The Mekons: Rock 'n' Roll
Believe it or not, major labels were still a way of life back in 1989, when the Mekons' Rock 'n' Roll was first released. Of course there were indies--many more than in the rock 'n' roll '50s, not to mention the proudly "revolutionary" yet blatantly corporate '60s. But with a few noisy exceptions, bands who came up with well-received indie albums made no bones about seeking the pot of iron pyrite at the end of the neon rainbow: the "deal." Rememember Bruce Springsteen shouting, "The record company, Rosie, just gave me a big advance"? One reason he did this every fucking night was that the money didn't go that far, not with the improved production the majors afforded and demanded coming out of it. So in the end the big attraction was that once the record was done there'd be exposure, getting the music "out there" or "to the people": the legendary "airplay" (promotional costs, bribes included, eventually deducted from you know where), clips for an MTV that still played entire videos (and didn't target only the under-18 demo) (production costs ditto), and of course distribution, which in their Sisyphean trek toward monopoly the majors had a pretty good lock on. It helped if their field men (and women, ha ha) liked you.
In 1989, the great early success of this system, R.E.M., had just left quasi-indie I.R.S., which was distributed by A&M, for Warners. Husker Du was just breaking up, as a band and with the self-same Warners. The Replacements were winding down at Warner-distributed Sire without ever having gotten their scads of great songs to the people. Noisy underground ideologues Sonic Youth were hooking up with David Geffen's Warner-distributed DGC, which at their suggestion would soon lure the unknown Nirvana from Sub Pop. But no one knew what that portended. R.E.M. was the model--a quality band that went kinda mega by dint of base-building roadwork, college radio adulation, and actual hit singles. At A&M, which craved more underground poontang, a&r phenom Steve Ralbovsky cherished similar dreams for Soul Asylum and Soundgarden, who would eventually ride Nirvana's riptide, and the Feelies and Kitchens of Distinction, who wouldn't. And recalling the R.E.M.-I.R.S. interface, he hooked A&M up with a label called Twin/Tone, one attraction of which was its contract with the Mekons.
The Mekons had been around longer than any of the above-named, and were also more staunchly anticapitalist than any of them--more staunchly anticapitalist than any American band except the deceased Minutemen, which didn't stop them from signing a deal with Virgin in 1979. Funk-influenced intellectuals like their Leeds compadres the Gang of 4, the Mekons' The Quality of Mercy Is Not Strnen remained permanently import-only in an America intensely suspicious of English "punk," and their ambiguously entitled follow-up album was on the left-identified U.K. indie Red Rhino. Personnel shifted wildly--the Mekons brand name had concealed some 20 enemies of the state as of 1985. They recorded for many tiny labels, including CNT, where the 1982 worktapes extravaganza The Mekons Story invented lo-fi, and the Sophie Bourbon-backed Sin, where the 1985 Fear and Whiskey invented alt-country. More albums in this general vein followed, more labels too--including their first American one, Minneapolis-based Twin/Tone, childhood home of the Replacements and Soul Asylum, and London-based Blast First, international home of Sonic Youth. Note, however, that none of these bands ever augmented a lyric sheet with a bibliography, a special feature of the sardonically named Honky Tonkin'. Dashiell Hammett and Angela Carter were by all accounts flattered. T.W. Adorno and Ludwig Wittgenstein weren't so sure. Frederick Engels was just glad to get his name out there--to the people, as it were.
There are those who say Rock 'n' Roll was barely that musical beast at all, and those who say that anyway, such a claim wasn't the cleverest of commercial ploys by 1989. These people miss the point. So what if Susie Honeyman's screeching fiddle drenches the record in white noise? So what if the nearest thing to a rock anthem to make #1 Billboard in 1989 was Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire"? Forgive my oversimplifications in advance, and admit that compared to the dirges and two-steps of 1987's Honky Tonkin', or even the skanks and reels of 1988's more rockin' (and retrospectively much stronger) So Good It Hurts, Rock 'n' Roll was an all-out assault on both the sensation-craving perpetual-adolescent sensorium and the Hot 100. It was loud, fast, and tuneful. It was the Mekons' U.S. major-label debut. It still sounds killer. They never made another record like it.
