or forty aging lunatics.

I was introduced to the Mekons by a fervent review of the album Rock ‘n’ Roll, and saw them in a local club and they were awesome, in all the best punk and post-punk ways.  I left the show thrumming and dazzled by the energy and honesty they poured into their music, not to mention the hilarious between song banter.

And we went back to the same club on the next tour, and walked out cuz they sucked so hard.  Years later, I discovered they had just been abandoned by their label, which explains why they were so bad.  The next time, on an independent label, they again rocked my face off.

“Tasty, incomprehensible music”

Last week,  Sin Records (their own label) released the 26th album from these stubborn fucks.  And being  a stubborn fuck myself, I am all over it.  And I have to say, this is one of the prettiest CD releases I have ever seen.  The artwork is stellar, and the cardboard folds out and has lovely interior artwork as well, and lyrics, and plentiful liner notes filled with in-jokes and esoteric references.

And since the Mekons are musical artists as well as graphic artists, the sounds contained are worthy of the packaging.

The Mekons are nothing if not iconoclasts.  After a couple of dalliances with ‘mainstream’ music,  they have refused to follow any pattern, pigeonhole, or pre-disposition.  And by doing so, have endeared themselves to an admittedly small but fervent fan base (of which I am one, obv); but also established an artistic path of travel that no other musical group has ever accomplished.  Records.  Art, solo and collaborative.  Solo work.  Side projects.  mulit-media art installations.  Slideshow retrospectives. They have also done the world’s best anarcho-lesbian cross-dressing pirate musical.

And now.  They release an album, their 26th.  34 years into their existence, no fucking reunion tours necessary.  And I am here to tell you how they did.

I will start of by saying that I love bands who refuse to accede to music industry demands; that is a fair  part of my affection for this band.  But beyond that; they bring in musicians of any age, race, gender, or skill level, They Are All Mekons.  Is there anything more punk than that?  And at the same time, more in keeping with the best traditions of both English and American vernacular music?

Aside:  I write this a couple of days after giving up on a Milwaukee show and booking my shit down in Chicago for next Wednesday’s show.  I have gone back and forth on this for two weeks, and have tons of work to do (of course for little money) but in keeping with last week’s VERY SUCCESSFUL I DON’T GIVE A FUCK DAY, I decided to not give a fuck. Also, I know considering the advancing age and the geographic separation, Mekons gigs will not become more plentiful, so I KNOW I will kick my own ass if I don’t go.  Especially considering the initial reports from the shows on the West Coast. )

I had initially thought to do this music post as a song-by-song review of the disc, but upon reflection and drinking, it seems to me that that is focusing on the trees while ignoring the forest.  None of these songs are hits, and they are not meant to be.  None of them are meant to be taken as separate from the others, and indeed, I get the impression that the album itself is not meant to be taken without considering the existing body of work.

But having said that, I do need to remark on the opening track.  Because the opening track is important, here.  It’s called Warm Summer Sun, and Tom Greenhalgh sings it in his bracing, quavering vocals; and Suzie Honeyman plays her violin to alternate between warm, soaring sections, and squeaking, disturbing squalls.  Is it only coincidence that the squeaking parts provide a disturbing backdrop to the most bucolic lyrics, and the warmer parts counterpoint the lyrics that say

Night and day there was trouble; That the eye could almost see…… I look out on corpses.  skeleton trees.  An unintelligible hell in front of my eyes

This is not the “Warm Summer Sun” of a Fountains of Wayne, but of seasoned artist who have seen much; too much. A person singing about enjoying a pleasant day, in some horrible aftermath…and then you consider what effect Warm Summer Sun has on the corpses he is looking out on, and you realize this is not exactly a feel-good song.

The Mekons do not specialize in feel-good songs.  They opened their major-label debut album with a vicious diatribe against the music industry.

But they do raise a ruckus.  “Space In Your Face” a song about a bombing at the L.A. Times, is as rocking as anything they have done in recent years.

This would be the point where I mention the concept.  The Mekes, in a curiously iconoclastic response to their art-school background and the geographic distances, never bother to write songs until they get together, and then when they’ve got a concept or framework to work within.  Rock ‘n’ Roll was a blistering indictment of the music biz (and IMHZO, as good as London Calling); Journey To The End Of The Night was a digression on war and the waning years of Western culture;  OOOH! (Out Of Our Heads) was a music/art tour, dealing with what happens between the ears.  ME was a techno-influenced digression on self-involvement.  The last album, Natural, was written and recorded in the wake of a friend’s death, and while it isn’t somber by any means, it is a group of artists looking square into the void.

The new album has a bit more obvious conceit, comparing the world of a hundred years ago to now. Now don’t get dismissive, as a concept it is not disruptive and does not keep the songs from being songs.

