Mekons at 40, Fast Product at 40.
The recording of FAST1 – Mekons ‘Never Been in a Riot’
Mark White – The Mekons original singer.
Jon Langford – The Mekons original drummer, now guitarist and singer
Bob Last – Fast Product/Mekons Producer
Hilary Morrision – Fast Product
(c) Eric Miles
I just thought London Punk rock was a continuation of the various cycles of the Rock’n’roll Music Industry and based on fashion, career, money etc.
The Mekons came out of the need to get involved, to stand up and say: ‘look at where we are now, is this where we want to be? What are we going to do about it?’
As the 70’s wore on there was an increasingly urgent need to participate, to become engaged in what was happening around us, to react against the deeply depressing and violent politics, against the lack of choice, against the total lack of employment opportunities, against the bleak futures for anyone young; to do something.
Us shambling idiots up north just believed all the smoke signals we saw coming out of London and actually believed it was a revolution, and you could do whatever you wanted… You could make and own your own entertainment.
Standing on a stage and being in a band, maybe that could be the ‘doing something’, the ‘participating’ that we were looking for? Although, being the Mekons, it was much more chaotic, random and happenstance than that.
I started Fast Product as a brand. I didn’t know what I was going to apply that brand to but I liked the idea of the mass market.
Actually the very first thing that Fast Product did was it labelled a lot of Festival posters that had been supported by the Arts Council with a sarcastic sticker saying that it was guaranteed 100% pure art. It was messing around with these provocations about challenging classical notions of fine culture. I guess when punk started emerging it seemed naturally appealing to Fast Product.
My partner at the time, Hilary bought me Spiral Scratch (Buzzcocks independently released debut single) and that was the key thing. I listened to it and I thought ‘OK, this is what Fast Product should do,’ and went out to find my Spiral Scratch.
We had both been working in theatre. I had been a very junior wardrobe mistress at the Traverse and I’d lost my job through cuts. Through that we’d got hold of lighting equipment and were loaning it to The Rezillos (the Edinburgh Garage-Punk group) and so we went along on a number of gigs and helped with lighting and doing a more professional show
It was a very small scene so you’d go around the country, and you play a gig and you are going to meet everyone who’s in a band whether it’s Middlesbrough or Liverpool or Sheffield or wherever.
We though ‘right, why don’t we do a record label?’ . Why not? Because there were bands as good as any of the ones putting out records supporting The Rezillos or playing in places and it seemed the obvious thing
We were a social group first of all – mostly art students but the Gang of Four were always gonna be a proper band. We used to grab their instruments and rehearse in the University Film Society room next to the Fenton pub when they took breaks for a pint.
There was the F Club in Leeds, a punk club started in late-ish 1977 by John Keenan. One night in October after having had a few, some of us staggered up to tell him that we were in a band (ha!) and ask him to put us on? OK, ‘next week ‘ he said, supporting the Rezillos. OK! We weaved off to work out what we’d got ourselves involved in.
With long pauses and much audience interaction, the very short set came to a slow collapsing halt and we thought that was it. But the show had gone down better than expected and the audience wanted more, without any more songs for an encore we played the set again. Coming off, the sound man and the foldback man for the Rezillos cornered us, they had liked it too. In fact they liked it so much that they wanted us make us to make a record with them. That sound man was Bob Last.
I just thought, well this is something that can cut through the crap to put it simply.
Because the intelligence involved in punk was interestingly at odds with the apparent visceral simplicity of the music, and some of the most intellectual punks made the crudest music, which was an interesting tension. I think it was the possibility of working with that, having that visceral connection but also strategically using it to unsettle things.
He had a vision of what the Mekons were that was probably more focused than our own. He heard pop in what we did. We were far less macho than other punk bands. I think with our level of musical primitivism we were a pretty extreme statement with which he could start his label. I imagine we were then supposed to just bugger off… we all just thought of it as a mad art project, an adventure.
The Mekons USP was that we couldn’t play, we could haphazardly break down the barriers between audience and band because we were the audience. Whereas Jon and Andy of the Gang of Four for example, made it very clear that they were putting on a show in such a way as to question the medium in which they were operating.
Even on a good night it was a struggle for all of us Mekons to stay in 4/4. We generally reckoned that if everyone started at the same time and finished within the same bar (in all senses of the word) then that was pretty good.
It wasn’t like any of us had the faintest idea how to make a record but Bob was quite confident and assertive so we kinda went along with his plans
I went to the bank manager at the Bank of Scotland and I told him I wanted to borrow 400 quid to put a record out and he said ‘OK’. God knows why, I have no idea. I had no idea about business, you know, my understanding of business was based on reading the back cover of Marxist books. I didn’t understand it, I hadn’t a clue about it.
I’d learned skills like how to talk on the telephone so I could phone up people and I could type letters, put logos together and make things look really professional. Which was crazy because we were operating from a tiny little flat.
