In Richard Lester’s 1965 Help!, two proper English matrons, dressed in balmacaans, gloves, and old-lady hats, wave to their neighbors, John, Paul, George, and Ringo, who, in the movie’s fantastical universe, live in a communal Beatle pad on an ordinary London street. “Lovely lads, and so natural!” says one to the other, noting how remarkable it is that success hasn’t gone to the boys’ heads. Her friend agrees: “Just so natural! And still the same as they was before they was.”
In real life the Beatles could never be the same as they was before they was. The Mekons, on the other hand, have pulled it off. What began in 1977 as a five-member punk band at the University of Leeds has survived against the odds for more than 35 years, by morphing into a sort of rock ’n’ roll collective that long ago pushed off the shores of punk to navigate the even wilder and more expansive waters of folk and country. Its members live on three continents, mostly supporting themselves by holding down random day jobs and doing side projects; they come together to write songs, rehearse, record, and tour. The shape, texture, and focus of the Mekons’ music may have changed over the years, but their vitality is a kind of miracle. As filmmaker Mary Harron says in Joe Angio’s jubilant new documentary, Revenge of the Mekons, “I never imagined that 30 years later I would be talking about the Mekons, and they would still exist.”
Harron first wrote about the band, in an earlier life as a rock critic, in the late 1970s for Melody Maker, taking note of their intensity, their free-flowing lefty ideology, and their incompetence as musicians — you really couldn’t miss that, as any of the Mekons’ founding members would freely tell you. In Revenge of the Mekons, original lead singer Mark “Chalkie” White — who started the band with present-day Mekons Jon Langford and Tom Greenhalgh, along with erstwhile Mekons Kevin Lycett and Andy Corrigan — talks about the moment he realized his bandmates had actually learned something about playing music, even as he had cultivated “no musical ability whatsoever.”
White left the band in 1983, and its members have shifted and reshuffled over the years, though Langford and Greenhalgh — both singers and guitarists — remain constant. The Mekons as we know them today, and as Angio captures them in all their ragged, rough-and-tumble splendor, count among their eight or so members vocalist Sally Timms, a devil-elf with a wildwood-rose voice; multi-instrumentalist Lu Edmonds, who, when he isn’t on Mekons duty, travels through Central Asia, helping musicians preserve and record their local folk music; and preternaturally elegant violinist Susie Honeyman, who also co-runs the Grey Gallery in London, which purposely doesn’t focus on the hot young things of the art world. She started the gallery with her artist husband because, as she says, “We were so sick of the emphasis on new and emerging artists.”
You may be wondering how this gloriously ragtag troupe keep body and soul together in a world where making astonishing records (as the Mekons still do) and touring (as they also do) never seems to make the right people rich. Angio — whose previous projects include a 2005 documentary about inventive multitasker Melvin Van Peebles — allows his subjects to explain: Bassist Sarah Corina, who lives in London, manages to find jobs that give her the flexibility to tour. As Honeyman hops into her car to drive to her gallery, she informs us brightly that it cost “350 quid on eBay” — and that the band’s van was sourced from eBay, too. Timms, who lives and works in Chicago, says that the Mekons sometimes do make a little money when they go on tour, which only means that the band members get to pay themselves for a change. Langford, Greenhalgh, and singer and accordionist Rico Bell are all fine artists, respected and accomplished in their own right, though no one would identify painting as a path to easy riches.
What Angio captures, beautifully, is that the Mekons make great music because, together and apart, they’re so alive to the world around them. Over the years the band has been signed, for a quicksilver second or two (and in times when such a thing could make a difference), to one major label or another, but they’ve never lived in a rock-star bubble. Their earliest recorded songs, from 1978 — “Never Been in a Riot,” “Where Were You?” and “32 Weeks” — were, as Greil Marcus describes in his wild and woolly 1989 punk history Lipstick Traces, “preposterously rough, left-handed screeches about, respectively, a wish for trouble, a wish for affection, and the number of weeks of low-wage labor required to pay for various household objects, like refrigerators.” Revenge of the Mekons includes early performance footage of those songs, and they’re thrilling, purely of and in their moment, lightning bolts of fury being hurled by impossibly young, impossibly skinny guys.
But Angio offers not a jarring juxtaposition but a sense of continuity when he shows us more current footage, like a performance of the 2007 “The Hope and the Anchor” — a ballad that’s like a half-hopeful, half-despairing letter in a bottle, bobbing along on the silvery-blue waves of Timms’s voice. During another performance, Langford — not really the Mekons’ leader, but the charismatic hillbilly-by-way-of-Wales Buddha who keeps the whole enterprise together — performs a wiggly dance that’s part sailor’s hornpipe, part snake charmer’s exhortation, with a little twist-and-shout thrown in for kicks.
The Mekons found a new direction when they began to explore American country music — though as their friend John Gill, a musician, recording engineer, and sort of low-key musicologist, once pointed out, they’d been playing a kind of folk music all along. As Marcus says in Revenge of the Mekons, “The surprise is not that they’re still here. It’s that they’re still able to play as if they’re discovering their music.” Nothing is too far out, or too far in, for the Mekons. Have eBay touring van, will travel: Their job is the everyday hunt for poetry.