The punk-era holdouts The Mekons, originally from the UK but now scattered worldwide, were set to reunite to record their 23rd album. Then COVID-19 hit, and they went to Plan B. Plan B resulted in Exquisite, the aural equivalent of a collage made by 7 different people in 7 different places. Like all Mekons’ albums, it turned out to be greater than the sum of its parts. Mark Jacobson spoke with Jonboy Langford, Mekon front man, about the process of recording during a pandemic.
Jonboy Langford, who first became a Mekon 43 years ago while attending art school in Leeds, West Yorkshire, once told me the secret of the band, and early punk rock in general. “A lot of bands try to give the audience what they want,” he explained. “We try to give them what they don’t want.”
Asked if this was still true, Jonboy, the now 62-year-old Mekon front man by default, said, “In this day and age, we just try to give them something.” This was the case with Mekons’ new album, their 23rd (give or take), Exquisite, which takes its name from the idea of Exquisite Corpse, a collage-based parlor game once played by surrealist luminaries André Breton and Jacques Prévert to pass the time between World Wars in Montparnasse cafes.
“Exquisite was a record of last resort,” Jonboy said from his sweet Chicago home, where he has lived for decades and supports his rock & roll addiction by painting semi-sardonic icons of country-western heroes like a moribund Hank Williams, Sr. stuck through with arrows in the manner of St. Sebastian. “The Mekons have always been at our best when nothing is expected,” said Langford, with typical winking self-effacement. “When we made Fear and Whiskey (the band’s widely acknowledged 1985 masterwork), we didn’t think anyone would listen to it. We thrive on low expectations.”
“Chivalry” – The Mekons, from the Fear and Whiskey album:
The story was this: Once upon a time, the Mekons—often mentioned with their school chums Gang of Four—were a fleeting next big thing, on major labels like Virgin and Herb Alpert’s A & M; Mekons Rock and Roll, one of their best, was made for the master of the Tijuana Brass’ company.
But that was long ago and far away. Nowadays, like any respectable neo-hippie leftist art ensemble, they forego personally taking any of the proceeds from their infrequent tours, instead choosing to put the money into a communal pot to be kept for inevitable rainy days. Late last year, feeling frisky, they decided to blow the kitty on a group trip to Valencia, Spain, where they planned to make a new record.
“We’d been getting it together it for weeks, buying tickets, booking rooms,” Langford reported. “Then the COVID hit. Valencia was one of the hot spots.” That was that.
Still, the group wanted to record, put something out. Originally the idea was to do a single song remotely but the group’s attitudinal wooliness mitigated against even that. This inertia was countered by an urge to exhume the Exquisite Corpse. ‘Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau,’ the impeccably self-promoting surrealists called it: ‘The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine.’ A few anarchy-abating ground rules were established, Jonboy said, “You know, like everything has to be in C and 128 BPM.” But the key dictum was: No contact. No interchange with any of the other bandmates until all the material was in.
“The first breakthrough came when Eric (Eric Bellis, a.k.a. Rico Bell) sent me this accordion part,” Langford reported. “Well, I thought, that sounds a bit like music.” After that, the other Mekons—Lu Edmonds, who doubles as the lead guitarist in Public Image Limited (he played the spectacular guitar parts on both Kirsty MacColl’s original and Tracy Ullman’s hit remake of “They Don’t Know”), violinist Susie Honeyman and drummer Steve Goulding—sent in “odd snippets.” Sally Timms, the group’s chanteuse, sang vocals into her dodgy cell phone. The corpse began to reanimate, take vague shape. It was big, bigger than the single song once imagined. Themes emerged, dark subterranean themes underwent mitosis, bisecting into separate songs, streams of themselves. Bassist Dave Trumfio mixed it to coherence. Then there it was, a full album, not the record the group might have made in a Valencia studio, but something.
The result is astounding, perhaps the most interesting ensemble music to come out during the great creative lockdown of 2020. The demented post-Beatle harmonies between Jonboy and Tom Greenhalgh are oddly tight. “Corn and Grain” is as effective a vessel for Sally Timms’ Faustian slow roll delivery as her monumentally sly take on John Anderson’s “Wild and Blue.” Upfront throughout, Steve Goulding, drum noise ricocheting as if set inside the Vienna sewers from The Third Man, reminding listeners yet again (on “Inhuman”) that is probably the most inventive ska drummer since Mighty Diamonds-era Mikey “Boo” Richards. But what is really astounding about Exquisite is: it sounds exactly like a Mekons record, or close enough.
“Escalera” – The Mekons, from Exquisite
Faced with a potentially world-wrecking bug, the band dredged seemingly unrelated nightmare scraps from the musical subconscious, tossed them in the air and had them come down in a mostly finished jigsaw that somehow sounded just the next evolution of themselves. The result was beyond a century-old surrealist canard or neo-luddite DIY techno Erector Set achievement. It was alchemy, the process of the virtual hive-mind of long-time artistic collaborators, one more in a long line of however off-angled gifts to the band’s loyal cultists.
The result is astounding, perhaps the most interesting ensemble music to come out during the great creative lockdown of 2020.
“Maybe the Mekons should make all their records like this,” I suggested, referencing the often lamented inability of the band’s far-flung members to gather in the same time, place or page at any given moment.
“Absolutely not,” said Jonboy, who along with his family and Sally Timms, had fled steaming Chicago for the relatively plague-free “Indiana Riviera” on the south shore of Lake Michigan. As fraught as the Mekon record-making process can be, face to face was better. To prove it, Langford claimed to have a Whatsapp transcript of the electronic crossfire between the band members that accompanied the final stage of the assemblage. It was, Jonboy said, “as long as War and Peace and twice as tedious.”
Unless the pandemic goes on forever, Exquisite was a one-time deal, not likely to be repeated. Still, it is most assuredly something.
“Inhuman” – The Mekons, from their new album Exquisite:
Exquisite is available through bandcamp: https://mekorpse.bandcamp.com/