Because I was roadying with The Rezillos, I was getting some sort of vague understanding of what the music business was. And like many people then the fact that I didn’t have any presumptions about it was probably helpful.
We begged him to put the Gang of Four out – “they’re a real band” said us “I don’t want a real band’ said Bob
We had nowhere to record…Someone said ‘I think my uncles got a place in the country (Galashiels). It was one of The Rezillos. We thought it’s quiet and we can make a big noise. So we get down there and discover it is all locked up as his uncle only stayed there sometimes.
The Mekons first record was made by us breaking into a house in the middle of nowhere. And because I was quite small I was posted through the window to let everyone in.
We took over this house for the weekend and did the Mekons single
Tim, the Rezillos sound man took a desk in and we just recorded to a ¼ inch reel to reel – no overdubs, no mixing!
I do remember it all being very basic. Just an ordinary small cottage in the middle of nowhere so we could make a lot noise and we all slept on the floor where we were recording. What mattered was the fact that we were recording, after all, there was not a studio in the land that would have let us through the doors.
It was effing cold. It was fairly intense and busy and done very quickly. Anyway we didn’t have any money, we were the Mekons and never had any money.
I have a vague memory of Bob or Tim or somebody bringing in some food and thinking that we were living the high life; free food!
Kids threw stones at us when we stopped at a fish and chip shop – punk was not popular in that town!
We had never recorded anything before so had nothing to measure it against, never been in a studio and had played one and a half gigs, so everything was unusual. We had never actually heard the songs, only played them. So it was interesting to hear them back, better than I expected; loud and lively.
I was horrified – I thought it would magically sound like a real record once it reached vinyl form but it just sounded like us banging around in a cottage in Scotland – I really like listening to it now
I thought the Mekons had made a hit and therefore it deserved to get out there.
I got sent on the overnight bus down to London to talk rough trade into taking on the records
Nobody would stock it. Rough Trade said it was the worst record they’d ever heard and they weren’t stocking it. Which of course we absolutely loved, it was exactly the correct wrong thing for them to say…but that was kind of the perfect kind of tension and irony that we were playing with. It was in fact musically extremely competent in the sense that it did what it needed to do to get across the point that they wanted to make, those songs, and that’s what was interesting about it.
Then the NME reviewed it; it was Tony Parsons and Julie Birchill (who) did this joint review, made it single of the week.. and that was I suppose when it really started working.
The NME was the bible, everyone read it and believed in it, so to be mentioned in the NME at all was good, to be single of the week capped the unlikeliness of it all. We had no ambition and no plan, so to get such an accolade meant that we must be doing something right. But what that something was, well, none of us were sure.
We’d intended of course to call Rough Trade’s hippy bluff and prove that their understanding of punk was flawed, and that’s how the process worked. You know, there’s that military saying ‘no plan survives first contact,’ doesn’t mean you don’t have to have a plan so we were all very strategic and always had plans, but then what really counts was how you responded to that kind of thing so that was a badge of honour. And we did start selling it in to some indie shops, you know, there were a lot of indie shops at that time and there was this small and fanatical kind of underground of people who were seeking out new things that they hadn’t heard of.
People I know bought it and laughed their arses off til John Peel played it and then we were heroes…
The lyrics I wrote for the Mekons came from a knowledge of who I was, ie a middle class art student, like most of the rest of early punks for that matter. We wrote ‘Never Been in a Riot’ in response to the Clash’s ‘White Riot’. In West London no doubt calling for a white riot had a ‘roots’ appeal. In Leeds and most of the north it meant something very different. In the run out groove of Riot, Bob Last wanted to write: “this record kills fascists”… it was where we came from too.
I think it’s a great record cos its not some art school conceit – its us trying to play the songs as best we can
We saw punk as a license to do what we wanted
I just assumed I’d made something fucking great, I’m going to find a way… there are going to be people who want to buy it. I mean it was that simple.
2017/2018 The World Needs The Mekons
Do The Mekons do things for a reason? Mekons stuff usually just happens, often because nobody quite gets around to saying no. We started talking together on email to sort out a few old issues; copyright etc, then someone offered Jon a gig in a Manchester pub for the original version, and we all ended up doing it, partly out of enthusiasm and partly out of inertia. Twenty minutes rehearsal after a thirty eight year gap and onto a stage we wandered. It was enjoyable, so we got together for ten days in a barn in Suffolk in the middle of winter and made some more noise together; which was also enjoyable so it became an album. We gathered the criteria for it all as we went along; ie that it should be the original 77 lot and the roles we had originally played, Jon back on drums etc. We could say, portentously, that world is as shitty a place as it was in 77 and so we had to come out of retirement: ‘we’re getting the band back together’. But that would assume a plan and a great sense of self-importance; luckily there is neither.
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