On 30 Years of Rock ‘n’ Roll

Zachary Lipez’s love letter to the Mekons, a band who takes the win where they can find it.

I bought The Mekons’ eighth studio album, Rock ‘n’ Roll, when I was 14, for less than a penny. I picked it as one of my initial choices (along with Jesus and Mary Chain’s Automatic and the first Stone Roses) when I joined Columbia House Tape Club. “Take any 11 tapes for a penny. Then take the 12th one free!” The hitch was that Columbia House would, like all our future gym memberships, continue to charge you long after you’d stopped wanting the service, but even at that young age, I suspected that if you didn’t care about ever having a credit card or home, and you didn’t mind the occasional abusive phone calls from strangers, you could just not pay your non essential bills. CRASS asked, “Do they owe us a living?” And I dunno! But my mom was a nurse practitioner at the neighborhood health center and my dad a writer of gay noir mysteries and they were about to get divorced and I was lonely and gawky and sure that I’d forever be unkissed, so owed or not, society gave me a Mekons tape.

Rock ‘n’ Roll starts with “Memphis, Egypt.” Barely controlled feedback, a kick, and Jon Langford calls out, “Destroy your safe and happy lives before it is too late.” Like Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds’ 1985 The Firstborn Is Dead and its “hit,” “Tupelo,” The Mekons are all about Rock & Roll as myth. But unlike Cave, despite Rock ‘n’ Roll’s cover rendition of Elvis Presley in Pollock splatter, The King of Graceland is not the origin myth. It’s (actually) Ike Turner’s Memphis recording of “Rocket 88,” what led to that and the disasters that ensued. Rock didn’t meet a sly deceiver at the crossroads, resulting in teenagers fucking for the first time. Rock signed contracts, manned the gun towers at the Berlin Wall, erased blackness, sniffed blood soaked cocaine to deaden its collective conscience as Rock made soundtracks to Kissinger’s murderous misadventures. In The Mekons’ cosmology, all historical events, great and small, feed into each other. The slave ships “bringing rock & roll to America,” MTV pushing the anodyne as opiate, Operation Paperclip shipping in Nazis to win the space race — all converge because how could they ever be separated? How could a sane person not sweatily connect the dots? And punk, as anticipated in its thesis statements, solved nothing. Because we all are complicit and the belly of the beast is cozy as hell. 

Of course, at 14, I understood none of this. I liked the guitars. I preferred the angry songs the boys sang to Sally Timms’ almost conversational lilt, because I was about a 14 year old boy as a 14 year old boy can be and Timms didn’t sound like she needed saving and I wouldn’t really learn to relate to women as human beings for, well, *cough* a bit further down the line. (It would have maybe happened sooner, but Afghan Whigs put out Gentleman in ‘93 and, like far too many of my peers, I was well assured that what women really wanted was to be treated like shit.) 

Of course, now, “Club Mekon,” Sally Timms’ jaunty encapsulation of 40 years of counterculture history, with its clear-eyed evocation of society’s discontents and the parasites that love them, is my favorite song on the album. With guitars alternating between scrape and twang, and Susie Honeyman’s violin soaring and scraping on top, the song is just irritating enough to weed out the dilettantes. Numerous friends have been bored to tears at bars across the nation by my slurred recitation of its lyrics, followed by expansive exploration of its themes: “See, it’s connecting Chuck Berry to the Beatles to Punk, to Punk’s inevitable downfall, but also it’s about finding salvation in the margins, even if it’s the hope of those born to lose… Another rock & roll trope exploded!” My jaw will shift like tectonic plates as complete strangers move, stool by stool, closer to the exit. 

The edition of Rock ‘n’ Roll I got from Columbia House was the American version. It came out on Blast First in the UK but in the States, it would be The Mekons only foray into the world of major labels. A&M signed The Mekons for reasons that are still unclear and didn’t promote them in the least. Langford tells about how the label was so indifferent to The Mekons that when the band was told to shorten the album for American release and they removed “Heaven and Back,” the crowd favorite that stood the best chance of actually being popular, nobody at A&M even noticed. Not that I think that promotion would have helped. The popular guitar music landscape of 1989 was dominated by hair metal and Billy Joel. Dave Grohl wasn’t even in Nirvana yet so somebody at A&M was clearly either a fan of countrified agit-prop or merely insane. Rock ‘n’ Roll sold 25,000 copies, a disaster by major label standards, and the band was soon dropped. 

I’m almost grateful that “Heaven and Back” wasn’t on the version of Rock ‘n’ Roll I knew as a teenager. It would have been too much for me. It’s so anthemic that I’d probably have focused on it to the detriment of the rest of the album. I already, without having experienced a single damn thing, related too hard to “Blow Your Tuneless Trumpet.” All I wanted, more than my safe and happy life to be destroyed, was to be the sort of man who could conceivably not owe nobody, not even owe the rent, and “even got some money I still haven’t spent.” (The detrimental effect of “the fancy shirt I wore is just lying in the drawer/the girl I used to sleep with, I don’t see her anymore” is harder to determine. Please see Jessica Hopper’s essay on emo for more on that…) If there had been one more absolute banger on my version of the record, I may have become a rocker bore years before the cowboy-hatted Nashville Pussy fetishism of New York in the late ‘90s temporarily sealed my fate. Luckily, I was forced, as a pre-internet obsessive on a limited budget, to reckon with the album that was in my hands as it was—as full of mournful songs of crushing love lost as raging historical digressions. 

