The Pitchfork 500 Indie Explosion Part 1 – Mekons to The Smiths

The mid-’80’s saw the UK Independent music scene reach another of its many high points. For a couple of years, the scene had been characterised by ramshackle amateurism, post-punk dourness and not a small amount of glumness (following on from the late ’70’s glories). But as always in the ever-changing UK scene, like mushrooms growing from manure, some of the finest pop music known to man sprung from all over the UK. Others, like The Jesus And Mary Chain, found new ways to be angry and noisy and blew apart the hitherto moribund scene.

The Mekons – Last Dance
The Jesus and Mary Chain – Just Like Honey
The Smiths – How Soon Is Now?

The Mekons were a punk collective, formed in Leeds in the furnace of the punk years. Then they did the usual thing, and broke up. Then, being a forward-looking bunch, decided to not bother reforming in the mid Naughties like compatriots Gang Of Four and got back together in 1984 to do some gigs supporting the Miner’s Strike. Taking the opportunity to experiment, they added a violinist, an accordionist, and sundry other members and set about making a kind of ramshackle folk sound, using their curiosity and a certain amount of musical talent to make charmingly tuneful, if somewhat disorganised music.

Charmingly Ramshackle

“Last Dance” tells the tale of being drunk in a nightclub, watching some lovely lady dancing away on her own. Sure, there’s quite a few examples of this genre in everything from Country to Hip-Hop, but few have put it quite as charmingly as this:

“So beautiful, you were waltzing\Little frozen rivers all covered with snow”

You don’t get that from 50 Cent. There’s more to the song than just drunken letching though; the line “as if seeing you for the first time” points out that he’s not just randomly ogling, there’s a depth to this apparently one-sided relationship, adding a certain poignancy. The Mekons never really got any kind of mainstream success or recognition, but have continued releasing records to a small, loyal and fervent fanbase. And who can blame them? This is exactly the kind of largely unknown gem that the Pitchfork 500 does such a good job in digging up, and one of those songs that makes you glad to trawl through the whole load. Lovely, I’m sure you’ll agree.

The Jesus and Mary Chain were anything but lovely. Loveliness was not their thing. Their thing was noise, great big globbets of it. Noisy guitars, noisy drums belted out by a lank-haired goon standing up1, cooler-than-thou vocals from a man who looked like he hadn’t eaten in about 12 years. I cannot understate the shock value of this band in 1985. Hailing from Glum City Central, Glasgow, they exploded onto the scene, did 20 minute gigs which usually ended up in a fight, and wrote one of the best2 debut albums around (that’ll be Psychocandy). I actually got this as a Xmas present that year, which still fills me with pride.

Cheer Up, Lads, One Of You Will Have It Off With Hope Sandoval

But you know what, this is the wrong song. Frankly, “Just Like Honey” doesn’t have any of the buzzsaw impact of “Never Understand”, their first single. This is just a bit, well, girly. Worse, even at the time, it was shamefully derivative. Trust me, if a spotty-faced oikish 14 year old could spot that this was hardly original, then your number is up. Sure, the song is a good ‘un, but as far as the impact of the JAMC goes, the likes of “In a Hole” and “You Trip Me Up” had far more of an impact, at least in the UK. But as a demonstration of how you can take The Velvet Underground, mix in some Phil Spector drums, and fuzz it all up a bit, I suppose it’s got its merits.

As for The Smiths “How Soon Is Now?”, what can I say? If you’ve been reading this blog at all (and taking any kind of notice), you’ll be thinking “Oh God, not another 1,000 word post on how great The Smiths are and if you don’t like them, you’re wrong, you hate music and you probably eat kittens with dormouse sauce for dinner”.

Well, I don’t really like this song very much. There, I said it. Look, I know it’s sonically adventurous, I know it’s the single that broke them in the US3, I know it’s got some marvellously glum lyrics that encapsulate everything about Morrissey in one, nearly-rhyming couple (“I am human and I need to be loved, just like everybody else does”), but, but, but….I just don’t like it. There’s no little glistening glimmer of light in amongst the glumness, unlike in their finest hours. So for that, “How Soon Is Now?”, you’re fired.

Next up is the second part of this series, with the likes of New Order and Cocteau Twins. Sweet. By the way, long-term readers might notice the lack of YouTube videos; this is due to a lack of access to YouTube at the moment. Should be fixed soon, my friends.

1 Who later went onto fame as the lead singer of a twee indie-pop group called Primal Scream, who shamefacedly reinvented themselves as a hard-rocking, hard-drugging band, to much laughter from those in the know and much love from those not. I’m not a fan. Though I do like “Velocity Girl”, but let’s not get into that now.

2 Ok, maybe not “best”, but at least “most recognisable” and “strongly defined” and “better than anything they did in the future”. File under “Definitely Maybe”.

3 Like that counts for anything.

MP3: Last Dance by The Mekons

MP3: Just Like Honey by The Jesus and Mary Chain

MP3: How Soon Is Now by The Smiths

Buy “Heaven and Hell: The Very Best of the Mekons” (CD)

Buy JAMC’s “Psychocandy: Remastered” (CD)

Buy “Meat Is Murder” by The Smiths (CD) (What, you don’t have this already? Shame on you).