Terry Gross, Washington, DC
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TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. My guest, singer-guitarist Jon Langford, is a founding member of the British punk band The Mekons — one of the few punk bands of the era that is still performing. Critic Robert Christgau says they’ve put out as much good music as anybody in rock and roll.
Jonboy with Gurf Morlix at SXWS 2000 Langford is Welsh, but now lives in Chicago. Living in the States is feeding his growing interest in country music. He plays in the country-inspired band The Waco Brothers, and he pays tribute to the father of western swing on his new CD, “The Pine Valley Cosmonauts Salute the Majesty of Bob Wills.”
Langford recently released his first solo CD called, “Skull Orchard.” Langford is also a visual artist, and under the pen name Chuck Death draws the syndicated comic strip “Great Pop Things,” which satirizes rock and roll history. The strips are collected in the new book, “Great Pop Things.”
Let’s get started with a track from the Bob Wills tribute record.
If you do something to me
I can understand
You got a sweet kind of love
I feel bright and gloomy
When you hold my hand
You got a sweet kind of love
Smile and show your dimples
And wink your little eye
I’m full of goose pimples
And you’re my sweetie pie
Everything about you
Fits you like a glove
You got a sweet kind of love
GROSS: Jon Langford, welcome to FRESH AIR. How did you first come across Bob Wills? And how did he strike you the first time you heard his music?
JON LANGFORD, MUSICIAN; VISUAL ARTIST: It was not like the country music I’d heard in England growing up. We didn’t think much of country music, really. We were punk rockers and we thought punk rock was really exciting and everything else, and everything that went before it was pretty boring.
And Bob Wills was just this music that kind of lapped up — the thing that struck me most about it was how timeless it was. It didn’t sound old to me. It sounded, like, very much alive, and I kind of imagined, falsely, that possibly that was what was still going on somewhere in Texas.
GROSS: When you were living in England and still playing kind of punk rock and listening to Bob Wills, did you ever imagine yourself playing that kind of country or country swing, you know, western swing music yourself?
LANGFORD: No. Absolutely not. I started listening to people like Jimmy Rodgers and Hank Williams around that time, and people had pointed out parallels between what we did and those people. And I felt that there were parallels between punk rock and country music because of the focus of the lyrics. It was very — I felt that people like Merle Haggard or Hank Williams were writing for their peers, and what was actually being talked about was very realistic. It wasn’t kind of escapist stuff like the lyrics of most rock music.
The structures were very simple, and Bob Wills is a different kettle of fish altogether, because there was obviously fantastic musicianship there. But I think he just had a strange open-minded vision of what music could be in the sense that he came from very traditional fiddle music into swing and big band stuff. I think he was a bit of an avant-gardist, in a way.
GROSS: Let me put in a couple of the differences between western swing and punk music. I think punk music has this really hard driving beat, whereas western swing has this more, like, lilting swing to it.
LANGFORD: Bob had the big beat though. I think he was the first guy to use drums on the Grand Ol’ Opry.
LANGFORD: I mean, he was very concerned about it being thumping and dancing. I think when somebody asked him in 1958 or something what he thought about rock and roll he said, oh we’ve been doing that for 30 years.
GROSS: OK, and another thing, a lot of punk songs were almost kind of shouting songs. Not about songcraft as we think of it. Whereas, you know, country music — all of country music is so dependent on songcraft and professional songwriters and all that.
LANGFORD: Yeah, but they’re still — the people I like, there’s still simplicity to the songs, and the simplicity of the sentiments that they’re expressing, which I felt, you know, related to what we were trying to do with punk music. Punk music is a strange genre because a lot of people think of, you know, the mohicans and the leather jackets of the early ’80s –punks wearing them. What I thought was very broad and open-minded, stuff that was going in the late ’70s in England where kind of anything was possible.
GROSS: Now, what pop music did you grow up with in Wales?
LANGFORD: When I was a kid, the first thing that I really liked was a band called Slade. That kind of glam rock stuff, because I think I was probably about 12 for 13 years old and I probably wanted to be a football hooligan and didn’t have the wherewithal to do anything about it.
