The fun and informative 33 1/3 series
of pocket-sized paperbacks, each focusing on a classic album, recently put out a call for new proposals. I submitted one for one of the greatest records ever made
, crossing my fingers. Well,
the short list is in
and my proposal is not among them. Since they picked 94 out of 471 submissions, it was, of course, a crapshoot, but I'm proud to have been in the running.
Noentheless, I am inordinately pleased with my proposal, so here it is:
Your professional CV/resume, including full contact details (see file “SGIH-CV”; everything else is here)
A draft annotated table of contents for the book and an approximate date of completion:
Tracks In History, Like Piss In The Snow
The introduction, setting the scene, who the Mekons are, why they matter, why this album rates the particular focus it does. To be further expanded/cut/refined from the draft enclosed.
The Ripples Whisper Warnings
Dissecting the first three songs: “I’m Not Here (1967)”, “Ghosts Of American Astronauts”, and “Road To Florida”. Ominous portent wrapped in the dreamy ideals of the Sixties. The first song speaks surreally of rock star hedonism and a counterculture absorbed in druggy self-reflection while the old guard continues with their atrocities; the second song contrasts the wonder of space exploration with the practice of using it as another tool of nationalism, militarism and cold-warring superpower exceptionalism; the third traces the sad demise of Band pianist Richard Manuel and the overall strangeness of the state of Florida---the 80s Miami Vice phenomenon must be dealt with as well. (“They send narcotics agents to catch a falling star”)
Like A Funeral March
Taking apart the cover art. Each Mekon is represented by a Day Of The Dead skeleton that also represents an aspect of a song or source. Bandmember mini-bios, a semiotic picking apart of the representations of each “skelly”, tracing of running themes (pirates, psychiatry, Robin Hood, astronauts, mutineers, libertines, blood, Nixon, etc.) as they speak to the UK and US in 1988. Personal testimonies of fans.
Now Your Body’s Up For Sale
Dissecting songs 4-6: “Johnny Miner”, “Dora”, and “Poxy Lips”. A cover of a working class ballad by Ed Pickford given a haunting circus-dub feel; a complex feminist ballad that takes in the assumptions behind the thrills of Wuthering Heights, the misogynistic blinders inseparable from Freudian psychoanalysis, and a portrait of a dominatrix between assignments; a rollicking two-step that quotes pirate Black Bart, alludes to Huysmans’ Against Nature and possibly reflects the AIDS crisis of the 80s.
See The Man Is Writing
How this multilayered, allusive material is actually created. The collective process of the Mekons’ songwriting and recording as described from fresh interviews and archival accounts. The contributions of “deputy Mekons” like Dick Taylor, Rob Worby and Brendan Croker.
Those Shapes And Symbols
Dissecting songs 7-9: “Fletcher Christian”, “Fantastic Voyage”, and “Robin Hood”. A ballad of the lonely desolation of the mutineer; 80s sex and drugs hedonism (the incessant cult of the tragic junkie commented on in “this is meant to be a painkiller, but it’s so good it hurts”) over a thudding Bo Diddley rhythm; and an Afro-pop flavored rebel song filled with allusions to the past and direct references to the Thatcher regime, the miners’ strike, and the Falklands War, plus titillating bisexual in-jokes. (This time, hedonism is an aspect of resistance, not a distraction from crisis: “Soft the scene so formed for joy/oh, curse the tyrants that destroy!”)
Looking Up At The Twinkling Stars
The state of mainstream rock, “modern” rock, indie rock, punk rock in the late 80s. The imminent Rough Trade bankruptcy, the calm before the 90s alt-rock storm, how a cult band negotiates the vagaries of the music business. What is “authenticity”? Why do we care?
Where’s My Baby Face?
Dissecting songs 10-13: “Heart Of Stone”, “Maverick”, “Vengeance”, and “Revenge”. A Rolling Stones cover, delivered straight with a twist; disconnected images of motion/action/frantic desperation with fleeting glances in the mirror; a more desolate but still resolute rebel song (“I’ll never rest and I’ll never forget”); a bonus track in the form of a souped up country song of revenge.
