Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Nero/Pseudo: Meet Composer Jon Langford

(Here at Balkans via Bohemia, I have been introducing readers to key members of the Nero/Pseudo creative team. Today you'll meet the legendary Jon Langford -- who along with Jim Elkington -- wrote the fabulously glamtastic music for Nero/Pseudo .)

In the mid-1980s, I discovered the work of the Mekons -- and the band's key ringleader Jon Langford. They'd already morphed from the DIY punk band that so entranced Lester Bangs into pioneers of alt-country via the 1984/85 miner's strike. (I think the first Mekons' record I bought was The Mekons Honky Tonkin' in 1987 and I worked my way backwards.)

And, of course, I followed the Mekons forward. I was in the generation of rock critics who championed the Mekons because no one was making music as smart, passionate and complex -- and yet it was also music rooted in the blood, sweat, jizz and tears that irrigate all great rock'n'roll. It was the era of Option magazine's "Mekons Watch" -- which treated the band with the same slavish overattention that Creem had treated the likes of Bebe Buell and The Ramones and Debbie Harry and other NYC stalwarts of the 70s. The Mekons were our heroes. (And still are, actually. Their last record, Ancient and Modern, ranks among their best.) They are the band that can get even the most jaded rock critic pogo-ing and singing along -- or weighing in tweedily.

I actually got to know Jon Langford when I came back from my year in Prague in 1991-1992 and eventually moved back to St. Louis. I was the arts editor of the Riverfront Times and in that role I was able to get our newspaper to run a music strip that he created with Colin B. Morton called "Great Pop Things." I went up to Chicago to meet him. (A bottle of Talisker was suggested by a mutual friend to break the ice. Or, wait. No ice. It's single malt. Just water please.) Since then we've been running into each other in various places through the years, and I've been supportive and written about a number of Langford's projects -- including the Waco Brothers and Skull Orchard.

When I had the idea to incorporate glam rock songs into Nero/Pseudo (it had started as a drama), I knew that Jon and his abiding love for glam rock made him the first and only choice. So I flew out to chilly Chicago in January 2011 to ask him if he'd do it. He eventually said yes and brought the amazing Jim Elkington along for our ride. And you can see the results of our work over the next month in Washington, DC.

I still have to pinch myself that I am collaborating with one of my personal heroes. Because aside from being talented, Jon is one of the kindest and funniest people who has ever donned a guitar. (His commencement speech at UIC last year is a stone classic.) And he just keeps going from strength to strength, as his new Skull Orchard record Here Be Monsters amply demonstrates. I'm so proud to work with him and so proud of what our mighty Langford/Elkington/Byrne triumvirate of words and music has accomplished thus far.

I asked Jon a few questions about glam rock and his personal relationship with the genre:

1) What's your earliest glam memory? When did glam first come to your attention?

T.Rex on the Top 40 countdown in my Mum's kitchen December 1971... something about "Jeepster" stirred me in a way no music had stirred me before... then Slade, then Bowie's "Starman," then Roxy Music... Glam took pop music back from the hippies and gave it to the wannabe football hooligans

2) What elements of glam rock did you find particularly appealing and/or useful when writing the music for the play?

We tried to capture the atmosphere of all the best stuff... Glitterband, Ziggy Stardust, Alvin Stardust, anything shiny really. There's an anthemic element that I really like.

3) Glam rock was predominantly British phenomenon. (To the extent that The Sweet were bigger in the US than even T. Rex.) And it didn't last all that long. Why has it remained such a memorable UK cultural export despite its brevity?

Music plunged into a sad trench of seriousness and virtuosity after glam... Punk reclaimed the goofy panto spirit and added swearing and spitting. No punk without glam and punk didn't last long either. The Roman Empire would have been better briefer methinks....

Nero/Pseudo previews open at The Shop at Fort Fringe on Friday May 2. Find out more about the play at WSC Avant Bard. Tickets are now on sale.

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