Honky Tonk Protest 
By Greg Bottoms

From Gadfly Sept./Oct. 1999


Jon Langford, frontman for the Mekons and the Waco Brothers and perhaps the real king of the punk ethos, is becoming a critically lauded visual artist with his grim, folksy, overtly political paintings of country music greats. He is a prickly, talkative, cynical and remarkably astute guy. He speaks with a Welsh brogue. He has an odd tendency to smile and laugh while he’s telling you about, say, American corporate fascism, or that Gestapo maiden Margaret Thatcher, or that big-eared wuss Tony Blair waiting for bombing instructions from that Fortune 500 ass-kissing, McDonald’s-eating, womanizing, hypocritical, lying Republican Bill Clinton. Or he might laugh in that same sad, head-shaking way—not a guffaw, not the laugh of someone uncomfortable with himself but simply friendly, open—and describe the kids in his native Newport, Wales, the ones balancing on half-torched tires and assorted rubbish outside of tenement buildings, kids who don’t have fathers and whose mothers are on the dole, kids who are hungry and dirty and a little understandably quick to jump to violence.

As Langford talks to you, spewing what seem angry words in the most friendly of voices, you can imagine these kids passing hot Walkmans and walking around with—and here’s where Langford’s voice will raise an octave—corporate logos all over their bodies, slaves to the corporate superstructure, man, that is squeezing them right out of any chance at a life. These kids—by now, you’ve forgotten how you got on this subject—are making the “fat, American bastards” even richer by not only wearing their products but advertising them.

“It’s pathetic,” he says. “It’s corrosive. It’s fucking sad.” Only when he says “fucking sad” it sounds like “fookin sod” and has the easy lilt of an alternate form of greeting.

He is, in other words, immensely fun to talk to. Actually, scratch that. He is immensely fun to listen to, because you don’t so much talk to Langford as sit back and feel the fiery, albeit gregarious, breath of punk’s rage blow about your head.

And that’s the key to Langford—his punk heritage, his rage beneath that personable exterior, his punk philosophy of negation in the face of hypocrisy and institutional lies. This philosophy is at the heart of his touring exhibition, The Death of Country Music, featuring paintings of Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Bob Wills and other country greats. His work is somewhere between cartoonish and realistic, all done in bright colors and decorated with caustic, ironic messages and Langford’s trademark skulls. “I scratch [the paintings] and kick them around the floor and rub filth into them,” he has said. “They’re never finished until I’ve done that.”

In September, The Death of Country Music will be in Philadelphia. When the exhibition went to Nashville last spring, a place Langford views as a super-concentrated example of all that is cheesy and wrong with the world, he carved several ornate tombstones with skulls, snakes and likenesses of Hank Williams to go with the paintings. In a recent Mojo interview, he said, “I was hoping we could dump [the tombstones] on MCA and all the other buggers’ front lawns in the middle of the night and run a bogus coach tour the next morning with unsuspecting tourists I was going to kidnap in the Quality Inn Hall of Fame car-park.”

Right-wing politics, corporate power and lost children aside, it is the country music business that truly gets Langford’s hackles up. In fact, before you know it, and spawned by nothing that you’ve actually said, he could be recounting some anecdote to demonstrate his point about the inherent crookedness of contemporary country.

“Well, like Merle Haggard,” he begins, and you’re thinking, uh, okay, like Merle Haggard. “Merle comes down to Chicago [where Langford now lives] to play the House of Blues, and it’s hosted by US 99, this crap”—which sounds, of course, like “crop” with a trilled r—“country station playing like Shania Twain and Garth Brooks. We [he and some of the members of his band, the Waco Brothers] go down there and totally disrupt the pre-gig stuff with the US 99 DJ. We don’t let him speak! We stand in the audience and scream, “You don’t play Merle Haggard!” The guy actually left the stage without ever finishing his announcements. It was pretty funny. Thing is”—his tone changes from excited to philosophical—“I don’t really care about the music that comes out. I don’t care if they play crap. I don’t care if people make crap records. Free country, you know. It’s just that they’re calling it country music and acting as if it comes out of a tradition, when all it is is a manufactured, carefully marketed sound. Nashville has hijacked the tradition of people like Haggard and George Jones and Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers. They act as if they honor these people, as if they are somehow related to them, without ever playing them or listening to them.”

This sort of hypocrisy, Langford believes, obviously calls for political action. He’s pretty much convinced that Americans are now sleepwalking through life, their “bellies full of cheeseburgers,” their heads full of advertisements and vapid, mind-numbing entertainment, their bank accounts fat, their government in the pocket of all kinds of disreputable stuff most of us would rather not know about. You start to think that he’s getting off the subject of country music now. But he’s not. Just listen. It’s all related.

The origin of Langford’s iconic country paintings, and the origin of all of his political action, for that matter—and everything he has ever done in art has been a political action—goes back to art school in Leeds, England, where he cofounded punk’s legendary Mekons. It was here that Langford met fellow Mekons Tom Greenhalgh and Kevin Lycett and studied under Tim Clark, a radical art history theoretician and the only English member of Situationist International in Paris in 1968.

Oddly, Langford went to art school and then quit making visual art. It was almost fifteen years before the paintings in The Death of Country Music were started. “I thought I wanted to be an artist until I went to art school and saw what it was all about,” he says. “It killed me on art.”

