It's not just interesting, it's sometimes downright unbelievable that the Mekons not only continue to exist as a band -- now 25 years into rockdom -- but consistently launch records, art projects, tours and side-recording projects unique even within their own vast and -- let's face it -- fucked-up history. A group that started out in 1977 as yet another bunch of Northern England-based art students interested more in racket and picket lines than chord structure has transmogrified into a confusing, but hardly ever confused, posse of musicians interested more in archetypes and themes than in dollars and sense.
In 1989, the Mekons, then known as post-punk founders of alt-country and leading folk-punk lights, released Rock & Roll, a major-label debut that slammed major labels; a theme record about rock that both hated rock and, well, rocked. Circa the band's last album, OOOH! (as in Out Of Our Heads), the current -- and somewhat steady -- Mekons lineup was shown standing in front of Ye Olde Trip To Jerusalem, often touted as the oldest standing pub in England, having launched many crusaders on their medieval journeys. It was a fitting image for the band's best album in years, a self-contained rallying cry to the ancient, be that voodoo or 17th-century English rebels. On Punk Rock, the titular theme would seem to be the Mekons' own roots in class-of-'77 guitar-plowing: and in a way, it is. Now the two records have combined, become a record that the Mekons should've but couldn't release in '81 or '84 -- thematically a blast at punk and a sacrifice to the elders. Punk Rock is a theme album about the Mekons -- Mekons as a Mekons tribute band. It's so pop-will-eat-itself that it seems like a sick joke, a self-referential blag that happens to also include some great songs: in other words, the perfect Mekons record, again.
Punk Rock is a collection of the band's punk-era songs, rerecorded with the new "look, we know how to play" Mekons. That's not to say there aren't some great moments of cacophonous punk simplicity: their two punk-est efforts, "Never Been in a Riot" and "32 Weeks," are recorded live on the band's 25th anniversary tour with possibly more drunken vitriol than their Carter-era originals. But for the most part, the accordions, tuneful harmony vocals, and atmospheric instrumental touches (Asian-sounding banjos and the like) seem a far cry from the band's initial inabilities.
It just goes to show that, like many of their brethren, there really was something special about the Mekons' '77-, '81- and '84-punk eras: maybe they couldn't technically express it, but they had a flurry of ideas that stand on their own even today. Performed here by the thinly disguised Sadies -- as Eaglebauer, a Canadian Mekons tribute act -- "Fight the Cuts" has as much resonance (and more melody) as any political punk of '03. (It ought to be Pittsburgh's theme.) Similarly, "Chopper Squad" or the fantastic "What" could've fit well onto OOH! -- post-punk, post-folk and lyrically post-modern. Punk Rock is so post-everything that it's almost pre-anything -- just the way they meant it.