The first cut, "Memphis, Egypt," which anyone not examining the package thinks of as "Rock 'n' Roll," confronts the beast and calls it a beast--"the Devil," to be precise, "Capitalismos, favourite boy child," his "foul breath" like "fine perfume." Was it really that parlous, that soul-consuming, that bad? Nah, but that's how it felt, and so Steve Goulding keeps pounding and Jon Langford keeps declaiming and the feedback keeps yowling till it swallows Tom Greenhalgh's recitation and everything else in its wake. Segue to Sally Timms reminiscing about a more literal prostitution in "Club Mekon," and then to Greenhalgh, who seems to give it up to the forces of evil with "Only Darkness Has the Power"--which is in fact the nakedest love song the Mekons ever recorded, one of the nakedest love songs anyone ever recorded, candid and vulnerable and romantic and doomed.
If I say the album never gets any better, don't be too hard on the Mekons, who we know have never made a fetish of consistency--those are three of their best tracks ever, yet Rock 'n' Roll is so strong it nearly matches them anyway. My nominations would be the closing "When Darkness Falls," a grim answer song to "Only Darkness Has the Power"; "Amnesia," where a slave ship "takes rock 'n' roll to America"; the nihilistically devil-may-care "Blow Your Tuneless Trumpet"; and the Greenhalgh-shouted live staple "Heaven and Back," left off the U.S. major-label debut by the arbiters of taste at A&M but included on the Blast First version and this one. Lesser songs nip at the beast's heels in an exuberantly embittered celebration/critique of capitalism's big beat--cf. "Someone," where "the studio's empty but the beat goes on"; "Learning to Live on Your Own," with Timms throwing "rock 'n' roll songs on the fire" in her existential rue; and the failed liberation scenarios of "Cocaine Lil" (drugs) and "Empire of the Senseless" (culture). If the Mekons were going to serve the false god of rock 'n' roll, they were going to give him what for in the bargain.
Unfortunately--or fortunately, if you fear for their purity, always a highly sporadic concern on their end--their service, such as it was, proved short-lived. Rock 'n' Roll's release was held up while A&M's lawyers fretted over the unauthorized Elvis pic cunningly concealed on the cover, and U.S. sales topped out at under 25,000. Had you asked the Mekons' camp back then, you would have heard the sad old stories of paltry tour support, nonexistent ads, fans who couldn't find the thing in the shops. The Mekons declined to ingratiate themselves with label honchos in L.A., instead finishing up their U.S. dates there and returning to their European fan base. A&M refused further tour support, and when they told Ralbovsky they wanted to cut another album right away, he suggested they have some fun with an EP instead. Honoring this request to the letter, they dubbed the fourth EP of their oddly configured career F.U.N. '90: Band cover, Kevin Coyne cover, ghost vocal from early fan Lester Bangs, and an Anglodisco-style pulse that came as a shock after Rock 'n' Roll's Clashlike aggression, especially to Americans unaware that in 1989 the revolution had occurred, and its name was, er, acid house.
Soon if not quite right away, they cut another album: The Curse of the Mekons. A&M said no thanks, chums. And major labels were no longer the Mekons' way of life.
Longtime Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau has written on the Mekons in Grown Up All Wrong: 75 Great Rock and Pop Artists From Vaudeville to Techno (Harvard), Christgau's Consumer Guide: Album of the '90s (St. Martin's Griffin), and Christgau's Record Guide: The '80s (Da Capo, out of print, it happens to writers too). Snippets of this commentary, fewer than he had hoped, are cannibalized in the above notes.
Collector's Choice Music CCM-201-2, Apr. 24, 2001