The Mekons, formed in Leeds in ’77 and now scattered across the US and UK, are notoriously hit-or-miss and generally spectacular either way: their reverent irreverence has been annoying fans and alienating casual listeners since before some of the people who love them now were born. Part of the problem–if it is a problem–is that the rock band, with its arm-length discography, major-label trials and tribulations, and mythic liquor tolerance, is only part of the story; collaboratively created art and literature and anticapitalist politics weigh just as heavily. It takes more than 72 minutes to get a foothold in their world, and that’s a hard sell on the side of the information superhighway.

Five years ago they marked their 20th year with a weekend-long stand at the MCA, presenting the challenging, gritty, and hilarious rock opera Pussy, King of the Pirates, the culmination of a collaboration with the great postmodern novelist Kathy Acker (who passed away not long after). It must have been rather hard to follow if you hadn’t read Acker’s book or heard the album or spent at least a little time in the Mekons’ cluttered hall of allusions. But if you had, it certainly was well worth the effort. On the other hand, 1998’s Me, a loose concept album about selfishness and self-indulgence, carried its theme a bit too far. The band’s last couple recordings, although typically steeped in literature and politics, are relatively accessible. The newest, OOOH! (Out of Our Heads) (Quarterstick), explores death and barbaric justice in gorgeously rough choral Americana. A foaming end-time rant whose promise of redemption is as untrustworthy as it is longed for, it’s not as cohesive as 2000’s more narrative Journey to the End of the Night, but makes up for it with hair-raising passion.

All that and 25 years won’t get you so much as an engraved watch in the music biz, so in celebration of their silver jubilee, the Mekons have gathered on this continent to throw a monthlong party in their own honor, a touring celebration that stops for several days this week in Chicago, adopted hometown of members Jon Langford and Sally Timms. Three concerts parse the music into chronological chunks: on Thursday, September 12, at the Fireside Bowl, the band will play material written between 1977 and 1984; the show Friday, September 13, at the Abbey Pub will cover 1985 through 1991; and on Saturday, September 14, at FitzGerald’s in Berwyn the band will work from 1992 up to the present. On the 13th just after noon, they’ll also play an acoustic show at the Chicago Cultural Center’s Randolph Cafe. And on the 14th, at 4 PM, an exhibition of collectively credited visual art by the Mekons opens at the Thomas Masters Gallery (formerly Eastwick Art Gallery), 245 W. North; call 312-440-2322 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Frank Swider.