Mekons posterI had a bit of a meta experience at the screening of Revenge of the Mekons the other night. Early in the film, the band jokes about the lack of attendance at their shows, and someone explains that you know you are at a Mekons show because it’s just you and some friends. At Wednesday night’s O Cinema Miami screening of this delicious documentary, there were only three other people besides my wife and I, and as it turns out, two of them were longtime friends I know from the local music scene. Afterward we all learned that we heard about this screening from the same mutual friend’s Facebook posting about the screening, two days earlier. One of my friends, a fellow who basically defined the Miami noise-punk scene who goes by the name Rat Bastard, said, “Even if you gave a month’s notice about this screening, I bet you the same fuckin’ people would have showed because nobody gives a fuck about the Mekons.”

Well, their loss. We sure enjoyed the movie. Revenge of the Mekons is much more than a band profile. It’s the history of the UK punk rock scene told from an intimate perspective. It wraps social milieu, the art scene, the local music scene of Leeds, England and the lameness of the music industry around these unforgettable creative personalities. Up until seeing this film, this writer knew of the Mekons on the periphery, in the shadows of much more famous and accomplished bands. But Joe Angio’s film revealed a mythic quality of this band, a sort of well-kept secret of the U.K. punk scene of the late ’70s, and I feel enriched for it.


Unlike many of their counterparts in that scene, the Mekons are still performing together and even still record new music. Despite one four-year break, they have consistently released new albums over the years, some of them on major labels. The film reveals there have never been any laurels to rest on, as notoriety has always eluded the group, despite respect from critics of both the art and music world. Still, there is humility to spare among the band members, many of whom have “real jobs” to pay the bills. Still, you feel like these people have a sense of magic around them. There’s a genuine quality to why they create music, despite it often having a ramshackle, amateurish quality. Yet there is a traceable evolution over the years in ways no one could ever imagine punk rock to evolve (there was a period where Hank Williams had a huge influence).

Though it feels like the film jumps around rather haphazardly, there’s a well-balanced offering of vintage footage, talking head interviews featuring members of the group and fans like music critic Greil Marcus and musician Will Oldham. There are also brief musical performances (no entire songs) meant to illuminate the band’s lyrics and the band members’ unbridled energy and humor (they still drink on stage, apparently). This approach also perfectly represents the Mekons’Mekons_-_Revenge_of_the_Mekons_PR_pic_by_Derrick_Santini_-_via_BB_Gun_Press___Music_Box_Films path to “success.” I use the word in quotes because even the band laugh about the idea of success. As singer Sally Timms notes during a group radio interview, they only measure success with their longevity. Names like Gang of Four and even U2 are dropped with a sort of bitter-sweet irony. However, even Hugo Burnham of Gang of Four appears to sing the group’s praises (Bono probably forgot about them, even though U2 apparently played warm-up act for a show the Mekons once headlined, a memory Mekons’ singer/guitarist/drummer Jon Langford recalls with great judgement of Bono’s stage presence and a bit of sly irony).

This all culminates in a wonderful portrait of what genuine, unbridled creative process is like for some incredible musicians, which also includes the amazing talents of Lu Edmonds (Live review: PiL at Grand Central, Miami, Oct. 5, 2012), credited as the band’s only true musician by the other members of the group. You sense that these artists are content with their place in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll history because they are still making rock ‘n’ roll history. Few bands have been able to reinvent themselves and get away with it over such a long career. There is a sense that there is no prior album to measure success against. But even sweeter, there’s an infectious, purist spirit that these are people who have all found their bliss. Revenge of the Mekons is a marvelous portrait of humanity benefiting from the spirit of creativity.

Hans Morgenstern

Revenge of the Mekons runs 95 minutes and is not rated (I can’t say there’s anything offense about it because this is as genuine a portrait of musicians you will ever). It played for one night only in Miami, but others across the U.S. will have a chance to see it, as it tours the nation. Screening dates can be found here (that’s a hot link, just scroll down a bit). You can also request this film by visiting this link. The film’s PR rep invited me to the one-night only screening for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

I’ve seen the unglamorous aging of punk rock and— wouldn’t you know it— John Lydon, once known as Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, is embracing it with down-to-earth charm. Before Public Image Ltd., i.e. PiL, took the stage at Grand Central in Miami last Friday, I was advised to get there on time. The group would start at 9 p.m. sharp. It actually started about 15 minutes later, but still damn early for a headline act (no opener) at Grand Central.