So, you know, the music.

I know you all expect me to love this album.  Well, I like it a lot.  And I am liking it a lot more, every time I listen to it.

I  found Natural to be a bit monochromatic, as good as it was.  Journey the same.  I really liked some of OOOH, but found some points where things did not work quite the way they had hoped, I think.

Not so with Ancient & Modern (and am I the first one to notice that the natural abbreviation for the album is A&M, the label that  so unceremoniously, maliciously, dumped them in the midst of that long-ago tour?).  This album from a long-lived band, one of the most long lived bands, who have been through the fire, and are getting older, and have learned the places to lean on their strengths, the places to let the blank spaces speak, and the times that you howl. And they stare at the wonder and horror of being human, and the horrors and wonders of what humans do, and they know the only thing that can be done is make art. This is a band that trusts themselves and their bandmates, and are confident and fearless.

They know the strengths they bring, and they are comfortable enough to let the egos go.  Every song is credited to the Mekons.  Sally sings, and Jon, of course; Tom and Rico and Suzie too.  Sometimes Steve Goulding whomps the bejabbers out of his drum kit, and sometimes he plays that stupid drumbox.  Lu Edmonds and Sarah Corina play where they are necessary, and lay back when it’s not.  And sometimes, that fucking shruti box shows up.

This album is the sound of  collaboration without reserve.  The quiet songs are considered and patient, with subtle musical touches that reward concentrated listening.  The loud songs are ebullient and disturbing.  The Burlington Welsh Male Chorus on “Ancient & Modern” is particularly sublime.  But the band trades vocals, even in the middle of a song.  Nobody takes a solo.  These are artists much more concerned about the art they produce than they are about getting their credit or royalties.

The Mekons formed as a punk band.  Hell, they had just seen the Clash and the Pistols; what the hell else could they do?  But they never agreed with nihilism or three-chord purity.  They came to love Hank Williams and the Sundowners as much as the Ramones; and they put that all into what they did.  they played any weird-ass instrument that came their way.  The music industry absorbed them, passed them by, tried to absorb them again, barfed them up, and went back to ignoring them.  And along the way, they continued to make amazing, challenging, life-affirming work that is concerned with death. And drinking.

Wednesday I am going to see one of my favorite bands.  It feels like seeing an old friend, who has been off doing wonderful things. It is likely I will misbehave.

“Tasty, incomprehensible music.”

Although I recognize that this band is an acquired taste at best; if you like artists who work true, music that is out of the mainstream, or even just aging functional drunks, you really could do worse than blow ten buck on this album.  What are ya gonna do, spend it on a Big Mac Meal?

Tasty, incomprehensible music, indeed, thunder.

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Comments
  1. Yeah, but did they sit around in Queens, eating refried beans?
    ~

  2. Sabrina says:

    “Wednesday I am going to see one of my favorite bands. It feels like seeing an old friend, who has been off doing wonderful things. It is likely I will misbehave.” And I will gladly join you. Fantastic post on our oft-disregarded friends.

  3. Von says:

    Looking forward to the mis-behaving and the not giving a fuck.

  4. Pictures are always a good idea, he suggested mischievously.
    ~

  5. mikey says:

    Wow. I had to go stare out the window for a while. Because you know what that is? That, my friend, is a near-perfect encapsulation of my lifelong dysfunction. I can’t do that – or maybe I don’t know HOW to do that. Don’t get me wrong, I love music. I need it in my life all the time. Although, in response to the initial premise, the actual ORDER of the songs is a zero value add. That is, it is an artisitic indulgence to pretend that the order the songs are presented in contributes some overarching meta-narrative to the songs themselves. If you came up listening to the LPs, then you got the 8 tracks and the songs were in a different order, it sounded…wrong. Why? Not because there was any magic to the original order, but merely because you had become accustomed to what would start after a given song ended. And when it didn’t it was jarring, but that was an artifact of something I did as a listener, not something they did as artists.

    But that said, I have favorite bands, but I have no idea how one goes about loving them as deeply and on as many levels as you do with this band. I THINK the closest thing in my life was Zevon, with the brilliant musicianship, the often violent imagery, the speed and the guns. But ultimately, it was different, because it was about the songs, and the songs were about ME, and in my head it was never really about the artist. When I listened to “Lawyers Guns & Money” or “Veracruz” or “Jeannie needs a shooter” it wasn’t Warren telling me a story, it was a mirror, a funhouse reflection of my own life story, told by an itinerant troubadour in full stereo.

    So I dunno. It’s kind of like watching someone you know fall in love. It makes you smile, but it’s bittersweet, and you’re a little jealous, because you know that once again, somebody else has figured out how to not just exist in the world, but to extract from it joy and passion.