And Slade and bands like that seemed to be kind of like the sort of football hooligan element that sort of brought that into pop music. They were like a skinhead band who went all glam and wore outrageous outfits and big boots and very strange — looking back on it. Quite boisterous and noisy — T. Rex as well, I kind of got into Hawkwind and Black Sabbath and that heavy metal stuff, but only the kind of crudest, most brutal stuff that I liked.
And then punk rock happened, and then you had The Clash and The Sex Pistols.
GROSS: What year was The Mekons formed, your band?
LANGFORD: We formed in 1977 pretty much after The Sex Pistols came along — I forget what the name of that tour was. Was that the White Riot Tour or something like that? Or the Anarchy Tour. They came with The Clash and The Damned and Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, and they played at Leeds Polytechnic. It was just –anyone can be in a band. You don’t have to be able to play instruments to be in a band.
GROSS: Did you feel that was the only way you could be in a band if — the only way you could be in a band was if anybody could be in a band?
LANGFORD: Yeah, that’s what — it really galvanized people. You didn’t have to make music like music that was made before. You didn’t have to be like The Who, you didn’t have to write rock operas, and have orchestras playing with you, and have huge banks of keyboards, and you could just pick up a guitar and play one chord and you could be in a band and you could have something that you could say.
GROSS: Let me read something that the rock critic Greil Marcus said about you in his book “Lipstick Traces,” he said, “The Mekons were best known as the band that took punk ideology most seriously. Those who couldn’t play tried to learn, and those who could tried to forget.” Did you fit into either of those two categories? LANGFORD: I had a drum kit. I was very interested in being in a band for quite a longtime, but never kind of really got it together, so I actually had a drum kit that I bought off someone. And I took it up to Leeds when I went up there to go to art college.
So, I was in demand because I had a drum kit. I couldn’t actually play them very well, but I was definitely in demand because you had to have a drum kit. So I was — me and Tom were in the same studio in art school and he just said one day, we’re going to form a band. And I was like, oh, really? Yeah, it’s going to be good because no one is going to be able to play. And I said, oh, can I be in it then? And he said, yeah, you’d be good. You’ve got a drum kit. Yeah, we were going to ask you to be in it.
GROSS: I want to play one of the early Mekons recordings to get a sense of what the band was like early in its career. Why don’t you choose one of the early records and introduce it for us.
LANGFORD: This is off the album we did for Virgin Records called, “The Quality of Mercy Is Not Strnen.” And this song is called, “What Are We Going To Do Tonight.”
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP — THE MEKONS PERFORMING “WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO TONIGHT”)
GROSS: There is some, actually, really good discordant playing in that too. I like that.
LANGFORD: Oh, yeah. We perfected that very early on.
GROSS: Did you get technically accomplished as time went on?
LANGFORD: That’s why I gave up playing the drums because I knew that there was no way I was ever going to be technically accomplished at that. But I can play guitar a little bit now. I think it’s more about knowing a few tricks rather than being an accomplished musician.
GROSS: My guest is Jon Langford, co-founder of The Mekons. We’ll talk more after our break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest, Jon Langford, is co-founder of the punk band The Mekons. And he draws the syndicated comic strip, “Great Pop Things.” His strips are collected in a new book.
Now, you said that the first slogan of The Mekons was “No personalities emerge.” Why did you want to not make it the kind of band that had a star fronting it?
LANGFORD: We had a huge manifesto.
GROSS: What else was in it?
LANGFORD: Oh, there were loads of things. We will never make a record. We will never have our photograph taken. We will only be the support band. We’ll be the punk band that plays slow songs not fast songs.
Mostly, all those things crumbled before the first gig, because the guy refused to book us. We said, we’re going to be like a punk band, but we’re going to play slow songs. He said, well, you can’t play them because you’ve got to play fast. And we were like, oh no. And then we had to back and write some more song’s because we didn’t have enough. If we played them fast they weren’t long enough, so we only had about 15 minutes of music for the first gig.
But somebody came along at the first gig, it was a band called The Rizillos (ph) from Edinburgh. And their manager was a guy called Bob Last (ph) and he was setting up a little record label, and he just said, do you want to make a record? And we were like, well, we’re not going to make a record. Oh, it would be quite good to make a record, wouldn’t it? Yes, we’d like to make a record.
