Certain Songs #1123: The Mekons – “Memphis, Egypt”

Album: The Mekons Rock ‘n’ Roll
Year: 1989

“ROCK ‘N’ ROLL!!!!”

Those are the first words you hear on 1989’s perfectly-named The Mekons Rock ‘n’ Roll, and like the rest of the song, they’re the Schrödinger’s cat of ironic declamation: both ironic and not ironic at exactly the same time.

Before that exclamation, “Memphis, Egypt” is all promise — some unfocused feedback, a pick sliding up a guitar neck, a kick drum beating — but afterwards it utterly explodes into pure, unadulterated rock ‘n’ roll just in time for Jon Langford & Sally Timms to blow it all down:

Destroy your safe and happy lives before it is too late
The battles we fought were long and hard
Just not to be consumed by rock n’ roll
Rock ‘n’ roll!!!

“Destroy” was what Johnny Rotten had capped “Anarchy in the U.K” with a little over a decade prior, and part of the ethos of the Sex Pistols was that they were going to burn rock ‘n’ roll down — even while Steve Jones recontextualized Chuck Berry riffs — and replace it with this new thing called punk.

However, rock ‘n’ roll survived that particular onslaught just fine — and in fact, grew more powerful because of it — and by the late 1980s, of course, it was still a huge enough monolith for a band — especially a band coming from the punk era, like The Mekons — to spend a song or even an entire album railing against it.

But the genius of “Memphis, Egypt,” was the same genius of “Anarchy in the U.K.:” it used all of the pleasures of rock ‘n’ roll — those loud guitars, pounding drumbeats, shout-along choruses — in order to make that railing against rock ‘n’ roll as rockin’ and therefore as entertaining as they possibly could.

And by the late 1980s, potentially heard all over the world:

East Berlin can’t buy a thing
There’s nothing they can sell me
Walk through the wall no pain at all
I’m born inside the belly of rock n’ roll
Rock ‘n’ roll!

Unlike Johnny Rotten, who just a decade previously was desperately digging, clawing and tunneling at the Berlin Wall, Jon Langford knew that he could just get in with the Western popular culture that was leaking into the East every which way by that time, as new technologies routed themselves past older censorship structures. And in fact the Berlin Wall came down just a couple of months after this record came out, though it was unlikely that The Mekons had anything to do with that.

However, while The Mekons might not specifically been responsible, it’s been my long-held belief that rock ‘n’ roll as a worldwide cultural force sure as shit helped a generation of Eastern Europeans realize that they wanted to throw off the yolk of Communism.

ROCK ‘N’ ROLL!

“Memphis, Egypt”

“Memphis, Egypt” performed live in 2011

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