Carrying on for 20 years in the face of public indifference, countless
record company nightmares and nothing even resembling a hit, the Mekons
are the secret heroes of rock and roll. I Have Been to Heaven and Back ... Vol. 1
offers a perverse version of their history: instead of their best-known
songs, it collects outtakes, extended live versions, re-recorded
obscurities, compilation tracks and a rollicking jog through Rod Stewart's "You Wear It Well."
Probably only fans will notice, but Heaven and Back is as lively
an overview of the Mekons as you'll find. Instead of tracing a story
or maintaining a consistent musical tone, it hopscotches through their
history. The LP gleefully trashes musical genres, as the Mekons crack
jokes one minute and stare down the void the next.
The Mekons' live shows are about making the most of every moment, taking
unplanned detours, exploring a joke or exploding a song, never playing
by rote. Their shows may start like a meeting of old friends having a
laugh over a few drinks, but they become epic benders that end up where
you least expect, shambling, transcendent events.
The photograph on the cover of Heaven and Back captures a moment
from one of these shows. Mitch, their familiar rastafarian roadie, is
falling backward with his pants around his ankles. Sally Timms bashes a
tambourine as Rico Bell blithely plays accordion. Frontman Jon Langford
jumps in the air with his guitar, and a red feather boa streaks across
the stage, pulled by an unseen hand. It's disorienting, it's a mess; it's
just the sort of unkempt scene you don't see enough at live shows.
The music maintains this high standard of disorder. The title track is
a joyously re-recorded version of a song inexplicably left off the Mekons'
Rock N' Roll album. "Handcuffed to history," Tom sings, but it's
a challenge not a complaint; he's seen heaven, even if all his friends
are too busy rolling under the punches to care.
The Mekons rescue the best songs from their United album.
(RealAudio excerpt) is a chilling lullaby sung by Sally against a
mechanical background. "Orpheus" (RealAudio excerpt) is the album's standout, one of the
most irresistible odes to ecstasy and fornication, music and poetry
ever penned. In a better world, you could turn on your radio and hear
it right now. Heaven and Back also resurrects the group's
sensational abortion rights anthem "Born to Choose" and the slight but
fun "Axcerpt" from uneven compilations.
You would have to be the Mekons to want their career. Or to have survived
it. "A fucking death ride to nowhere," is how Langford half-jokingly
describes their journey. In the '80s, as they released one great album
after another, it seemed inevitable that the Mekons would finally get
the success they deserved. But each time, history cheated them.
Throwing up their hands in disgust, they titled their 1991 album
The Curse of the Mekons.
But the real Mekons story is that they continue to make music that's
inventive, frequently great and surprisingly relevant, defying almost
every precedent in rock. As they roll on, they've created a community
that is unique. Unlike the chemical camaraderie of the Dead or Phish,
bands whose fans are linked by lifestyle choices as much as by music,
all you have to do to be a part of the Mekons experience is show up.
Halfway through Heaven and Back, Tom Greenhalgh issues the
invitation: Let's go down to the pub, drink beers, smoke, talk shit.
The album also includes a furious live version of "Funeral" with an
extended coda. "Lucky Star" sports a space-folk vibe that's eerily
reminiscent of Beck's Mutations, though it was recorded five
years ago. Sure, it's not all brilliant. "Roger Troutman" is a turgid
mess, and "Ring O'Roses" is excessively mopey. But "Gill & Vicky" is a
wonderfully angular instrumental from 1980 -- featuring Andy Gill and
Vicky Aspinall -- that wouldn't sound out of place on the first
Raincoats album. Then there's a swirling techno rave-up celebrating
Leeds soccer, and heretofore unreleased gems like Tom's punk-country
"Cowboy Boots" and "The Ballad of Sally."
The album spins out with "Unknown Song," an overheard bit of guitar,
fiddle and piano with gently sighing vocals. It's so faint, it's
practically a field recording -- the sound of a raucous party finally
winding down while the band plays one last, half-remembered slow dance
for a handful of stragglers as the bartender sweeps up around them
and cashes out the register. It's just the sort of fleeting moment
that rock is all about, the sort of moment that usually slips through
In their own modest but spirited way, these fragments the Mekons have
shored up against their ruins constitute a truer Rock and Roll Hall of
Fame than any number of glass pyramids sticking out of the sands of