And the NME wouldn’t publish a feature of us unless we had a photograph of the band, so we stood in some trees miles away. And some guy took some photographs of us standing in these trees so you couldn’t see who anyone was, and they rejected that.
So they said, we won’t write about you unless you have a photograph. So, we built some dummies with coat hangers and paint tins, and sent them that, and they wouldn’t have that. So, in the end they sent some photographer up from London, and we all stood dutifully by and had our photographs taken. So, there are many many things –we always knew in The Mekons what we didn’t want to be. What we were was what was left.
GROSS: Well, let me get back to the manifesto. Were you one of the writers of the manifesto? Did you want a manifesto?
LANGFORD: Yeah, I think we thought that was — it was year zero. We were cutting kind of the punk — the decadence of rock and roll music, at the root we were punk rockers and that was it. It was very important to us that everything was justified.
GROSS: Did you feel like a sellout when you violated all the principles of the manifesto right away?
LANGFORD: No, not really. Because half of it was just the love of wanting to do it. And it was quite exciting.
GROSS: What did you hate in pop music at the time?
LANGFORD: All that progressive rock stuff. I just couldn’t stand it.
Most of my friends really liked The Who. The Who did a kind of four album rock opera, and everyone would run out and buy it. I just thought that was the most depressing thing imaginable. I really didn’t like that.
I thought — I thought, mostly, they were very pompous. And I thought most pop stars were hilarious. I mean, “Dark Side of the Moon” by Pink Floyd. I mean, it still cracks me up now if I hear that. I just think it’s like ludicrous megalomania.
LANGFORD: I don’t know. Just somebody who thinks that their opinions are that important, it’s strange.
GROSS: Would you sing a few bars of the first song that you wrote for The Mekons?
LANGFORD: The first song?
GROSS: Mm-hmm. You could do one of the early songs, then.
LANGFORD: We used to write everything collectively. We had a song called “Never Been in a Riot.” So, do you want me to sing it?
LANGFORD: Well, we didn’t used to sing, we used to shout.
Never been in a riot
Never been in a fight
How come for me
Everything turns out all right
Turns out right
Turns out right
That was the first verse. It was a kind of answer to The Clash’s “White Riot.” I like the Clash, but I thought it was completely irresponsible and insane to write a song called “White Right,” “Want to Riot.”
I didn’t understand what they were talking about with that, and thought they were — I thought they were encroaching on the same sort of pomposity that the progressive rockers had as well. The Clash were a great band, but had a lot of unfortunate things about them as well. So, we did that as the first single as a kind of answer to that. So, we assumed they were just nice middle-class boys who had never been in a riot anyway. We knew we were. So, we just said we’ve never been in a riot, never been in a fight.
GROSS: So, the band was, in a way, about not following all the big commercial principles of rock and roll.
LANGFORD: Yeah, totally.
GROSS: Then you succeeded in not becoming a big commercially successful band.
LANGFORD: We succeeded, Terry. We did succeed. That’s right. Thank you for saying that. A secret of our success is our lack of success.
GROSS: I think you had something like 11 different record companies.
LANGFORD: Yeah. We’ve always had kind of — some of those record companies were actually ourselves.
GROSS: Oh, oh, even you couldn’t take it.
LANGFORD: No, we would fire ourselves quite regularly.
GROSS: Who would jump out first with most of your records? Did they want out or did you want out?
LANGFORD: Usually we wanted out. Usually it was just, like, situations that weren’t going anywhere. We’d been with major labels, we were fired by Virgin which was kind of predictable. I don’t know why they even signed us in the first place. It was just that kind of madness, the sort of feeding frenzy that goes on when something new comes out.
All these A&R men who think they know the secret of everything that’s commercial, run around with their check books wide-open trying to sign everything. And they signed The Mekons, that was obviously not a commercial band in any way.
More so when we signed to A&M in 1989. We signed kind of more with our eyes open, and we signed because we thought that there was some theory by which a band like ourselves could exist on a major label. And we could make records quite cheaply and sell a modest amount of records, but still make the record company money.
