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Home / Entertainment / Mekon Jon Langford on being a punk hero, rocking with male voice choirs and the time Johnny Cash kissed his mum

Mekon Jon Langford on being a punk hero, rocking with male voice choirs and the time Johnny Cash kissed his mum

HE’S the accountant’s son from Newport who went on to form a punk band described by Rolling Stone magazine as “the most revolutionary group in the history of rock ‘n’ roll”.

And now Jon Langford of The Mekons has written a concept album “20 years in the making” about his love/hate relationship with the city in which he grew up and will be there tonight, playing it live with his latest outfit The Men of Gwent.

“The idea really started back in ‘92 when I first moved to the States,” says the 57-year-old, now an adopted Chicagoan dubbed by one critic as “the spiritual brother-in-arms of Dylan Thomas and Johnny Cash”.

“I decided I needed a project that gave me the excuse to pop back to Wales every now and then – preferably so I could hold band meetings over a few pints in the Murenger pub.

“It was only really meant as a joke and I didn’t think for one minute it would survive as a long-distance relationship.”

It’s that old devil called Jon again

But it did, and over the years the band’s ranks swelled to seven members – leading up to the recent release of their debut album The Legend of Ll (pronounced like the Welsh double ‘L’ sound) and a tour of the UK.

“We’d send ideas back and forth to one another on email and wrote lots of songs – while each time I came back to Wales, I’d book us a recording session.

“And, bit by bit, the album came together.”

“You were no one unless you were in a band”

Songs such as the Pogues-like Pill Sailor, in particular, demonstrate how much Langford still holds the city close to his heart.

“That’s a track which has existed in several forms over the years, but on this album it’s a bit of a sea shanty, with accordions and everything,” he says.

“I realised how much I missed the place, the muddy river and the Transporter bridge and my happy childhood running amok up the Gaer and getting underage pints in the pubs down Pill.

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“The docks was this amazing place I’d go with my dad to look at all the big Soviet tankers coming in and out, which was a such a weird sight during what was the height of the Cold War.

“Newport was a boom town back then, before they started shutting down the steelworks and then the mines,” adds Langford, their dismantling during Margaret Thatcher’s 11-year tenure as Prime Minister having fuelled his songwriting fire.

Indeed it was The Mekons’ involvement in the 1984 miners’ strike which established them as one of the foremost acts on the UK anarcho-punk scene.

“We’re never afraid to try something new or screw things up”

“Some people at art college with me in Leeds discovered I had a drum kit, which I wasn’t particularly good on, and asked me, ‘Do you want to be in a band where nobody can play?’

“This was the summer of the Sex Pistols, remember, and you were nobody unless you were in a band.”

And although they’re still going strong – with a documentary film about their turbulent career called The Revenge of The Mekons having just been released – that big commercial breakthrough would always elude them.

The Mekons: “the most revolutionary group in the history of rock ‘n’ roll”

“We thought we’d get signed and quietly subvert the whole industry from within, but we just ended up with Sting as a label-mate,” laughs Langford, the band’s debut for AM having essentially been a snide pop at the music business.

“And then they dropped us.”

Lack of mainstream success never stymied their creative drive, however, and the band continues to churn out critically-acclaimed records, like 2011’s Ancient and Modern, a third of a century into their existence.

“My mum told Johnny Cash about her house being burgled”

“There were moments when some people seemed to want us to stop, but we never really heeded them,” says Langford. “Moreover, there’s a really strong bond between us, so each time we get back together it’s clear how much we’ve missed each other.

“And we’ve never really done anything because we felt we had to, certainly not financially – it’s never been about money.

“In fact, the only time we’ve been truly unhappy is when we were corporate employees.

“Being independent and doing our own thing means we’re never afraid to try something new or screw things up.

“Furthermore, if people like it, great, and if not, then it doesn’t matter.”

One unflagging supporter, though, was Langford’s mum Kit, about whom he tells a fantastic story involving late country legend Johnny Cash.

