Here we go again with one of my favorite bands, ever. Y’know it’s easy to plump for bands that everyone knows are or were great—those Brit Invasion worthies, the top dogs in prog, or the U.S. bands that won kudos for a distinctive brand of Americana—The Band, the Dead, CCR, R.E.M.—but when we come to punk and post-punk, it gets a bit more wobbly. One reason being that the whole outlook of punk was that the “great band biz” was just more capitalist crap, and, worse, media-events that meant nothing to what life was like in what were sociologically called “subcultures” but which were actually ways of life trying hard not to end up as niches. It was doomed, we all know, because the capitalist-media machine makes cogs of us all. Anyone who “produces” is in there somewhere, right?
And so the Mekons. The band that to my mind offered the best antidote to everything I detested about the Reagan-Thatcher era. Contrast them with U2 and see what I mean. Pomposity and bombast vs. DIY enthusiasm and bootstrap aesthetics. One is going straight to the top! The other is going to be around like roaches, forever. The Mekons were the roaches of rock? Yeah, something like that.
All of which is just a way of introducing today’s song. Because yesterday’s birthday boy is Tom Greenhalgh. And chances are you don’t know who he is (I mean, unless you’re in a very small circle of my peeps—or that you happened upon this post because you’re a Mekons fan). The “general public” has no clue. But Greenhalgh is one of my main men of the Eighties/Nineties. As I type this his vocal on “Prince of Darkness” is working its time-worn magic. In fact, I was very tempted to pick that song for today’s song because the album it’s from, Honky Tonkin’ (1987), is the first Mekons LP I had to have. And, though I’ve posted on my favorite Greenhalgh track, “Fletcher Christian” (1988), I haven’t posted on that earlier album. And the song references “the Catholic girls at Halloween,” which, well, let’s just say it stirs something in this boy’s memory banks. “He sees a red town and wants it painted black / For the Catholic girls at Halloween” is the full line. Do I have to explain how something like that is out to steal my cold, dark heart?
Today’s song also beat-out what I think would be Kajsa’s choice: “Lyric” from Curse of the Mekons (1991), a song that my old friend Tim once said reminded him—in its final verse—of my poetry, and how’s that for a major compliment to say nothing of an understanding of what the attraction to Greenhalgh might consist of? (Indeed, K and T are two people who I know know who Greenhalgh is!). I’m not ready, though, to try to unpack “Lyric”—those cribs from Moby-Dick and all that. Then too, the more I think about it, the more I think that The Curse of the Mekons, as an album, deserves a full work-up. Maybe I should write a proposal to 33 1/3? It’s the Mekons album that deserves to be gone into at some length. Remember, 1991 was the year of Achtung Baby, Out of Time, Nevermind, Ten, and Perspex Islands. And I say Curse was the best of the lot.
But I’m going back to 1986 and the first Mekons LP I ever heard: The Edge of the World. And its lead-off track, thus the first Mekons track I heard. Even there I was tempted to go with “King Arthur,” if only because it captures so well the battered beauty of fall and for the line “Down in the streets empty as a vote.” And that statement isn’t even particularly jaded. What I liked about the Mekons right from the start was what we might call their sense of the reality principle. They were writing songs about trying to cope with the world as it was. I wouldn’t say they were even trying to “change it” because that would make them more prescriptive than they are. They were just trying to comment on it, to keep the gray matter functional when, as today’s song says, “my ears are filling with rubbish / Can’t find it, can’t make it work.”
Hello cruel world
And I think the song won out because when I put on the CD this morning, I found myself embraced by that classic Mekons sound: Greenhalgh’s voice, with Sally Timm on backup vocals, the long distorted guitar intro, the accordion in the break. It’s so folky, but with a weathered punk wizened wisdom. Hard tunes for hard times. And on this morning as the Repub-a-dub-dubs take over Congress, let’s just say a foul whiff of bygone Reaganite years was on the wind.
Doubt and resentment / Bile in my stomach / Feelings of hate / And a pain behind my eyes
Just put it out there, Tom. And thanks to Sally and fiddler Susie Honeyman this isn’t a boy’s only club like The Clash were. Which was important because Sally added a moody layer to the whole, complementing the songs Tom or Jon Langford sang. A three-pronged attack! And I speak in the past tense because I’m recalling my earliest impressions. The band is enjoying a flurry of attention at the moment thanks to The Revenge of the Mekons, an interesting documentary about them that’s going the rounds. (I saw it and commented on it a bit last fall.)
Anyway, “Hello Cruel World” is in many ways the Mekons “hit” from back then. It should’ve saturated the airwaves. If I were a DJ then, I probably would’ve played it as my opening theme song. It has a sound like what it is: the song of someone trying to go on, living the played-out life, living the hard scrabble existence, trying to face the unforgiving world that doesn’t “give a tinker’s curse for the starving artist, you non-creative garbage, you whining, hypocritical toadies” (as John Cleese put it so well). Yeah, but the singer of “Cruel World” isn’t going for the jugular. He’s just trying not to wallow in a debilitating condition. It’s “the malaise” writ large. While there are many more savvy Mekons songs—I was also tempted by “Authority” on Curse—this one shows their heart is in the right place, I believe. Bowed but unbroken. Beat up, not beaten. Don’t think of this as blood / I know it is / Just pretend it doesn’t hurt.
The Mekons put themselves on the line in their music like few bands ever seem to, in my view. Not that I know any of them. This is one of the peculiarities of this entire project. I’m never writing about someone I’ve met or know personally. Some of them I’ve seen perform live (I saw the Mekons live in 2000 in DC), but even that doesn’t mean much to me. This series is “song of the day,” not artist of the day. What I’m going on is what the song does for me. Whatever the song did for its writer and performers is their business.
I heard you singing, you sounded brave. Yeah, that.