But after the guy who set up that deal left, and a lot of accountants come along and they — what are these people doing on the label? Yeah, that’s a very good question. We don’t belong on a major label. It’s never been a very happy experience. I’ve always felt I’m like an employee when I’m on a major label.
But then again, some independent labels have been excruciatingly bad to us as well. Not Touch and Go in Chicago. That’s the longest we’ve ever been on a record label is with Touch and Go, they’ve just been great. We just say, can we have some money? And they say, OK. And we go and do things with it.
GROSS: During the punk days, I think a fair number of people would show up at concerts in some venues and think that it was really cool to throw things at the band or to act very aggressively.
LANGFORD: To spit at the band, yeah.
GROSS: What were some of the things that happened at some of your concerts that you didn’t appreciate?
LANGFORD: People getting stabbed. Members of the band being beaten senseless.
GROSS: When did that happen?
LANGFORD: At a Rock Against Racism gig in Newcastle.
GROSS: Oh, perfect, huh?
LANGFORD: In the dressing room. There’s a band called The Angelic Upstarts who were meant to be playing, and apparently they didn’t turn up. So, their fans decided to beat the living crap out of the rest of us. It was kind of a scary time.
The Mekons made a conscious decision not to play live after about 1980. We just didn’t want to play. We didn’t play until, maybe, ’83. Something like that.
v GROSS: Were you almost afraid of your own fans?
LANGFORD: I just thought it turned into a very hideous, violent scene. Punk was meant to be this wide open thing where everything was acceptable, and it became like if you didn’t have a leather jacket and the mohican and you didn’t play fast and pretend to be really stupid, which is what most punk bands seem to want to do — or be really right wing because there was a lot of really right wing punk bands at that time.
I mean, we played to crowds with people “Seig Heiling,” who would then be — we would shoot our mouths off at them and then they’d be waiting for us outside after the gig. That happened a couple of times. It was pretty scary.
GROSS: Did you ask yourself, how did this happened? How did it happen that the music hardened into this caricature and that the fans somehow interpreted the music has being so compatible with fascism?
LANGFORD: I think the industry got the lid on it, you know. It became a commercial prospect for the music industry. When it was interesting it was because no one knew where it was going or what was happening. And it turned into a very unpleasant cul-de-sac quite quickly.
We decided we didn’t want anything to do with it. So, we didn’t play live until about ’83. We put out records, but very bedroom oriented records. We would stay at home singing to tape recorders.
GROSS: Did you miss performing?
LANGFORD: Yeah, I did. I’m not sure — it was such an unpleasant situation. I didn’t really miss it. I wanted to play in the band. I like the idea of playing live. I started put working on playing the guitar. I formed another band called The Three John’s. When I first came to the States, it was with The Three John’s, and that was like a little drum machine, rock guitar trio. And they were just my friends. It seemed to change –by the mid-’80s it had changed a lot. Something got tired and died out, but it got very ugly for a while.
GROSS: Let me ask you to choose a Mekons recording that you particularly like.
LANGFORD: I’ll choose one of the new album. This is my favorite at the moment. It’s a song called “Flip Flop,” which is pretty inexplicable.
GROSS: And how new is the new how both?
LANGFORD: The new album came out in June, I think. May or June.
GROSS: Let’s hear it. And the album is called “Me.”
LANGFORD: It’s called “Me.” All songs written by me.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP — THE MEKONS PERFORMING “Flip Flop”)
He’s a little boy so lovely
To watch and he’s got great respect
You boys don’t know what pain is
Just flip flop mate
Enter the sentimental chamber
GROSS: That’s “Flip Flop” from The Mekons latest CD called, “Me.” Mekons co-founder Jon Langford will be back in the second half of the show.
I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross.
Back with Jon Langford. He’s a founding member of the British punk band The Mekons, which is still together after more than 20 years. But the band members live in different places. In fact, Langford lives in Chicago and has a number of other projects besides his work with The Mekons.
He plays in a couple of country-inspired bands. He’s also a painter, and has had several shows this year. And he draws the syndicated comic “Great Pop Things” under the pen name Chuck Death.