“I took her to see him at Newport Centre back in the early ‘90s,” he says, the Welshman having previously spearheaded a UK indie-band tribute album to the Man in Black, a project which was largely credited with sparking Cash’s latterday showbiz comeback.

“I was about 33 at the time and easily the youngest in the crowd by a good 25-year margin,” he adds, explaining that the pair got to meet the US star backstage following his performance.

“This 6ft 5in rugby-playing black guy said, ‘Oi, I’ve got a bone to pick with you'”

“Johnny told my mum how he’d once been held at gunpoint by raiders at his holiday home in Jamaica and she replied with an anecdote about how her place in Newport had recently been broken into.

“Apparently, she’d come home one day to find the back door open and the garden pond empty – it seems that, in his hurry to get away, the burglar must have fallen in and emptied all the water out.

“Johnny found the whole story hilarious and planted a huge kiss on my mum’s lips before we left.

Langford (left) with Johnny Cash and DJ and musician Marc Riley in 1988

“It was just the most surreal moment ever and I think she was in a state of shock,” he laughs.

Sadly, Kit passed away last December, leaving Langford devastated.

“It was a horrible time and singing these shows still feels a little raw because she was so integral to the songs and the world in which they’re set.

“I’d always stay with her whenever I came back to Wales and she’s always at the forefront of my mind when I sing. So it’s hard, you know?”

Another of Langford’s albums in which Kit figured was his unusual 2011 collaboration with Canada’s Burlington Male Voice Choir, a silver-haired and capaciously-lunged group of Welsh ex-pats with whom he rerecorded tracks from his 1998 debut solo album Skull Orchard.

“Jon, I’m 76 and playing a punk rock gig – and I f****** loves it”

“She loved them and came over to Chicago to meet them all – turns out she’d even known a few of their mums,” he smiles.

“And I loved being with them too – it was like having all my old uncles on stage with me, they all had such a wicked sense of humour.

“That album came about when an old punk rock mate of mine from back home called Julian Murray moved out there and ended up the chairman of the choir committee, so I suggested we do something together.

“And, fair play, the lads totally got it. So much so one of them came up to me and said, ‘Oi, I’ve got a bone to pick with you. This song Pill Sailor is about me, isn’t it’?

Altogether now: Langford with the Burlington Male Voice Choir

“He’s this 6ft 5in rugby-playing black guy who grew up in Tiger Bay but now lives in Canada, and he was like, ‘You know those lyrics about “Passing in the channel, great ships by the score/To carry out coal and to carry in ore”? Well, that’s me. I’ve done all that’.

“So it was like some old gang getting back together again.

“Also, one of the guys, Adrian, had a very similar life to me.

“He left Newport for Leeds 20 years before I did, and even installed the wiring at the club where The Mekons did their first gig – can you believe that?”

But what did he make of all the loud guitars and pounding drums?

“It’s funny because he said to me, ‘I’ve just phoned my family and told them that I’m 76 years old and going out tonight to play a punk rock gig’,” says Langford.

“‘And Jon, I f****** loves it!’”

“You’d have to be mad to try and recreate TJ’s”

However, while Skull Orchard might have documented a misspent youth in South Wales, The Legend of Ll is raucously told from the point of view of the same person grown older, but arguably no wiser, ruefully mulling over the state of his life and surroundings.

“The record’s still a very positive one, though, don’t get me wrong,” interjects Langford.

“It’s a very affectionate look at Newport – it’s not like I’m saying ‘what a friggin’ dump’ or anything.

“A love-hate thing, that’s essentially what it is.”

Does he think the long-awaited and recently built multi-million-pound Friars Walk retail complex will help change the fortunes of the beleaguered city centre?

Friars Walk, Newport

“It’s funny, because I brought my two kids over a while back and showed them the huge advertising hoardings for Friars Walk, all of which were filled with architects’ impressions of what the finished product would look like – complete with pictures of these really good-looking white people walking around with their smart clothes and bulging shopping bags.

“I thought, ‘Yeah, they’ve nailed the local demographic completely with that one’.

“But if helps the town back up on its feet then I’m all for it, because the city centre used to be a thriving place when I was boy.

