The Revenge of the Mekons
directed by Joe Angio
Jon Langford, Fred Armisen, Will Oldham, Jonathan Franzen, Sally Timms
Music Box Films
“How do you have an amateur band as a career?” is a question asked by filmmaker Mary Harron early in the new documentary Revenge of the Mekons. We all know what the traditional measure of a successful band is; sell lots of records, make lots of money, sell out stadiums and have your picture on the cover of Rolling Stone. It’s nice if you can get it, but most people putting together a band are never going to reach those great heights. This retelling of the Mekons story offer an alternative model of success where sustained creativity is it’s own reward.
The Mekons began as a bunch of art students at Leeds University in 1977 caught up in the ferment of punk rock. From their first single, “Never Been in a Riot,” (their response to the Clash’s single, “White Riot,”) the band has taken a contrarian stance where telling the truth and being true to themselves has been their guiding principal.
Revenge of the Mekons looks at the group’s evolution over the past 38 years. The film highlights pivot points in the band’s life. It’s fascinating to see how the inspirations came from unlikely places. How an original member of the Rolling Stones (Dick Taylor) joined the band. How an ethnomusicologist studio owner got them thinking about their music as part of the folk tradition. How a Chicago DJ got them interested in old time honky-tonk music, which led to a sort of apprenticeship with an all but forgotten country band called the Sundowner.
Like a musical version of Doctor Who, the Mekons periodically regenerate. Their country influenced phase was followed by a concerted effort to be a commercial rock and roll band with ill fated tenures at A&M records and Warner Brothers. The Mekons finally found a home with Touch and Go records who saw them through the end of their career as a hard touring rock band and through their phase as an arts collective and experimental theater group doing collaborative theater pieces with novelist Kathy Acker (Pussy, King of the Pirates) and director Vito Acconci.
The greatest revelations are the sidebars about the members projects outside of the Mekons. Jon Langford’s extra Mekons projects are relatively well known. He leads his own bands, is in the Waco Brothers and is a successful painter. Rico Bell is also a successful painter. Suzie Honeyman owns an art gallery with her husband Jock McFadyen called Grey Gallery. Sally Timms had a stint as Cowboy Sally on a kids TV show and helped her then husband, Fred Armisen, to shift his focus from music to comedy. I am somewhat in awe of Lu Edmunds extra Mekons activities. Beyond playing with other bands such as PiL, he travels throughout central Asia working with local musician. Lu shows musicians in places like Kazakstan and Tazikastan how to use a laptop computer and some inexpensive microphones to record their own music.
The great thing about the Mekons, is they show us that it’s ok to follow your muse. It’s ok to try something and fail, try something else and see how that works. Money and fame are all good, but the Mekons give a solid example of how to keep going and creating. As author Jonathan Frazen says in the film, “It’s not that they teach you how to win, they teach you how to be gracious and amusing losers.”
Author’s Note: When the Mekons United show was in Lakeland, Florida, I covered the event for the Lakeland Ledger. They also graced my late night show on community radio station, WMNF as collective guest host. I basically turned my show, Moe’s Garage, over to the band. It was a chaotic blend of country, classic rock, dub reggae, punk and other diverse influences. It was one of the most interesting shows I ever did.