The band came out to the darkened stage with no intro music beyond what the DJ had been playing for the few dancers. “We’re pill,” said Lydon before the band kicked off its near two-hour set with “This is Not a Love Song.” It was pure, driving power pop propulsion, while Lydon’s voice shifted and morphed from warbles to buzz saw growls and barks. The power trio version of this song was a refreshing thing to hear stripped of the disco-stylings, like the horns, of its original version. Lu Edmonds played an electric saz, a Persian instrument from the lute family, for the song. Though exotic to look at, it did not take the song to any strange places beyond its distinctive potency. What this band— which also included Bruce Smith on drums (another longtime PiL alum)  and new bassist Scott Firth— did do well was groove along and indulge in the essence of the PiL sound: pure post-punk.

Edmonds, who went on to play in the Damned and the Mekons after PiL, before recently returning to a newly reformed PiL, shined as a talented guitarist during the grooves. The band highlighted lots of material from its new album This is PiL, which features some grand, unrelenting hooks. “Deeper Water,” one of the band’s new songs, followed “This is Not a Love Song” and rode a catchy guitar line laced with the reggae influence of so much British post-punk of the seventies, as Lydon delighted in his amorphous voice for an almost seven-minute duration. The band were tight and kept things interesting with some pre-programmed keyboard lines that joined in from the ether.

They also explored some old songs, and their sober, mature quality even made songs like the 11-minute “Albatross” a pleasant moment. The piercing hiss of the Keith Levene’s original guitar and Rotten’s once tired, melting voice were replaced by Edmonds’ rambling and roaring guitar work and Lydon sounded vibrant and awake. The rhythm section offered a solid drone, as the group reveled in wallowing in its minimalist punk until coming to a sputtering stop.

I captured a video of the next song, another new one called “One Drop,” where the now rather rotund and flabby Lydon sings, “We are teenagers” with a slight trace of irony:

The set went on in much the same manner, visiting old mainstays like “Disappointed” but also featuring new songs like “Reggie Song,” which fit comfortably in the band’s oeuvre. The songs had a repetitive quality and seemed extended longer than they needed, but that’s typical PiL. It’s like they drive a hook of a song in perpetuity in order to allow it to stick in your head.

The audience, composed of members of the aged punk generation of the early eighties and of the early nineties alternative nation years of MTV, mostly nodded along to the music and occasionally raised their fists. A few pogo-ed for a few seconds at a time. A 20-year break between albums can do something to your relevance, as few in the audience were current generation hipsters.

Lydon was an amenable front man. He spit on stage once— that I saw— and excused himself for using a big bottle of something for mouthwash and not swallowing. He even seemed to present himself as pro-Obama, lamenting the president’s weak showing at that week’s debate. “You couldn’t put that fuckin’ presidential debate to music. Believe me, I tried,” he said before introducing “U.S.L.S. 1.” Before the song’s grand chiming guitar line soared off, he said, “Here’s what would happen if Romney gets in” about the song with the line “The devil takes care of his own.” Again, the song sounded even grander live with this line-up of musicians, who delighted in new dynamics missing from the original.

After a few more songs, the band would take a five-minute break before returning to the stage for a lengthy encore that began with the 10-plus-minute closer off the new album, “Out of the Woods.” That song then dovetailed into the band’s biggest song, “Rise,” and Lydon encouraged audience participation by hanging the mic over the audience for the “Anger is an energy” line. PiL closed the show with “Open Up,” an early Leftfield song that Lydon sang guest vocals on. It was an apt indulgent turn that revealed PiL’s seemless connection to droning house music. The jam probably lasted 15 minutes.

PiL came across as a well-preserved relic of a certain era which— as it did in its early post-punk days— revealed scarcely a trace of Lydon’s punk roots as Johnny Rotten. These were skilled, mature musicians up on stage that night for a show made more tolerable by a mostly subdued crowd who were there for the music rather than to be “seen.” People mostly stood in rapt attention, and they were easy to walk among and never crowded up against each other (unless you were the tight, small bunch toward the front of the stage).

Set list:

This is Not a Love Song
Deeper Water
One Drop
Reggie Song
U.S.L.S. 1
Swan Lake (A.K.A. Death Disco)

Out of the Woods
Open Up

North American tour dates for PiL continue thusly:

10/08 – Washington, DC @ 9:30 Club
10/09 – Brooklyn, NY @ The Music Hall of Williamsburg
10/11 – Philadelphia, PA @ Electric Factory
10/12 – Clifton Park, NY @ Upstate Concert Hall
10/13 – New York, NY @ Hammerstein Ballroom
10/15 – Boston, MA @ Royale Boston
10/16 – Montreal, QC @ Club Soda
10/18 – Toronto, ON @ The Opera House
10/19 – Detroit, MI @ Royal Oak Music Theatre
10/21 – Chicago, IL @ House of Blues
10/22 – Minneapolis, MN @ Mill City Nights
10/25 – San Francisco, CA @ Regency Ballroom
10/28 – Los Angeles, CA @ Club NOKIA
11/01 – Dallas, TX @ Granada Theater
11/03 – Austin, TX @ Fun Fun Fun Fest

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)