The Mekons are punk in just about the best way I can think of; they sat around thinking what everyone around them knew was a bad idea and then played it loud: country and punk? Absolutely; if you don’t like it, fuck you.
The idea came out best on their album Honky Tonkin. The album is the middle of a period where the band worked on adding twang to their punk, with the albums before, Fear and Whiskey and The Edge of the World, being much heavier on the punk, and the album after, So Good It Hurts being much heavier on the country. This album gets the balance right, but that doesn’t mean those other three album aresn’t also brilliant; if you’ve got some income to dispose, I heartily endorse all of them.
Right from the title you can tell this album is Maverick spitting in Iceman’s face and then not even walking away (that happened, right?). Of course, the title refers to the loud, fast genre of machismo infused country, the stuff of Buck Owens, but as a title it also reflects the groups acknowledgement of their status as outsiders, as honkys, being halfway around the world (and several centuries too late) for the time of cowboys and Indians, pioneer spirits, and all those other Hank Williams songs.
But that is as much of an apology as the group offers. The album’s first track “I Can’t Find My Money” is the only song that will ever assaults the listener with a mandolin. If the song had a music video, it would be Jon Langford rolling out bed and looking like shit and then immidiately grogging the song’s opening lines: “People say I’m happy and I like a drink or two/suspended in the darkness I weep like a child.” Langford’s voice isn’t country, it isn’t even trying to be “American,” he has a voice fit for 70s punk rock, and there is no way in hell he’s going to change it for you, not out of defference or humility or embarassment. No fucking way.
But that doesn’t mean the album isn’t composed out of utter respect. Sure, they’re ripping apart cowboy boots and pissing in ten gallon hats like they were gas tanks, but there’s a reason for this besides fucking around, and besides wrecking country music. A brief bit of history, however broad and positivistic it is, might be helpful. If you listened to the Mekons first album you’d think (or i did, when i listened to 30 second clips at amazon) “man, one Gang of Four album is too many, why listen to another?” (the reason: on this first album, the band shared gear and members with Gang of Four) The band felt the same way; realizing “shit, we’re just another ’78 punk band” and quickly dissolved. Then, 5 years later, they reunited for the 1984 miner’s strikes that were taking place England, covering old folk songs and the like. For a band so versed in satire (thier first single was a bitter mockery of the clash called “never been in a riot”), the motivation at this point (in my totally baseless opinion) was genuine; maybe some of these old songs could actually change things. So while they clearly have joke on their minds as the Johnny Cash chugachug drumbeat rolls in at the begining of “Hole in the Ground,” by the end of the song, hell, by 15 second into the song, you know they mean it.
aw raspberries, i guess i’m doing it again, but i can’t deny that this is a great song, and if everything it offers is stolen, at least somebody stole the right things, put them in the right order, and aranged the ransom note just right, too.