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Handcuffed to History: ‘The Mekons Rock ’N’ Roll’ Is 30 Years Old

Released in 1989 as the baby boom generation was taking over, ‘Rock ’N’ Roll’ is a classic rock album by a band of British punk rock survivors, and it sounds as necessary and urgent today as it did at the end of the ’80s

Blast First/Ringer illustration

We live in Scandaltown, at the corner of Outrage and This Has Never Happened Before, a society so shocked dumb by the extent of its own corruption that it can’t recognize its collective amnesia.

Collusion with oppressive foreign governments? Criminals at the highest levels of influence? Malevolent forces manipulating the gears of capitalism to benefit the few at the expense of the many? How can this be happening?

The bleak comedy is that not only is it happening, it’s been happening, for decades or centuries or longer. The tragedy is that as a society, we seem programmed to forget. The Mekons remember.

Oddball survivors of the first wave of British punk, the Mekons first formed in 1976 as a ramshackle collection of University of Leeds art school students and labor activists. Punk bands of that vintage were typically not built for the long haul, and the Mekons in particular seemed a prime candidate to burn strangely and flicker out fast. Whereas the Clash were hyperorganized paramilitary fashionistas and the Sex Pistols were a carefully constructed time bomb placed in the center of London culture, the Mekons were something different: diffuse and self-effacing, off-the-beaten-path and decidedly non-careerist.

When other politically minded groups climbed over themselves to assert their righteous, street-fighting bona fides, the Mekons went the other way. Their first single was the thoroughly ambivalent “Never Been in a Riot,” a wry inquiry into the limits of public insurrection in the face of forces so entrenched and malevolent that turning a trash can over wasn’t likely to spook them. Theirs was a revolutionary fury with a question mark: Can we really win? And what happens if we do?

Against long odds and with many fits and stutters, the Mekons outlasted their peers and thrived on their own terms. By the time they had mostly relocated to Chicago in the mid-’80s, the group had semi mysteriously reinvented its sound into an utterly sui generis hybrid of country-punk and social realism, something like Gram Parsons by way of Dickens’s Hard Times.

Great albums ensued. 1985’s Fear and Whiskey was one part apocalyptic art rock, one part Hank Williams tribute, filled with song titles and sentiments like “Hard to Be Human Again.” 1988’s So Good It Hurts was an ambitious, genre-hopping sprawl that imagined Fletcher Christian stranded in Tahiti and John Glenn orbiting the moon, drinking cocktails with God. Menacing and funny, albums like these turned critical heads and made in-the-know folk heroes of members Tom Greenhalgh, Sally Timms, and Jon Langford.

By 1989, the Mekons’ well-earned cachet was enough to lure major label A&M to sign the band.

The resulting dalliance with big business—released 30 years ago—remains one of the greatest statements ever made about the endlessly appetitive force of commodification and the unseen costs of nostalgia. It was named the only thing it really could be: The Mekons Rock ’N’ Roll.

“Day by day I plunged deeper / Into a world of cheap sensation”

It’s the late ’80s, and depending on how you carbon-date it, rock music is roughly 30 years old. The youthquake of the boomer generation has passed through its counterculture phase and become, increasingly, the culture itself. The numbers game has turned the boomers’ way, and soon their influence will spread through institutional and governmental corridors and exert a dominance over modern media unrivaled in human history. A sea change like this requires a soundtrack, and that soundtrack would become known as classic rock.

The recipe: Take the rock ’n’ roll. Remove any threat of subversion. To the extent feasible, back-burner the complicated cross-cultural and ethnic contours central to the music’s foundation. Play to the suburbs and keep it simple: Eagles and Steve Miller and Boston. Voilà: a consumer-friendly cash cow, tailor-made to sell the high-end lifestyle accoutrements ever more essential to the boomer identity.

The Mekons Rock ’N’ Roll is in part the story of a rogue genre’s domestication, a musical style born of danger and immediacy, carefully repackaged into comfort food for an ever more complacent center-right nation. “Capitalismos favorite boy child,” as the band describes it. But the record is also about something darker and more frightening—classic rock as an easygoing playlist for a new bonanza of technological thrills, skillfully harnessed to dazzle and distract. Five years before the internet and two away from CNN’s nightmarishly antiseptic gloss on the first Gulf War, we are on the brink of a giddy apocalypse of endless amusement.