“Then the out-of-town retail parks sprang up and killed off all the trade.

“The whole ‘New Seattle’ thing was both flattering and ludicrous at the same time”

“It’s the same here in America, with people preferring to drive to malls in the middle of nowhere to do their shopping.

“It’s a corporate, capitalistic nightmare and what made a Labour-led council like Newport’s get in bed with those types of people God only knows.

“But if that success trickles down to create smaller independent shops nearby, then maybe it’ll help recreate what was so good about the place in the first instance.”

I ask if any of the many new bars springing up could ever become the next TJ’s – the defunct and much-missed infamous live music venue owned by the late John Sicolo.

“Ha! You’d have to be mad to try and recreate TJ’s – the place was run on a wing and a prayer at the best of times,” says Langford.

The legendary and sadly missed TJ’s

“No-one can say it wasn’t a really important venue, though, especially in putting on all the American bands that came over.”

In fact, legend has it that Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain proposed to girlfriend Courtney Love when she performed there with her group Hole in the early ‘90s.

“Whenever a musician in the States asks me where I’m from, the mention of Newport always elicit the same response – ‘Hey, TJ’s, right?’

“So it’s still really well-known by everyone.”

And what about that brief but glorious window in Newport’s history when the music press clubbed together to dub it “the New Seattle”?

“Yeah, I recall getting a call from The Daily Telegraph, of all publications, asking me about that.

“I was producing tracks for The 60ft Dolls’ album at the time and there were so many similar bands in that region just jostling to be noticed.

“So, as analogies go, it was pretty useful.”

But the scene never quite made it to fruition in the end.

“The Dolls were very much its flagship band, so when they imploded that was kind of it.

Newport’s 60ft Dolls, who Langford produced

“The whole ‘New Seattle’ thing was both flattering and ludicrous at the same time – thinking about it now, that sort of hype would have been almost impossible to live up to.”

As well as music, Langford has also carved out a pretty successful niche for himself as a painter. His work is created from a mix of oil and acrylic paint, then distressed to look old and worn – often inspired by the ageing concert posters that plastered the walls of the bars he’d pass through while on tour.

“I’d moved to Chicago, got married and, not being in a band, had no real way of making money at the time,” says John, whose work adorns the cover of this very magazine.

“I was scratching out a living doing comic strips for LA Weekly and NME with a mate of mine, splitting about $100 a week between us.

“Being back in Wales is the only time I truly feel relaxed”

“Then I met someone, at Elvis’ Graceland of all places, who owned a really underground-type gallery and he encouraged me to display my paintings there.

“So I did just that and ended up selling the lot, some for as much as $7,000. I just went, ‘Hang on a minute…’

“It was like a huge lightbulb going off in my head.”

Since then his eerily lifelike portraits of vintage US icons like Hank Williams have captured the imagination of the Country Music Hall of Fame, and he’s currently gearing up to provide the sleeve art for a new Dolly Parton/Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt box set.

“It’s my day job really and, after packing the kids off to school, I go to my studio and knuckle down to it.”

An example of the Mekons man’s art

Never Mind The Pollocks, then – so to speak. But music will always be Langford’s first and biggest love.

“We’ve got a session coming up for my mate Marc Riley’s show on BBC 6 Music next week and a few dates around the UK – it’s good therapy for me,” he says.

“If I don’t get back to Wales every now and again I begin to feel quite discombobulated.

“Being back there is the only time I truly feel relaxed.

“Don’t get me wrong, though, America’s been very good to me – there’s no way I’d have achieved as much had I stayed in Wales, because those opportunities simply wouldn’t have come along.

“But being back makes me feel very connected again, to friends, family, everything.

“And seeing the blokes in the band and slipping back into their social circle is the easiest, most natural thing in the world.

“I’d hate to ever come home and feel like a tourist.”

Jon Langford plays a solo show at Cwtsh Arts Centre in Newport at 1.30pm today before appearing with his Men of Gwent at Le Pub at 8pm. The album The Legend of Ll is out now on Country Mile Records

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