Thursday, December 09, 2004

Sympathy for the devil.

The following piece will run on soon:

Seconds: Perfect Moments in Pop
"Sympathy for the Mekons" 1:09-3:02
Mekons, The Mekons Honky Tonkin'
Twin Tone 1987

The Mekons Honky Tonkin' is a major pivot point in the career of these Leeds art school punks turned shambolic collective of folk rock artistry. Itself the culmination of the great trio of "country" inflected records (1985's Fear and Whiskey and 1986's The Edge of the World are the other two), the CD looks forward to the move to Rock 'N' Roll. This pivot happens late on the disc when "Sympathy for the Mekons" spins listeners out of a straightforward feel into "danceband on the edge of the world" territory. The rest of the disc becomes a veritable encylopedic reference to various folk musics: amongst other things Northern Industrial brass bands (see Brassed Off). a traditional 19th century protest song�"Trimdon Grange Explosion," Music Hall/Tin Pan alley effects, waltz time, dirges, two steps, reels, Honeyman hard fiddlin' not really heard again until The Mekons' Rock 'N' Roll, and, apropos Jimmy Rodgers, a West Yorkshire yodel ("Please Don't Let Me Love You").

"Sympathy for the Mekons" is nothing less than a revelation from the moment Jon Langford warbles "Here's to a band that deals in the facts of life / In their ten short ugly years/ I wish the Mekons good fortune." Really the song is nothing more than a traditional Medieval vice parade of Pride, Lust Fever, Plague and riding behind on a pig the devil hisself. A la Robert Johnson, the Mekons apparently met Ol' Scratch at the crossroads where he "sold them fame and riches -- and good health." The song of course alludes in its title and lyrics to the famous Stones' Altamont death number. But unlike that tune, it's not at all clear who the narrator of his song is. Surely not the Devil! Jon Langford then, but he's a mekon and the pronouns don't work? Some kind of Chief Magistrate? Maybe that's what the last line business about "Chief Constable back on your head now" is all about? God (and not necessarily a benevolent one)? Trying to unravel the mysteries of the Mekons apocalyptic edge-of-the-world vision is a bit like untangling William Blake's mythography. Threads come apart but where exactly does each one lead? The next song "Spit" seems like some kind of doxological benedictus. This ambivalent mystery is but part of the special appeal of this Perfect Moment in Pop.

Click here to hear the audio version.

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