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Musical Genius & Its Discontents (ii): British-style

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Wednesday, Jul 29, 2009
Part 2 of our video venture through lost musical geniuses discovers an unhappier tradition in The UK, where comebacks are not de rigeur! Exemplars include Joe Meek, Brian Jones, Syd Barrett, and Ian Curtis.

Like the US, the UK has its own such lists of musical geniuses, though their fates are far less hopeful in general. This affect is caused perhaps by the UK’s post-war culture seemingly backward turning from Macmillan’s “white heat of technology” towards Thomas’s “damp smoky coal fire”. This confusedly anti-progressive nature is wonderfully elucidated in Pete Shelley’s “Nostalgia”:

I always used to dream of the past
But like they say yesterday never comes
Sometimes there’s a song in my brain
And I feel that my heart knows the refrain
I guess its just the music that brings on nostalgia for an age yet to come

First up in our run through the early musical geniuses of UK popdom is uniquely someone who is not a star performer but rather a producer first and foremost. What Preston Sturges was to ‘30s Hollywood, Joe Meek was to the late ‘50s/early ‘60s UK music scene: a prolific, wildly successful sui generis auteur, who burned bright but flamed out soon thereafter. Meek’s brightest flame was his first, the hit single of 1962: The Tornados, “Telstar”:

He went on to further genre fame in collaboration with skiffle artist Lonnie Donegan on “Cumberland Gap”:

Rapidly Meek lost his fortune, became depressed, and ultimately in 1967 shotgunned himself to death. His story is now becoming fodder for plays, films, and a variety of documentaries, like Berger and Stahman’s American-indie A Life in the Death of Joe Meek:

The most famous of all British musical lost cases is the original Rolling Stone, Brian Jones. He of the impossibly fine golden locks and his wide-ranging musical skills from slide guitar to sitar, organ to dulcimer, and autoharp to marimbas as we shall soon see. Here’s an early 1964 performance of “You Better Move On” from British TV with a brief interview featuring Jones:

Brian Jones in his absolute pomp playing the marimbas on the famous opening of “Under My Thumb” from Ready Steady Go! (1966):

After a period of estrangement from his bandmates, Jones died under mysterious circumstances on the 3rd of July, 1969, having been found unconscious at the bottom of his swimming pool at A.A. Milne’s Cotchford Farm. Here two days later the Stones throw a famously free Hyde Park Tribute for Brian featuring Marianne Faithfull singing his “As Tears Go By”:

And then there’s the one great disappearing act which involves madness and a more or less natural death at age 60 in 2006 and almost no mystery about any of it: Pink Floyd founding member Syd Barrett. Syd’s downfall was brought on by sever mental ilnness probably enhanced by overwhelming drug usage. As early as this 1966 London performance of “Interstellar Overdrive”, Syd’s path is clear.

Post-Floyd, Syd managed two solo records. The last track he recorded August 5, 1969 for his first solo album The Madcap Laughds was “Dark Globe” or for “Wouldn’t You Miss Me.” Here’s a rare video of same shot in York, England:

We close with an eerie outtake from some of the last solo sessions Syd recorded in July 14, 1970. The track “hasn’t got a title really,” but we’ll call it “Let’s Split” as the CD release of Opal does:

During his 30-plus-year exile, he became a keen gardener and avid artist while living in his parent’s home in Cambridge. He died of pancreatic cancer in 2006

Our final musical genius and alas suicide on the verge of a huge US breakout via “Love Will Tears Us Apart” is, of course, Ian Curtis frontman for Joy Division. Here’s an early performance of a song originally written for the Ur-band Warsaw, “They Walk in Line” from 1979. Note Curtis’ already epileptic-style herky jerkly “dancing”:

A slightly more polished of late song “Transmission” on BBC’s The Wedge with famous Mancunian punk-poet John Cooper Clarke opening the bit:

Like many of the musical geniuses we’ve discussed Ian Curtis himself has become fodder for documentary and narrative film adaptations. Here’s ITN’s report on the London debut of famed rock and roll photographer Anton Corbijn’s debut film Control:

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