The Mekons - The Quality Of Mercy Is Not Strnen
With all the regurtiative hyberbole sprayed over the reanimated corpse of the Gang of Four recently, time is surely ripe for some reassessment of their Leeds siblings in DIY punk insurrection, The Mekons.
Starting up around the same time, The Mekons shared backline and their first label (Fast Product) with their art school contemporaries, as well as leftist politics (though not quite as po-faced and dogmatic as Gof4) and a thrillingly wayward approach to punk rock. The early singles are all brilliant, particularly the classic "Where Were You?" featuring indisputably - the greatest intro in Punk rock (the urge to begin pogoing when the crescendo starts building in the first 10 seconds is scientifically proven to be impossible to resist).
After splitting briefly in the early 80s - they came back with a pioneering take on Country music with patchy results, finding new credibility in the modern age as progenitors to the likes of Whiskeytown and Lambchop. The country LPs are alright, but frankly I find them a bit boring.
Today we cast our torch on their brilliant and long neglected debut LP from 1979, a masterpiece of grimy kitchen sink black comedy set to (no, I can't say it! Oh go on then...) angular guitars. Let me digress...
Suburbs of dreary Leicester. The official motto of the city is "Semper Eadem" which translates as "Always the same". Late 1980s. Teenage Lemmy Caution is still listening to older brother's heavy metal albums and bad chart pop taped off the radio, desperately in need of guidance to some sounds that resonate beyond Slayer's serial killer chants. This arrives in the unlikely form of brother's friend from college, Fred, who occasionally gives me lifts to school in his battered mini cooper. Always playing really strange tapes in his car. Nothing at all like Metallica or Level 42. One day I ask him about it. "Ah, this is my cousin's band, The Mekons". Being a comic geek as well as having very bad music taste, I'm immediately intrigued. He flips over the tape and plays me his cousin's other band, the Three Johns, who are alright but not as spiky and don't have a great sci-fi inspired moniker. That weekend I go to the big record library in town - one of the few good things Leicester had going for it. Back in the days before illegal downloads and CD burners, many a happy hour was spent scouring the racks of the music library making C90s of borrowed LPs and endlessly playing them on my boombox, sorting the wheat from the chaff and plotting my own disjointed journey through musical history. I don't find any LPs by the Mekons, but in their small selection of shiny new compact discs (the vinyl:CD ratio in the world was soon to be depressingly reversed) is a reissue of 'The Quality Of Mercy...'. The cover has a photo of a monkey sat at a typewriter, with The Mekons laid out in bold pink letters. Taking it home I play it on my brother's CD player and have my mind permanently warped by the sounds held within.
The opening track 'Like Spoons No More' packs more angst, discord and bittersweet melody into it's 2 minute duration than all the combined rain-coated clones waiting round the 1980s corner. All members interjecting and chanting behind the main vocal in pronounced northern tones not to be repeated until the Futureheads funnel the same technique through their harmonic blender. Veering between the accusatory chant ‘IKNOWYOUKNOWYOUKNOWIKNOW’ to the resigned apology of the "It's another girl, didn't think you'd mind". The subsequent tracks take the listener on a social trawl through late-70s Northern England. The Marxist worldview is a reaction to the race riots tearing Leeds apart at the time, and the violent presence of Nazi Skinheads disrupting gigs by the burgeoning local punk scene.
Whereas many bands of the period peppered their lyrics with abstract stabs at poetical depth or cliched 'kids on the street' rhetoric (which is good as well - in the right place), the Mekons conjured up their environment in a frantic celebration/condemnation of their surroundings. Song titles like 'Trevira Trousers', references to Tetley Bittermen and Babycham, no bad language on telly before 9.30 - "Drink, fags, fun at night, dirty books and Ford Cortinas, radicals and plastic shoes" - conjure up a grey tinted worldview punctuated by pub violence, striking workers and making out on the corner of terraced streets. It also places the songs specifically in a certain time and place, a compass to a forgotten time. In the midst of the clanging minor chord misery of "Lonely and Wet" - the narrator pleads "I'll buy you lager, you'll buy me beer, we can sit together, can't we dear??". The kitchen sink miserablism is shot through with a healthy sense of fun and mordant doses of black humour, such as the chorus of 'Beetroot' - "Now you've got anorexia nervosa, we'll have to sleep a little closer" - or closing track ‘Dan Dare' - where the narrator leaves behind the rain-soaked northern streets for some fun in the cosmos - "Outer space it's a really nice place - go there - oh yeah". The Mekons world is one of betting shops, off licences, fish and chip dinners, street protests, working men’s clubs and dole offices. Their combination of nonsense rhymes, background detail, incisive social commentary, melody and noise could be a precursor to the Streets' contemporary reflection of council estate triumphs and tears in zero decade Britain.
In the canon of late 70s/early 80s punk rock there's simply nothing quite like this record, and if any LP from that period is due 'lost classic' status then this gets my vote. After this our intrepid heroes went onto record one more perfect single ('Work All Week') - before diverting into a new direction of avant-garde industrial sounds and tape loop experimentation. There's a few highlights from this period ('Teeth' and 'Snow' are recommended for fans of drone-pop) - but most of the 2nd LP is quite hard work, not quite vicious enough to match the brutality of Throbbing Gristle - and not danceable enough to compete with P.I.L. Their dustbowl renaissance received more attention in the US than their original incarnation ever did, and the 1990s saw them being feted as godfathers of the modern indie-rock scene. 'Quality...' was still getting written off as charming but disposable early work though, their new post-rock neighbours in Chicago (home now to founder member, and Fred's Cousin, Jon Langford) disdainful of it's shambolic simplicity. It's now out of print, even on Costly Disc sadly, but the vinyl turns up in second-hand record shops from time to time, and someone's bound to have downloaded it somewhere on the world wide web. Track it down and enter (another) strange and frightening world.
Teenage Lemmy Caution's next discovery was the Dead Kennedys (purely by accident, the cover of the 'Give me Convenience...' compilation looked really cool), but that's a whole other story...
Lemmy Caution tMx 20 06/05