Fuck The Kaiser Chiefs. Fuck Duels, and The Mission and Alan Clarke, Eddie Gray, Waltzing Masinga, Tony Yeboah and even fuck (god, how I’d love to!) Eric Cantona. The best thing ever, ever, ever to come out of Leeds is The Mekons. Go on, I dare you to disagree.
Turning up at a Mekons gig can be a hit-and-miss experience. There was one time, about five years ago, when I stood at the centre of a virtually empty dance floor in The Borderline while The Mekons asked, somewhat forlornly, if there was anyone in the audience who’d actually paid for a ticket. Three people put their hands up – me, the better half and our pal Gerard, all of whom are back for more tonight. Wind on a year, and they played the 12 Bar Club with an audience barely pushing double figures. And yet they’re one of the best bands in the world. They invented alt.country (or the bits of it that Gram Parsons didn’t, anyway), taught Arcade Fire everything they think they know, perfected pop-punk and blow away every audience they ever play to. And yet despite all this, they’re one of those bands that musos and journalists love but virtually no-one else has ever heard of. They should be huge but they’re not, reconvening tonight from three continents to play this tiny back room of a Brixton pub.
This is the second of only two UK gigs this year; the other took place last night at the Luminaire in Kilburn, beloved of Club OMH and name warm-ups but barely big enough to swing a cat. Tonight’s venue, The Windmill is even smaller, with a horseshoe-shaped bar that hides the stage away in a corner as if acknowledging that no more than five people ever want to pay attention to the band. But tonight is different. Tonight is family and friends and friends-of-friends of the band and journos in the know night, and the place is heaving. Arrive early enough and you can fraternise with The Mekons’ children, watch a dog on the roof stare down other dogs and get let in before your mate with the ‘untoutable’ e-ticket arrives, if you sweet-talk the girl on the door, then stake your claim to one of the wooden benches against the wall from where you can, just about, actually see the stage if you stand on one leg and stare really hard over the heads of a crowd that includes ex-QPR footballer Rodney Marsh.
It’s all worth it of course because, as you’ll have noticed if you’re paying attention (to music history, as well as to earlier in this review), The Mekons are the Best Band in the World. Tonight there are eight of them, dwarfing the tiny stage with violins, accordions and long sitar/lute stringed things as well as standard rock’n’roll geetars. Sally Timms is in good form and she and Jon Langford make cheery small-talk with the intimate audience between crowd favourites that include Millionaire and Memphis, Egypt, finishing as ever on Where Were You, sung by roadie Rico Bell. It’s a fantastic, fantastic night.
Not only are the Mekons always this good but they have been this good for 30 years. 30 years! Longer than most of you reading this have been born (something not true of last night’s audience, it has to be said…). They’ve made concept albums with Kathy Acker, recorded Millionaire – one of the most storming pop songs ever written, Memphis, Egypt – the best rock’n’roll shout-along ever written (Destroy your safe and happy life before it is too late!) and the one about the lights going out all over Europe whose title I can’t remember – the best indie rock ballad ever written but sadly not on show tonight. Neither was Empire of the Senseless, another one of indie rock’s greatest songs. Because they have lots of other ones that are just as good that they can play instead.
So why are they not the biggest band in the world? I’ll let you in on a secret: it’s all a huge indie journo conspiracy. If they were as famous, as interstellar as they deserve to be, they’d never play tiny venues like The Windmill ever again and if that happened, we’d lose the chance to sneer at what a great time we had while the rest of the world was listening to Snow Patrol on Radio 2. And so somehow, we keep them to ourselves, in the cramped back rooms of Brixton pubs and only tell you about them after it’s too late. There really is no other logical explanation.