There were a lot of people in places like London, Leeds, and Los Angeles who did have something to say after all, and found in the music an idiom in which they could say it. “The story,” Marcus writes, “was always the same: the music made a promise that things did not have to be as they seemed, and some brave people set out to keep that promise for themselves.”
Take The Mekons. They started in 1977 at the University of Leeds as strictly a joke, more a students’ collective of almost two dozen pranksters and semi-musicians than a proper group. They vowed that they would never record, allow themselves to be photographed, or give interviews, and then cheerfully did all of it. They brought a couch inscribed with the word “spaceship” on stage with them. They sang absurd songs—their first single, “Never Been In A Riot,” consisted of a couple of chords and a drum roll, sounded like sucking the pulp out of a dead tooth, and was chiefly concerned with mocking The Clash’s risible claim to want a “White Riot.” (The Mekons did actually end up in a riot, fighting off a neo-fascist attack on a gay bar they frequented, which made the joke even better.) Beside this utter incompetence, the Pistols may as well have been Led Zeppelin or King Crimson.
The Clash, the most successful of the original punk bands, had slogans, communiqués, a tune in which they elevated an arrest for shooting pigeons into a cosmic attack on the idea of representative democracy. The Mekons had principles: “that anybody could do it; that we didn’t want to be stars; that there was no set group as such, anybody could get up and join in and instruments would be swapped around; that there’d be no distance between the audience and the band; that we were nobody special,” as guitarist Kevin Lycett once told the writer Simon Reynolds. What was in the hands of a great and yet thoroughly conventional band like The Clash a set of contrived rebel postures was something quite different for The Mekons. They actually meant what they were saying.
For Marcus, intensely focused as he was on music by people who quite deliberately had nothing to say at all, this sort of thing clearly came as true revelation. The old folk and blues acts with which he was obsessed meant nothing they said and probably paid it no attention; their lyrics were dusty inheritances. Their descendants, such as Dylan and The Band, loved dramatic poses and the sound of words. They were performers, assuming transient roles for the benefit of an audience.
For The Mekons, quite the opposite was true. They had no idea how to perform, no notion of what it meant; crude as it was, their music was pure, direct reaction to a time of upheaval. In it, Marcus heard “some hint here, some fragmentary cultural memory, of the Ranters, the possessed and sometimes naked heretics who defined the farthest reaches of extremism during the English Civil War.”
There is no such distance in his reaction to Gang of Four. The first time he saw them live, he reports, he left directly after their set despite having wanted to hear the headlining Buzzcocks for years. “I didn’t,” he writes, “want anything to interfere with what had just happened.” This was September 1979, and he had just seen probably the strongest group in the world, one which utterly overwhelmed him even before he could really understand what they were saying.
Preposterously, these four handsome young men had not only perfected an original and fantastically danceable sound that somehow married the bass-led rhythms of Jamaican dub to the jagged guitar of The Velvet Underground and was immediately identifiable as the purest sort of punk—while being clearly suited for radio. (While they were never much commercially, their style has underwritten numerous popular acts over the years.) They were also avowed neo-Marxists, steeped in the Frankfurt School and wary of the notion of individuality. A critic of Marcus’s dispositions could want little more.
“If this is the future of rock, I can’t wait,” Marcus wrote. Within months of first seeing the group he made his way to England to join them on tour and to report on what he called, with no evident irony, “Britain’s postpunk pop avant-garde.” “Don’t romanticize it,” he is warned by the head of Rough Trade, a leading label; he admirably fails.