England in the mid-’80s, gray and depressed by Thatcherism and the Smiths, wasn’t a place folks typically dressed to the nines in ten-gallon hats, bolo ties, and Nudie shirts. But such were the sartorial choices made those days by the members of the Mekons. “We looked ridiculous back in Leeds, wearing Western wear while everyone else was in their Acid House gear,” says the legendary UK band’s co-founder and frontman Jon Langford, who’ll showcase his paintings and perform at SPACE Gallery on Friday and Saturday. “They thought we were insane.”
But Langford and his bandmates had recently begun listening to an awful lot of country music. And so smitten had they become with the songs of Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, that they’d gone whole hog. Founded in 1977 as a clangorous art-punk band with pronounced socialist leanings, the Mekons took a shine to those hard-bitten hard-luck tales, intuiting right away that “there were parallels between country music and punk rock.”
Indeed, the Mekons’ classic mid-’80s trilogy Fear and Whiskey, Edge of the World, and Honky Tonkin’, are arguably the first “alt-country” records. And while the band’s lineups and musical proclivities have gone through many evolutions since, a quarter-century later, the Welsh-born Langford (who’s lived in Chicago since the early ’90s) is still rather obsessed with cowboys and old-time country singers — whether it’s bashing out Roy Acuff covers with his band the Waco Brothers or painting faded and abraded pictures of those icons of a vanished American past, working through his feelings about fame and the perfidious music industry while also paying twisted homage to his adopted country.
‘Gave up painting’
Langford joined the Mekons when he was a student at art school. He’d barely had a chance to pick up a brush. “The punk rock thing broke out just as I was getting there,” he says by phone from Chicago, taking a break from the art studio in the midst of recording his forthcoming solo album. “Everybody I knew just got in a band straightaway. We just gave up painting almost immediately. Painting seemed a really boring thing to do.”
In the early going, like so many others from the Class of ’77, the band weren’t particularly adept at playing their instruments. “The Mekons were certainly non-musicians,” says Langford. But by 1989, the literate, liquored-up leftists had honed their craft and found their way onto a major label (A&M), which released the excellent Mekons Rock ’n’ Roll.
Suffice it to say, the band’s dealings with the major label machine — the lawyers, the bean counters, the hapless promo men, the consolidating corporate suites — were no fun at all. “It never really worked out for us,” says Langford drily. “It was a bit of a disaster.”
A few years later, in 1992, freed from that indentured servitude, Langford moved to Chicago. “I didn’t have my normal musical collaborators around me, so I had to find something to do,” he says. Never having stopped drawing — see Great Pop Things, the wickedly parodic rock-history comic strip he created, with writer Colin B. Morton, under the pseudonym Chuck Death — he’d nonetheless not painted for years. But when a friend asked him to put together a gallery show, he decided to reacquaint himself with the moonshine-like aroma of paint thinner.