In the new film documentary Revenge of the Mekons, founding member and singer Jon Langford says about his longtime British band, “The way you did it was more important even than what you did.” That remark aptly sums up the essence of the Mekons story: Despite being around since 1976 and having recorded numerous albums, the Mekons have never attained commercial success due to their unfortunate track record with the major labels. Rather, they dictated their own terms when it came to their music and punk ideology, while still remaining the favorites of the critics and fans.
The notion that the Mekons had never “made it” is what inspired New York-based filmmaker Joe Angio to make Revenge of the Mekons five years ago about the band from Leeds. “I wanted to know for myself how a band like that stays together when they’re not the U2 or the Rolling Stones,” says Angio, who himself is a Mekons fan. “These are people who are all for the most part in their 50s now, many of them have families, and yet they crafted their lives for the most part around the Mekons.”
Revenge of the Mekons, which recently premiered at the DOC NYC film festival in New York City, documents the Mekons’ formation during the height of British punk in the mid-’70s along with another band from Leeds, Gang of Four, through their reinvention as a cowpunk group during the ’80s; and to the making of the band’s last album, Ancient & Modern, in 2011. In addition to interviews with current and past members of the Mekons, the film features commentary from Greil Marcus, Luc Sante, Jonathan Franzen, the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn, Fred Armisen and Will Oldham.
Angio, who had previously directed the 2005 documentary How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (And Enjoy It) (about filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles), says he gets two main reactions from people when he tells them he was making a Mekons film. “One is the blank face: ‘Who?’ ‘What?’ ‘They’re still together?’ The other response is like, ‘That’s so great!’ Critics adore them, a majority of people have no idea who they are, and the fans are just all the way in.”
It was Angio’s work on the Van Peebles film that impressed Langford. “I thought it was great,” Langford says of that work. “We started talking and my conversation with him was, ‘Could you make something entertaining?’ Not just like a grim, boring documentary with lots of talking heads, slightly off center, old black-and-white photos being panned across—‘Yes, look at this band, they never did very well.’”
“Nobody views your life in that encapsulated way,” says longtime Mekons singer Sally Timms. “Your memories are just a scattering of what you can pull together. I don’t think about what I was doing 20 years ago with the Mekons. I kind of have forgotten it. I live my life. So when you go back and look at it, it’s all these weird reminders—it’s like looking through a photo album and being reminded of the things you did, which is quite strange in a way.”
The film also explores the creative lives of the several of the members—who are spread across the U.K., Chicago, New York, Los Angeles—outside of the band’s activities. One Mekon with a fascinating story is instrumentalist Lu Edmonds, who spent time in Tajikistan constructing a recording studio and working with the musicians there. “You see him on stage playing these exotic instruments,” says Angio. “He adds this very exotic quality to the Mekons sound, and going with him to Tajikistan and seeing what he does there—he’s fairly fluent in Russian—it’s a surprise in the film, and it was certainly a surprise to me. You just start seeing how all these disparate and different personalities kind of meld in this one band.”
“I did see some clips of Lu away in Central Asia, which was fascinating,” Langford says. “I thought it was fantastic. People seemed to like Joe, opened up a little bit and were quite willing to provide material.”
Aside from the music, it’s also art that provides a creative outlet for some of the members of the Mekons; for example, Langford and instrumentalist Rico Bell are painters, while violinist Susie Honeyman operates a gallery. The band as a whole had also collaborated with artist Vito Acconci on his work. “They had this period in the mid late ’90s where they were doing their art projects,” Angio says, “which I think is a fascinating way for a band to reinvent themselves when they are feeling maybe a little burnt out by constantly putting out an album and touring and running through the same types of problems and obstacles they had with their record label.”
What becomes clear in the movie is the easy-going dynamic within band—it’s like a cross between friends and family members who not only collaborate equally on the music-making process, but whose stage presence is very festive and loose, bordering on the comedic.
“There’s no Behind the Music story here,” Angio says. “They’re just genuinely good people. And this even goes back to the early members … it’s like you meet them and they’re the same way. This is sort of like the major underlying premise of the film is that the Mekons subscribed to whatever that British ’77 punk ethos was. They took it seriously and really applied it. And even though their music is far removed from what we would consider punk rock, they really put the money where their mouth is. They’re living what the punk promise was about—going out there doing things. It’s about doing something creative, and it’s not about the mercenary aspects of it.”
Angio says he made a conscious effort to make a film that wasn’t specifically for the fans but rather introduces the Mekons to a wider and unfamiliar audience. “I hope the film, in its own small way,” he says, “can spark a conversation in which people re-evaluate the idea of success; it’s not just about fealty to the bottom line. This, sadly, seems to be all that matters in a day and age where creators are expected—required—to become ‘brands.’ That’s marketing, not art, and the Mekons continue to demonstrate that what conventional wisdom considers failure is a kind of success in its own right.”
As for the reaction from the band, Angio says the members had seen a rough cut prior to the New York screening. Timms herself had previously seen bits of the film before its completion. “There were things that I had never seen,” she says. “I had no idea what Lu’s life without us is like aside from what he does in London. So I was seeing things about people I’m in a band with that were new to me. That’s quite fun. When I saw the clips that [Joe] had, then I thought, ‘Okay, this is probably going to be a respectable piece.’”
Trailer for Revenge of the Mekons:
Movie Web site
Mekons biography on AllMusic
Mekons Fan site