You have many different incarnations now. There’s The Mekons, there’s the Bob Wills tribute record you put together.
You have a band called The Waco Brothers. I want to play something from your Waco Brothers album. Where do The Waco Brothers fit in?
LANGFORD: I moved to Chicago about ’92, and I had absolutely nothing to do there whatsoever. So, I wanted to — I always wanted to be in a band. The Mekons were always so stretched geographically even when we were all living in England. People lived in London, people lived in Leeds, people lived elsewhere. Steve, the drummer, had already moved to Chicago.
I felt like it would be nice to be a be in a band where everyone lived in the same neighborhood so we could get together and actually play in your hometown. Become a band — Chicago’s big enough that you can become a band of some note just by playing around Chicago. And that was the intention of The Waco Brothers.
I wanted to play the songs of people like George Jones, Hank Williams, Merle Haggard. Simple, straight, you know, pumped up country — honky tonk country music. That was something I tried to do in Leeds and no one would take me serious whatsoever.
GROSS: Why did you name it The Waco Brothers?
LANGFORD: I didn’t actually. We had many names. We used to change the name every week in case people recognized us and wouldn’t come again because we were so awful when we started. But, I don’t know, I think it was that weekend with the Waco thing going on, and I went away and somebody had to do a poster.
And I think that was the first time we played a gig that was actually any good. The Waco Brothers was kind of a sick name at the time, but I think the meaning as dissolved a little bit now.
GROSS: Well, I thought we could play “Arizona Rose” from this. And this is a song that you wrote and sing lead on. Tell us about the song, what inspired it.
LANGFORD: A friend of mine from Leeds moved to New York and got married and had a kid. And they named it Arizona Rose. I said, that sounds like the title of a song, and we had just started doing The Waco Brothers thing, and Blood Shot Records wanted us to make a album. I had no idea what we were going to do for an album, but I thought it would be a really bad idea to do an album of country covers, so lets try and write a few songs. I wrote this song with a guy called Tom Wright who was the bass player in the band at the time. He actually said, that sounds like a song, because I said to my friend on the phone, oh, give my love to Arizona. So, there you have it.
GROSS: OK, and here it is. Jon Langford with The Waco Brothers.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP — THE WACO BROTHERS PERFORMING “ARIZONA ROSE”)
Oh give my love to Arizona
To Arizona Rose
She’s in New York
And I can’t phone her
She left no number
She just had to go
Now all of the star light
And all of the memories
They’re still out there
Out there on the plain
But oh my heart
Is such a dry place
As tears of love
Where once there were things
GROSS: That’s “Arizona Rose” from The Waco Brothers album. My guest is Jon Langford who sang lead and co-wrote the song. I think it’s fair to say that you seem to have a love-hate relationship with country music. You love a lot of music and hate a lot of the commercialism and trappings surrounding it . LANGFORD: The industry is problematic for me. I mean, a lot of the people who run the country music industry in Nashville are kind of shoe salesman, I think. They made their money in other industries and applied the same kind of logic to music, but I don’t necessarily think that’s the best way of selling music.
GROSS: You did an art piece called “The Death of Country Music,” a series of tombstones. Would you describe, first what some of the tombstones were like?
LANGFORD: They were like great big lumps of granite. So, they were difficult to transport. And they had pictures of Hank Williams on them because I thought, as a kind of symbol more than anything else. And they said kind of mean things about the country music industry. We planned to put them outside some of the offices of big companies on music row. Friends of mine in Nashville told me that they wouldn’t last two minutes even though they were really big and really heavy. So, we didn’t do that, but we had a show at a gallery called The American Pop Culture Gallery in Nashville. It was interesting because a lot of people came down to the show from the business side of things, and they kind of quietly said how they agreed that maybe there were was some point to what I was doing.
GROSS: My guest is Jon Langford, co-founder of The Mekons. He has several bands, and he is also a visual artist. And he has a new book as well, it’s a kind of satirical, comic history of rock and roll from Elvis to Oasis called, “Great Pop Things.”
