Joe Meek: The Man with Elephant Ears
By Ed Pinsent
I didn’t even own a copy of ‘Telstar’ for years, so may the Joe Meek specialists forgive my presumption in these observations on the man and his music. I can’t claim to be steeped in knowledge of the milieu in which Meek worked – the BBC Arena documentary was a real eye-opener to me. Some years later, a little collection has accumulated. I Hear a New World, was an LP credited to Joe Meek and the Blue Men, reissued on RPM records RPM 103 in 1991. It’s a legendary ‘lost album’, recorded in 1960 early in Meek’s career, never officially released apart from a ‘sampler’ EP, but a limited pressing of the LP was made for promotional purposes. Meek was realising a particular, personal outer-space vision and the imperatives of his artistic drive pushed him into astonishing experiments with sound. He also thought the record might aid his career, though due to its unusual qualities he sometimes resorted to presenting it as a stereo demonstration disc. Since then it’s become a mega-rare collector’s item, the few white label originals fetching ridiculous sums, while fragments of the opus turned up on bootlegs; this CD is the first chance for us regular non-collector joes to hear New World. And it’s a classic in anyone’s book. A feast of cosmic outer-space sounds, studio-compressed into an Oxo-cube of sonic wonderment, and enhanced with dazzling stereo effects. This, in the service of the most basic melodies and two-chord tunes you could wish for, crudely played on treated piano and slide guitar, with occasional vox. Some tunes are near-conventional surf guitar instrumentals (and were reissued on The Outlaws’ Dream of the West LP in 1961); in other places, the music prefigures the early Residents. The Blue Men don’t sound like exceptional musicians – the genius lies in the treatment and electronic processing of sounds, to create a palpable atmosphere.
Credit to Rod Freeman for devising the arrangements to help realise Meek’s concepts, but the work bears the hallmark of the artist’s vision all the way through. And a fascinating vision it is too. A naive take on outer space totally untainted by scientific comprehension, like Bleep and Booster on amphetamines, pulp sci-fi paperback covers come to life in sound, the Forbidden Planet soundtrack rethought as Beat music. In life, Meek’s imagination was somewhat hampered by his own verbal and emotional inarticulateness; on this record, making tone-paintings in sounds (and within the confines of a pop music format, remember) he found freedom of expression. That said, New World is slightly marred by the dumb narrative elements suggested by the silly titles such as ‘Entry of the Globbots’; Meek’s own sleeve note commentary (albeit tongue-in-cheek); and the naff speeded-up voices on a couple of tracks, which never fail to prompt derisory cries of ‘Pinky and Perky!’ from some of my older colleagues. But we must forgive the artist’s idiosyncrasies, as we do Brian Wilson’s pathetic attempts at humour (‘George Fell into His French Horn’) which don’t detract from the towering greatness of Smile. Bravo on the remastering of New World (presumably from a disc, nicely de-crackled) and the scholarly sleeve notes by R W Dopson and A D Blackburn. The cover is a slight drawback – it almost matches the original but has been re-mixed and some new graphics added; the original (repro’d on the back, postage stamp size) looks splendid to my mind. Snap this up and have yourself a cosmic party, play it in the dark on a hot August night while you scan the skies for meteorites and flying saucers.
A surprisingly good budget-priced collection is Telstar: The Original Sixties Hits of the Tornados, Music Collection International MCCD 161. I found one in a Virgin bargain bin for Â£2.99. You’re hard pressed to find a better collection. All the great toons are here including ‘Telstar’, ‘Robot’, and ‘Globetrotter’. ‘Jungle Rhythm’ builds up as beautifully as any piece of King Tubby dub – real deep and slow. Throughout, the hummable melodies are picked out by the bright sound of the Clavioline that is one of Meek’s hallmarks of invention. Somehow that unique sound carries me back to some primal memory, though as kids we never had these records in our house. Maybe it’s just the early production sound that enables this time-travel for a fraction of a second. Only with the rescreening of ‘Deputy Dawg’ for example, did I realise how the buzzing of a bass harmonica had sawed its way into my childhood – no wonder I crumple up when I hear that instrument on Sgt Pepper and Pet Sounds. The double CD set The Joe Meek Story – the Pye Years, Sequel Records NED CD 171, 1991 is also a reasonably priced item (Â£12) but a pretty patchy collection. The quality of musicianship and distinctiveness of talent on display is variable – Meek worked largely with rather indifferent performers. The Honeycombs and the Flee-Rekkers are dependable though. Once again, most of your listening pleasure derives from the unique sound, and this collection isn’t crucial but gives you some idea of Meek’s versatility for the years1960-1967. The sleeve notes are by Dopson and Blackburn again, and full discographical details are packed with enough detail to satisfy voracious archivists.
The Legendary Joe Meek by John Repsch (Woodford House 1989, 341pp + ix, plates, Â£6.95) is the authoritative text and a detailed survey of Meek’s entire professional career, pieced together from eyewitness accounts reproduced verbatim, press reports, corresp- ondence, and other uncited sources, tempered with an obvious affection for Meek’s music and eccentric working methods. No punches are pulled when it comes to juicy stories about the man’s emotional outbursts, although effectively it’s the same story every time – he lost his temper at the slightest provocation, acted very paranoid and threw expensive equipment about. We can sympathise, but not really understand – the stories are second-hand, and offer no clues to the artist’s tortured psyche. There are some examinations of Meek’s recording methods, where Repsch veers between laborious speculation as to how Meek achieved a certain effect (he’s a bit hazy on details of the recording process), and immediate capitulation, veiling it under meaningless phrases. Unable to ascertain how Meek created the effective sound-montage that opens ‘Telstar’, Repsch dubs it an ‘electronic hotch-potch’ (p 154). Then there’s a snapshot of the UK music business scene for this period (1956 -1967), which judging from the companies’ standpoint amounted to little more than a frantic and cynical race to steal the latest song or the latest sound from the American charts, quickly record a shoddy imitation version with miserable home-grown talent, and issue it with alarming speed to the hungry public. Sometimes 12 hours would make all the difference in this sordid struggle for record sales. Why did the record buying teenagers put up with it?
Meek has been a neglected figure, but in restoring him to the Pantheon of pop music Gods, Repsch can be a little one-sided. The Beatles are only evaluated here in terms of their teeny-bopper following or within the context of the highly-incestuous Merseybeat scene, making them appear frivolous or derivative respectively. Phil Spector, whose similarities to Meek are obvious, is introduced late and dealt with quite summarily. In each case the author seems to be taking his cue from Meek’s own paranoid misapprehensions and jealousies – real sympathetic writing! The information is fascinating, but what a tiresome read. Repsch can’t help expressing himself in the most banal of clichÃ©s and well-worn phrases – there’s about 2 dozen on every page. His leaden jokes and overuse of vernacular stick in my craw as much as his laborious, tortured syntax. He has a presumptuous habit of conjecturing the thoughts and motives of his subjects, none of which are substantiated by sources or supporting accounts. No room for all the stuff about Heinz, the psychic link to Buddy Holly, the arrest for soliciting and the mysterious death, but you know it all anyway. This ain’t no gossip column!