I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England's green & pleasant Land.
—William Blake, 1804
One of the high points of 2002 for me came near the end of the year, when I heard the album OOOH! (Out Of Our Heads) by The Mekons, a band of British art-school socialists born in the great punk revolution of 1977 that has, against all odds, persisted.
During their 25 years together, The Mekons have expanded from four guys playing guitars and drums in Leeds to a far-flung tribe of eight musicians. Their sound has expanded from the punk-rock base to include Celtic and country-and-western strains and contemporary dance music. In the mid-'80s they added a full-time fiddler and accordionist. In the mid-'90s they recorded an album of electronica.
I've always loved The Mekons' music. But I've also been attached to them as comrades, and my appreciation has deepened as they've stayed engaged in struggle— artistically and politically—over the course of a lifetime. They are My Generation. We all came into adolescence in the late '60s and found our adult feet in the backwash of the late 1970s. I haven't gotten everything they recorded, but I've always felt the need to check in on them periodically to see how they've fared, and how they're making sense of life's middle passage.
So it was especially thrilling to crank up OOOH! and hear The Mekons swing into the hymn of praise to English religious socialism that is quoted above. "Oh, I love the Union and Glory Hallelujah!" The Mekons sing on their title track. "Thee Olde Trip to Jerusalem/All that march through history must still mean something to you/Thee Olde Trip to Jerusalem." With a funky dance beat, scratching rhythm guitar, and layers of vocal call and response, the track goes on to summon a chain of holy warriors that runs from the Levelers, Ranters, Quakers, and Diggers of the 1600s to William Blake and William Morris and on down to Tony Benn.
Yes, that Tony Benn—the old guy who went to Iraq and interviewed Saddam Hussein. In The Mekons' younger days, he was the Great Red Hope of the British Labour Party's left wing. In his Arguments for Socialism, Benn started with the assertion that the first source of British socialism is the Bible—the Mosaic Law, the eighth-century B.C.E. prophets, the teachings of Christ, and the practice of the New Testament church. Benn goes on to say that the founders of the socialist tradition in England were the radical Christian dissenters of the English Revolution (the Levelers and Diggers) who resisted the privatization of communally owned village land. The Mekons' guitarist and singer Jon Langford says that like every good 21st-century leftist, he's been hunting for a new political language in the post-Cold War world. In that search, he stumbled over the English religious socialists.
LESS PUBLIC RELIGIOUS questions also loom on OOOH!—questions of mortality, for instance. How do you keep up "that march through history" when you're pushing 50 and you know you'll die somewhere short of Blake's Jerusalem? The Mekons' answers to such questions are not easy. On "This Way Through the Fire," physical death is accompanied by images of rest and reconciliation: "When every question has an answer, and all the lost souls come rolling home." On the next track, "Hate is the New Love," the best they can manage is stoicism: "...there's no peace on this terrible shore. Everyday is a battle, how we still love the war."
Later in the album, "Only You and Your Ghost Will Know" gives a stark, compelling version of the atheist-materialist answer to The Big Question: "First the chill and then the stupor, then the letting go. If you found one thing out on that road, only you and your ghost will know." But that is followed immediately by an old folk song, "The Lone Pilgrim," which gives the Christian version: "The same hand that led me through scenes most severe has kindly assisted me home."
Upon hearing all this death and dying, some reviewers have interpreted OOOH! as The Mekons' post-9/11 album. But the band says all the songs were written by the spring of 2001. It didn't take a public calamity to give The Mekons intimations of mortality. We in the class of '77 have reached the autumn of our years, and even if we don't fear the Reaper, we know he's out there waiting for us. The Mekons have decided to take him on, face to face.
Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.