So Good It Hurts: On Choosing Music for “Revenge of the Mekons”

THIS PAST JULY, the Mekons—punk survivors, musical adventurers, cult heroes—toured the States for the first time in almost four years. I caught two of the shows—nothing unusual there; I’ve seen the band dozens of times over the years—and two thoughts jumped out at me. The first was how tight they were. Understand: fans adore the Mekons and critics revere them, but tight is not a word they generally use to describe this famously shambolic group. It was the best they’d sounded in a long, long time—maybe ever. That was the astonished reaction of most everyone I spoke with who attended the gigs at the Boot and Saddle in Philadelphia or Bowery Ballroom in New York.

My second realization was that this was the first time since I started shooting the documentary Revenge of the Mekons in 2008 that I was attending a Mekons concert just as a fan. No gear to schlep; no worries about lighting, microphones or soundboards; no jostling with others for camera position. I had no agenda other than to grab a beer, find a spot on the sticky floor and be reminded why I fell in love with this band in the first place: the feedback loop of energy that circuits between the group and its fans, the hilarious on-stage banter that induces an anticipatory perma-grin, and most of all, of course, the music.

The set list spanned the group’s 38-year career, a combination of “greatest hits” (another term used loosely with the Mekons), songs from the band’s post-2000 albums, and a few surprises. With few exceptions, every song they performed was one included in one form or another in the documentary, a fact not lost on the film’s editor, Jane Rizzo, who attended the Bowery Ballroom show with me. Mekons’ co-founder Jon Langford later told me this was not necessarily intentional—considering 58 songs made the final cut, they were likely to perform many of them on tour—though he did admit that he attributed the run of sold-out shows and the surprising appearance of “young people” in attendance directly to the film.

The band has its work cut out for itself whittling down its oeuvre to a 20-song playlist. But how did I determine which songs to include in the film? That’s what Greil Marcus wanted to know. The renowned critic moderated the Q&A following the film’s world premiere at the DOC NYC festival in November 2013. As the final credits faded and the house lights came up, I took the stage to the sound of 500 cheering people, many of them standing. When the applause settled, Greil asked that very question, adding, before I had the chance to answer, “I can’t believe you didn’t include ‘Fletcher Christian.’” Instant buzzkill.

Greil’s query, however, identified the very dilemma Jane and I faced when we were editing the film: Which songs do we include in a film about a band that has recorded hundreds of them across dozens of albums, EPs, and singles? Then, once you’ve determined that, which versions do we use? (Original recording vs. re-recording? Album track vs. live performance? Performances shot specifically for the film vs. archival concert footage?) And finally, how much of each song to include?

The hit list

The songs in the film fall into two general categories, primary and secondary music. Before we began editing, I prepared a list of songs—the primary music—that should definitely be in the film. This consisted of what I considered to be “classics” (“Memphis, Egypt,” “Where Were You?,” the aforementioned “[Sometimes I Feel Like] Fletcher Christian”); key examples of the Mekons’ historical and stylistic evolution (“Never Been in a Riot,” “Last Dance,” “Chivalry”); live staples (“Hard to Be Human Again,” “[I Have Been to] Heaven and Back,” “Millionaire”); and personal favorites (“Orpheus” chief among them). In no time this list had grown to 46!

To this list I added the year each song was released, the album it came from, who sings on it (Langford, Tom Greenhalgh, Sally Timms, Rico Bell, and Lu Edmonds all provide vocals; that number swells when you add original members Andy Corrigan and Mark “Chalkie” White), and if I had shot a live version of it. As we unearthed archival concert footage we later included that on the list, too. This taxonomy would prove invaluable to Jane as she cut the film. On a practical level, it pinpointed chronological information—say, for instance, if she was working on a sequence about the English miners’ strike in 1984 or a specific album. It also served as a cheat sheet of sorts. Jane entered the project not knowing any of the band members’ names or roles, but before long, she could identify each song’s singer within seconds.

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Photo by Frank Swider. Courtesy of Music Box Films.

The so-called secondary music refers to what would typically be the film’s score—background (or foreground) music that helps to establish mood, give a scene some punch, smooth transitions, etc. Since I decided early on that we’d draw exclusively from the Mekons catalogue for this purpose (rather than have the band—or a third party—record original music), Jane asked me to identify songs that had instrumental passages that could serve as “audio beds” to lay under such scenes. No problem. All that required was listening to every Mekons song ever recorded! I recall telling this once to Sally (or was it Jon?), who replied, “I’m so sorry.” In addition to indicating where in the song each instrumental passage occurred and its length, I also tried to describe the sound of each, which would help if Jane was searching for a specific mood. I also grouped these songs by eras, so we could stay true to how the band sounded during discrete time frames. This list would stretch to 11 pages and include notations such as:

Early (1978–1983):

“D.P. Miller”                           :24 intro

synth & bass, slow, spooky

“This Sporting Life”                 2:40 outro (3:26–6:07)

Dubby PiL bass, snaky synth melody; bongos creep in, big synth drum echoes cacophony @ 4:35; bongos and synth only at end.