This is a very funny book, and one of the premises throughout the book is that a lot of rock stars think they’re change the world, and of course fail. And the ways that they seem to be trying to change it are kind of absurd and trivial. So, a list of examples, The Velvet Underground, they tried to change the world with their nihilism and their sunglasses. John Lennon, he tried to make world peace by taking all his clothes off. Tom Waits, he tried to change the world by making that token weird album that normal people have in their record collections. The Grateful Dead tried to change the world by playing continuously since 1966. Brian Eno tried to change the world by turning it on its side and calling it something else.
Do you think it’s kind of pretentious when pop stars say that they want to change the world?
LANGFORD: I think pop music has the capacity to be very meaningful to people. I think a lot of pop stars go far overboard. I think the turning point for me and Carlton, who is the guy I collaborate with on this, was probably Live Aid. And seeing the lengths that people went to at that time.
I think music is maybe a reflection of things that go on rather than being a kind of catalyzing force. The book is basically just pin pricks and just lampoon of those people who believe otherwise, or don’t see themselves as part of the problem.
GROSS: And I’ll remind our listeners, this is spoken by somebody who once had a pop manifesto. So, you should know.
LANGFORD: Yep. I’m just jealous, basically. We do mean strips about Bono from U2 because he’s got more money than we have. It’s the only way to get back at him.
GROSS: Now, you have a satiric take on a Grateful Dead lyric in here.
Do you remember the lyric?
LANGFORD: There’s a lot of words in that book.
GROSS: Yeah. I was hoping you had actually written a melody around this and I could get you to sing it.
LANGFORD: Oh. yeah?
GROSS: Let me turn to the page and see if there’s anything you could do with this.
LANGFORD: See, I forget most of the stuff that’s in here. I need a guitar, really. I mean, what does a Grateful Dead song sound like? Pretty boring to my imagination. It would be kind of like:
Antelope fire Indians
Sparkling on the tennis courts
Diamond pattern dancing
On the hydrants and the shoe stores
I thought I heard a noodle sing
I sang like Greta Garbo
But I guess it doesn’t matter anyway
GROSS: Very good.
LANGFORD: I’m not very good with the Grateful Dead vocals. It is definitely outside my realm of experience or understanding.
GROSS: You’ve said, and I guess people you’ve played with in The Mekons have said that the band exceeded by failing. I mean, you’ve had your independence by not being indebted in one way or another to a record company or commercial concerns and all that.
LANGFORD: We don’t feel the need to treat it as a career.
GROSS: Right. Now, say one day you became, actually, very successful within music, as improbable as that may seem because — and I say that not because of a lack of talent but because of what you’re doing isn’t seeking to be in the mainstream.
And you’re working with a lot of different idioms and so on. But say you really did strike that nerve and you really caught on in a very commercial way. Is that something you would finally welcome?
LANGFORD: I don’t know. Some friends mine in Chumba Wumba have been playing for, like, 15 years and they just ended up having a big hit last year. And I don’t know how that will affect them or what that will do to them. It’s put them in the public eye quite a lot, which is something I wouldn’t want to be in.
GROSS: You’ve seen a lot of — I’m sure you’ve had a lot of friends who’ve become stars — big ones. How do you think it’s changed them? Do think that, inevitably, it changes people?
LANGFORD: Yeah, I think so. There’s a persona there that you have to kind of take on, and often it makes people a little bit — to the extent that Chumba Wumba have become big stars on one record there may not be another record, it may just be a flash in the pan thing.
I think it’s made them kind of a little scared, and very self- deprecating, you know, just wanting to not be in that position to some extent. But then driven on to do more and more crazy things like pouring buckets of water over Labour politicians and appearing on late-night chat shares with Bill Mahr and things like that. I don’t know if that was to happen to The Mekons, I don’t know, but I just can’t really see it happening. I think you would have to ask me when it did happen. I think it would change everything. And it might not — it might not be for the better.
GROSS: OK, well I wish the best with your music and your art. And I want to thank you a lot for talking with us.
LANGFORD: Thank you very much.
GROSS: Jon Langford is a co-founder of The Mekons. His solo record is called “Skull Orchard,” his western swing CD is called “The Pine Valley Cosmonauts Salute the Majesty of Bob Wills.” And his syndicated comic strip is collected in the new book, “Great Pop Things.”