An exemplary documentary about an exemplary band, Revenge of the Mekons tells the story of the eponymous group by not only situating them in their proper musical and historical context, but by offering a telling look at the octet’s working dynamic and by outlining the specific qualities that have made them such a significant entity for the better part of four decades. These art-school leftists began as a can’t-play-their-instruments punk band, formed in Leeds in 1977, before gradually finding their footing, thanks to the influence of English folk, American country, and Margaret Thatcher’s devastating suppression of the miners’ strike, around the mid ’80s. Reformulating their sound, the band produced 1985’s classic Fear and Whiskey, considered by many to be the founding text of alt-country, and have been refining their approach ever since, maintaining the same non-hierarchical membership of eight since the early ’90s.
Although Joe Angio’s film relies on the typical assemblage of talking heads, archival tapes, and some new footage, he does a fine job of mixing and matching the constituent pieces, breaking up the chronology of the band’s central narrative by continually cutting back to a recent in-studio interview of the group as well as to other present-day material. What emerges is a portrait of a fully committed band that could never quite make it and of the rock n’ roll project as something between a (very serious) hobby and a full-time career. Denied the success that would keep them going without concern for their livelihood, the members of the band, dispersed throughout different continents, preoccupied with the day jobs they’ve had to take, can only rarely get together anymore. But as the film suggests, when they do, they keep making music as vital as any they’ve recorded, and the process of making that music always proceeds as a collective, leaderless enterprise, keeping in line with the band’s socialist ideals.
It’s in showing this process that the film really shines, particularly in one segment in which Angio films the band members working on the composition of the 2011 song “Afar and Forlorn” and then cuts to snippets from the recording session before finally moving on to footage of the band performing the tune on stage at Brooklyn’s Bell House. There are plenty of other fine live performances interspersed throughout the film as well, showcasing both the band’s musical prowess and the penchant for irreverent banter exhibited by singers Jon Langford and Sally Timms. In addition, the film takes time out to profile the different band members, a strategy that serves both to introduce the players to the uninitiated and offer an insider’s perspective to the longtime fan.
Finally, the doc makes the case for the band as wry observers of civilization’s wreckage, bringing a gallows humor and a boisterous, beery spin to their take on the bleak post-Thatcher and Reagan landscape. If the film skips rather cavalierly over the mid ’90s and early aughts and sometimes lacks the proper critical insight in assessing specific albums (it misses the fact that Mekons Rock ’n’ Roll is as critical as it is celebratory of the rock project), it amply compensates by offering a compelling look at why this particular band of ruffians has continued to remain so important for its devoted followers since their long-ago and almost accidental inception at the height of the punk-rock era.