Country/folk: 1984–1987:

“Darkness and Doubt”            :25 intro, :23 bridge (0:51-1:14), 1:15 outro (4:00-5:15)

Twisted electric guitar, fiddle string-plucking, simple guitar solo bridge; outro: fiddle and guitar shards giving way to fiddle and drums & breakdown

Mid-’90s art collaborations and weirdness:

“WWY2”                                  1:39 instrumental

Slo-mo horror movie SFX!

…And so on for every song in the band’s entire 31 years (at the time) of recorded output. Here, my obsessive attention to detail (or just outright obsession) began to pay dividends. For instance, to help illustrate a sequence in which band members discuss the problems they faced in the early ’80s that led to their decision to quit performing in England (getting dropped by Virgin Records; increasing violence at their gigs, usually perpetrated by right-wing toughs who’d come looking for trouble at concerts by the Mekons and Gang of Four—bands that attracted left-leaning fans), Jane was able to zero in on “Lonely and Wet” (“slow-to-mid-tempo, dark, dirge-y”) from the band’s early period. This track has a long 45-second intro, but even better, we realized we had footage of the band performing it live from a concert on New Year’s Eve in 1980—a version that is not only slower and bleaker than the original, but also includes a longer instrumental bridge. The song’s somber tone perfectly suited the mood of the era that the speakers were trying to convey. And we gained an added bonus by being able to intercut the sound bites with shots of the band performing during the vocal sections, thereby giving the sequence some room to breathe and reinforcing the notion of violence at their gigs even though we never actually witness any. The song helps to paint that picture.

Finding the secondary music was largely a matter of trial and error. Identifying the primary music was simpler in many respects but presented its own challenges—mainly, that there was no way we’d be able to include every song I’d identified as essential. The easy ones: The Mekons’ first single, “Never Been in a Riot,” a sly riposte to the Clash’s “White Riot,” put the band on the map and was named Single of the Week by the NME. It’s in. Likewise, there’s a sequence in which founding members Kevin Lycett and Mark White recount how the band found a new direction in the ’80s after they were introduced to traditional English folk music. The result was The English Dancing Master EP; to illustrate this transformation we used the original version of “Last Dance”—a rawer take of the track that would later appear on the band’s landmark Fear and Whiskey album. It seemed to best exemplify the EP’s folk influences.

Other easy calls: “Abernant 1984-85” (Fear and Whiskey), “Memphis, Egypt” (The Mekons Rock ’n’ Roll), and “The Curse” (Curse of the Mekons). In 1984, after years of relative dormancy, the Mekons entered its second phase by putting together an expanded band—including most of the members of its current lineup—to play gigs in support of Britain’s striking coal miners. This juncture in the Mekons career was pivotal not only for the band’s re-emergence as a live act, but it also as marked its first foray into American country music. (Or, rather, the Mekons’ interpretation of it.) “Abernant” is the band’s call to arms in solidarity with the miners and, as such, was the obvious song to include.

As writer-fan Luc Sante says in the film, “‘Memphis, Egypt’ had ‘hit’ written all over it.” The would-be breakthrough single from the band’s 1989 LP debut on A&M Records is a live staple to this day. The Mekons Rock ’n’ Roll is also the band’s best-selling album, though it didn’t sell nearly enough to satisfy the suits. The most popular song on a great album: of course, it’s in the film. We address the A&M debacle—among other hard-luck tales that have befallen the band over the years—via an incredible story told by former Mekon Robert Worby. In it, he relates how the Mekons employed the services of a local Wiccan to write a curse in “Nordic runes” on the cover of their next album, a dubious plan since—as everyone knows—“when you use curses, they can turn around.” Whether or not the Mekons are truly cursed is debatable—they’ve been their own worst enemies at times—but there was no way “The Curse” wasn’t making the film. Worby’s story provides a classic “cut to” moment when he concludes by saying how the record was rejected by A&M, which promptly dropped the band, then adding, “But it was bound to happen…it’s the curse of the Mekons!” Cut to… .

