Sunday, August 8, 2010

Great Forgotten Albums: The Mekons (aka Devils, Rats and Piggies) by The Mekons

A collection of songs about war, murder, child abuse, corporate crime, revolution, mining disaster, and the nastiness of suburbia, this is one of the strangest and most atmospheric albums ever released. But it is one that is easily missed and often dismissed by critics who find it lacks the Hank Williams cover versions and good-time spirit found on their later disks.

Its obscurity is not helped by the fact that people can't even agree on its title - it is sometimes called Devils, Rats and Piggies, and sometimes The Mekons or even Second Album. But we know that it was recorded and released in 1980 on Red Rhino in the UK, the follow to their debut The Quality of Mercy is Not Strnen (whose strange title echoes monkeys typing Shakespeare).

The band came out of the late-70s punk scene in Leeds that also produced Gang of Four and Delta 5. But after early singles like Never Been In A Riot, the Mekons rapidly moved away from the guitar-based sound of punk, becoming by 1985 the proto-alt-country act which recorded the classic Fear and Whiskey.

This record might be the most interesting point on that strange journey. Mixing horns, synths, and violin with distorted guitars, it sounds cheap and muddy with frequently-incomprehensible vocals. Yet beneath that facade are compelling if half-mumbled messages about a world obsessed with propriety, high culture, and success, that hides dark secrets of destructiveness and lust.

It begins uncompromisingly with "Snow", a wintry account of some kind of revolution or failed revolution, a riot going on outside, a prisoner about to be executed, the singer hiding out of the way (echoing the situation of their debut single "Never Been in a Riot"). We are used to revolutions in hot countries; at least for a Briton the snow brings it home. Over a buzzing synthesiser and chugging upbeat rhythm, a mechanical voice intones lyrics like "The strong now have another hero" and "The burned-out homes of left-wing names tell us all where power remains". It sounds horrible yet compelling, much like revolution: it is a statement of intent that this will be an album that confuses, dismays, and sonically violates the listener.

"St Patrick's Day" is about "chamber music in a bungalow", the sociology of music, the lower middle-classes listening to high culture. It echoes the philosopher Roger L Taylor, author of "Art an Enemy of the People", that art exists to legitimate those in power, providing a facade of civilisation that hides their crimes. A tuneless voice chants "the third movement structures and orders a meaningless intelligence". The bleak, horrid sound of the Mekons begins to take on some sort of sense; there is no way to use the old cultural forms of the society that rules us: it is necessary to be oblique and half-repellent. "Refinement and taste - you're not even rich." Sonically, this track is based around blaring horns and rapid strings that build up a nervous tension; the strings of course echo the reference to chamber music, while existing to discomfit the listener, not to soothe.

"D. P. Miller" follows post-punk bands like Au Pairs, Gang of Four, and Raincoats in offering a critique of prostitution or the objectification of woman. The singer complains "standing in these high shoes is breaking my back" and moans "these illusions disillusion me", a strikingly Gang of Four-esque line. The female point of view is ironically countered by the very masculine, awkward, rough singing. The repeated phrase "not the rub" recalls both dialect and Shakespeare.

"Institution" looks forward to the Mekons' later country direction. It's a wilder song, far less controlled and more emotional, with tinkling piano and screeching violin, almost ready to fall into a rollicking jam. The key line is "They took me up to the top of the hill and we looked at the institution in the valley below" - this references both Moses viewing the promised land, and Satan taking Jesus on a mountaintop to tempt him.

"I'm So Happy" is particularly incomprehensible, shouted lyrics in which you can make out the odd phrase like "I feel so drunk". Despite the doomy bass it's first cousin of Ian Dury's raucous list songs, though equally like Joy Division. Again, drunkenness is a direction they would later pursue.

