The Mekons Look to Edwardian-Era Britain on Latest Album ‘Ancient and Modern’

Originally published in Spinner, October 4, 2011

mekons by Francesca Allen
The Mekons (Francesca Allen)

In British history, the Edwardian era (1901-1919) was characterized by imperialism, wealth and contrasts between the affluent and the impoverished. For the Mekons, the era serves a reference point for their 26th and latest album, ‘Ancient and Modern.’ While a lot has changed since 1911, history repeats itself as far as politics and society are concerned.

“The idea behind it was that, in a lot of way, things aren’t that different if you look at a hundred years ago and now,” longtime singer Sally Timms tells Spinner, describing the new album. “There are plenty of similarities in what was going on then — the Edwardian period was definitely similar to what was happening.”

As founding Mekons singer and guitarist Jon Langford puts it, there was a shallowness and complacency in English society leading up to World War I.

“I think the shadow of the First World War seems huge to me now because there’s no one left who fought in that war,” he says. “Family members of mine fought and died in that war. When you got the current crop of political leaders — who seem to have no connection to reality at all [and] people’s lives whatsoever — running the world, it’s really important to remember these terrible events.”

“I think there are definite parallels,” Langford continues. “There’s a disconnect between the rulers and the reality of the dangers of the things they flirt with. We’re in a similar situation as just before the First World War, where we’re essentially leaderless and distracted from the realities of what could happen.”

‘Ancient and Modern’ is a predominantly elegant and warm-sounding effort, as reflected on the album’s haunting folk-ish title song.

“It’s sort of like an Edwardian travelogue,” says Langford. “I imagined people in pith helmets. It’s about empire — that taste of imperialism. There was that before the First World War [and] we do that now. We drop into other people’s misery. I think that went on quite a lot, the genteel kind of facade… of people taking tea and drinking gin and tonics.”

The single ‘Space in Your Face’ — an exuberant rocker reminiscent of early Roxy Music — represents something of a stylistic departure.

“I think Steve [Goulding] definitely channeled some [of Roxy Music’s] Paul Thompson on the drums,” says Langford. “I always liked Roxy Music because they were like these effete art students with a drummer who just crawled off a building site. I don’t know quite where that song comes from in terms of the rest of the record. I think we had to let out a little bit of noisiness.”

Since their formation in 1977 in Leeds, the Mekons have made music that has constantly evolved, encompassing punk, cowpunk and folk. In addition to the album and tour, a new film documentary will examine the story of the band, whose long career has been marked by lack of commercial success.

“The pressures that come with success and all the arguments that people have generally are about pretty dull things like money,” explains Timms. “If there’s no money, you can’t fight about money, because there really isn’t any. I know from the original members [that] no one did a band to make money or become successful. We don’t view it like that. You don’t stop doing something you really like because people don’t pay attention to you. I think success would have killed the band, but that’s not the reason why we’re in the band.”

Langford, who’s been there since the beginning, agrees.

“You realize that some of the best things we’ve done was when we actually thought there was nobody listening whatsoever,” he says. “It’s pretty obvious to me that’s not the reason why we’re doing it. A lot of messages that we received are like, ‘You shouldn’t be doing this,’ and [I’m like,] ‘Why not? Why shouldn’t we be doing this?’”

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