THE MEKONS were one of those bands I used to come across without having any idea who they were or what they sounded like. Here, they'd be referenced in interviews by more popular groups; there, they'd earn a tidy paragraph in the record-review section in a magazine's back pages. But with no cover stories, no presence on the radio, no friends who knew enough to pass me secret nuggets on a mixtape, for years the Mekons remained as mysterious to me as phrases like "Van der Graaf Generator" and "Trout Mask Replica."
Now, of course, you can dial up any of the Mekons' dozens of albums in the time it takes to type their name, but there's another problem: Where do you begin with a band that's been putting out records—some brilliant, some willfully amateurish—for almost 40 years, leaping from genre to genre, dabbling in shambolic punk, crystallized pop, rough-edged Americana, and pirate-themed theater experiments?
Joe Angio's documentary Revenge of the Mekons goes a long way toward situating the non-fan for this cultest of cult bands. The Mekons started while they were university students during British punk's heyday, and they boasted more ideology than skill—while they were committed socialists, half the members couldn't play their instruments. Over the years, the Mekons got good, but not in expected ways. Entirely avoiding the mainstream (apart from a major-label flop or two), the group refined their DIY mentality and located their place along the folk continuum, letting the self-deprecation and exasperation of their early work evolve into observational studies of the lives of the have-nots.
The documentary lets the band's modesty and music-first ethos shine through, as talking heads like Will Oldham, Greg Kot, and Jonathan Franzen ('sup, Franzen?) diagram their influence. While it won't make the Mekons a household name, it'll hopefully spread the best of their music to a few more ears.