Un­sung crit­i­cal dar­lings

‘ Re­venge’ doc­u­ments Bri­tish band Mekons’ decades of mu­sic with lit­tle public no­tice.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - RAN­DALL ROBERTS POP MU­SIC CRITIC

Born in art school at the Univer­sity of Leeds in 1977, the Mekons long ago con­ceded that fame and for­tune were out­side their grasp, and it kind of shows. The band’s fan site, while kept cur­rent, is run by a guy named Nobby and looks like it was coded in 1996.

Un­like univer­sity peers Gang of Four, the Mekons are sel­dom cited as an inf lu­ence by hipster punks. There hasn’t been a “Mekons re­vival.” Their fans are ag­ing with them, and the rest of the world doesn’t seem to care.

Such cre­ativ­ity in the face

of am­biva­lence is a cen­tral theme of “Re­venge of the Mekons,” an aptly ti­tled and en­gross­ing doc­u­men­tary by f ilm­maker Joe An­gio. The film traces the rises, falls and plateaus of the self- de­scribed Bri­tish “fun­da­men­tal­ist punk rock art pro­ject,” whose eight cur­rent mem­bers are a mix of vis­ual artists, writ­ers, singers, gallery own­ers and f ield- recorders and are spread across three con­ti­nents in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, Chicago, ru­ral Eng­land, Lon­don and Siberia. ( Multi- in­stru­men­tal­ist Lu Ed­monds is mar­ried to a Siberian.)

The f ilm is hav­ing a brief run at the Play­house in Pasadena, with ad­di­tional screen­ings at the NoHo 7 on Mon­day and the Royal on Tues­day.

Over the last two decades, few artists in my ac­cu­mu­lated juke­box have re­ceived as many spins, gen­er­ated as many in­ter­nal ex­plo­rations — or re­ceived as many blank stares when I preached their virtues. I never tire of their mu­sic, which roams gen­res usu­ally through some com­bi­na­tion of guitar, bass, drums, ac­cor­dion, har­mon­ica, f id­dle and voice.

Their mas­ter­work, the folk- based “Fear & Whiskey,” turns 30 this year, but it cer­tainly won’t be get­ting a Rolling Stone col­lec­tor’s edi­tion. The band’s most no­table link to main­stream suc­cess is be­cause of a failed union: singer Sally Timms was mar­ried to ac­tor- co­me­dian Fred Ar­misen and pushed him to pur­sue com­edy.

At one early head­lin­ing gig in Ire­land, an un­known young band called U2 opened for them; the leg­endary Mekons curse didn’t af­fect Bono. Oth­ers might rec­og­nize the mag­nif­i­cent art­work of singer- gui­tarist Jon Lang­ford, whose dis­tinc­tive por­traits of clas­sic coun­try stars have earned him a fol­low­ing in the f ine art world and have ended up as al­bum cov­ers. Eric “Rico Bell” Bel­lis is a pain­ter and ac­cor­dion player; he and his wife re­cently moved back to their home in High­land Park af­ter four years in Lon­don.

Rather than quit, the Mekons have en­dured. Across the decades, the band has con­tin­ued at a steady clip, an al­bum ev­ery few years that gen­er­ates oft- bril­liant art to noble gushes but lit­tle more. “It’s no joke, I’m telling you,” sings co- founder Tom Green­halgh in the aptly ti­tled song “The Curse of the Mekons.”

“I can’t think of another band where there’s a big­ger gulf be­tween unan­i­mous crit­i­cal praise and this mass gen­eral public in­dif­fer­ence,” An­gio said be­fore his f ilm made its lo­cal pre­miere.

The band’s genre- span­ning out­put has gen­er­ated a mirac­u­lous se­ries of al­bums that draw from Bri­tish folk, Nashville coun­try, punk, dub, dance rock and rock ’ n’ roll. The re­sult is a uniquely Meko­nian sound, one that dredges up hard emo­tions for the sake of ex­plor­ing them.

