Friday, February 06, 2004

Terrell's Tuneup: The Mekons Sweat to Their Own Oldies

As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican, Feb. 6, 2004

One of the most nefarious tricks of the nefarious record industry is having veteran artists go back and re-record their best known songs to sell as tacky “greatest hits” packages.

Hint: Whenever you see “best of” CDs or tapes in the bargain bin by, say, Roy Orbison or Louis Jordan or Little Richard, beware. These might not be the original recordings, but second-rate re-makes done years or even decades later.

But ever so often there’s a different kind of re-recording project that the musicians themselves, rather than their vile corporate masters instigate. Bob Dylan, for instance on his various live albums frequently tries to ensure that his old songs are busy being born so they’re not busy dying.

And then there are the fabulous Mekons.

The latest CD by this band of Brits (many of whom have immigrated to the U.S.) is a collection of new versions of 15 songs from the band’s early history -- late ‘70s, early ‘80s.

Simply titled Punk Rock, the project was inspired by the band’s 25th anniversary tour a couple of years ago, when the group reached back into their vast catalogue, digging up tunes that hadn’t been aired out in decades and discovering there was still power in some of those old rants and sonic slugfests.

Who’d have thought that of all those bands of that heady era, The Mekons would be the one to survive and re-tell the story in the 21st Century. Never mind the periodic Sex Pistols reunions. They’ve become a virtual casino nostalgia act on par with reconstituted groups like Three Dog Night and Gary Puckett & The Union Gap.

A word on Mekon history: The Mekons rose out of the industrial city of Leeds, U.K. during a period of high unemployment and general cynicism. (That’s what launched punk rock in the beginning, kiddies, not the desire to have your songs used on car commercials.)

The basic Mekon lineup that’s been active the past decade or so only has two members of the original band -- Jon Langford (who started out as a drummer eventually switching to guitar) and Tom Greenhalgh, the two main male singers of today’s Mekons.

But I suspect most Mekon fans -- myself included -- arrived much later. Some saw the light with 1985’s Fear and Whiskey, which was alternative country before there was a word for it, while even more were baptized with 1989’s Mekons Rock and Roll, perhaps their most accessible album, but also perhaps their greatest.

Thus many Mekon fans think of the band in terms of singer Sally Timms and fiddler Suzie Honeyman, both of whom enlisted as Mekons in the mid ‘80s. That’s only natural. Timms’ alluring alto truly is one of the band’s greatest strengths. And Honeyman’s fiddle (along with Rico Bell’s accordion and Lu Edmonds’ arsenal of stringed instruments) give the Mekons their unique Salvation-Army-Band-gone-to-seed sound.

The cuts I like best on Punk Rock are the ones that showcase The Mekons’ unusual instrumentation. On the opening cut “Teeth” the fiddle and the accordion are as hard driving as the grating guitars.

And, as usual, some of my favorite cuts are the Sally songs. On “Corporal Chalkie” she sounds like a sexier Patti Smith (and there’s a definite Lenny Kaye influence on the guitar solo.). Then on “Chopper Squad,” she’s backed mainly by a banjo (Bell’s accordion coming in later)

If there’s such thing as a “punk ballad,” the song “Lonely and Wet” would qualify. It‘s by Langford over pounding minor-key guitar chords (with the fiddle and accordion contributing to the general cacophony.)

Some of the songs here -- “Never Been to a Riot,” “I‘m So Happy,” “Fight the Cuts” and “Dan Dare” -- are basically high-spirited punk stomp recreations of their older versions. But the rage as well as the underlying love sounds undiminished, especially on “Fight the Cuts,” a cry against an uncaring government.

It’s true I probably would have preferred an album of new material from The Mekons. But Punk Rock shows that nostalgia doesn’t have to be sappy.