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Never Been In a Riot: The Paradox of the Mekons
“Never Been in a Riot”, the Mekon’s first single, was released in 1978 as a direct response to “White Riot” by The Clash, which Kevin Lycett (a former Mekon) reports the band found “very offensive” with its sentiment of “I want a riot for us poor downtrodden white people” (Revenge of the Mekons). The Mekons response, an aggressively self-deprecating song about a man who has never done much of anything, captures a great deal about what makes them successful punks in Jesse Prinz’s aesthetic terms. The song is irreverent even to the point of attacking another celebrated punk act, and the lyrics’ emptiness and moral ambivalence (when they are intelligible) clearly reflect a youthful nihilistic sensibility. Most strikingly, the song is obviously amateurish in its musical incompetence. Indeed, when The Mekons formed, they were a group of art students with no musical training or ability; Bob Last, the head of their first label, recounts that “the critical thing [about his decision to sign them] was that they really could not play” (Revenge of the Mekons). Mary Harron, in a 1979 Melody Maker article in which she refers to the band as “a strange combination of sophisticated theory and technical incompetence”, shares this sentiment: “The Mekons’ genius has always lain in the way they exposed their defects instead of hiding them, and put them to imaginative use” (17). Early in their career, then, The Mekons had already emerged as models of punk success via aesthetic failure.
The art of The Mekons’ economic failure, on the other hand, has taken their entire career to fully realize, because it is in many ways an art of unlikely endurance in the face of commercial and popular indifference. The Mekons’ independent history and lack of commercial success make them an economic punk success in the terms articulated by Stacy Thomson and bands like Fugazi, but they depart from Fugazi and the rest of the DIY scene in that their commercial failure has as much to do with ideology as it does with genuinely failed attempts to make it big. The Mekons signed with A&M Records in 1989 to release The Mekons Rock ‘n’ Roll, an album that was heavily promoted but only sold 21 000 copies (Revenge of the Mekons). Featuring songs like “Memphis, Egypt” and other attacks on the commercial music industry, the album “figuratively bit the hand that fed” (Kot) and got The Mekons fired from their chance at fame with A&M after only one album. Unlike bands like The Clash, who it can be argued “sold out” their aesthetic and political principles with failed (on punk terms) economic decisions, The Mekons aesthetic values seem to have, paradoxically, translated into economic (read: ideological) punk success by destroying their chance at commercial viability even when the band itself wanted for a time to succeed as a commodity. The Mekon’s position after The Mekons Rock ‘n’ Roll is a fascinating one: they continue to succeed as a punk band in that they can still play shows, sell records, and be tremendously respected by cult fans and critics, but this success is a direct result of their very real failed attempt to break into the mainstream. As band member Jon Langford put it in a 1991 Chicago Tribune interview, “the key to our success is our lack of success. We survived because we weren’t supposed to survive” (Kot). It helps, too, that every member of the band has another, primary source of income (Revenge of the Mekons).Ultimately, The Mekons present a model for enduring artistic success achieved through aesthetic principles, political endurance, and a liberal dose of genuine, accidental failure. Halberstam discusses the queer art of failure as a “method for imagining, not some fantasy of an elsewhere, but existing alternatives to hegemonic systems” (89). To my mind, The Mekons’ punk art of failure offers a very similar proposition. By existing in the music world with a small, devoted following for over 35 years without ever succeeding financially, the band (perhaps inadvertently) demonstrates a way of making art within capitalism without ever letting capitalism undermine the art. Perhaps more importantly, as captured in several scenes in Revenge of the Mekons that show them eating dinner or hanging out writing songs, the band clearly loves what they do and values each other’s company. The simple fact that they know they’ll never make a living from their punk records and continue getting together to make them regardless, with the values they began with still intact, can itself be read as a kind of resistant utopian project. I’ll give Jon Langford (in an clip from the documentary) the last word, but before I do, I’ll conclude by suggesting that if The Mekons are a failure by any conventional measure (and they are, as they willingly admit in almost every interview conducted with them), the way they fail -- from their first single to their current, still-defiant work -- amounts to an aesthetic and economic model of ideological resistance that, to certain punk-inclined minds, is an inspiring, paradoxical success.