There’s A Mighty Crisis Coming
What came next: the promise of the A&M deal and Rock & Roll, the collapse, the curse, a second journey into the experimental wilderness, solo careers, a renaissance in the new millennium. Why the Mekons endure. We’ll do some dancing here!
These are the proposed contents. I am shooting for a completion time of around December 2012, with further edits and feedback in the following months.
A draft introduction/opening chapter for the book, of around 2,000 words:
This book is a detective story. We will dig through the dustbins of history to find clues to what makes this set of songs tick. What do they say about the distant past, about the time they were recorded, about right now? So Good It Hurts is a seance where you never know which departed spirit will speak next. Better yet, it’s a happy, drunken, rambunctious seance in the company of a dozen of your best new friends. The apparitions may be twisted and scary at times, but the jokes will have you on your knees in joyful convulsions.
The story so far:
The Mekons stumbled into life as the ultimate expression of punk ideals, a group of art school pals who imposed more rules on themselves than the Dogme 95 filmmakers. There would be no promo pictures, no records, no singling out of individual stars, no separation between the band and its audience. Some of these rules were thrown out immediately at the first opportunity; others linger on to this day, however mutated. Dark as the subjects of the songs may get, Mekons gigs are buoyant, ecstatic and side-splitting. The members of the band never stop affectionately ribbing each other and teasing the crowd. The nonstop banter between the goofy, fast-quipping Jon Langford and the beatifically snide Sally Timms never grows tired.
While the collective personality of the band (fiercely intelligent, humorously self-deprecating, and embracing their own human foibles) has stayed consistent for decades, the Mekons’ first incarnation was strikingly different from what they ultimately became. Two lead vocalists, Andy Corrigan and Mark “Chalkie” White, bellowed and shrieked in strained, expressive, unmelodic voices, sometimes in unison, sometimes one or the other singing solo, sometimes trading lines. To this day, I have difficulty telling them apart. (I think it’s Chalkie who takes the lead on their first classic single, “Where Were You?”) Two long-term members, Tom Greenhalgh and Kevin Lycett, slashed away on guitars in a sloppy, spirited, Gang Of Four style. The bass position was held first by future Delta 5 founder Ros Allen, then by Mary Jenner, who also contributed some sawing violin to some early records, paving the way for Susie Honeyman later on. And what about Jon Langford, now the most high-profile member, the assumed leader of a leaderless band? He was the drummer, barely recognizable in early photos with a scruffy moptop and a twinkle in his eye.
This was the group that emerged in the avalanche of independent British post-punk singles that followed the Buzzcocks’ Spiral Scratch, first with the scrappy Clash satire “Never Been In A Riot”, followed by a song that, if they had never done anything afterward, would be cherished as one of the all-time most beloved punk 45s.
“Where Were You?” is one of those great musical epiphanies, a simple song with a simple sentiment, delivered with the power of accidental genius. In a ridiculously long intro, one guitar slams out a brilliantly dumb riff of open E and A chords while Langford’s drum pattern builds and builds until POW, the band bursts out of the gate, riding the riff, gradually accelerating as the singer, defiant and assertive but almost on the verge of tears, relays in a few lines the feeling of waiting in a bar and being stood up by a woman who wasn’t as serious about him as he’d hoped. Neither a rage against the machine or a formulaic love song, it was just a human moment that said what it had to say in the most contagious way possible, then fizzled out like a toy whose battery had just run down.
This was the Mekons that rode a modest underground hit into their first major label contract (not their last) with Virgin, who released an album in 1980 with a cover featuring a chimpanzee at a typewriter, The Quality Of Mercy Is Not Strnen. The content was twelve songs very much in the spirit of “Where Were You?” Catchy, chaotic songs that fall together and fall apart, deconstructing relationships and working class life with humor, angst, and energy. It’s an underrated classic of the post-punk era and a joy to hear. The Mekons hated and immediately disavowed it, claiming that Virgin’s input was stifling and the album was overproduced. Around the same time, the live punk circuit had become so dangerous and violent that the band, echoing the route taken by other contemporaries such as Alternative TV and Wire, took a hard left turn into obscure experimental territory to shake off the boneheads in the crowd.