Those three songs also illustrate ways we highlighted certain lyrics throughout the film. Initially, the plan was simply to emphasize key lines graphically on screen (“The Curse”: Call it intuition, call it luck / But we’re right in all that we distrust). But as early cuts of the film—ones that included more in-depth analysis of various Mekons albums—were proving to be way too long, we decided to let the on-screen lyrics do double duty by conveying these themes and, thereby, helping to propel the narrative.

So while the band performs “Abernant” and we watch confrontations between striking miners and the police, the following couplet appears on screen: Vengeance is not ours, it belongs to those / who seek to destroy us / How much more is there left to lose? That verse encapsulates the rage and hopelessness of the song’s protagonist, a destitute young miner with no future, more vividly and succinctly than could any discussion of the strike and its consequences.

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Photo by Frank Swider. Courtesy of Music Box Films.

Similarly, an early cut of the film included a lengthy section about the formative band’s socialist principles. It was endlessly fascinating to me, especially the recollections of early practice sessions that consisted of little more than polemic rule-making and endless debate of what’s “right and wrong” (e.g., “Is it ethical to strike a crash cymbal?”), but since the film at this stage already stretched to 75 minutes and the band still hadn’t left university in Leeds, we needed to do some serious weed-whacking. The lyrics to “32 Weeks”—a Marxist critique of consumerism that enumerates the number of hours a worker must toil to afford basic necessities—did the work for us. (It takes one week of your life to buy a mattress. / Three days. Four hours. / Get a job. Get a car. Get a bed.)

Early test-screeners responded enthusiastically to the on-screen lyrics, some even suggesting we use them for every song. That, I thought, was excessive and intrusive. But seeing specific lyrics on screen definitely snaps the viewer to attention. Sometimes, when a song comes on (in any film, fiction and documentary) it’s easy to let the music wash over you and ignore what’s being sung. But when you read a verse or a couplet on screen it forces you to focus on the next line, which you listen to more attentively, even when it’s not illustrated on screen.

Which version is the right version?

Once we’d decided on a particular song, we encountered another decision: which version of it to use? Usually it’s just a matter of “listening” to the film; often, what’s happening on screen will make the decision for you. Take the above example of “The Curse.” The song was a staple of the band’s gigs between 2008–11 and I’d shot a number of particularly raucous renditions of it. We never considered using anything but these original live recordings. In fact, the end result is a visual montage from various performances during those years—a fact we made no effort to hide given that singer-guitarist Tom Greenhalgh goes from clean-shaven to bearded to mustachioed and back over the course of the song. On the other hand, it was important to hear the original 1978 Fast Product single of “Never Been in a Riot” since we were discussing it in the context of the band’s early years; a contemporary live version wouldn’t have had the same impact. There’s even an occasion where we use three separate versions of the song “Diamonds.” In the film’s opening scene, the band has assembled to rehearse for the upcoming tour and they tentatively ease into the song. As they lock in, we segue to the original recording of the song under a montage of the band loading up the van and hitting the road. This gives way to them performing it on stage in Leicester, the first gig of the tour. The audio transitions are virtually undetectable.

Typically, though, there’s a more pressing need that determines which version to use: money! Every song potentially requires two types of clearances: a publishing license—also known as a “mechanical” license—goes to the song’s writers and is necessary for every song; “master use rights,” usually issued by a record label, is required to use the recorded version of a song as it appears on an album. Master use licenses, however, are not required for live recordings. Therefore, I aimed to use live versions whenever possible, whether from archival footage or performances shot for the film. This significantly reduced the amount I’d have to spend on master use rights.

The advantage of an album version is that you know exactly what you’re getting. Live recordings invite other hazards: How was the performance? Was it a good take? How’s the sound? The latter was particularly worrisome to me. I’m not a trained audio technician and I shot most of the live footage by myself with one microphone attached to the camera, so I was constantly fretting about inferior sound. And I can’t tell you how many times a battery died or a tape ran out during an otherwise good take.

Such was the case with what turned out to be my biggest disappointment—that I never captured a good recording of “Orpheus.” I’d always imagined it as the centerpiece of the film. Not only is it my favorite Mekons song but it also represents a meta-encapsulation of the band’s ethos. Four singers—Rico, Jon, Tom, and Sally—all trade verses; on one, the entire band proclaims, “Loose the Mekons came the cheer!” It was originally recorded for the band’s Mekons United art exhibition (and provides the central metaphor for their subsequent Out of Our Heads exhibition). And, most important, it contains a stanza that practically serves as the band’s mission statement:

Where I land will be the fortress

Of this fight against the tide

Tide of rotten patriarchy

Tide of tricks and greed and lies

Unfortunately, the band wasn’t performing the song when I first started shooting on their 2008 U.K. tour. When I asked them to play it on subsequent tours I did so with some trepidation—I didn’t want to be seen as “influencing” their natural inclinations for the sake of the film. They were happy to oblige but I never got a good take. I wasn’t satisfied with my camera movements on one. The sound was crappy on another. Someone bungled a verse on yet another. So I had to shelve the song I’d envisioned as the film’s symbolic heart. But all wasn’t lost. I ended up using the recorded version of “Orpheus” for the end credits; even though it didn’t afford the opportunity to include those key lyrics on screen, it does provide a rousing and fitting finale.

