Steve Terrell goes all out for the documentar y Revenge of the Mekons
Ed Roche, former label manager of Touch and Go Records, summed up the appeal of the longest-surviving punk band in the world: “The joke around the label is that every critic loves the Mekons. Unfortunately, they get free records.” Roche’s remarks can be heard in the documentary
Revenge of the Mekons , which opens this week at the Center for Contemporary Arts. The underlying truth of his joke can be seen at the Metacritic page for the movie. There are 10 reviews by critics (and only one bad one) — and no “user reviews” by nonprofessional critics.
Devout Mekons fans probably will become devout fans of this movie, directed by Joe Angio, whose previous film, How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It ) is a documentary about actordirector Melvin Van Peebles.
Revenge tells the story of how the Mekons came together as students in Leeds in 1977, and how they’ve kept going through the years — with an amazingly stable roster for the last 20 or 25 years — remaining true to their vision and consistently producing inspiring work. “We were a bunch of art students when we formed, and it was an art project basically,” singerguitarist Jon Langford says on-camera. “We weren’t musicians. We were just seeing how far we could take it.”
As faithful readers of this column know, I’m one of those critics who loves the damned Mekons. I’ve seen them live twice (both during South by Southwest festivals in Austin), and I think I’ve reviewed every album the band has released in the past 20 years, plus many of the offshoot projects like the Waco Brothers and various Langford and Sally Timms solo records.
It never fails to frustrate me that no matter how I’ve tried to spread the word about this wonderful musical collective of visionaries, rebels, and oddballs — and how writers far more talented and influential than I am have tried to do the same —the Mekons’ audience never seems to rise beyond the level of a small-butrabid cult.
In an interview at a Minnesota radio station shown in the film, the host notes the longevity of the group and asks, “What’s the key to your success?” Members look around at one another, grinning, possibly suppressing laughter. Singer Timms, a Mekon since the mid-1980s, answers: “Success is the thing that usually kills bands in the end. So we haven’t had any success. We’ve had none of the attendant problems. It’s easier than fighting over huge sums of money. We fight over 10 or 15 dollars.”
So what’s the key to the band’s lack of success? Probably the group’s uncompromising nature — and its precarious relationship with the music industry. Kevin Lycett, a founding member of the Mekons who was with them until 1989, sums it up in the movie while talking about their brief association with Virgin Records, which released their first album: “We wanted total control. They couldn’t say what was released; they couldn’t put anything out without our say-so. Couldn’t do posters without our say-so. Couldn’t package it without our say-so. We removed every possible incentive for Virgin to be interested in us. It was a masterpiece of flushing ourselves down the loo.”
Longtime Mekons drummer Steve Goulding says, “I don’t think it’s anti-capitalist so much as just having an ideal that you want to stay with ... It’s not really a political stance. It’s an artistic stance.”
Fans will appreciate these interviews with various members past and present. Listening to Langford and the equally witty Timms talk is always a pleasure. But I came away with new appreciation for Susie Honeyman, the band’s fiddler for more than 30 years, whose day job is running a London art gallery with her husband. Honeyman talks about how she was terrified of Timms at first: “She was extremely rude and vicious. She’s toned down the viciousness.”
While other Mekons laugh off their bad luck in the music biz, Honeyman tells a story of attending a party thrown by A&M Records, the band’s label for a couple of albums in the late ’80s. The new management was announcing all the artists signed with the label but didn’t mention the Mekons. The group knew their time with A&M was over, and you can see the heartbreak in Honeyman’s eyes.
Also excellent is the live footage of the Mekons onstage through the decades, including some extremely rare clips of early shows. You’ll see Timms forgetting the lyrics to “Ghosts of American Astronauts” and Langford doing a hilariously obnoxious rock-star dance as the rest of the band sits in an “unplugged” set.
So go see Revenge of the Mekons . And bring a friend or two to try to expand the cult following just a little. There is a sneak preview at the Center for Contemporary Arts at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 16, followed by a Skype Q& A with Langford. Regular showings begin April 17.
▼ Canutofest. Friends and family of the late Kenny “Canuto” Delgado are organizing a tribute to the man many have described as Santa Fe’s number-one music fan. Delgado died last Thanksgiving after struggling many years with cardiac problems.
Delgado was a longtime member of the Santa Fe Bandstand committee, which is responsible for the free-music program on the Plaza every summer. And he was a regular presence at concerts ranging from rock ’n’ roll to mariachi.
Canutofest takes place on April 18 from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. at El Museo Cultural de Santa Fe (555 Camino de la Familia). According to a preliminary list, musical acts participating include Sean Healen, Ramon Bermudez Jr., the Mikey Baker Trio, the Chris Abeyta Quartet, Strings Attached, and Sweet Sister Gospel Band with Terry Diers.
There is no charge, but those attending are asked to bring supplies for the Santa Fe Animal Shelter — highend dog and cat food, non-clumping kitty litter, etc.