Destroy your safe and happy lives before it is too late / The battles we fought were long and hard / Just not to be consumed by rock’n’roll
The opening lines of today’s song, sung by today’s birthday boy, Jon Langford, put the case quite succinctly. By 1989 one might well ask what the point of rock’n’roll, in the present, was. It had a grand tradition by then, but, as with most great traditions, it was a case of—as Macbeth says—“the greatest is behind.” The heroes had lived, and some of them had died, and those who didn’t—per Neil Young’s question a decade before “Memphis, Egypt”—suggested “it’s better to burn out than it is to rust.” So even the burnouts could look far more glorious than those who stayed the course through the decades that turned rock’n’roll into rock and then into something even more processed and market-driven. A good ol’ rock’n’roll band wasn’t likely to be making the cover of Rolling Stone very often by 1989. One of the best that could advance in that category was Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers—and they were hardly at their best by 1989. Things were looking for a revitalization or a “good night, sweet prince.”
The Mekons song jumps out at you and goes for your throat—“just like rock’n’roll.” The album is called “rock’n’roll” or “The Mekons rock’n’roll”—to indicate, ironically, that they’re going to do it this time—rock! The band’s best previous album was 1987’s Honkytonkin’ which owed much to the Chicago bluegrass they had spent some time engaged with. It’s a strong alternative to the ersatz rock of the airwaves, to say nothing of the ersatz Country. The following year brought what is perhaps their best album, sonically speaking. So Good It Hurts shows better than usual recording chops and boasts a collection of real songs, fully fleshed-out, so to speak. "The Mekons rock’n’roll" is even better, and is on a major label (A&M) and looks like it’s going to break them into the big time. Which didn’t happen. No, we might say, with Joe Strummer of The Clash: “if you been trying for years, we already heard your song.”
That might be true, but if we heard the Mekons already it was as the acolytes of The Clash and as the band that kept that particular home-fire burning—sometimes, as in “Learning to Live on Your Own,” by “throw[ing] another rock’n’roll song on the fire.” The point of all this was that The Clash and their ilk had reformulated the challenge of rock’n’roll in the late Seventies, and by the late Eighties who still believed? The Mekons.
So the battle not to be consumed by rock’n’roll is to not succumb to the popularized, sanitized, digitized version—all you wimps who want your MTV (cf. egregious, but not unironic, video for today's song)—and to not succumb to the fabulous museumed Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame tradition, with its potted history for assorted wankers (i.e., music critics) to crow about what the what of rock is. The Mekons see it differently. Rock, in their view, was never about having a “safe and happy life”—feted, televised, turned into pablum for the people. And so the line “Capitalismus’ favorite boychild” puts it out there. Rock can’t be revolutionary if it’s an industry. Rock makes money, rock is for Fat Cats of all persuasions. It’s always been a story of managers and agents and record deals, hasn’t it? It’s always been about “product.” How can you save the kids’ souls unless you sell yours?
Then there’s the great lines, so very apropos, while we’re on the subject of what was called—unironically—“late capitalism” in the late Eighties: “East Berlin can’t buy a thing / There’s nothing they can sell me / I walk through the Wall / No pain at all / I’m born inside the belly / Of rock’n’roll.” The Wall came down in 1989, and it was capitalismus über alles thereafter, where the buying and selling is what makes the world go ’round. This little glance at the “socialist experiment” before it hits the dustbin of history is the sort of thing no rockers had their eye on—except the Mekons.
But all’s not dark: “It’s something to sell your labour for / When hair sprouts out below.” The point of rock’n’roll, what fed its charge, was precisely that: the great hormonal surge of the early teens. The moment at which sex becomes “a thing.” The moment at which image becomes “a thing.” The moment at which choosing the bandwagon to jump on becomes a life or death matter. To buy the latest from your mostest, you’ll sell your labor, you’ll join the queue, you’ll be there where the sound is going down—“that secret place were we all want to go—it’s rock’n’roll.”
So, ultimately, “Memphis, Egypt” (it’s title cleverly winking at Memphis—“home of Elvis”—and the one in Egypt, where Alexander the Great was first buried), is beating the bushes to stir up some of the spirit of rock’n’roll in the era of the apotheosis of Reagan and Thatcher and the business of business is business Steinian logic of the times. If you can’t beat ’em, if you don’t join ’em, then you remain the eternal outcasts—the Mekons.
And how’s this for a little “sympathy for the devil” (spoken lines in the bridge with harmonica behind): We know the devil and we have shaken him by the hand, embraced him, and thought his foul, stinking breath was fine perfume—just like rock’n’roll.
Happy birthday, Jon. God save the Mekons.