Jon Langford has lived in Chicago for the last thirty or so years, but is originally from Newport in South Wales. When I interviewed Jon over the phone – that’s a bit like Zoom but without the pictures – a few years back we started the conversation talking about where we were and I thought I’d ask if, after so many years in Chicago, Jon still felt English. It was a slip. I meant British. Jon’s withering reply was, “I’ve never felt English. I’m from Wales.” I felt that we never really connected after this false start on my part, which is a real pity as Jon’s music has been a major part of my life for well over thirty years.
Doing a bit of research for this article I came across this YouTube comment: ‘Without Joe Strummer we cast our eyes toward Jon Langford and hope for the best.’ Although I don’t think the comparison lives up to close examination, if nothing else Langford’s output is massively more extensive than Strummer’s ever was as we will discuss later; but both certainly embody the soul of punk and demonstrate an honesty about their craft as songwriters and performers. Which is a little ironic considering Jon’s first band, the Mekons, originated in a challenge to Strummer’s skewed political thinking.
Emerging just after the first wave of punk the Mekons, a group of art students from Leeds who embodied the DIY ethic of punk as none of them could really play, got themselves a recording contract and put out ‘Never Been in a Riot’, a riposte to the politically questionable concept behind The Clash’s ‘White Riot’: the potential efficacy of a white, working class riot. The band drifted off at the end of the seventies, and Langford formed The Three Johns with John Hyatt and Phillip “John” Brennan, before the Mekons came back together in the early eighties to merge their punk rock with roots and country music following DJ Terry Nelson’s assertion that the Mekons music was about drinking and failed sexual-relationships and so covered the same territory as country music. (And, as we have just seen, the Mekons very origins were in the country tradition of the answer song.)
Jon has to be one of the most productive artists alive. Not only does he have a leading role in numerous other bands as well as still being in the Mekons – these other bands include the Waco Brothers, The Killer Shrews, Skull Orchard, Pine Valley Cosmonauts, his Men of Gwent and a blending of the Mekons and Freakwater as Freakons- but he is also a visual artist producing amazing etchings that mix publicity images of country and rock and roll stars with religious iconography, lyrics and other images. If you’ve not come across his art check it out here. (Or avoid the import tax here.)
There is a deep strand of political commitment that underpins Jon’s songwriting and activism, including his work with the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty, and the series of albums of ‘murder ballads’, ‘The Executioner’s Last Songs‘, with the Pine Valley Cosmonauts and a wide array of other artists. But his political writing, with the possible exception of the Union anthem ‘Plenty Tough-Union Made‘, explores the complexities of political thinking and avoids simple sloganeering.
I haven’t given myself an easy task as Jon Langford’s prolificacy has also included a wide range of other projects from pulling together what could be characterised as ‘tribute’ albums, but are more accurately celebrations, that try to introduce artists to a new audience; to collaborations such as his work with Katherine Bornefeld from The EX and Richard Buckner; and again to providing songs and musical backing for a range of performers he respects from Danbert Nobacon (ex-Chumbwumba) to Australian Aboriginal country artist Roger Knox and blues experimentalist Kevin Coyne. In fact, despite being a massive fan of Langford, I constantly discover new projects he is involved in. The Bandcamp page for his Lucky 7 Series of singles includes the following: “He sleeps an hour a night. Upon waking, he paints two pictures, writes four songs, and forms another band.” It might well be true.
Much as this is supposed to be the ‘essentials’ of Jon Langford this task has proved so elusive I see this now as more akin to some starting points for those who are new to Langford.
Number 10: The Mekons: ‘The Mekons Honky Tonkin’’ (1987)
I think this was the first Mekons album I bought, but it might have been ‘The Edge of the World’ from the previous year. At the times the Mekons included Brendan Croker, who was later a Notting Hillbilly with Mark Knopfler, and Dick Taylor, who was replaced by Bill Wyman in the Rolling Stones before forming the Pretty Things. This was where their desire to merge punk and Country took shape and includes a superb cover of the Felice and Boudleaux Bryant ‘Sleepless Nights’, as well as roots rock like ‘Sympathy for the Mekons’ and ‘Kidnapped’, and ends with the barroom piano led ‘Gin Palace’. On the inner sleeve the lyrics to each song were accompanied by book selections, which sounds rather pretentious, but don’t forget the Mekons are art students and, in many ways, the whole band makes as much sense as an artistic and political statement as it does a band.
