Review and Photography by John Bentley.

The Mekons are a musical institution. Starting off as an arty punk band with attitude at Leeds University in the 1970s, they’ve evolved over the years as a politically and socially-aware collective of musicians expanding out of the punk genre into folk, country, dub and all sorts. They decamped to the USA in the 1990s and have, as they say, a large cult following including one Will Oldham (aka Bonnie Prince Billy). However, tonight we’re privileged to witness one of only a few reunion gigs being performed by the original 1977-9 line-up of drummer Jon Langford, guitarists Kevin Lycett and Tom Greenhalgh and singers Mark White and Andy Corrigan.

The Mekons, Preston Continental,05-08-17

First support band Vukovar are certainly worth the price of admission on their own. Live they come over like Joy Division meets the Birthday Party. Their live sound is a much more stripped-down version of their studio recordings, with instruments restricted to bass and drums and occasional squalls of synth. The bass player has his back to the audience most of the time and the scary lead singer stalks the stage and the floor of the hall like he’s looking for a victim. The last song seems to be suggesting that death is the final solution. It’s pretty dark but interesting and compelling stuff.

Vukovar, Preston Continental, 05-08-17

Vukovar, Preston Continental, 05-08-17

Pill Fangs is the group project of songwriter Dan Hayward. A joker in the audience points out that the band are all wearing the same striped T-shirts, as if they hadn’t noticed. The songs are mostly pretty short, sharp garage punk style, tightly played and with frequent rhythm changes and enjoyable at that. Mr Hayward is quite a wordsmith. The performance also prompts a bit of ‘dad-dancing’ in the hall.

Pill Fangs,Preston Continental, 05-08-17

Pill Fangs, Preston Continental,05-08-17

Back in the late 1970s I got turned-on to punk via John Peel’s radio programme. The punk era was great for singles and one of those I purchased following repeated playing by Peely was ‘Where Were You’ by The Mekons, which still sounds fantastic today. For all the young people reading this who don’t know, the band took their name the villain in a regular cartoon strip in The Eagle comic. The Mekon was an evil green alien and arch enemy of future space pilot Dan Dare.

The Mekons shamble onto the stage, a disparate looking bunch at that. Some are dapperly dressed and some look like they have just come in from working in the garden. Only Langford and Greenhalgh still perform in the current day Mekons, the others have day jobs. The band’s announcements are mostly self-deprecating, acknowledging that they’ve had to do a bit of makeshift homework to put the ramshackle show back on the road for the 40th anniversary of their formation. However, there’s never a risk of failure tonight given the band’s good humoured, low-expectation approach and the level of affection from members of the audience.

The Mekons, Preston Continental,05-08-17

The Mekons, Preston Continental,05-08-17

It’s clearly going to be a short set, bearing in mind the limited recorded output of the original band and the short nature of the songs, most of which were around the two or three minute mark. The set inevitably features several songs from the debut album ‘The Quality of Mercy is not Strnen’, the title being a deliberate misquote / misspelling from Shakepeare’s Merchant of Venice. The cover of the album featured a monkey at a typewriter – say no more. Also featured are early singles and songs that were recorded for Radio 1 Peel sessions.

We kick off with ‘Fight the Cuts’, an obviously political number from 1977, followed by a new song, ‘Healey Waving’, recorded by the reunion line-up for a new album. The original Mekons were one of the most musically basic punk bands, although listening to their early recordings Jon Langford’s solid drumming seems to hold the songs together. Whatever their original limitations as musicians, the band obviously had something special about them in terms of energy, tunes and social commentary and they were invited to do several radio sessions by enthusiastic supporter DJ John Peel.

The Mekons, Preston Continental,05-08-17

The set tonight includes all the ‘hits’, such as they were, including the spirited ‘Never Been in a Riot’, the band’s cheeky riposte to The Clash’s ‘White Riot’. A lesser known song that was initially recorded for John Peel was ‘The Building’. The band explain that there wasn’t enough material for a Peel session, so they made this up in the studio. It turned out an acapella number as they didn’t have any music to go with it! This DIY approach is continued tonight by the (convincing) reading of lyrics from a music stand, necessary given the two main singers are no longer regular performers. As each song is finished a sheet of lyrics is unceremoniously discarded onto the floor and a pile of paper builds up. Each member of the band also seems to have different version of the set list, all apparently hand written by themselves.

The Mekons, Preston Continental,05-08-17

The set draws to a close with probably the best song from the early Mekon years and one the band still perform, ‘Where Were You’, a song of lovesick angst that rivals The Buzzcocks’ iconic ‘Ever Fallen in Love’. The band really excel on this, with Langford’s roaring drums building the song up and the two guitarists hammering out the distinctive guitar chords. The encore, if you can call it that, as the band members barely leave the stage, is the classic ‘Dan Dare’. A brief ‘shouty’ number with great lyrics – “Outer space is a really nice place, oh yeah, Dan Dare”.

Really splendid stuff and something that human kind may never witness again. Viva The Mekons, 1977-9 style.


Setlist:
Fight the Cuts
Healey Waving
32 Weeks
Trevira Trousers
After 6
Never Been in a Riot
The Building
Lonely and Wet
Still Waiting
Where Were You.
Encore:
Dan Dare.

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