BY MARY HOULIHAN | FOR THE SUN-TIMES
A contagious enthusiasm runs through the heart of Jon Angio’s “Revenge of the Mekons,” a documentary that celebrates and explores the evolving ethos of the seminal British punk band The Mekons while also proving that some of rock’s most interesting stories come not from success but survival.
Everyone interviewed in the movie — band members, critics, fans — pretty much agree that there is no other band like The Mekons. Angio rounds up name fans (Will Oldham, Jonathan Franzen, Fred Armisen, Greil Marcus) that all testify to the band’s cult status. But it’s the sometimes-hilarious anecdotes from band members that propel the film.
The Mekons were founded in Leeds, England, in 1977 by a group of art school students. Band members could barely play instruments but they fit in fine with the growing punk scene. The theory was you didn’t have to be good musicians if you had two things: attitude and ideas. The Mekons had plenty of both.
The band continued through the punk days of the early ‘80s in Margaret Thatcher’s England where this “leftie radical band” was a magnet for any downtrodden cause. “We kept going to have our own revenge on the world,” band member Jon Langford says. Eventually, instead of disbanding, the collective reinvented itself with its singular brand of country-infused folk-rock-punk that was in part inspired by legendary Chicago honky-tonkers The Sundowners. “They had a completely original take on it,” says Bloodshot Records Rob Miller of The Mekons transition.
Langford and Sally Timms set down Chicago roots and became a force in the local alt-country scene while other bandmates spread out from Los Angeles to Tajikistan. While most now have other jobs, they continue to get together to write songs, rehearse and occasionally tour.
One of the band’s album titles — “The Curse of the Mekons” — underscores the fact that The Mekons never had much label success despite diehard fans and critical praise. They signed to Virgin but the label didn’t really know what to do with them. Later it was A&M Records but a new regime took over and the band was dropped. As one record executive points out: “A good-selling Mekons record is about 8,000 copies.”
But despite this fraught relationship with the music industry, The Mekons have stayed true to themselves. So in the end, that is the lesson learned. Nearly four decades on, they remain friends and are true to their vision continuing to create music that means something to them whether it sells or not.
NOTE: “Revenge of the Mekons” also will be screened as part of CIMMfest at 6:45 p.m. April 17 at the Logan Theatre followed by a Q&A with director Joe Angio and band members Jon Langford and Sally Timms.
‘REVENGE OF THE MEKONS’ [s3r star=3/4] Music Box Films presents a documentary directed by Joe Angio. Running time: 95 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opens Saturday at the Music Box Theatre.
Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.