But Langford loved art school. It changed his life; it set him on a course. At first, he seems to be heading for the cliché of the fine arts program that wrings the creativity out of its students with massive doses of critical theory until any essence of pure inspiration has been utterly constipated by Lacan or Jameson or Derrida, every brushstroke, every sentence, drowning in an obstinate, opaque idea.

“Not at all,” Langford says. “The theory wasn’t shoved down your throat. It actually blew me away. It opened things up. I quit art for a long bit, yeah, but that wasn’t such a bad thing,” he laughs. “I mean, before Tim Clark arrived, the program was this wishy-washy kind of feel-good liberal university art department like any other. You did your painting and went on. Tim made it this really rigorous and theoretical course. You had to be able to talk about art and expression in deep, meaningful ways.” Here, at twenty years old, Langford became entranced by the radical and subversive possibilities of art.

“Then,” he says, “the Sex Pistols came around and everybody’s trousers got narrower and their hair got shorter.” In the midst of his theoretical courses in 1976 and 1977, just as he was becoming interested in neo-Marxist ideology and in casting a truly critical eye over the world, Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious came along, acting out the most radical ideas he’d ever heard, and these ideas, though blunter and angrier, were directly related to the ideas of Tim Clark and Situationist International.

Both Situationist International and the Sex Pistols not only pointed out minor hypocrisies and falsehoods, as artistic expression has always done, but also posited that the very social fabric of the Western World, everything we believed and held dear, was a complete farce. God was a joke perpetrated by fools. Our idols were marketing ploys. The queen was a heartless fascist starving the poor. When Johnny Rotten was asked about the death of Elvis Presley at about this time, he said, “Too bad it took so long.” And here, in this statement, in this attitude, was the key to a whole movement. Tear it down, punk seemed to say, tear everything down because it’s all a lie, a sham to make the fat a little fatter. And it scared politicians and police and parents witless, adding the option of flat negation and destruction and anarchy into an already complicated cultural debate.

“Leeds in 1977 was a really weird mix of drunkenness, radical politics, and street fights, you know, and also the almost limitless possibilities of punk,” says Langford. “It destroyed all the old barriers. I mean, anyone could be in a band. A band was whatever you said it was. But the Mekons took these ideas a lot more seriously than most other bands, probably because of our courses and Tim Clark. The Mekons and Gang of Four [another Leeds punk band of the time] became much more arch and critical, more political, than any other bands, I think. We were applying a lot of the stuff we were talking about in classes—class struggle, real equality—to our music.”

The simple fact that a bunch of people who couldn’t even play instruments became one of the seminal bands of punk rock was radical, did break down some of the old hierarchies. But punk, to Langford, wasn’t just a musical form; it was a philosophy that took radical speech and politics and stripped them of cant and polish down to pure actions and noise. This could have been a Situationist International slogan painted by Guy Debord himself on a tattered brick wall in de Gaulle’s France, circa 1968: PURE ACTIONS AND NOISE.

Langford may be the first punk rock painter of consequence. “Truth is,” he says, and oh how perfect is this? “I don’t really give a shit about art. I wanted to make art about music, not about art. Most art is simply about art, about being art. It makes for a very closed universe. I don’t want that. I mean, what good is that?”

Langford came to painting again after years of touring and recording with the Mekons, spending a good portion of the 1980s drinking, his “favorite pastime back then.” He painted little things to give to friends as gifts. He has always done album sleeves for his many musical projects—the Pine Valley Cosmonauts and Jon Langford’s Skull Orchard, along with the Waco Brothers and the Mekons (there is also a collection of Mekons art).

In the early 1990s, Langford moved from Leeds to Chicago, where his wife was attending architecture school. There he met Tim Fitzpatrick, who has done album covers for Steve Earle and Lou Reed, and who has his own gallery. “Tim said, ‘You do a show in my gallery and I’ll show you how to etch,’ which I wanted to learn,” Langford says. “Tim is really cool, you know, and we hit it off, and he basically bullied me into doing this. And then I had my first show at World Tattoo on the south side of Chicago in 1993. It was a shock to me that people were interested. I had to really think about what I wanted to do as the basis of my work. And I was really into all those great American songwriters, you know, those early guys who are now overlooked.”

He didn’t always love country music, which is not surprising for someone who rose from the ashes of punk. “I thought it was sentimental crap when I was young,” he says. “I thought it was like teary rubbish for old people. But now I’m sentimental and old. When I started listening to Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Ernest Tubb and Buck Owens—that stuff was amazing. It really made sense to me. It was no-bullshit music. And there is absolutely a connection between this music and punk. The good stuff, like good punk, is stripped and raw and really trying to deal with life directly and feels very sad. It’s not contrived. It’s about defeat and pain in a really true-feeling way. It’s not escapist pop music. Also, the stance of the performer in great old country is like that in punk—he’s singing to his peers about their lives. There is no gap between the audience and the guy on stage. Everybody is coming from the same place.”

Langford is working a lot these days, on both his music and his painting, and he’s doing both for the same reasons he’s always done everything—as a form of protest.

“I think in this country, at the height of this economic boom or whatever,” he says, “there is total apathy. Intelligent people see no need to go against how insipid everything is getting, how the Holocaust has become a bad movie, how huge chunks of history are now aphoristic paragraphs in some ridiculous, bestselling book by an anchorman. It’s like, all of a sudden, there is no such thing as history! Country music is just a small part of this. Going back to tradition—I mean celebrating and revering it in a substantive way—is almost subversive now.”