Listeners expecting punk rock from the Mekons' latest CD, Punk Rock, may be confused. Only "Never Been in a Riot" and "Fight the Cuts" (here performed by Toronto's the Sadies) have anything like the raging, downstroke energy of the band's London contemporaries, the Clash, the Sex Pistols and the Damned. "Lonely and Wet" is slow and lost, and "The Building" features singer-guitarist Jon Langford shouting the lyrics unaccompanied.
"Punk rock is a term that's become pretty debased," Langford says in a recent phone interview in anticipation of the band's Wednesday appearance at The Parish at House of Blues. "It was relevant for about a year."
"It was about how rules were made to be broken and making your own entertainment," Langford says of the punk rock played by this band of former art students from Leeds. That credo allowed the band to avoid letting technical limitations or received notions of good and bad get in their way. Ironically, despite sporting lower profiles than the bands that have come to define punk, only the Mekons and the Fall -- perhaps the two most idiosyncratic -- have stayed together since the mid-70s.
To celebrate 25 years of the Mekons, the band performed a series of shows in America last year and recorded Punk Rock, revisiting songs from their earliest albums. Langford might not capture the lost-in-the-city madness of the original vocal on "The Building," but these versions often eclipse the originals, not because they're better but because the tracks don't sound trapped in the sounds of the day. The 1979 album The Quality of Mercy Is Not Strnen, the original home for many of the songs, has a thin, wiry sound, like watered-down Gang of Four -- "Who I thought were amazing," Langford confesses.
"I look back on it now and see what fools we were," Langford says of that album, which was released by Virgin Records in England. "It was recorded two years too late." But the bigger issue was how profound the aesthetic distance was between the band and the experience of recording at a mansion in the country. "Van Morrison had recorded there," he says, "and there were very nice hippie ladies bringing us food any time of night." For punks on the dole, everything about that was wrong. "(The album) demonstrates us losing our grip. We were trying to please someone else."
In the years since, the Mekons have incorporated everything from dub to folk, but the sound most associated with them is an anthemic, rockin' country fueled by equal parts passion and beer. "Country music represented everything we hated -- right-wing politics and Jesus," Langford recalls, but touring America and drinking in neighborhood bars, they heard in country "more genuine expressions of working class existence, and that was the mission of the Mekons. We didn't want to hit people over the heads with politics with a capital 'P' -- 'Smash the state!' -- we wanted to write about people's lives."
Ironically, many of Punk Rock's songs may be more apropos now than they were when first written. The band's collective imagination seems most fully engaged when depicting life during wartime; they could make falling in love or going to the pub seem like desperate, faintly heroic acts.
"'Corporal Chalkie' is a paranoid song about being called up to go to war," Langford explains. "That wasn't an obvious thing to write about then, but poor young males are becoming cannon fodder again." Langford brings a healthy dose of political gallows humor to the stage, but offstage, the humor is harder for him to find when discussing George W. Bush's presidency. "They've been searching for a new enemy, and now we're in an Orwellian state of perpetual war," he says, "and there's no possibility of debate. I was asked to do benefits for [Dennis] Kucinich and [Howard] Dean, but they were both out before that could happen."
The truest expression of the band's politics isn't the rant or lyric; it's the band itself. Scattered around America and England, all have separate lives and musical careers. Bassist Lu Edmonds plays with Billy Bragg, accordionist Rico Bell and vocalist Sally Timms have solo careers, and Langford is almost a cottage industry also playing with the Waco Brothers, the Pine Valley Cosmonauts and Jon Langford's Ship and Pilot. In recent years, he has also received a lot of attention for his visual art.
When duty calls, they come together as a small mob -- eight this time around -- but no one loses his or her voice or individuality in the process. That might be reminiscent of union-hall rhetoric, but the results are red-blooded, powerful and a hell of a lot of fun. It's the sound of a community, and in the case of the Mekons, a community that has been together for a long time. They kibitz and wisecrack with each other, but the roots of the songs can be traced back to what Harry Smith, compiler of The Anthology of American Folk Music, called "social music" -- music that brought people together. In the spirit of the pub and the fais do do, things can get a little ragged, but after more than 25 years together in one configuration or another, "we're not big on rehearsing," Langford says. "We see what happens when we get on the road."