The Mekons are credited, by anyone not blinded by provincial nationalism or emotionally invested in over-crediting Uncle Tupelo, with inventing alt-country. American alt-country’s predecessor, cowpunk — the offshoot of hardcore that developed when the punks discovered cocaine, cowboy shirts, and adult relationships — is a truly fantastic sub-genre as far as that goes. In this house, we respect The Long Ryders and Los Lobos and everything Kid Congo touched. But also, many of the American alt-country precursors and founders were too reverential of “real country,” too enamored with cosplaying dust bowl refugees, too intent on getting it right (if a bit faster). Not The Mekons. Their justly revered mid-‘80s output, starting with 1985’s Fear and Whiskey, is the sound of young men and women falling out of love with a post-punk that had quickly become regimented and uniform and embracing folk and country. But this newfound love was filtered through Leeds art school orniness and joyful punk incompetence. Though, given their age, there was a fair share of affected world weariness, The Mekons didn’t pretend to be cowpokes drowning their sorrows at the Olde Timey Saloon. They were aggrieved drunks of a singular, English, kind. They fiddled while the empire burned but who could blame them; it was a pretty sucky empire. The aesthetic of The Mekons is less indebted to history than bemusedly-to-furiously resentful of it. All that being said, even as it musically moves the band from the alt-country roots that they themselves planted, Rock ‘n’ Roll fulfills the necessary murder balladry of olde time country music to with such gruesome imagery (“I know you’ll come back when you’ve had enough to eat/you’ll hold me close like you might kill me/with a gun or a knife or a whip or a stone/bury me with five hundred others”) that my teenage brain took the songs as literal horror stories. The accuracy of “When Darkness Falls,” a duet where Tom Greenhalgh and Timms trade violent revenge fantasies, with graphic capacities for inflicted pain only outstripped by the even more painful threat to not call each other a taxi, wouldn’t reveal itself until I got older and saw, from both sides, just what the smaller slights could do to a person. A teenager’s arsenal for psychic warfare is no small thing, but it’s largely made up of blunt objects. And self-awareness comes at, well, I’ll let you know. 

Speaking of gestures towards self-awareness, I realize that there’s more than a few previous sentences that are a bit… overwrought. The Mekons do that. The Mekons are, through no fault of their own, a critic’s band. On the “critic rock” spectrum, they place as slightly more popular than This Heat and significantly less popular than Carly Rae Jepsen. While I’m not exactly stoked to be a cliche, the fact remains that The Mekons has shaped how I use words. Using dry wit and clear-eyed allusion, The Mekons sing songs of men and women caught up in the forces of history, through the prism of the half-empty pint glass, and who doesn’t want to do that?! There is so much made of how doom-laden they, and by extension their fans, are, so analysis of The Mekons’ art can veer from the existential jive of your Christgaus and Chuck Eddys to the bludgeoning profundity of Greil Marcus (who I love, but still…) and his acolytes. All camps share in a reveling in that muck about drunken bravery in the face of existence; lying in the gutter but looking at the stars, etc. The Mekons are more Irish playwright than rock & roll band; they balloon big ideas and puncture them, and sometimes there’s a bit too much focus from us critics on the former. 

September was the 30th anniversary of The Mekons’ Rock ‘n’ Roll. They never got big and, unlike some other art punk survivors, they’ve yet to be rediscovered by the youth. Their shows, while still astounding in their powerful pleasures, are largely attended by people who look like me, give or take 10 years. They just put out Deserted, their best album in years (and that’s not backhanded — The Mekons don’t really make bad records), to reasonably favorable reviews. Old people still love them and the youngs haven’t found, or given enough shits to look for, any grounds for cancellation. 

There are worse fates than earning a dignified living off songs about trying to keep one’s dignity. I try to follow that example. I play in a band. I write about music. I have compromised in this life more than words can describe, and I haven’t alsways been kind, but I work two shifts in a dark bar so I always have $250 in “I’m not gonna fucking do that” money, and when some asshole asks me what I “really” want to do, I tell them that tending bar is a respectable job and to mind their manners/business. I don’t know that The Mekons “taught” me anything because I’m not sure anyone has. Nor do I want my rock & roll bands to do anything but be what they are: poetry making nothing happen, if you know what I’m saying. But even if, in their high and low dudgeon, free of piety, The Mekons collective provided less an alternative to the System than a viable alternative to U2, their Rock ‘n’ Roll album, in its succinct summation of secret wars and state sponsored atrocities as indivisible from whatever commodified series of musical tantrums I might otherwise be inclined to flatter myself into thinking was rebellion, was as good a school as I’d ever attend. It’s hard to be human in big, big history. But there are options besides “safe” and besides “happy.” 

Like Sally Timms told me at 14, as invitation and as warning, “When I danced and saw you dance/I saw a world where the dead are worshipped/this world belongs to them now they can keep it.” It’s important, occasionally, to be honest, to assess the enemy and one’s complicity in equal measure. It’s also important, occasionally, to take the win where you can find it — when you almost have rent, when your soul made it another night without being entirely crushed and humiliated by the petty cruelties of state and/or loved ones, when the sun is up and not shining so much it hurts and, not that you care about capitalism vagaries, you even have some money you still haven’t spent. 

Sure, The Mekons add the caveat, “Death belongs to everyone/it’s the only thing we have,” but that’s just noting that, in one aspect, this world is fair, or at least egalitarian.

Zachary Lipez is the singer of the band Publicist UK. He is the co-author (with Stacy Wakefield and Nick Zinner) of a number of books, most recently 131 Different Thinks (Akashic 2018). He is a freelance writer in NYC and tends bar at 124 Old Rabbit Club.