The Mekons’ Jon Langford on His Brief Sisters of Mercy Stint
It’s hard, in this life, to know if one has a purpose. You can look to religion or philosophy, try to lose yourself in good work or the pursuit of money, become a cartoon of drugs-and-sex self-gratification — all while the very idea of meaning is as distant and untouchable as a too-far ship steaming past your desert island. Rare is the man who knows what he was born to do. And, through grace and Twitter, I am one of the lucky few. Because I was birthed from my mother’s loving womb, my father’s unlikely seed, to write about Jon Langford of the Mekons' short stint playing in the Sisters of Mercy. Even in the midst of an infernal national nightmare, in this lucky solipsism, my air tastes sweet and Jameson flows from my spiritual faucet.
(The previous paragraph is written under the prayer and assumption that Donald Trump is not our president at the piece’s running. If he is, never mind. Music and art is meaningless, and I hate this country and persistently boating universe. Fuck everything.)
I have loved the Mekons and the Sisters of Mercy with undiluted fury since I was a teenager. I picked up the Mekons album Rock and Roll because critics like Chuck Eddy told me to, and the Sisters of Mercy’s Vision Thing because critics told me not to, but girls said otherwise. Both albums were formative in my worldview, sense of humor, and desire to get to a bar and fall in and out of love as soon as I was physically able.
Both bands were formed in Leeds, U.K., in the late '70s / early '80s, and both, through (ostensibly) wildly different genres of the sub-category of post-punk. The Mekons, a rotating collective of art school malcontents, did art-punk, then country, then rock, then whatever they damn well pleased, all with an eye to just getting by, through twang or dissonance, in bad times overrun by jackboots. The Sisters of Mercy, with sharp-dressed Andrew Eldritch at the helm and his drum machine “Doktor Avalanche” as the only mainstay, did an operatic, apocalyptic take on goth that was as focused on a macro existential ache as Mekons were with the day-to-day. Both bands seemed expressly about leading a life worth living, at least until the hammer comes down — be it by heartbreak or the state. Both bands were / are very serious and very, very funny.
I was — perhaps, stupidly — unaware of any connection between the two bands until I saw, posted on Twitter (by Carrot Top Records' Patrick Monaghan and brought to my attention by the inimitable Maggie Vail of CASH Music), a photo of Jon Langford, singer of the Mekons, playing bass with Sisters of Mercy at a small show in 1983. I, in the parlance of the day, flipped my shit. Through the magic of the internet, I discovered that not only did both bands know each other, but that one of my favorite Mekons songs, "Prince of Darkness," was "supposedly” about Eldritch. I reached out to the Chicago record label that puts out much of Langford’s work, Bloodshot, to see if Langford might be interested in discussing this historical intersection of greatness. The label’s response was pretty much, “Er, maybe?” Soon after, I was talking on the phone with a couch-bound (from a minor weekend car crash) but very much painkiller-amiable Jon Langford. He gave me the scoop on the Mekons, his '80s agitprop band the Three Johns and, of course, the Sisters of Mercy. For a brief, shimmering time, my life filled the mold of those great personages, like Joan of Arc and Mohammad, whose places on earth were not wasted. (Also, check out the Mekons' new book / CD / video Existentialism, available here.)
Let’s start with the basics. How did you end up in Sisters of Mercy?
Andy Taylor [later Andrew Eldritch], who was studying in the Chinese department in university, got in touch with me when I was trying to sell a drum kit, the Mekons drum kit, which was a customized thing, [looked] kind of crazy. We put fish tank vinyl from Woolworths all over the drums because they weren’t the same color. We sort of assembled the kit, made it look kind of weird and beautiful. We did a really good job of taking all the lugs and nuts off and covering it with sticky back vinyl … and then we signed to Virgin Records and decided we’d have loads of money and they would buy us a new drum kit. So, I sold that drum kit to Andy. And he painted it black, of course, because he was the drummer of Sisters of Mercy at the time. Then he found out I had a Korg synthesizer, so he asked if I would join Sisters of Mercy and make kind of explosion noises. I only made it to one rehearsal. I think I was pretty bad at … turning up. Not sure I took them very seriously at that point. I think I was thrown out.
But a bit later, we formed CNT, a record label with one of the guys from Red Rhino [one of the bigger distributors in Northern England at the time], Adrian Collins. We put out some Mekons stuff … a single from the Redskins, and a bunch of other bands. Adrian was working on the Sisters of Mercy, so we went and recorded them in KGM, a small 8-track studio in a guy called Ken Giles' garage in Bridlington, Yorkshire that we had a long relationship with. Two of the guys from the label and the guys from the band in a confined space. Andy lived on the same street as me as well. On Bellevue Road. I used to go around to his house and watch Doctor Who on black and white TV, which was kind of cool. He had videos of a lot of early [episodes]. So, I knew him socially and Craig [Adams, then-bassist of Sisters of Mercy] was also a friend of mine. "The Body Electric" / "Adrenochrome" single came out on CNT.
I heard at those sessions that Craig would be going away and they had some gigs. We were their record label, so … if memory serves, Craig was working in the Canary Islands as a photo shoot assistant. He was about 20 at the time.
You were all about that age.
