Early in Joe Angio’s documentary Revenge Of The Mekons, there’s an archival clip filmed in 1978 that shows the members of The Mekons—young and in the full bloom of English punk—performing their first single, “Never Been In A Riot.” It’s a crude, snotty, raw-as-fuck anthem intended as a riposte to The Clash’s “White Riot.” But as they twitch and careen across the stage of some godforsaken dive, they don’t sneer or spit. They break into grins.
That small gesture says much about The Mekons. The band has soldiered on for 37 years since its formation without signs of slowing—and without much success to show for it. Or at least not success as it’s conventionally defined. The Mekons are a cult band, thanks to a stellar run of records that have encompassed everything from punk and avant-garde to country and folk—and like most documentaries about cult bands, Revenge Of The Mekons is an attempt to both shed light on and lavishly celebrate its subject. The film’s strength lies in just how far it’s willing to go—and to not go—in the pursuit of mythologizing its subject, a group of aging but unrepentant punks who treat the very idea of mythology like a bad joke.
However, there’s no denying how mythic The Mekons have modestly become. The band formed in 1977 in Leeds, England, from the same pool of art students that also birthed the far more famous post-punk band Gang Of Four. From that humble start, The Mekons spun spirited amateurism and leftist rabble-rousing into a major-label record deal—which the band quickly botched. As he does in his 2006 documentary about Melvin Van Peebles, How To Eat Your Watermelon In White Company (And Enjoy It) Angio shuns fussiness and lets a few choice details tell huge portions of the story. For every well-used celebrity talking head like Jonathan Franzen and Fred Armisen (the latter is the ex-husband of The Mekons’ Sally Timms), there are quiet images that speak volumes: For instance, an early promotional photo of The Mekons that includes as many random friends of the band as it does members.
That egalitarian camaraderie is part of The Mekons’ chronic shirking of ambition, a quality that has bordered on self-sabotage over the years. The group’s de facto frontman Jon Langford—calling him its leader would be “a gross misunderstanding of the situation,” he assures—is a natural camera magnet, wild-eyed and effusive, but he’s quick to point out the collectivist ethic, fostered during the band’s formative years as leftist student rebels. The U.K. miners’ strike of 1984 and ’85 brought the group back from the brink of collapse, injecting it with a newfound activism—and a fresh burst of inspiration in the form of traditional English folk music.
That in turn led to an obsession with American country music and a relocation to Chicago, all of which jelled during the band’s next, and similarly doomed, stint on a major label in the late ’80s. Dick Taylor—the founding bassist of The Rolling Stones and a member of the legendary British rock band The Pretty Things—happened to play in The Mekons for a few years in the ’80s, and his presence in the film illustrates just what a motley crew of musicians have always been attracted to the group’s ramshackle roster. In one scene, drummer Steve Goulding is teased by his bandmates about his biggest claim to fame: He played drums on Elvis Costello’s “Watching The Detectives.” In the upside-down world of The Mekons, that’s a mockable offense.
Angio allows these anecdotes to propel the film. Even when Franzen intrudes to drop utterly Franzenian bon mots like “[The Mekons] teach you how to be gracious and amusing losers,” it doesn’t top what Langford and crew can accomplish just by letting their roughhewn charisma fly. During a concert, Timms forgets the lyrics to one of her signature Mekons song, “Ghosts Of American Astronauts”; Langford ribs her, hands her a lyric book, and the band starts the song over. Rather than omit such mistakes, like a more flattering documentarian might, Angio leaves them in, just as The Mekons have always embraced their own. He also folds in many subdued, domestic scenes of the band members cooking, eating, and dancing together. When the lot of them mass-marry each other in a pagan ceremony, it seems like only half a prank.
“Success is the thing that usually kills bands in the end,” Timms says during a radio interview and on-air performance that frames the film beautifully. If there was ever any bitter irony to her statement, it’s long ago been replaced with a graceful appreciation of life’s absurdity. Ultimately, Revenge Of The Mekons isn’t about revenge at all. It’s about acceptance—not of defeat, but of unlikely survival.