|The Mekons, Toronto, 1987|
THE MEKONS WERE COMING TO TOWN AND I WAS EXCITED. If there was any band I wanted to photograph in 1987 it was this second wave punk band from Leeds, who had recently reincarnated themselves as one of the earliest purveyors of what would soon be called alt-country. Luckily I worked for Nerve - the only publication in the city that would consider a band like the Mekons to be a big deal - and my editor Dave told me to go ahead.
I wasn't the only Mekons fan at the paper. Phil Dellio - a truly talented writer whose taste I implicitly trusted - wanted to interview them, so we agreed to work together on the piece, with me doing photos and chipping in with questions.
I was only vaguely aware of their earlier music - a handful of singles and an album, and a reputation for being one of the most musically inept bands in a scene that never took much pride in musicianship. (They might have been inept, but they caught the attention of Lester Bangs, who called them "the most revolutionary group in the history of rock 'n' roll. They are also the finest artists ever to have graced this admittedly somewhat degenerate form with the grace of their aesthetic sensibilities, rarefied as a glimpse through a butterfly's wing.") Many years later I would finally hear tracks like "Where were you?" and the band ended up making a whole lot more sense.
|The Mekons live, Lee's Palace, Toronto, 1987|
But back then, on the albums being released by Sin Records in the UK - bought here on import at considerable cost - they were a discovery to me, a band comprised of adults, singing about what seemed to me very adult subjects, to a very rough approximation of country & western, a music that I always thought dealt with adult regret and the consequences of poor decisions. I was only 23, but I had an inkling that I might have already made a few decisions that would come back to bite me. The appeal of a band like this was irresistible.
(I forget who wrote that the title of Fear & Whiskey summed up all of country music in two words. Not strictly true, but a great line nonetheless.)
And so I showed up at Lee's Palace and found a spot at the foot of the fire escape in the back alley of the club, with my Mamiya C330 and a flash and umbrella on a stand - the most complicated technical setup I could handle at the time. I felt ambitious, and was desperate to get the best portrait of an avowedly leftist country punk band from the North I could manage.
I didn't get it, but I did learn a couple of things.
|The Heroic: (l) Gang of Four, Leeds, late '70s (r) Chinese propaganda poster|
My inspiration for the shot was simple enough: A vintage portrait of the Gang of Four - friends and peers of the Mekons from their early days in Leeds - and the communist propaganda posters that I was always certain served as the model for that photo. I explained this to the band; they knew the Gang of Four photo I was talking about, and understood what I was trying to accomplish. Some of them didn't seem jazzed about it; I think you can see that on Jon Langford's face.
Just a little earlier, when Phil and I were in a fast food restaurant just down the street from the club trying to interview the band, I said that I was pretty sure they probably didn't make their living from the Mekons, and asked what their day jobs were. I was fascinated by this sort of real-life detail, but they balked, protesting that it wasn't important.
"But aren't you socialists?" I asked them, trying to lighten the mood with a joke. "What about the dignity of labour?"
They grumbled and shrugged. One of them told us they did social work. Langford said he was a graphic artist. I'm pretty sure it was all downhill between me and the Mekons from that moment forward.
The Mekons still perform and record, and last year a documentary about the band was released. I have no doubt that they continue to describe themselves as socialists. I still think Fear & Whiskey is a great record.