"Chopper Song" combines a detailed account of respectable domestic boredom with references to violent crime. "At least he can talk to his wife tonight. They can talk about that night down the club and what's become of Bryan and Susan and the kids". Many of the songs express a contempt for suburbia. In 1980 there was a strong sense that the middle classes all did essentially the same things, exemplified by mainstream sitcoms that portrayed its boredom and narrow horizons. Today there is less class cohesion with middle-class people more likely to act like the working-classes or like kids. The song concludes with the discovery of an axe - the "chopper". It should be remembered that the Mekons' home in West Yorkshire was the hunting ground of the Yorkshire Ripper, who wasn't arrested until 1981 and was killing girls around the time this was released. Despite this, it's musically one of the more pleasant tracks, with long synth chords and conversational vocals, and it welcomes the viewer by offering an easy target to hate.

"Business" is about the corruption of the international banking trade and its relation to violence and war. Musically it sounds close to the Associates with its melodic synths, despite the savageness of the lyrics (repeated phrases "attache case" "uzi machine gun" "powder burns"). It's probably one of the first pop songs to mention Uzis - the singer pronounces them in an English style, /juzi/ with the first vowel as in "use", rather than the now-more-common /uzi/. It's one of the most mainstream-sounding tracks on the record; you could almost imagine it on a crime film soundtrack.

"The Trimden Grange Explosion" is a cover version of a 19th century folk song about a mining disaster in County Durham in 1882 when 74 pit workers were killed. Musically, there are discordant guitars and high-pitched keyboards that stand out more than the vocals, meaning that the impact of this tale of death is lost.

"Karen" is about a 42 year old man (a schoolteacher, it is hinted) who develops a passion for an eight year old girl. Its linkage of violence and sex again recalls the Ripper and the tense atmosphere of the time, as captured in David Peace's Red Riding books, with the killer Peter Sutcliffe preying on innocent young women. Yet rather than condemn outright (as they do to the middle classes in multiple songs) it is told sympathetically from the point of view of the man "Now I'm sure I've found my wife, her name is Karen and she's very important to my life" - not quite mentioning her age yet. A high-pitched male voice saying "Hello I'm Karen" is comical. Perhaps his passion is less reprehensible than middle-class anhedonia.

"Corporal Chalkie" is more comic, about war past and future. "I know what happened before I was born. The Huns and the Nips got uppy with Blighty and Tommy went out to beat them all up" - a crudely populist description of German and Japanese aggression that trivialises the conflict (Tommy being the archetypal British soldier). "It's another war, we say." It's the most accessible track and one of the more well-known, being re-recorded by the Mekons' Sally Timms. It ends in mock-cockney, "There is no more to war than cor lummie, Sarge."

"John Barry" musically pays tribute to the film composer with its guitar riff and horns, showing the band's sonic inventiveness. Lyrically it is about someone watching the TV news, and not being affected by the horrors: "In the world an event occurs. [...] I never see the relevance." The reference to John Barry also suggests a soundtrack as something detached from the action, overlaid and false. It is more sympathetic to the tv viewer than some of the songs: "sitting down we take off our shoes, this was a very busy day" repeated over and over again hints that people have no ability to engage with current affairs because of the drudgery of their lives.

"Another One" concludes the album with a more commercial sound than the first couple of tracks - suggesting the tunelessness is deliberate. However despite its slightly dub rhythm, it is a less compelling song than many.

The reissue adds two new tracks. "Killer Ken" is disposable, but "Another Set of Teeth" is a lively piece of country music that again points towards Fear and Whiskey.

The album stands at a cusp in the band's history. Although parts mark it as a product of early 80s, it often sounds outside anything of its time. There are strong hints of the direction the band later took by repurposing country music as political text, this record combines folk and country with experimental new wave and synth sounds. Country was crucial to the band for offering a more deeper and complex idea of rebellion than punk, with country's interest in honour and sin, pessimism and romanticism, altered mental states (principally drunkenness), and sympathy with the underdog. Yet country is essentially a conservative style in a way that this album is not: nostalgia and sentimentality are things even the Mekons could not always avoid. But here, instead of the timeless tales of failure and apocalypse of Fear and Whiskey, the band has a dark timely paranoid feel that recalls Yorkshire in the 1980s, facing both Thatcher and Peter Sutcliffe.

1 comment:

  1. an astute review.
    fans of this album and the mekons: please swing by my facebook page for info on the doc i'm making on the mekons. "like it" and you'll be in the loop on updates, release dates, screenings, etc.