Punk roared and shambled in with the social commentary missing from mainstream airplay. Whether it was pasted-together sloganeering with a curl to its lip or complex and subversive, in the cultural context of the time, the music had a fresh inventiveness. It was substantive just for communicating something beyond received information. Bands like X, the Minutemen, Pere Ubu, the Clash, the Ex, and the Mekons had a sly double vision that conveyed explosive angst but revealed that the catharsis would still be followed by another workday. Somewhere between being powerless victims and having total agency in our lives rests the place where most of us default on our dreams and call it home.
Those bands were inspiring, spring-loaded with a feral artistry that captured the public imagination of the moment. Unlike the composites that passed as '70s icons, they weren't closed circuits. Bands like the Mekons and the Ex depended on their audience to complete the electrical current. They represented something very different: an egalitarian, ragtag bunch of socialists and anarchists. Their music was and is joyous, unruly, and anything but iconic, drawing on folk forms and speaking in the fractured voices of griots with too much on their minds and plates, and jobs to get up for in the morning besides. Each band has a recent re-issue of albums that evidence slantwise what Russian symbolist poet Aleksandr Blok once wrote: "History is the noise of time."
It's a sentiment that the Mekons can surely understand. After all, they are the band that once asked, "Do you want to be part of the crime or part of the punishment?" The Ex delivers it even more elementally. The band's 1986 EP, 1936: The Spanish Revolution, details the Spanish Revolution from the perspective of the anti-fascists. It's an anarchist oeuvre disguised as revolutionary snapshots. The Ex combines images and a written narrative that documents the mission of the anti-fascists to resist and defeat tyranny. Their genius illuminates every corner with a blur of fury. The Ex grew from the '70s Amsterdam squatter movement into an anarcho-punk band, with anger and joy running relay through their songs. "Freedom calls!/Now or never!" bellows G.W. Sok on the frenzied "They Shall Not Pass." The album burns with such passion, you almost forget yourself, and that the anti-fascists were defeated.
The Mekons are magpies who snatch defeat from the jaws of defeat. Originally released in 1987, New York: On the Road '86-'87 is a shambolic record of the band's live shows. It features field recordings of messy, drunken sets with a rotating cast of musicians. The songs originate from the Mekons' excellent trilogy of American roots music exploration: Fear and Whiskey, The Edge of the World, and Honky Tonkin'. Their sumptuous homage/skewering of the country-folk tradition is perfectly captured on this audio vérité diary, which includes snippets of stage banter and road-weary ramblings. A cover of the Band's "The Shape I'm In" and a pisstake response to the Clash's "White Riot," called "Never Been in a Riot," demonstrates why, over 20 years later, the Mekons are still punk's great contrarians.
Both of these albums display the elasticity and multi-layered sociopolitical views that first ignited punk. Over a dozen years later, these reissues show the incidental grit and throwaway brilliance that illuminated the music then. These are songs of outsiders, people off the grid and below the radar. In an age of info-glut, most statements can't carry progressive values. The words become instantly nostalgic or stylistic. They are either melted down into the corporate super-narrative, mocked, or ignored entirely. We are left with the swindle of fulfillment. This music is a struggle with the limits of human perception and a reminder that there is a work ethic of the heart. And sadly, its social commentary is as true and vital as ever.