DOXA 2014 review: Revenge of the Mekons

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“The Mekons were best known as the band that took punk ideology most seriously.” What critic-general Greil Marcus was referring to when he wrote this in 1989, 12 years after the Mekons began, was the group’s boozy but unwavering egalitarianism, contempt for mainstream success, and full-time loathing of Margaret Thatcher, all born of its native Leeds. There was never any chance of the Mekons going Billy Idol on us.

Just as significantly, though, the Mekons were also one of the outfits closest to the blunt paradox of punk in its first days: “How do you have an amateur band as a career?” This is how filmmaker Mary Harron, former music journalist and one of the group’s earliest fans, states the problem in Revenge of the Mekons, Joe Angio’s wholly likable 2013 documentary. The Mekons were founded on arty theories about the cleansing power of their near-complete inability to play or sing, which seemed back in the day like a blow against turgidly professionalized stadium rock. But how long could you last if you started from that wobbly, no-clue stance?

Thirty-seven years and counting, as it turns out. Revenge of the Mekons traces the history of this smart, sharply funny, anarchic collective, as members come and go and the music evolves from fuck-off guitar attacks to a soulful, experience-rich take on English folk and American country (and then back again). Hair has greyed, chequing accounts still totter on the brink, and the membership has scattered as far afield as Los Angeles, Chicago, and Tajikistan, but the Mekons plough on for all the right reasons, as good or possibly better than ever, artists to the last.

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