So the final song was a no-brainer. The toughest decision was figuring out which song to start with. Do we mirror the Mekons’ own origins and use “Dan Dare” (which takes its title from the British comic strip from which the Mekons’ name derives)? Or “Never Been in a Riot”? For a while, I was stuck on opening with “(I Have Been to) Heaven and Back,” another personal favorite that’s a live staple. Jane—by now a committed Mekons fan—lobbied for “Fantastic Voyage” or “Hard to Be Human Again.” At one point I even considered letting the people who contributed to the film’s Kickstarter campaign vote on it—a notion I was quickly disabused of when I floated a trial balloon to a small group of Mekons fans, each of which, of course, had their own idea of which song should open the film.

Finally, we settled on “Where Were You?” The band’s second single is irresistibly catchy and remains a concert stalwart. But I’ve always preferred the 1998 live version (from the Hen’s Teeth…Vol. 2 compilation of outtakes and rarities) to the original. It’s faster and brawnier than the 1978 single—from the song’s opening chords, the film feels like it’s been shot from a cannon. I also liked the idea of beginning the film with an early-period song recorded by the mid-period band while seeing the late-period members perform it on screen (from footage I’d shot between 2008–11). It’s a subtle nod to the band’s three-plus decades—as well as to its longtime roadie, Mitch Flacko, who actually sings lead on this version, but who didn’t make the final cut of the film. (Sorry, Mitch.)

Afar and forlorn

The only other song I ever requested the band to perform live was “Afar and Forlorn”—and I had only one shot to get it right. If I was disappointed by never having captured “Orpheus,” I completely lucked into what might ultimately be the film’s strongest section, a soup-to-nuts montage of “Afar and Forlorn,” from its earliest inception as scribbled lyrics to its first-ever live performance almost four years later at The Bell House in Brooklyn.

A few days into the band’s 2008 U.K. tour, they rented a home in the Devon countryside to write songs and record demos for their new album, which would become 2011’s Ancient & Modern. They rigged a makeshift studio in the living room consisting of a laptop, some monitor screens, mics, cables, and their instruments. Occasionally, they would break off into smaller groups, working out musical ideas from impromptu jams. On the dining room table, Jon and Tom unloaded books (Arthur Machen’s The Hill of Dreams, Edna O’Brien’s A Pagan Place, among others) with dog-eared pages and highlighted passages, along with journals filled with scribbled notes, poems, and lyrics.

It was fascinating to document this process. At this stage, I was still getting to know everyone and trying to blend in so as not to disrupt the proceedings. Since the songs were all basically fragments with, at best, working titles, I had no idea what would come of the footage I was shooting. Sometimes I’d find myself concentrating so much on things like framing and composition that I wouldn’t be aware of what was actually happening in front of the camera. (One of the pitfalls of being a one-man band directing behind the camera.) Such was the case with “Afar and Forlorn.” It wasn’t until months later—when I finally had a chance to review the Devon material—that I realized I had shot the entire evolution of this song to date.

In the film, the scene begins with Jon reciting an underlined passage from The Hill of Dreams: “He found himself, as he had hoped, afar and forlorn; he had strayed into outland and occult territory.” Tom copies the line alongside some lyrics of his own. Later, we see him standing behind a microphone, scratching out lines and editing on the fly as the band works out the melody. This leads to some ragged early takes before they finally complete one they’re happy with and withdraw to the foyer “control room” to listen to the playback.

The plan was for the band to sort through these demos and re-record or embellish individual parts on their own. Given that the eight members are scattered across two countries (three if you count Lu Edmonds’ part-time residence in Kyzyl, Siberia) and nine time zones, they would email their recorded files to the others, which Lu would assemble and edit. This, I felt, was a great opportunity to capture an unorthodox working process, one borne of the band’s diaspora. As I needed to shoot each member individually at some point anyway, I arranged for some of them to record their parts to “Afar and Forlorn” when I was there. So in the film, we cut from the early Devon sessions to a shot of Jon recording acoustic guitar in the Chicago garage studio of Mark Greenberg (of Coctails’ fame), then to Rico Bell in his own garage recording/painting studio, laying in his accordion parts, and next to Lu’s bedroom in London, where the band listens to a rough mix of the song in advance of the following week’s recording session in Bethesda, Wales—14 months after the original tracks were conceived in Devon. Here, Tom re-records his vocals while the band listens in from the adjacent control room. Finally, we cut to them performing the song on stage in 2011. This was the last shoot of the film and my only opportunity to capture it live, so we couldn’t mess up. Luckily, we had three cameras rolling—the only three-camera shoot of the entire film—and it worked. The “Afar and Forlorn” section encompasses a 44-month period in a two-minute, four-second montage that speaks volumes about the band’s working methods and how a song comes to fruition. As Jon Langford later told me, the strength of this sequence inspired the band to include the song in this past summer’s set list, the one nod the band made to the film.