“There’s no half mea­sures with the Mekons,” said ac­cor­dion player Bel­lis over a pint at the York in High­land Park. A hand­some man with a soar­ing high tenor, the artist has been play­ing with the band since they united be­hind a con­tentious Bri­tish min­ers’ strike. Since then, he’s helped pro­pel midrange melodies across the band’s reper­toire, one filled with wit and in­sight.

“Re­venge ain’t so sweet, but it’ll have to do,” sings Timms on “Re­venge,” on the ne­ces­sity of the oc­ca­sional “vi­cious, cold vendetta.” On “Last Weeks of the War,” from their 2000 record “Jour­ney to the End of the Night,” Timms wan­ders, lost in iso­la­tion. “The last weeks of the war/ Left me won­der­ing how much more/ Could the loveli­est crea­ture bear?/ I’m not ru­ined but I need re­pair.”

“Dark­ness and Doubt” moves from a drunken night at a pub to an ex­is­ten­tial, naked- and- shiv­er­ing abyss over a few verses. Of­ten half a dozen mem­bers sing si­mul­ta­ne­ously; usu­ally a few of them are wildly out of key.

I’m among the devo­tees, so I for­give them. I’ve f lown to Lon­don in the late ’ 90s to wit­ness their rau­cous, shanty- based per­for­mance piece “Pussy, King of the Pi­rates,” com­posed with the late writer Kathy Acker. I’ve spent a string of bliss­ful Chicago New Year’s Eve con­certs at the Metro, trav­eled to Maxwell’s in Hobo­ken, N. J.; Mem­phis, St. Louis. They’re my Grate­ful Dead, and I could ar­gue their virtues year by year.

That’s what An­gio, who di­rected the 2005 doc­u­men­tary of Melvin Van Pee­bles, “How to Eat Your Wa­ter­melon in White Com­pany ( and En­joy It),” does through­out his f ilm. A chron­i­cle of the band’s en­tire run, in­clud­ing a through- story that cap­tures the band mak­ing its 2011 al­bum, “An­cient & Mod­ern,” the di­rec­tor paints a lov­ing ode to an un­sung band of lif­ers.

An­gio’s cen­tral ques­tion: “How does a band that’s never en­joyed any suc­cess by the con­ven­tional def­i­ni­tion not only keep go­ing, but why do they bother? No band would con­tinue to pur­sue that, with the same core of peo­ple” for nearly 30 years. Mekons fans, in­clud­ing writ­ers Jonathan Franzen, Greil Mar­cus and Luc Sante, chime in as An­gio weaves band in­ter­views and old clips that make a valid ar­gu­ment that the curse may be lift­ing.

“There’s no be­hind- themu­sic drug ca­su­al­ties, no big f ights and some­one get- ting tossed out,” An­gio said. The worst stuff is the most bor­ing: la­bel clashes. “The com­mer­cial as­pect of it was never go­ing to hap­pen, and they made peace with that,” An­gio said.

Other acts have been ac­tive for nearly as long. L. A. duo Sparks have been go­ing non­stop since the early ’ 70s, to lit­tle main­stream suc­cess. An­gu­lar Bri­tish post- punk band the Fall has re­leased records at a steady clip since 1976, but founder Mark E. Smith has burned through dozens of mem­bers. It’s not rare for a few friends to stick it out for some decades and earn a liv­ing. But re­tain­ing eight core play­ers is quite the ac­com­plish­ment, even if a few have taken years at a time off.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, the band has no plans to celebrate “Fear & Whiskey’s” birth­day. In­stead, they’ll be em­bark­ing on a 2015 tour while writ­ing their new stu­dio al­bum. The jaunt will cul­mi­nate with a sold- out Brook­lyn per­for­mance called Mekon­cep­tion, where they’ll record it.

“We’re go­ing re­ally lowtech,” said Bel­lis, “us­ing one mi­cro­phone, and the au­di­ence is go­ing to be able to par­tic­i­pate.” He de­scribed the setup as how blue­grass play­ers per­form. “One goes up to the mi­cro­phone at a time. But they’re pretty smooth. Ours won’t be.” ran­dall. roberts @ latimes. com

Frank Swider Mu­sic Box Fil ms

SALLY TIMMS, left, leads some of the Mekons in a scene from “Re­venge of the Mekons” doc­u­men­tary.

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