Yeah, we were all quite young. I was maybe a bit younger — around ’82, I would have been about 24. It inspired the Three Johns quite a lot, our relationship with Sisters. Andy become sort of our drum machine guru. I’d find out what drum machine he’d get, and I’d get the same one and he’d show me how to work it. He’d customize it, and I’d customize it the same from the same backstreet drum machine workshop. “Keeping up with the Sisters.” [Laughs]
I had no idea that you all had such a close relationship.
The Three Johns opened up for the Sisters a few times. We were always a bit more abrasive and political and art school. Leeds was very much a goth town at the time. Goth audiences were very sympathetic and forgiving. They had a broad taste, so they liked the band they liked, but were happy to be polite to the Three Johns.
I know Eldritch has always, rightly or wrongly, tried to reject the “goth” tag.
I think he should probably accept it. I mean, he was very tongue-in-cheek about it. I remember at the time he’d talk about going to the grocery store with dry ice machines. He was a very funny guy.
I love his quote about how they were better than the Birthday Party and not as good as Motörhead …
Yeah, yeah … he had confidence and self-deprecation going on at the same time.
Both the Mekons and Sisters play with the mythology of the band. Both bands have songs that use their respective band names to place the band in a narrative.
Yeah … and the Mekons have songs about the Sisters of Mercy as well.
I was going to ask you about that. Is the song "Prince of Darkness" (“His pleasures were a mystery to us all”) about Eldritch?
Absolutely. [Laughs] And he also gets mentioned in several other songs. There’s a song called "Charlie Cake Park" on Honky Tonkin' that name-checks Andy and Claire [Shearsby] (“In a flat above the chemists / Andy and Claire are dressing to kill / But they don’t come out 'til after dark / In Charlie Cake Park”), who was his girlfriend at the time. She later became our sound mixer. A good friend of the Mekons.
When the Mekons first started, there was a real gap between the town bands and the punk rock scene in the college. The students and the town people didn’t mix that easily.
So, you guys were college and Sisters were townies?
Andrew was university, but he had a lot of connections, and Craig and a lot of people who worked with the Sisters were all local guys. There was a divide at first, but the Mekons and Sisters bridged that.
The line in "Prince of Darkness," “He sees a red town and wants to paint it black”: Is that a reference to the leftist politics of Leeds?
Yeah. The scene that came out [had a very] jagged and nasty politics; that was one of the things I remember first about Leeds. There was a student / townie divide in that as well. By the mid-'80s, after New Romantics, there was a sort of dark rock thing going one: Sisters, Skeletal Family. The Three Johns cruised along on the sidelines. The Mekons had mostly left town at that point.
Was that the time of the comp They Shall Not Pass, the CNT compilation that benefited the families of striking miners? I feel like Sisters of Mercy are often underappreciated for their political content, or at least political compared to a lot of goth bands …
Yeah, I don’t know if they were willing participants, even on that record. They’d moved on. We had real distribution problems at CNT, and Sisters moved on pretty quickly. I stayed friendly with them, but they had their own label through Red Rhino. I think we wanted to do a label compilation and they were contractually obliged to take part. I don’t think they liked that overt political nature of all that stuff, particularly. It wouldn’t have been what they’d chosen at the time. I’ll put it that way. I’m sure they weren’t angry about it, but, you know, the name was a direct reference to the Spanish Civil War …
I guess they didn’t get overtly political 'til the '90s.
Yeah, I’m sure they were fellow travelers …
Did Andrew ever hear "Prince of Darkness"?
Yeah, he did. He said he didn’t care for it. He did like "Charlie Cake Park," with its references to him and Claire.
Did he feel like you were making fun of him?
Well, we definitely weren’t. We had a night out with him and he ended up back around at our house. And I think Tom [Greenhalgh] wrote down everything he said.
The song was basically him saying stuff, so it couldn’t all be that. I think it was a kind of sincere tribute to him. He was someone who created something we were all kind of in awe of. He was quite a big star at the time. He was living in Hamburg. We were just … I think it was respectful. It was cheeky because we were cheeky, but it was respectful.
I’m assuming you’re no longer in touch.
I’ve been in touch. He sometimes gets in touch over the years. He wanted the Mekons to do some dates with Sisters of Mercy.
Oh! Why didn't you?!
Ah, we couldn’t do it. No one was available. We were all very into the idea, but it’s difficult to get everybody together without vast amounts of money.
Ugh. No, I understand. I hope this interview sparks a world tour.
Yeah. To be honest, I was always a fan of Sisters. I do love that first single. A very smart and concise, rocking little record, but I’m a fan of what he did after. What was that song he did with the Meatloaf producer?
Their hard rock record?
It was a big single …
Eight minutes long …
Yeah, "This Corrosion." We played "This Corrosion" at my wedding. We thought it was great. He was going for something there that I totally got.
I’m gratified to hear that. I always heard a thread between both bands. Sisters and Mekons were, to me, both deeply funny and serious.
Yeah, Sisters wasn’t one-dimensional. There was always a lot going on there. I generally always liked Andy. We used to go see movies together. We were buddies.
What would you go see?
We’d go to late shows at Hyde Park. We saw Escape From New York.
That’s a good one.
We didn’t really discuss it. I don’t know if he liked it or not.