Revenge of The Mekons Dir. Joe Angio

[Music Box Films; 2013]

Styles: cowpunk, alt-country, music doc
Others: Who is Harry Nillson?, I Need That Record, American Hardcore

The Mekons have always ranked with, say, the French language or cult classic serial drama The Wire in terms of things I want to/should be familiar with, but have put off indefinitely because there’s so much else on TV and who can keep up with characters and goddammit could there be less stuff involved? That is the cause and thesis of Revenge of the Mekons, to condense the band’s wickedly diverse 30-some odd year career into a legible narrative and to apologize for all that remains to be said. It’s a refreshingly simple doc about the band-that-does-too-much, which, like the Mekons, cannot contain its own simultaneous ambition and self-deprecating fecklessness.

This fundamental contradiction forms the fulcrum of Joe Angio’s documentary, which comes off like a fanzine passed between admirers. As every talking head from Jonathan Franzen to Hugo Burnham will gladly gush, the Mekons shucked through 30 years of trans-Atlantic music development, and evolved faster and better than almost everyone around them. Why then, are the Leeds art-school/art-punk prodigies still playing drunken bar crowds and buying cars on eBay? (A ancillary question might be, “Why are they just now getting a documentary?”). It’s a comic, not tragic, irony — one that present-day Mekons reflect upon with fiercely funny humility. Bustling from one pub show to the next (often with gaping tour gaps as gig after gig gets cancelled), the Mekons are very much okay with their nothing-left-to-win/lose status: their partially willful, largely imposed marginalization enabled/ennobled their weirdo rock.

Like schoolmates Gang of Four, the Mekons started out as prototypical art punks, usually out-booking and one-upping their now-iconic brethren. Former Mekons chime in to discuss the band’s ramshackle formation: whoever had an instrument (know-how not required) and a flair for public humiliation had a place. Unlike their punk and post-punk peers, though, the Mekons considered themselves non-dogmatic, instead noncommittally (but with obvious deliberation) citing varied ideologies as the style and cause of the Mekons. When they lashed out against Thatcher-era England’s status quo, it was only in solidarity and with earnest awareness of their privileged “never been in a riot” comforts. In a perfect blend of form-meets-function, the Mekons’ ideological, interpersonal, etiological, and musical threads were all loosely bound. What they lacked in formal anything, they made up for in attitude and anything-goes experimentation. A particularly charming anecdote pits the Mekons against erstwhile up-and-comers U2, with the latter warned by management that they’d never succeed without the Mekons’ self-effacing snarl.

Examining highs and lows in their career rather than rolling out the full, exhaustive discography, Revenge can appraise the Mekons’ undiluted influence. A notable turning point comes with 1985 album Mekons Fear and Whiskey, when they became the progenitors of alt-country. Where they struggled to fit in in a scene driven by the high-minded whiplash of their art-house peers and the venomous tenacity of the punks, the Mekons fit into the world of middle-class country’s leftist lamentations with surprising southern comfort. When the little-band-that couldn’t begin a career-long interaction with Chicago country legends (also with shameful-little recognition) the Sundowners, they become the big (Scale! Scope! Ambition!) band who couldn’t catch a break. The more their music came to resemble folk — pulling from English country-lore, Americana, and in coming years, the umbrella of “world music” — the less they were doomed to be a diverting footnote in the story of British punk. Critics took notice, but very few other musicians took heed, carving out the Mekons a healthy slice of genre-specificity that would be their boon/bane/boom/bust. It’s a history of close calls and almosts, with the Mekons always teetering on mainstream success, but falling back into the comfortable breast of kudos from the sidelines. While U2 went on to piss off the entire hearing public, the Mekons overjoyed a select few blithe nerds with bottomless opportunities for fandom (see also: quasi-morbid, quasi-comic superfans featured in the film, whose house is a shrine to the geek trinity of the Ramones, the Simpsons, and the Mekons).

Not to be discounted in the lures of the Mekons are the Mekons themselves. There are a lot of them, with thirty years worth of grand entrances and quiet departures of new and old band members making up their gnarled family tree. I think I lost count of Mekons members past and present around the two-dozen or so mark, but the overall effect is that of a family in constant reunion. They bicker, they drink, they whine, but all in all, it’s nice everyone’s still together (crazy?) after all of these years. Present Mekons take up much of the screen time, with loosely designated frontman Jon Langford leading much of the theoretical and practical discussion of Mekons’ rock & roll. The whole story seems almost stunt casted, featuring bit players from left field (one former Mekons also matriculated with the Rolling Stones) and top billers (like delightfully loony Lu Edmonds) with eccentricities as oddball as the music they create.

As a documentary, it’s a neat history written not by victors, but by a presumed loser, i.e. a huge GD Mekons fan. Despite its frank testimony of the Mekons’ cult-light status and the very apparent assertion that the Mekons need marginality to function, it occasionally miscommunicates the band’s “fuck it” attitude as a “fuck off” one. The revenge of the title should be an ironic “the best […] is living well” statement, but functions more as a formal lashing out against anti-Mekon forces. Dividing the film into chapters of Mekons’ aggressions (“Mekons vs. Punk,” “Mekons vs. The Man”) cutely segregate a long history, but also constantly apologizes to the Mekons for all the shit that got in their way. Yet, such militarization works in its context; if the Mekons, in my grossly misapplied conceit, form a collective Hawkeye, trading quips over martinis while actually out-performing everyone in their field, we’d best suit up as loyal Radars. I’ve taken to enlisting, calling up my music-nerd friends to help me sort through the morass of Mekons’ output. Revenge doesn’t ever really vindicate, nor even tell everything that needs to be said, but it’s a quiet call to arms for lilly-livered rubes and entrenched fans.

Most Read