Number 9: Jonboy Langford and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts Explore the Dark and Lonely World of Johnny Cash: ‘Misery Loves Company’ (1994)
This was Langford’s second album of Johnny Cash songs. The first, ‘’Til Things Are Brighter’, was a project with Marc Riley from The Fall, released in 1988 and included contributions from David McComb of The Triffids, Pete Shelley from The Buzzcocks and a superb ‘Man In Black’ performed by Marc Almond. It’s difficult to get hold of and, having tried off and on for years on eBay, actually managed to accidentally buy two copies whilst researching this article. If anyone wants one make me an offer! ‘Misery Loves Company’ was Langford’s nod to the majesty of Cash and takes a respectful and honest approach to Cash’s songs. It was released around the same time as Cash’s career re-invigorating ‘American Recordings’. Even if Langford did not directly influence Cash’s final career redemption the genuine respect he received being part of these projects gave Cash the confidence he needed to record with Rick Rubin and appear on the main stage at Glastonbury.
Number 8: Waco Brothers: ‘New Deal’ (2002)
After moving to Chicago Langford gathered together like-minded musicians to play country tunes. The Waco Brothers was originally conceived as a bar band to play around the clubs of the city, a natural progression from the country songs and Cash covers that had gone before. But the combination of Langford’s and Dean Schlabowske’s songs took on a life of their own and the Waco Brothers become far more than a pick up band. By ‘New Deal’, the band’s sixth album, they were one of the most exciting country-rock bands around. They were probably also a major contributory factor in the overwhelming success of Bloodshot Records, the Chicago-based label that promoted the ‘insurgent country’ sound that the Waco’s typified. ‘Blink of an Eye’ propels along like Haggard on speed, ‘Johnson to Jones’ is classic tongue-in-cheek honky tonk and ‘Poison’ has Steve’s sister Stacey Earle on backing vocals.
Number 7: Roger Knox & The Pine Valley Cosmonauts: ‘Stranger in my Land’ (2013)
In 2000 Clinton Walker published a book – and made a documentary – about Aboriginal Country Music. Langford stumbled across Buried Country and sought out Roger Knox, the Black Elvis, when he was in Australia at the Tamworth Music Festival. It took a while to get Knox over to the US to record with Langford and his band, but the final result collects together the songs of many of the Koori Country artists. The album catalogues the experience of being an indigenous Australian, like Archie Roach’s ‘Took The Children Away’ which tells the story of one of the most ill-conceived policies ever designed to ‘civilise’ indigenous people. The album is superb musically and not a political statement. Knox has an excellent, smooth voice like a gentle caress.
Number 6: Mekons: ‘OOOH!’ (2002)
The Mekons have steadily produced music which holds true to their punk roots, but has taken interesting and original directions from ‘Existentialism’ which addressed the question ‘why should it take longer to record an album than it takes to listen to it?’ or ‘Ancient and Modern 1911-2011’ which uses music to draw parallels between the two time periods. All Mekons albums are interesting, although it may be true to say that some could be more interesting in the concept than in the listening. As the majority of the band are artists the albums are often linked to a wider art project as in ‘OOH!’ which is an acronym of ‘Out Of Our Heads’. But there are some superb songs on here from the opening salvo of ‘Thee Olde Trip to Jerusalem’ named after a pub in Nottingham, but addressing the link between Christianity and British socialism, through ‘Hate is the New Love’ where Sally Timms sings ‘Everyday is a battle, How we still love the war’ to the country ballad ‘Only You and Your Ghost Will Know’.
Number 5: The Pine Valley Cosmonauts ‘Salute the Majesty of Bob Wills – The King of Western Swing’ (1998)
This is not really a tribute album, it was more about bringing fantastic music from a major figure of country music whose star might have faded to a wider audience. If Hank, Johnny and Willie can be contemporary figures then why not Bob Wills and his Playboys? All the tracks are outstanding and Langford indulges in hollers and cries evoking the ghost of Wills. Bob Boyd, from Chicago country stalwarts The Sundowners, provides a couple of tracks, one with Neko Case, and The Handsome Family’s Brett Sparks adds his deep Cashesque baritone to ‘Roly Poly’. But the stand out contributions are Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s ‘Trouble In Mind’ and Jane Baxter-Miller’s ‘Time Changes Everything’. Final track, ‘Faded Love’, never fails to draw a tear!