Soon the first boomer president, a self-styled “New Democrat,” will strut across the stage at his MTV-sanctioned inauguration. Many of his major policy initiatives—globalization, welfare reform, mass incarceration, and a technocratic commitment to incentivizing corporate ubiquity—will bring the Democratic Party further to the right than at any time in the past 70 years. The spectacle of rock ’n’ roll somehow makes this more palatable. “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow,” goes his adopted theme song.

The implied flip side to this sentiment: Do start forgetting the past. Yesterday’s gone. Say it with me. Yesterday’s gone.

“Watch the blood drip down the walls”

Boisterous and strutting, loud and louche, insinuating and occasionally grating, The Mekons Rock ’N’ Roll is one of the oddest-sounding records ever recorded. In many ways it is the band’s most straightforward release, paring away their walkabout tendency to indulge nearly any genre in the service of something more ostensibly commercial. The crucial exception is Susie Honeyman’s sawing violin, an ingredient held over from the band’s earlier forays into folk and country, but amplified here to levels of dissonance recalling John Cale’s viola on the first two Velvet Underground albums.

The overall effect is something like a deeply catchy panic attack. Opening track “Memphis, Egypt” crashes in with one of the band’s greatest riff-driven rave-ups—it briefly could fit on Who’s Next or Physical Graffiti—before the first verse punctures the simple pleasures of rocking out with a bewildered warning: “Destroy your safe and happy lives / Before it is too late!” The pervasive mood of anxiety and comedy thus set, songwriters Greenhalgh and Langford take turns white-knuckling out Cassandra-like dispatches from a terrifying future, with the shrugging resignation of traveling salesmen peddling hideous wares.

The album is a shadow universe of would-be hits. Langford’s “Amnesia” is a stuttering pop gem rooted in haunted-past paranoia, and Greenhalgh’s “Empire of the Senseless” possesses a melody so appealing that the band, somewhat astonishingly, agreed to censor the lyric “this song promotes homosexuality” in order for the video to get its fair at-bat with a skittish MTV.

As is the case with many Mekons records, the showstoppers almost always foreground the great singer Sally Timms. One of the truly remarkable vocalists of the rock era, Timms, like Dean Martin or Otis Redding before her, can inhabit and enhance songs with endlessly surprising phrasing and a tone that imprints instantaneously on the brain.

The closing track, “When Darkness Falls,” a duet between Timms and Jon Langford, is one of the saddest songs ever written. A loping lament of love gone bad and a power structure gone worse, it offers only this by way of mercy: “I’ll pluck out your eyes / Because you have seen too much.” Cassandra, mad from her visions, freed from her misery.

“Making little liars into heroes / It’s what they always do”

It’s 1985, the first year of Ronald Reagan’s second term, and the National Security Council and the CIA have jointly hatched one of the great harebrained schemes in the slap-happy history of American foreign intervention. The details are Byzantine, but the gist is this: The administration has authorized the illegal sales of arms to its sworn enemy Iran, bypassing a strict trade embargo in the process. The motives are opaque. Maybe they are negotiating for hostages, or maybe they just want to meddle with the balance of power in the Persian Gulf. Probably both. Either way, it’s a reckless ploy.

Now Oliver North, a Marine lieutenant colonel serving on the NSC, has another idea. He intends to divert large swaths of the $30 million in sales from the illegal Iran deal to Nicaragua, where a group of CIA-backed rebels is attempting to overthrow the legitimately elected socialist government. This is also massively illegal. North believes (or says he believes) that he’s been authorized to take this action by his higher-ups. He believes (or says he believes) that the president himself was aware of the plan. The information becomes public and suddenly North is at the fulcrum of a full-blown scandal. Cover-ups occur, documents are shredded, hearings are held, the CIA director dies before he can reveal his secrets. It’s the ultimate D.C. workplace comedy.

