When a TV ad for Honda’s luxury Acura range of vehicles was somewhat incongruously sound-tracked by Where Were You?, a first-generation post-punk single by The Mekons released on Edinburgh’s Fast Product label almost forty years ago, old lags might have cried sell-out. For Jon Langford, Tom Greenhalgh and the rest of the original Mekons line-up, however, it prompted a regrouping which has seen the Leeds University sired band record an album of brand new material. Their ongoing reunion also sees them play three dates in Scotland over the next couple of weeks.
“We’ve been waiting to sell out for years,” jokes Langford, the band’s original drummer who would later move onto guitar and vocals. “It was really strange, because someone contacted me to ask if they could use Where Were you? on this Honda commercial, and I had to contact everyone in the band to see if we could do it or not. I thought everyone would think we were selling out, but in the end no-one really cared. As Tom put it, we all drive cars, so it would seem churlish to say no to this money that we could probably use.”
This prompted Langford and Greenhalgh to reunite with fellow original Mekons Andy Corrigan, Kevin Lycett, Mark ‘Chalkie’ White and Ros Allen to play Mekonville, a mini festival that took place near Ipswich in 2017 to celebrate forty years of the band’s existence. A 12” single saw what Langford styles as the current Mekons play How Many Stars Are Out Tonight? on one side, with what was now dubbed The Mekons 77 playing Still Waiting on the flip. This was a precursor to a full album of new Mekons 77 material, It Is Twice Blessed.
“We decided if we’re going to do it, it should be like a lost tape you’ve found in the back of a drawer,” says Langford. “I wouldn’t have done it if it was just a nostalgia trip.”
Named after a high fore-headed alien supervillain and nemesis of British comic strip space hero Dan Dare, The Mekons formed at Leeds University alongside fellow travellers from the art department, Gang of Four and Delta 5.
“Leeds was pretty horrible at that time to be honest,” says Langford. “We lived in squalor because we thought we were meant to, and the city was full of racists. There was a lot of trouble, a lot of violence, and politically it was a bit like now. Punk was happening, and it was volatile. The National Front were recruiting people in clubs, and we were lefties doing benefit gigs for Rock Against Racism in a West Indian club opening for 999, and half the audience were sieg heiling. I don’t remember that time with any great fondness, although we met a lot of good people.”
One of these was Bob Last, who was tour manager for The Rezillos. It was after playing with them that The Mekons were signed to Fast Product.
“That really p***** off the Gang of Four,” says Langford. “They were like a proper group, and we kept trying to persuade Bob to sign them, and he said he didn’t want to precisely because they were a proper group, but he did eventually.”
One might see the Mekons’ appearance in the Honda ad as the belated completion of a form of of conceptual entryism into the mainstream that was the raison d’etre of Fast Product, the art project masquerading as a record label founded in a Keir Street tenement flat next to Edinburgh College of Art by Bob Last and Hilary Morrison. Over twelve Fast Product releases, Last and Morrison released debut records by Gang of Four and The Human League, as well as local heroes Scars. The Mekons’ predecessor to Where Were You?, Never Been In A Riot, was the label’s first release.
Accompanying both were sleeves full of cut-and-paste collages that saw Fast Product as pioneers with ideas of packaging and marketing in ways that would later became commonplace, but which at the time were considered radical.
All this is documented in Grant McPhee’s acclaimed film study of the era, Big Gold Dream, which also features the story of how Never Been In A Riot was recorded in a country cottage in, which Morrison had to break into through the window to gain access.
“We stopped off for fish and chips in Galashiels and got bricks thrown at us because we were punks,” says Langford. “That’s how things were in them days.”
There is also the story about how key London independent record shop Rough Trade initially refused to stock it, with the shop’s manager and Rough Trade label boss Geoff Travis citing it as the worst recorded single he’d ever heard.
“Rough Trade thought it was a bunch of art students having a laugh,” says Langford. “We were art students, but we played to the best of our ability. It sounds really extreme, but it wasn’t a joke. In our heads it was the culmination of a socialist egalitarian dream. We’d never been in a studio before, and we thought there was this magic button, so you’d make all this noise, then when the record got pressed it would turn into T Rex. John Peel played it and it was record of the week in the music papers, and suddenly everyone wants to be your mate. Tony Parsons said it made the Sex Pistols sound like Paper Lace.”
Despite this and the even more successful follow-up on Fast Product, Where Were You?, The Mekons became unlikely signings to Virgin Records, who released their first album, The Quality of Mercy is Not Strnen.
“They were hippy opportunist scammers,” Langford says of the label. “Where Were You? was really quite successful, and everyone was trying to get in on punk rock but not really getting it. We were offered a deal by Sire Records, but for some reason went with Virgin. Richard Branson was more interested in setting up his airline, and no-one at the label knew why we’d been signed. They stopped returning our calls, and eventually dropped us, so we went back to Rough Trade, and they did the same thing.”
Langford and Greenhalgh returned to art college, “with our tails between our legs, but because we’d been out there doing all this, we were like little heroes, and all the lecturers would buy you drinks.”
A new version of The Mekons got together around the time of the 1984 Miners’ Strike, with
Langford becoming part of a three-pronged vocal frontline alongside Greenhalgh and Sally Timms in a fusion of punk, Americana and English folk. Gigs included a 1988 show at the Venue in Edinburgh sharing a bill with Pere Ubu, whose set was interrupted by a woman taking her top off and joining vocalist David Thomas onstage.
“David Thomas fled the stage,” says Langford. “I asked him if he was alright and he slapped me. Then he went back on and started dancing with her. He’s obviously just been processing things, but I’d never been hit by the lead singer from a post-punk band from Cleveland, Ohio before.”
Thirty years on, while the current Mekons are planning a new album for 2019, for The Mekons 77, Langford has returned to the drum stool.
“Coming back after thirty-eight years I’m the boy in the bubble,” he says. “My drumming hasn’t improved since 1980, and there are people in the band who stopped doing it in 1979.
What I’m most proud of with the current Mekons is that we’ve carried on. We’re like the opposite of the Rolling Stones. We don’t have many fans, but the ones we do have don’t want to hear old songs.”
The Mekons 77, The Venue, Dumfries, November 11; Oran Mor, Glasgow, November 12; The Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh, November 13.