Number 4: Waco Brothers ‘Cowboy in Flames’ (1998)
I’ve written about ‘Cowboy in Flames’ on this site previously. It is an excellent country-rock album that perfectly encapsulates what the Waco Brothers were all about and why they became so much more than a bar band. They take the roots of country music and treat them with respect rather than reverence. This is a challenge to the Nashville establishments’ dismissal of what the band regarded as the essence of country music: the working-class experience of work, love and death. Langford took the final track, ‘The Death of Country Music’ and created an exhibition of gravestones which he took to Nashville and displayed in a gallery just off music row. But rather than the execs seeing them as the intended subversive challenge to the music business Langford describes how: “I was calling them murderers and they just whipped out their checkbooks.” The rest of the album is glorious country-punk, including the beautiful ‘Dollar Dress’, a song which seems simple but has so many layers to unravel.
Number 3: Jon Langford’s Four Lost Souls ‘Four Lost Souls’ (2017)
Forty years after first forming the Mekons Langford continues to release new music and explore new directions. But it all seems to happen so organically. ‘Four Lost Souls’ was recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama and blurs the boundaries between country, rock and roll and soul to create songs that address where we are now. Recorded immediately following Trump’s bizarre presidential victory in 2016 Langford addresses his response in ‘Fish Out of Water’. The two other vocalists, Tawny Newsome and Bethany Thomas, take this music in directions that feed from those Southern roots taking in Faulkner and the Delta along the way.
Number 2: Mekons ‘Rock N’ Roll (1989)
The Mekons took the major label dollars – although not that many of them – and promptly turned around and bit the hand that proffered them. It was a superb move if you cared about art, politics and the punk rock ethic. A pretty poor one in terms of a rock band ‘career’, but that was never the point. The album opens with the magnificent ‘Memphis, Egypt’ with Langford and fellow Mekon Tom Greenhalgh thrashing their guitars like rock gods; the accompanying video shows them pastiching the whole rock god mythology with Langford in a Sun records t-shirt licking his lips in mock lasciviousness whilst the lyrics link rock and roll with big business as ‘Capitalismos’ Favourite boy child’. This is possibly the same knowing wink at rock-god status, and ironic self-mocking, that encouraged Langford to become number 39 in Cynthia Plaster Caster’s plaster phalluses. Later ‘Empire of the Senseless’ mocks some of the more bizarre excesses of Thatcher’s Conservatives and Reagans Republicans from Thatcher’s statement that ‘there is no such thing as community, only individuals’ and the Section 28 ban on the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ with Greenhalgh singing ‘this song promotes homosexuality, It is in a pretended family relationship with the others on this record’. ‘Amnesia’ traces the link between rock and roll and imperialism from its origins in the slave trade to its contribution to the soldiers’ experience of the Vietnam war: ‘Floodlit jungle, Gringo military, Any old army high on drugs, Fight that rock n’ roll war, Truth, justice and Led Zeppelin, Heavy metal marine corps’.
Number 1: Jon Langford ‘Skull Orchard’ (1997 – ‘Revisited’ 2010)
Langford’s outstanding first solo album was about his hometown of Newport in Gwent. When I was at Cardiff University the only thing I really knew about Newport was its transporter bridge, although I did see a couple of gigs in Newport including The Oysterband who were supported by some long-forgotten band who had The Jam’s Bruce Foxton on bass. ‘Skull Orchard’s exploration of Langford’s Wales opens with ‘Tubby Brothers’ which references the Aberfan disaster; then ‘Pill Sailor’ celebrates the Pillgwenlly area of Newport around the docks where sailors got drunk and bands played; and ends with ‘Tom Jones Levitation’ in which Tom Jones flies home to Wales to be president of a Welsh Republic. Langford returned to the album a decade later adding the Burlington Welsh Male Voice Choir to a number of the songs and some additional, new songs: ‘Verdun’ about the first world war and ‘The Ballad of Solomon Jones’ that references Newport’s part in the Chartist movement of the nineteenth century. The album showcases what Langford is best at: politics intimately stitched into the fabrics of the songs, nostalgia that avoids any vestige of sentimentality and wry, self-deprecating humour.