Next, a strange alchemy takes place. North is your basic degenerate shitbag opportunist, one of countless bottom-feeders engaged in the amoral subterranean underworld of arms dealing and war profiteering. At first, he appears, rightly, to be headed to jail. But much in the way that Brett Kavanaugh’s hysterical protestations made a hero of a coward, North’s exaggerated martyr act before Congress makes him an unlikely champion of the far right. He is eventually convicted of three felonies, but the charges are vacated within two years. Most of this is forgotten.

North becomes a well-compensated star of the emerging right-wing media complex, a Fox News fixture, and founder of the Sean Hannity–underwritten Freedom Alliance. He moves up in the world, or whatever direction it is one moves after the Freedom Alliance. In 2018 he’s named president of the NRA, a position he serves in until just this past April, when he’s ousted after a failed coup d’état against the NRA’s chief executive, Wayne LaPierre. Quite a run, and it’s fair to suppose we’ve not seen the last of him.

The biggest hits of 1989 included Richard Marx waiting patiently and Billy Joel not starting a fire. The best song of 1989 offhandedly mentions “Boring Ollie North down in the subway / Dealing drugs and guns.” I bet if you’d asked the Mekons in 1989 where Ollie North would end up 30 years after his prominent role in a high-profile treason, they would have guessed the answer straight away: Showbiz, baby!

“I walk through the wall / No pain at all”

Unlike Ollie North, the Mekons’ time in the arena proved brief and largely nonremunerative: Rock ’N’ Roll came out to rave reviews and minuscule sales in September 1989. Fetishized by the independent press but largely ignored by the mainstream media, the band’s modest compensations came in the form of a widening cult of admirers and insightful raves, like the one by Village Voice critic Robert Christgau, who grasped the rock-as-transgression conceit to hilarious effect: “Are they implicated? Of course. Do they love it? Yes and no.”

Three decades later, Langford recalled the postrelease vibe in an email to The Ringer: “Commercially it was our best-selling album: 25,000 sales. That was a disaster according to A&M. They were very disappointed and we hung our heads in shame.”

Unsurprisingly, the Mekons and A&M did not operate in seamless harmony. Langford recollects an anecdote typifying the relationship: “Prior to the release they told us there were too many songs on the album. There were a total of fourteen and it would of cost them more on publishing if they’d released them all. So we deliberately removed the most radio-friendly track—‘Heaven & Back’—to see if they would notice. They didn’t.”

The ensuing 30 years have been kinder to the album than the genre. The Mekons Rock ’N’ Roll is routinely featured on Best Albums of the ’80s lists and is widely considered something of a minted classic, if one still not as widely heard as is merited. As for rock ’n’ roll itself, the passage of time has seen it recede further and further from the center of the culture. In some ways, the classic rock gambit has proved to be the discipline’s undoing, taking the dynamic, geographically and ethnically diverse invention of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Elvis Presley and turning it into something ever more homogenous and irrelevant. Increasingly it resembles the rear-guard coalition of frustrated anachronists making their final stand in our current political moment. While there will no doubt be another couple of spins through the longstanding (and utterly asinine) “Rock is dead and/or back!” critical shibboleth, the reality is that we are likely a generation or two away from this once-unstoppable boomer juggernaut assuming a permanent niche identity.

This spring, the Mekons released the well-received Deserted. Their first full length in eight years continues their determined march through history, addressing topics from D.H. Lawrence to Arthur Rimbaud to Iggy Pop. They’ve lived through Thatcher and Reagan and survived long enough to see it all come back again in the thorny thicket of Brexit, which Langford described as “more asset stripping by the rich, and blind stupidity from the little Englanders, who think kebab shops are something to do with the E.U.” For the band seemingly least likely to sustain itself, it’s been 43 years since their formation and 30 since they sang the words “The battles we fought / Were long and hard / Just not to be consumed / By rock ’n’ roll.”

Sometimes you lose the battle, but win the war.

Elizabeth Nelson is a Washington, D.C.–based journalist, television writer, and singer-songwriter in the garage-punk band the Paranoid Style.