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Mekons Inspire In Documentary Portrait

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 17, 2015 3:40PM

The Mekons pose with canine pal. (Photo by Derrick Santini. Courtesy of Music Box Films.)

For me (and based on their general lack of commercial success, I suspect many others), The Mekons have been one of those vital bands I have consistently overlooked. I've enjoyed the few records I've heard by them and I've been highly entertained by live performances from Mekons member and Chicago music scene staple Jon Langford and his alt country outfit, The Waco Brothers. But I have yet to dig deeper into the long and respected output of The Mekons themselves.

That's going to change very soon.

Revenge of The Mekons is a truly inspirational documentary—a tribute not simply to a band edging towards its 40th year, but to the independent, creative and collaborative spirit that has kept them going in an unforgiving music industry. Their lineup has changed a few times over the decades but a core of longstanding members keeps the group going, even as they are now spread out over England and America.

Diehard fans know the basics, but for the many who only vaguely know their name or have never heard of them at all, The Mekons were born in that seminal punk rock year of 1977. While The Sex Pistols exploded and imploded in a burst of glory and infamy and The Clash staked their claim as "the only band that matters," their fellow Brits The Mekons emerged to...well, less notice.

The documentary details how the band's original members were art students coming mainly out of Leeds University. They shared an outsider sensibility and political consciousness with another band on the scene with whom they were friendly, Gang of Four. But while Gang of Four immediately announced themselves with a groundbreaking sound, The Mekons—by their own admission barely rudimentary musicians—stumbled around a bit in a punk rock mess, searching for their own style. What they lacked in musical finesse, they made up for in spirit, social activism and humor. Though The Clash's "White Riot" was misinterpreted by racist punkers who embraced it, The Mekons' "Never Been in a Riot" was still a perfect satirical rejoinder.

Musically the band seemed to find its voice in the mid-'80s when they began mixing country and folk into their ragged but increasingly eclectic sound. One of the more amusing anecdotes in the film comes from the widow of a member of Chicago country music veterans, The Sundowners. She recalls her husband coming in late and saying he met some very nice punk rock musicians from England. "Are they any good?" she asked. "No," he replied, "But they're eager to learn."

Subsequent recordings made The Mekons one of the best-reviewed bands of the last quarter century but their fan base has remained a small though loyal cult following. Their 1991 album Curse of the Mekons had an actual curse written in ancient runes on the cover, and several people in the film suggest (with varying degrees of seriousness) that sealed the deal on their misfortune. A couple of major label deals would fall apart before the members seemed to accept The Mekons would simply never make much money.

And yet, the movie shows they have thrived in that surrender. While all working elsewhere in music, art, and just plain "Joe jobs," they continue to make uncompromised recordings, multimedia art projects and play live shows fairly regularly in spite of the difficult logistics of bringing the cross-continental collective together.

Collective is the right word too. No one in the band claims leadership. Langford's ceaseless energy drives their gatherings to a degree and the charisma of Langford and singer Sally Timms has made them the default "stars" of the band, but their process remains entirely collaborative. Whatever feuds may have touched the band over their long history, they seem to genuinely like each other as well as being able to give each other shit without taking it to heart. Enjoying dinners and the not uncommon drinks together (they almost define the term "pub band"), The Mekons' camaraderie is refreshing in a field where many veteran band mates seem hardly able to tolerate each other.

In that spirit, director Joe Angio does a nice job of balancing screen time among members past and present. Langford and Timms certainly are great on-camera subjects, but so are others, including the fascinating multi-instrumentalist Lu Edmonds, who lives part of the year in Siberia, setting up recording studios for musicians there. A thoughtful and upbeat soul, Edmonds is also true punk rock royalty, having also been a member of The Damned and Public Image Limited.

Famous fans also pop up in the movie, including SNL and Portlandia comic/musician Fred Armisen (who was briefly married to Timms), author Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections) and Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn. But Angio wisely keeps the focus on the band's many different personalities and endeavors.

As the geriatric Rolling Stones prepare to overcharge for another soulless stadium tour, and Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey (Who's Left, as my wife calls them) are out milking another fortune from better memories of The Who, it's truly uplifting to see The Mekons carrying on in small clubs, still lugging around their own equipment and obviously playing for the pure love of it. Aging gracefully seems contrary to rock and roll, but The Mekons appear to be doing it while still remaining very rock and roll indeed.

Revenge of The Mekons. Directed by Joe Angio. 95 mins. No MPAA rating.

Plays Friday, April 17 at 6:45 p.m. at the Logan Theatre as part of CIMMFest. Director Joe Angio will attend the screening, which is a free event, co-presented by the Lake FX Summit and Expo. Ticket information is available here. Also, the Gene Siskel Film Center hosts a panel discussion about the film at 1:30 p.m. this afternoon, with Angio, Jon Langford and Brian Andreotti of Music Box Films. That event is also free and admission is first come, first served.

The Music Box Theatre also has a handful of screenings of the movie Saturday April 18, Sunday, April 19, and Tuesday, April 21. Showtimes and ticket information available here.