Fear, Whiskey and Punk Rock: The Story Behind the Kick-Ass Mekons Doc

A new documentary on the veteran first-wave punk/country band charts a long, strange career

The Mekons whoop it up in a scene from 'Revenge of the Mekons.' Credit: Frank Swider/Music Box Filmes

There's never been a band quite like the Mekons. Unmarred by breakups or breakouts, undefined by genre, geography, or ego-trips, this first-wave British punk rockers from Leeds have been widely revered but never popular, steadily working but never simply punching the clock. No rock outfit's ever been this committed to behaving like a true band, with all the equanimity and familial bonding implied. "There's no leader," founding member Jon Langford says. Bandmate Sally Timms offers a revision: "Everyone's a leader." Things and people change — as do lineups when your group has been around for 37 years — but at their core, the Mekons remain the Mekons.

Take that singularity and combine it with consistently adventurous music in the face of constant economic disappointment, and you can see why documentarian Joe Angio (How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company and Enjoy It) might want to make a movie about them. As the filmmaker frequently captures in Revenge of the Mekons — an energized history of the band, as well as a firsthand account of the group making their 18th studio album Ancient and Modern 1911-2011 — the band's on-stage banter very quickly spills into a free-flowing conversation with the crowd. "They make no effort to separate themselves from their audience," says Angio. "That's abundantly clear before or after a gig, when they're at the bar buying you drinks." (The film is currently playing limited engagements across the country, courtesy of Music Box Films.)

But how did the eight active members, scattered across several continents and a half-dozen time zones, possessing widely varied personalities and opinions, agree to let him enter their world? "Some of us were a little reticent, and some were gung-ho," says Timms, a member since the mid-1980s and one of the band's four "lead" singers. "And some didn't express an opinion one way or another. Which is like everything we do — it just happens anyway, regardless."

"We didn't feel like we could tell him not to do it," says Langford. "The thing with the Mekons is that we're always trying to bring people in. Maybe we should have been more cautious with someone who was making a film about us. But I had this feeling that he wasn't going to do the dirty on us."

Far from doing the dirty, as it were, the film deftly illustrates via archival and original candid footage, interviews with past and present members, as well as notable fans like Jonathan Franzen, Greil Marcus, and Luc Sante, how the Mekons project has always tried to balance irreverence with purposefulness. Formed in 1977 by Langford and fellow University of Leeds art students Tom Greenhalgh, Kevin Lycett, Mark White, and Andy Corrigan, the group embodied punk's anybody-can-do-it vibe from the get-go; not knowing how to play any instruments was basically a pre-req for becoming a member. When their fellow classmates Gang of Four would take a break from playing, they'd borrow their instruments to bang out songs like "Where Were You?" and "Never Been in a Riot," a flipped-bird riposte to the Clash's "White Riot."

After they were signed and then swiftly dropped by Virgin Records in the early Eighties, they transformed into a proto alt-country outfit with 1985's Fear and Whiskey, discovering kindred working class spirits along the anxious and agitated American highway. "We were treating Hank Williams and Johnny Cash like major religious prophets," says the Wales-born Langford. "We were trying to channel them rather than imitate them."

The thing with the Mekons is that we're always trying to bring people in. Maybe we should have been more cautious with someone who was making a film about us.

Over the ensuing years, the band grew adept at everything from folk to reggae and Zydeco, endlessly reinventing the Mekons sound while always remaining their politically enraged, spiritedly pessimistic selves. Throughout they've been beloved by critics but ignored by the marketplace, a fact that Angio said only made them more compelling as documentary subjects. "To me, the fact that they never made it by any conventional standards was so much more interesting," he says. "Why do they bother? No other band would even pursue it anymore."

Langford answers the question by calling back to the shaky period between their major label flameout and countrified regeneration. "The band didn't really officially exist anymore, but we were still all hanging around together," he says. "There was no motivation to think it was a career choice — we just kept doing it because it made sense to us artistically and socially. And that's been a recurring theme."

It's a mode that's extended to the present day, when hanging out (and touring and recording) requires formidable logistical calisthenics. In the film, New York-based Angio visited the Mekons wherever they roamed: Sally and Jon in Chicago, Rico Bell in Los Angeles, Steve Goulding in New York, Susie Honeyman and Sarah Corina in London, Tom Greenhalgh in Tiverton, England, and Lu Edmonds in Tajikistan — not to mention numerous past members located here and abroad.

But it's not just geography that has to be negotiated. Since the Mekons has never been a moneymaking enterprise, the members have assorted other occupations and projects to manage. Honeyman runs a London art gallery, and the peripatetic Edmonds is, among various things, serving as John Lydon's right-hand man for the latest incarnation of Public Image Ltd. When reached by phone, Langford is in Austin, Texas, performing three gigs a day at SXSW with the Waco Brothers, his longtime side project, while Timms is at her full-time paralegal job. "I'm in the basement of a law firm right now looking at a load of bad plumbing," she says. "I know lots of bands who've been going for longer than us or for around the same time and they reform for certain reasons, most of them related to money. And that is not in our equation."

Of all the Mekons, it seems that Timms was most reticent about having their lives, processes, and relationships distilled into a 90-minute documentary. "There were times when Sally would see the camera, roll her eyes, and leave the room," Angio laughingly recalls. When pressed, Timms grows philosophical. "I feel like what we do is what we do. It doesn't have to be represented in other ways. People's memories are sufficient, or the records are sufficient," she says. Yet she's come to appreciate the story the film tells, and how it's allowed their music to reach new audiences. "There's an arc of feeling ongoing through this process," she says.

As the film makes clear, that adaptive creative ethos has motivated the Mekons all along. Langford describes an enthusiastic festival audience of predominantly young people who had little prior knowledge of the band. "Those young people went home and illegally downloaded our music. Fantastic! A huge career leap," he says, only somewhat jokingly. "Better than being a bit jaded with everything. Every time we make a record you have to have some sort of amazing optimism to think that it's worth doing. Usually it's borderline whether it was worth doing or not."

"It's the delusion that keeps us going," Timms adds.