Cutting down on live performance and recording on the cheap with a rapidly-shifting membership, the group sporadically released weird, opaque albums like Devils, Rats and Piggies and The Mekons Story, where their fragile, barely together songs had been allowed to fall to pieces and were displayed proudly in all their fragmentary disarray. The initial goal of forming the ultimate anti-band appeared to have been achieved by these lo-fi collections of broken, halting, obscure vignettes. There are moments of shocking beauty to found on these albums (Chalkie’s heart-stopping acapella scream “The Building”, the lonesome dub of “Another One”, the drunken fractured rockabilly stomp of “Institution”) but this was difficult stuff, unformed embryos of sound that took real effort for the listener to delve into and uncover their rewards.
What happened next was the last thing anyone expected. An album called Fear And Whiskey appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, credited to a band called the Mekons who were almost unrecognizable. The vocals were familiar; we knew Tom Greenhalgh’s voice from “After 6”, a highlight of Quality Of Mercy. But now the voice sat on top of a solid, reggae-influenced rhythm section, a keening, prominent violin and layers of guitars, all slathered with reverb. There was a folkish flavor that gradually revealed itself to be closer to country music, but there was little or no attempt to emulate the hot licks of the master musicians of Nashville. The lyrics retained the themes of lovelorn regret, wartorn landscapes, working class resistance, and drunken fatalism, but with a new coherence and power. They wore cowboy hats and covered Hank Williams. Darkness and doubt just followed them about. It’s hard to be human on the lost highway, when you just wanted to say “fall in love with me” and “it’ll be all right.” This was the first flowering of the Mekons’ maturity. They were back. And while they may not have pulled crowds as big as the ones that clamored to see the Pogues, they fed the same itch for human contact that wasn’t being scratched by the sleek pop of the early 80s.
A number of elements came together to bring this new Mekons into being. A friend of the band, convinced that their lyrics and sensibility were simpatico with older forms, made them tapes of essential American country-western sounds that caught their imagination and filled them with new ideas to twist to their own ends. Politically active friends like Dutch anarchists the Ex and UK activists putting on benefits for the Miners’ Strike started begging the disorganized band to get together and play some live shows, which led them to seek out some firm rhythmic ground. Former Graham Parker & The Rumour drummer Steve Goulding (whose deft touch and feel for reggae enriched Parker’s attempts in that area as well as Elvis Costello’s “Watching The Detectives”) was joined by former Damned guitarist Lu Edmonds on bass, as well as new members Susie Honeyman on violin and Rolling Stones/Pretty Things founder Dick Taylor as fourth guitarist. With their original lead singers gone, Greenhalgh (most of the time), Langford, and Kevin Lycett took turns fronting the band on guitar and vocals.
Fear And Whiskey was a breakthrough album, but the oppressive sadness of it all can be so forbidding that one is tempted to turn to something more upbeat like Joy Division. The next album, Edge Of The World, worked its way deeper into the tissues of roots music, and introduced two more new members, singer Sally Timms and accordionist/vocalist Rico Bell, as well as ongoing guest slide guitarist Brendan Croker. This time, with five strong vocal personalities, added instrumental color, and more evident humor in the lyrics, the dark clouds began to lift somewhat, and the band’s growing strengths became clearer. With increased touring, the word got out about what a crazy, delightful live act the Mekons were, and their cult following in the US began to take off in earnest. Another incredible album, Honky Tonkin’, solidified their reputation. This was a band that created something completely their own from the most unlikely influences, harnessing the energy and creativity of a ridiculously large group of characters. All of this in the service of songs that dealt with the bitter truths of now, while tossing in a capsule education and peppering the results with zany jokes and irresistible tunes.