    You Go, Zombie motherfucker….

  6. O YAY.

    Just found out that I need to spend over $2000 to fix my car.

  7. Brando says:

    I see the album/single/playlist thing as a blessing in disguise.

    I love it when an album completely clicks and becomes something you have to listen all the way through. To go from the opening blurbs of “Baba O’Riley” to the closing chord of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is a great journey. Albums like “Who’s Next” are why so many of us hold albums so dear.

    But the beauty of music is that it can function in a non-linear fashion. Generally speaking you won’t read a book’s chapters out of sequence or watch Acts 2, 1, and then 3 in a movie. But you can completely mix up music and get a hugely satisfying, if completely different, result than you would listening to an album. To me, that was the fun of making mix tapes when I was younger — to find connections between songs that would allow me to make my own kind of statement on tape, whether it was something deep like expressing how I felt about TLB or just trying to pump myself up for exercising, driving, or drinking.

    In fact, maybe because I never owned a record player — I started with cassettes and went to CDs — I kind of missed that freedom with CDs (pre-recordable CD days). I felt more locked in to having to listen to an album rather than mixing it up. So I’ve embraced the digital music age because it takes me back to that tape-making experience, but on a much easier and much more expansive level.

  8. Another Kiwi says:

    I looked at Mekons ont teh Youbustubus and I likes them. The Olde Trip to Jerusalem is good and the early stuff is very good punk innit.
    Thanks ZRM

  9. narya says:

    Okay, so, Born to Run works that way, from the opening chords of “Thunder Road” to the last notes of “Jungleland.” Yeah, you can listen to specific songs, or listen out of order, but to listen to the order is to listen to a narrative. (“Darkness” works differently–more as a collection of songs that belongs together, but not in the same linear fashion, and if you listen to the two discs of outtakes and alternates, you can hear how the songs were selected.) And the last time I saw Bruce, here in Chicago, he played “Born to Run” straight through, for only the second time ever (the first time was decades ago), and the people who came to see that show were people who, by and large, wanted to be there for that specific performance, and and and.

    Point being, there are all kinds of musical narratives, and not all of them are linear. But some are.

    Sorry; that has nothing to do with the Mekons (enjoy the show; do you need a food/beverage recommendation?), whom you have convinced me I should hear, but I got stuck on the first part.

  10. Thanks, narya, but I think we may grab something at Lincoln Hall and just keep the table. Unless, of course, I get all wound up and have to go down to the stage front.

  11. Big Bad Bald Bastard says:

    If you can hitchhike to NY, I could possibly get you comp tickets to see them.

    Won’t be able to join you though- no wish to dick over everybody at work. I’ve never been in a riot, but scarpering off on the 7th would cause me to be the center of an acrimonious one.

    • Yeah, thanks BBBB, although the tix to the show are a minor issue.

      Between travel, lodging, meals, and drinking, I expect to spend 5 times the ticket price going just to Chicago to see them. Although I would love to hit New York soon…

      do, however, get to hang with Von. So worth every penny!

      …although the 2500 bucks to fix my car’s cooling system prior to driving is a bit harsh.

      Although I would love to hit New York soon…

  12. Excellent post, I may actually have to listen to these folks.

  13. Kathleen?

    Didja get into the office rum early today?

  14. Kathleen says:

    WHERES MY BUFFALOOOOO WHEN I NEED HIM? OH HE’S GOT PROBLEMS OF HIS OWN, I understand. HEY GUY ON A BUFFALOOOOOOO YOU’RE GONNA HAVE TO JUST PUNCH THAT COUGAR IN THE FACE

  15. mikey says:

    Ummm, no, that’s alright.

    You know what? I’ll just have what she’s having…

  16. Did I really write that whole fucking thing without a link to the new album?

    I suck.

    http://www.bloodshotrecords.com/album/mekons-ancient-modern

  17. Note to self: assuage my shame and guilt by ordering a new iPhone on Friday.

    …OK, sucker for tech gadgetry here.

  18. Yes,Passion is No Ordinary Word.
    A Graham Parker song done by one of my other favorite ever live bands, the Figgs.

    The Figgs mostly back up GP when he tours with a band. But I have seen them play the best dives in Milwaukee.

    At some point, I will see the Mekons, the Waco Brothers, Tony Memmel, Soul Asylum and the Figgs in a short period, and will die, content.

  19. mikey says:

    What in the hell…?

    No Mekons Live show after action report?

    Christ, Zombie, pull yourself together…

  20. Laura says:

    Hmmm, I couldn’t find them on the “Yousguystube”!
    So.. perhaps I’ll just say, Guy on a Buffalo. 🙂

    ((Hugs))
    Laura

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