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Introduction: The Punk Art of Failure
Chapter Three of Judith Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure includes an extended rumination on Irvine Welch’s 1993 novel Trainspotting, made into a film of the same name in 1996. Halberstam refers to Trainspotting as a “classic punk novel… about failure, disappointment, addiction and violence”, and highlights in it “moments of punk negativity that point, in their own snarling way, to the implicit politics of failure” (90). She ultimately dismisses Trainspotting as “far too hetero-masculine in its simple reversals of masculine authority” (92) to fit within the scope of her project. However, Halberstam’s engagement with punk -- both in her dealing with Trainspotting and in her discussion later in the chapter of The Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” (linked here in a live version) and the phrase “no future” which originated as the song’s refrain and is now a part of the discourse on failure -- demonstrates a deep theoretical kinship between punk music and the political concept of queer failure.
I am interested in precisely this relationship. In this project, I will explore the aesthetics and ideology of punk music as an art of resistant failure. By considering The Mekons, a little-known (but highly respected) band from Leeds formed in 1977 who, as rock critic Greil Marcus puts it, “were best known as the band that took punk ideology most seriously” (825), I mean to think about punk’s relationship to notions of success and failure both as they are commonly (hegemonically, or in the mainstream) considered and as they are framed within the punk community.
Two facts about The Mekons make them particularly well-suited for this kind of case study. The first is the simple fact that they still exist, and have since their inception. The second and more important is that the band has never been commercially successful, as Ed Roche Notes in the documentary Revenge of the Mekons. Moreover, their only relationship with a major label (1989’s The Mekons Rock ‘n’ Roll was released by A&M) ended in their being dismissed after one album. In her introduction to Failure, Lisa Le Feuve reminds us that “the judgement involved in naming something a success or a failure is symptomatic of the time and place, and contingent on the critical apparatus one uses to define it” (14). Within the punk community, there is perhaps no failure more trenchant than the accusation of “selling out” to commercial interests. The Mekons, then, present a paradox: they are essentially commercial failures, and for this exact reason, can be seen as upholding a model of punk success in a way that their far more popular generational contemporaries do not while enduring despite low record sales for much longer than almost every group from their cluster of early English punk bands. The Mekons arguably succeed artistically and ideologically not despite but through their commercial marginality. Through them, we can understand the punk model as an ideal of resistant failure -- against capitalism, commercialism, and the aesthetics and economics of the music industry -- that, paradoxically, succeeds most when the players can’t play and the products don’t sell.
Before thinking specifically about The Mekons, it will be useful to spend a moment on a brief overview of the ideology, aesthetics, and economics of punk rock.