How much is just right?

The final factor happens to be the trickiest part of the process: how much of a song to use. While the earlier decisions are determined by emotional, narrative, historical, and financial concerns, knowing when to get in and out is more elusive. You just have to trust your gut: Does it sound right? Does it work?

Two films I admire offered, paradoxically, pitfalls to avoid. The Last Waltz is a concert film—one of the very best—and not a music documentary, per se. However, it does contain documentary-like passages in which director Martin Scorsese interviews members of the Band to provide historical context. Scorsese is one of the all-time greats and one of my personal heroes, but no one will ever mistake him for David Frost, or even Howard Stern, as an interviewer. Whenever the film cuts to Scorsese asking insipid questions to a semi-coherent Robbie Robertson or Rick Danko, I find myself longing to make haste back to Winterland Ballroom. More music; less talk! Conversely, the real-life, behind-the-scenes drama in the Wilco documentary, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, is so compelling that the film stops dead in its tracks whenever the film cuts to a song. More talk; less music!

Of the two, Revenge of the Mekons is closer to the Wilco film in form, though it’s an historical overview of a band’s career rather than that film’s document of a point in time. And since we were drawing from more than three decades of music—music that drastically changes in style and tone—making it all sound coherent and organic to the story’s narrative flow was essential. It could easily have devolved into a chaotic mess. Here, Jane’s innate feel for narrative rhythm was crucial. She had an amazing knack for knowing how long to stick with a song, when to get in and out. That makes a director’s job much easier.

In almost every case, we agreed completely on the song, its usage, and its length, but we were both heartbroken that one of our mutual favorites didn’t make the final cut. Which brings us back to Greil Marcus’s deflating comment following the world premiere. We both love “(Sometimes I Feel Like) Fletcher Christian,” perhaps Tom Greenhalgh’s signature tune. It was on my original list of “essential” songs to include in the film and, indeed, served as the foundation for a section on Tom. However, Tom guards his privacy and was reluctant to be shot on his own, aside from our interviews. Since I didn’t have any vérité footage of him at work or in his day-to-day life, we’d had to construct a scene around him, which included shots of his young children and his amazing (former) home in the woods of Devon: a thatched-roof hut jutting from a hillside on the bank of the river Exe, traversable by a narrow stone bridge. It looks like something out of Tolkien. However, Tom was troubled by the inclusion of these shots, and we tried re-shaping the scene to make him feel more at ease. Yet every attempt felt stilted or compromised. At this late stage, the film was more than 100 minutes long and we were determined to bring it down to 95 minutes. So, while it was a difficult decision, we realized we could shave almost ten minutes by cutting this section entirely. This, of course, meant losing “Fletcher Christian,” a sacrifice that brought the film to its ultimate 96-minute length—and didn’t escape the attention of Greil Marcus. To which I can only say, Thank goodness for DVD bonus material.

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Photo by Frank Swider. Courtesy of Music Box Films.

 

About Joe Angio

Joe Angio is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and magazine editor. His previous film, How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It) (2005), screened at numerous international film festivals. The film made its theatrical debut at Film Forum, NYC, and its television premiere on IFC. The DVD will be re-released by Music Box Films in February 2016. Angio co-produced and -directed (with Joel Cohen) the short docs More than a Game (1991; SnagFilms) and A Feast of Fools (1987). Angio is the former editor-in-chief of Time Out New York magazine. Prior to Time Out, Angio was the articles editor at NBA Inside Stuff, the managing editor of Vibe, and an associate editor at Men’s Journal. Now the digital long-form editor at The New York Daily News, he was born in Chicago and lives in Brooklyn, NY. Revenge of the Mekons can be purchased at mekonsmovie.com. DVD bonus features include eight full-length versions of songs from the Mekons’ 2011 concert at The Bell House, including “Fletcher Christian.” It is also available on iTunes. For more information, go to mekonsmovie.com. Author photo by Victoria Rich, courtesy of Music Box Films.
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