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Punk rock's elder statespeople

Review by Alan Maass | February 18, 2005 | Page 9

The Mekons, Heaven & Hell: The Very Best of the Mekons, released by Cooking Vinyl.

WHO'S LEFT from the punk rock revolution of the late 1970s? You can hear the influence of early punk bands like the Clash, the Ramones, X and the Buzzcocks in a lot of rock music today, but the punk pioneers themselves are seldom heard from--especially since the sad deaths recently of Joe Strummer of the Clash and Joey Ramone.

Strangely, the mantle of punk rock elder statespeople has probably fallen on a band that was among the Least Likely to Succeed: The Mekons.

The Mekons formed in the northern British town of Leeds, a group of unapologetic socialists who embraced punk's amateur ethic (why should not knowing how to play stop you from starting a band?) to such an extent that they could barely get through their first songs. Yet the Mekons are going strong after a quarter century of more or less continuous existence--a fact underlined by the recent release of their first "best of" compilation called Heaven & Hell.

Heaven & Hell's two discs have a good selection of the sprawling range of styles the Mekons have tinkered with over the course of more than 20 albums and at least a dozen other recordings.

The rough edges of the band's punk era are represented by the early single "Never Been in a Riot," a barbed (and not entirely fair) criticism of the Clash. There's the influence of reggae on "Work All Week," which the band recently rerecorded in a "covers" album of its own early songs. "Work All Week" is also a great example of the Mekons' skill at writing songs that seem to be about personal and domestic situations, but turn out to be a sly critique of capitalism, too.

Later Mekons albums tend more often toward country--not the prettified Nashville sound of today, but a rawer pre-commercial country--a direction that began when some core members began relocating across the Atlantic to the U.S. in the 1980s. But Heaven & Hell documents other Mekon musical excursions through folk balladry, sampling and drum machines, New Orleans zydeco and--always, always--cranked-up guitar rock.

This is surely the secret of long life. The Mekons have followed their musical interests across numerous pop-music pigeonholes, doing what they wanted, regardless of industry trends, and always with a sense of humor and of proportion.

In the process, the band accumulated a rotating cast of members and collaborators who today hail from probably a half-dozen cities, and who drift in and out of various projects and performances, some Mekons-related and many others not. When assembled in some combination for a tour, the Mekons are as much fun to see live as they obviously have playing together--resembling a mischievous, unkempt and definitely Boss-less E Street Band crammed together on the tiny stage of whatever barroom they've been unjustly consigned to.

Really, the Mekons are a kind of musical commune, bound together by each one's commitment to--and interest in--what the others are up to.

This spirit was captured best on their last studio album, OOOH! (Out of Our Heads), released in 2002--with its glorious call-and-response, choral singing the centerpiece of what sounds like a gospel album for an alternative religion of resistance. For my money, it was the Mekons' best ever--and note that it came out when the band was 24 years old (which is, like, 107 in people years).

Heaven & Hell isn't as great, even though it collects a lot of great songs--they lose some of their distinctive personalities when taken out of their original album contexts. But for an introduction to the Mekons, it's a fine place to start.

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