Heaven & Hell: The Very Best of the Mekons
reil Marcus’ book Lipstick Traces attempted to suss punk’s genesis and structure through the life, career, and demise of the Sex Pistols. Marcus contended that punk’s origins began centuries before, dredging up John Lydon’s genealogy to demonstrate that his family had ties to millennialism; one of Lydon’s ancestors came to rule a fief, and convinced the starving masses to eat stones so as to ensure their redemption in the afterlife. As Lipstick Traces courses through punk’s alleged history, Marcus touches upon obscure antecedents to the Spirit of ’77, such as Thomas DeQuincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater and its influence on the lettrists and their situationist successors as the locus of derivé, the practice of being an addled flaneur, rediscovering familiar territory through an appreciation of populist architecture, a hatred of sterile urban redevelopment and automatic geography. Beneath the informative avalanche that befalls the reader, one finds that as much as the book is about the Pistols and their legacy, it’s about how great a band the Adverts were and the singular importance of one song by a band that’s hardly talked about in the book, save for beginning and ending, that makes the reader more excited about elements of the punk movement than the people who ostensibly started it.
That song is “Never Been In A Riot” by the Mekons, and it captures the psyche in such a way as to exploit every imaginable punk image through sensory overload. Today when Never Mind the Bullocks sounds like a good hard rock album, Marcus describes a song so stripped of artifice that its verity cannot be denied, a song that grasps the Spirit of ’77 as much as it encompasses the Spirit of 1665. One of the books Marcus overlooks in his fanatically researched tome is Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, a fictional account documenting the resurgence of plague in London (followed the next year by the Great Fire). Defoe describes the grisly scene thusly:
“These Objects [corpses] were so frequent in the Streets, that when the Plague came to be very raging, on one Side, there was scarce any passing by the Streets, but that several dead Bodies would be lying here and there upon the Ground; on the other hand it is observable, that tho’ at first, the People would stop as they went along, and call to the Neighbours to come out on such an Occasion; yet, afterward, no Notice was taken of them…”How such a dystopian scene escaped Marcus is an omission worth noting; Derek Jarman’s film Jubilee celebrated the conditions of the fallen Empire, its Capitol nearly buried beneath weeks of garbage due to a dustmen’s strike. The similarity is staggering when one is confronted with the vermin and squalor that accompanies a steep decline in the public health. The Mekons’ were borne of these very circumstances.
The party line on the group, though, has always been that the Mekons were the progenitors of alt.country. Of course that’s like saying Shane McGowan is responsible for alt.shanty, when in fact The Mekons partly due to their relative sophistication and their endurance were able to channel their peers as influences, instead of remaining steadfastly set in an immutable style. One hears Siouxsie in “Millionaire”, a working class ballad envisioning a life of untold riches begat through marriage, a little girl’s dream (and her beggared family’s alike) of marrying a prince. The Pogues’ heartsick, drunken wanderlust can be found elsewhere on “Neglect,” a litany of excuses coupled with a plea for money—though there may be similar themes coursing through blues, folk, country and rock—this by no means constitutes an argument for collecting the Mekons with the likes of Uncle Tupelo, Whiskeytown and the rest of the No Depression set under the rubric of y’allternative.
It’s hard to hear the progression, on Heaven & Hell, as it suffers from the romantic arrangement of songs around loose themes, rather than by strict chronology. For newcomers, this can often prove frustrating as one seeks to immerse him or herself in the maturation of a venerable group like the Mekons. Instead, the listener is treated to two separate discs of Heaven and Hell, a nomenclature intended to describe each disc’s tone and mood. The first disc comprises what passes for the pastoral selections from their lengthy catalogue. As much as anything else, it demonstrates the band’s versatility as they perform leaps of musical hermeneutics, from punk-inflected ballads to straight-ahead modern rock (“My Song at Night”) to the working class chants that span their existence from 1985’s Fear & Whiskey (“Hard to be Human”) to 1989’s The Mekons Rock ‘n’ Roll (“Empire of the Senseless”) to 2002’s OOOH! (“The Olde Trip to Jerusalem”). And while a decidedly left-progressive bent condenses their entire catalogue; their unwavering belief in humanity based in lived experience keeps them from descending into the platitudinous pastiche of working class music exemplified by albums like Being There. It’s precisely that grounding that undergirds the populist strain in their music, having never completely divorced themselves from the pub rock origins from which The Clash derived their political orientation and rapacious fervor.
The second disc, appropriately entitled Hell, drags the river for other corpses. This collection contains the musically and lyrically rawer material of the Mekons career. These are the songs on which Marcus based his punk folklore, if such a thing ever existed. Though many of the songs are unremarkable, midtempo rockers, it’s songs like “The Building” and “Never been in a riot”, those hard-to-find, long out-of-print teeth gnashers that redeem this disc. On hearing “The Building” one hears a desperate man singing an oral history of opposition, stamping his foot to keep time: in defiance of the status quo, this man vents his spleen at the deference paid society’s masters: “we bow to republic; we bow to employer; we bow to God,” exemplifying the irreverence of first wave punk. The disc concludes with “Never been in a riot” and it becomes clear why Marcus implicitly endorsed the Mekons as the genuine article, bereft of Malcolm McClaren’s influence-peddling in the Kings Road, and why he praised bands like the Adverts and the Slits over and above their more famous peers: without the media’s panopticism these bands remained relatively anonymous on a global scale and never represented the burgeoning menace barely contained by youth culture. Twenty-seven years on, it’s safe to say that those fearful moments have dwindled and that relative comfort lies ahead. Or does it?
In a season overloaded with second and third attempts at career retrospectives, Heaven & Hell is a fair overview of a prolific band and barring reissues of their earliest material, this set may be all the Mekons you’ll ever need.
Reviewed by: J T. Ramsay
Reviewed on: 2004-12-08