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[whitespace] The Mekons
A river of protest runs through the Mekons' songs.

And Mekons for All

English agit-punk band goes out of its head

By Gina Arnold

ALTHOUGH I DIDN'T GET to the Mekons' most recent show in San Francisco a few weeks ago, I did go to the art exhibit that went with it earlier in the day. Titled "OOOH!," the show featured the artwork of members of the Mekons, some munchies and an opportunity to meet and mingle with the Mekes themselves. I like everything to do with art, and it was a nice gig for people who don't get to go out at night, so the show was right up my alley.

Mekons singer Jon Langford is an accomplished painter whose theme is dead American icons. I've been tempted to drop $800 on one of his paintings of Elvis Presley decaying or Hank Williams Sr. being impaled by arrows like St. Sebastian, but the rest of "OOOH!" featured cheaper stuff--artifacts from the records, like beautifully rendered engravings, chapbooks and posters of lyrics to Mekons songs.

Sending it on the road and having little gallery openings on the same nights as the shows is a brilliant example of cross-marketing, although it presupposes both a rabid following of fans and a band whose lyrics are worth memorializing in media other than music.

The Mekons definitely qualify in both departments and may also be the only band that could do such a thing and not come off as incredibly pompous and self-aggrandizing. One reason they don't is that, despite their critically acclaimed position in rock, they've sold so few records over the years that one practically wants to put a hundred-dollar bill in their hands for services rendered and be done with. Giving them a Franklin and getting a framed print for it is a much better deal.

OOOH! (which stands for "Out of Our Heads!") is also the title of the Mekons' latest CD. Mekons albums are always worth listening to, but I think they're especially comforting and impressive during hard times and approaching wars. That's not surprising perhaps, since the band's roots lie in oppositional politics of the depressed England of the mid-'70s, and the Mekons spent the early '80s raising money for striking miners in England. Thatcher's and Reagan's policies of social stratification and repression brought out the best in the Mekons on albums like The Edge of the World and Fear and Whiskey. A world being run by George W. Bush seems bound to do the same.

The Mekons play vaguely folky-Celtic rock that has much in common with the music of the Pogues, the Levellers and Nick Cave, only perhaps sloppier. Their songs invariably have choruses that are infectious chants, and verses that make you think about the big things in life. The lyrics bear a heavy underpinning of Biblical imagery--"The seed of the devil lives on in men / Verses 4, 5, 6, chapters 8, 9, 10"--and a running subtext of beheadings, sacrifice and the general foreboding of political mayhem and dread. From "Thee Olde Trip to Jerusalem": "Roar, reason, roar in power again / They'll be selling out the women like they sold out the men."

On "Hate Is the New Love," Sally Timms sings, "The only thing that matters is / What and where you were born ... / 'Cuz there's no peace on this terrible shore / Every day is a battle / How we still love the war." "Take His Name in Vain" is, as the title implies, a reverse spiritual, a hymn in which the singer evokes "old familiar vampires" as he takes His name in vain. And on "Stonehead," Langford obliquely but forcefully decries war: "I am the king. You are the queen. We rule nothing."

At this point, the Mekons' not-so-secret quest to subvert the dominant cultural paradigm is an old, old story, but the fact that, 25 years into their career, their albums never cease to be pointed and inspirational is perhaps a new one. Meanwhile, their traveling art exhibit could teach a thing to all those bands with aspiring art-school dropouts (the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Grateful Dead, Nirvana, the Replacements and Incubus), at least if that video in which singer Brandon Boyd ingeniously draws himself with his left hand is any indicator.

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From the October 3-9, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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