Which brings us to 1988. Mekons fans are a devoted lot, and we do love to debate the merits of each of their records. The aforementioned “Alt-Country Trilogy” is beloved by just about everyone, and the roots reboot of Fear And Whiskey is often pointed to in particular. 1989’s Mekons Rock And Roll, the product of the band’s second major label deal is bright, loud, filled with glorious songs, and thanks to the power of A&M’s promo department, is many people’s first Mekons album, which gives it special status in many eyes. There is, however, another album that sits in between these that doesn’t get mentioned as often, that I would argue is the best one of all.
For the Mekons in 1988, the next step was to expand. So Good It Hurts folds in genres from dub to zydeco with an even broader swipe at history, literature, and cultural theory, making a thicker, more complex stew than ever that remains at its heart a fun, rollicking party record. In this funhouse mirror view of the myths and obsessions of Western culture, nothing is sacred or free from scrutiny--least of all, the eternal tropes of sex, drugs and rock and roll.
The 12 songs (13 if you count added B-side “Revenge”, a cruel, torchy Sally Timms vehicle where she makes some poor fool regret he ever crossed her) are packed with sounds and signifiers. While Honky Tonkin’ actually included bibliographical notes for each song, So Good It Hurts’ inner sleeve on the vinyl (reconstructed in the CD booklet) is a collage of out-of-sequence lyrics, random quotations, and silly or pensive band photos, scattered sloppily across a bright red background like pages from an overstuffed notebook blown away by the wind.
The quotations feel as much a part of the album as the guitars, commenting, corroborating, contradicting. Visions of hedonistic abandon collide with passages from Theodor Adorno’s despondent book of essays Minima Moralia: Reflections From Damaged Life. (More on him later.) The life of historical pirate Black Bart intersects with decadent fictional aesthete Des Esseintes and the AIDS epidemic of the 80s in a careening accordion-driven stomp. Female roles are viewed through the lenses of Freud, Bronte, and a London dominatrix, while elsewhere, we get a taste of how Mick Jagger’s lyrics would sound coming from a woman’s mouth. Hope and hopelessness embrace for the last dance before closing time; the beleaguered-yet-jolly fiddle-led protest of “Vengeance” is underscored by a quote from Reagan’s Secretary Of The Interior, James Watt, “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.”
So Good It Hurts serves up a dark vision to match the waning days of the Reagan/Thatcher era, but it’s a bracing one. This is music to be immersed in, songs to howl drunkenly at the top of your lungs with your fellow pirates and mutineers. It’s a lively tale, this to tell. Give it a taste; it’s worth bottling.
Your analysis of the most relevant competing books already published about the artist in question or the scene surrounding that artist – and how your book will differ:
Surprisingly for such a literary-minded cult band, there is not a lot of what I would call comparable work out there. There are two Mekons-themed books:
Mekons United (1/4 Stick): A companion piece to the band’s collective art show. It is a compilation of writings, some critical pieces, a lot of fiction (including a long excerpt from the group-written “unfinished novel”, Living In Sin), lyric quotations and miscellaneous musings on the environment the Mekons sprang from. The book is as provocative, heady and somewhat rambling as you might expect from an “official Mekons book”, profusely illustrated with stunning paintings, drawings and other visual works that suggest the founding members’ art school education was not in vain.
Hello Cruel World (Verse Chorus Press): A small, attractive hard cover book of lyrics from Fear And Whiskey to Journey To The End Of Night. Includes photos and more artwork. Gives you a nice overview of the band’s strong lyrical abilities. I provided the title and other suggestions and am credited as “editorial consultant”.
Probably the closest thing to a Mekons-related 33 1/3 type book is Jon Langford’s Skull Orchard (Verse Chorus Press), a book full of Langford’s own artwork, background information on the songs of his autobiographical solo album of the same name, writings from his brother and photos by his father that all stitch together a picture of his Welsh upbringing and the source of all the references and in-jokes in the lyrics. There is some similarity to what I aim to do, but there are obvious differences, number one being that Skull Orchard is a book put together by the artist himself, suitable for the personal nature of the album. The Mekons’ music is usually filled with deep meaning and emotion, but it is created through a very different process more akin to collages or automatic writing than your typical singer-songwriter’s act of personal expression. (Part of my goal is to find out and reveal more about how this process works.)
