I Have Been to Heaven and Back
Ever since there have been rock critics, there have been critics’ bands. The Velvet Underground set the standard: their every move was met with an avalanche of good press, yet they never sold any records. It’s an insult to cults to call them a cult band – Jim Jones had more followers than the Velvets ever had.
The Mekons have been the critics’ band par excellence for over twenty years now. They’ve released three undisputed masterpieces and a dozen other good-to-great records, all to universal critical acclaim. Their concerts are legendary. And no one outside of the music press knows they exist.
A short history, then: the Mekons were Leeds, England’s first punk band. In 1978, they released the most extreme single of punk’s classic era ("Never Been in a Riot," which sounds like it was recorded by very angry eight year olds), followed by the era’s most tepid debut LP. For their first five years, they shedded personnel weekly (1982’s The Mekons Story lists forty-two members) and changed styles with each new release (cacophony led to inept funk, then to arty synthesizer pop). The only consistent factors were the literacy and wit of their songwriting.
After a brief sabbatical (they fled the racist violence that overwhelmed Britain’s punk scene under Thatcher), they re-emerged in 1985 with Fear and Whiskey, that decade’s best album (now available on CD as Original Sin ). The lineup had finally stabilized around singer/guitarists Tom Greenhalgh and Jon Langford, and they had turned into, of all things, a great country band. Their late-’80’s albums (Edge of the World and Mekons Rock’n’Roll , both recorded after the addition of singer Sally Timms, are the other peaks) achieve a remarkable synthesis of Hank Williams and the Clash. Their songs had always been concerned with the way politics impinge on everyday lives; the bleak, plainspoken poetry of country & western provided them the means to take on Thatcher’s Britain. And like Hank, they countered every dolorous ballad with a gleeful, drunken romp.
After five years of consistently brilliant records, they stumbled badly in the early nineties. Live, they remained peerless – no other band can match their warmth, fun and power onstage – but each new album was duller and less focused than the last. Half the band now lives in Chicago, which can’t help matters, and most are involved with side projects. (Langford’s other band, The Waco Brothers, has been far more interesting lately than the Mekons, largely because he seems to be saving his best songs for them. And his weekly comic strip, Great Pop Things – his nom de comique is Chuck Death – remains the sharpest rock criticism on the market.)
And now, right when one might expect the Mekons to finally give up and fade away, they have rebounded with their best work in a decade. In the space of two months, they’ve released two collections of stray tracks and alternate versions of classic material. I Have Been to Heaven and Back and Where Were You? both include tracks from their entire career, but focus on their late ’80’s glory years.
Heaven and Back is the better of the two, largely because of its title track, recorded for (but inexplicably left off the American release of) Mekons Rock’n’Roll . It’s one of their best songs, a surging rocker about lost friends that’s worth the price of the CD alone. Other highlights include Sally’s abortion rights anthem "Born to Choose" (which, in typical Mekons style, includes as counterpoint a snatch of "Cut That Child in Half," Greenhalgh’s far more conflicted account of the issue); a glorious, beer-drenched version of Rod Stewart’s "You Wear It Well"; and the raucous "Funeral," Langford’s reaction to the fall of socialism ("This is my testimony, a dinosaur’s confession: how can something really be dead when it hasn’t ever happened?"). There are some failed tracks (for all their success at reinventing genres, reggae has never been the band’s strong suit) and indulgences, but this is a wonderful introduction to the Mekons.
Where Were You? is more uneven, mainly because it draws so heavily from the ’90’s. It still has great moments: early versions of "Memphis, Egypt" (in which the Mekons dance on the grave of rock and roll, to the tune of a great rock and roll song) and "1967 Revisited"; covers of Johnny Cash’s "Folsom Prison Blues" and the Kinks’ "Fancy"; and two charming early ’80’s excursions into rockabilly.
It’s rarely a good sign when a band’s best record in years is a collection of older material. I’m keeping my fingers crossed, though: the last time the Mekons retired with a compilation, they roared back with Fear and Whiskey. They probably won’t ever match that achievement – records that great come along all too rarely – but this is a band that routinely surprises. I can’t wait to hear the next chapter.