One model for what I’m going for is the approach of Greil Marcus, particularly in his book In The Fascist Bathroom aka Ranters And Crowd Pleasers, which also happens to include a few short articles on the Mekons that are some of the best writing I’ve ever read on the band. However, I also plan to interview band members and others in their circle to obtain some real horse’s mouth viewpoints and not rely strictly on the put-it-on-the-stereo-with-a-stack-of-books-and-let-your-mind-run-wild reveries that Marcus does so brilliantly, though I certainly will be doing my share of that as well.
Up to 1,000 words on which book, or parts of books, already published in the series you would aim to emulate on some level:
Forever Changes by Andrew Hultkrans is a favorite, being a book that probes the Zeitgeist of a period in history via a less popular album of the time. I’m inspired by the way he looks in less-obvious places, like the history of Gnosticism, to dig out aspects of Arthur Lee’s gnomic lyrics. Hultkrans probes the darker sides of the 60s and shows not just how, but why, Lee was influenced by Marat/Sade. A fascinating book on a fascinating album.
Pet Sounds by Jim Fusilli is by nature a more sentimental book, which is appropriate for the brilliant sentimentalist that is Brian Wilson, but I enjoy the way he describes the musical elements and how they connect, even when I strongly disagree with some of his final judgements. (Surely there is room for both “Barbara Ann” and “God Only Knows” in the pantheon.)
The Who Sell Out by John Dougan, like Hultktrans’ book, is great for zeroing in on important non-musical background information, with his capsule histories of pop art and pirate radio, both of which are crucial to really get the point of this album.
Double Nickels On The Dime by Michael T. Fournier may be the most dogeared volume in my 33 1/3 collection, due to its wonderfully detailed song descriptions. Fournier misses nothing in his parsing of the Minutemen’s song constructions and lyrical references. And getting the participation of a larger-than-life force of nature like Mike Watt adds so much more. I hope to obtain as much funny, in-depth enlightenment from Jon Langford and his colleagues.
Another Green World by Geeta Dayal deserves a mention for the passage, “Many years ago, Eno coined a term he called ‘scenius’ to describe how large groups of people, not simply lone misunderstood geniuses, generate creativity. ‘Scenius stands for the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene,’ Eno has said, ‘It is the communal form of the concept of the genius.’” This touches on another of the themes I want to deal with in So Good It Hurts: how a group of people can create a piece collectively that has all the perceived mark of an “auteur”: a unity of sound, theme and feeling that seems to come from one great mind. One of my most burning questions I wish to resolve in the process of writing this book is “how in the world does that work?”
Possible blurb and extra fun quotes:
Where do you go next when you began as the ultimate anti-band, started writing great catchy punk songs in spite of yourselves, turned into a lo-fi art project to jettison the boneheads in your audience, and ended up accidentally inventing alt-country? For the Mekons in 1988, the answer was to expand. So Good It Hurts folds in genres from dub to zydeco with an even broader swipe at history, literature, and cultural theory, making a thicker, more complex stew than ever that remains at its heart a fun, rollicking party record.
"In an honest service there is thin commons, low wages, and hard labor; in this, plenty and satiety, pleasure and ease, liberty and power; and who would not balance creditor on this side, when all the hazard that is run for it, at worst, is only a sour look or two at choking. No, a merry life and a short one, shall be my motto." -Bartholomew "Black Bart" Roberts (Johnson, 244)
When the ship finally docked in the West Indies a third victim of the same captain ‘carried his shirt, stained with the blood which had flowed from his wounds, to one of the magistrates of the island and applied to him for redress’. But the slaves on the ship were bound for the magistrate’s plantation and he was deaf to his pleas. The Royal AfricanCompany’s own chief surgeon, conducting a survey of conditions aboard ships off West Africa in 1725, wrote that ‘tyrannical oppression and want of necessities of life’ were ‘epidemical’ -”If A Pirate I Must Be--The True Story Of Black Bart, King Of The Caribbean Pirates” by Richard Sanders