Carry on Compressing!: Joe Meek and 1960s Britain

Joe Meek
Vampires, Cowboys, Spacemen & Spooks

Given the social and moral environment of early ’60s Britain, it’s tempting to think that Joe Meek’s repressed sexuality and fragile mental state played the major part in shaping his creativity, but he built the first TV in his town, was an RAF radio engineer, a technician with the Midlands Electricity Board, and before branching out on his own was a BBC sound engineer. He did not last at the BBC because his methodology of altering recordings was completely at odds with tradition. So, in his rooms above a leather goods store at 304 Holloway Road in London, Meek became Britain’s first independent record producer, pioneering special effects, tape reversal, direct imput of the bass guitar, close-mic’ing, and multi-tracking. It remains remarkable that he was able to emulate stereophonic sound on his 1959 recordings I Hear a New World, possibly the world’s first concept album.

Anyone who’s ever thought they sounded better singing in the bathroom, or felt that drumming on a table or door felt right should be able to relate to Joe Meek, who covered his lack of musical talent with his use of echo, reverb, compression, home made electronics, innovative sound sources, and ideas about the separation of instruments. Understanding of technology was one of his strengths, but instead of using equipment to emulate what already existed or make it cleaner, Meek was on a quest to harness his imagination into sound. Since he could neither notate nor play music and was tone deaf, arrangers like Charles Blackwell and musicians like the young Richie Blackmore would receive very approximate demos, or listen to Meek convey ideas by wailing, banging pots and pans together, and stamping on floorboards.

No one can dispute that Meek trusted his own judgment, which might be another way of saying that he was a complete control freak throbbing with obsessive creativity. He released 245 singles, had musicians like the young Jimmy Page helping out, recorded Billy Fury, Gene Vincent, and Tom Jones several years before he had a hit. Meek is said to have run into the studio with his fingers in his ears, screaming at the top of his lungs when he heard Rod Stewart sing, and kept on doing so until Rod agreed to leave! Apparently, one day Phil Spector rang to express his admiration, only to be rebuffed by a stream of the kind of abusive paranoid invective and ego-driven vitriol to which Spector could surely relate. The consequences of those two driven (and armed) individuals meeting, or even working on the same continent, is easy to predict!

Vampires, Cowboys, Spacemen & Spooks: The Very Best of Joe Meek’s Instrumentals is patchy enough for me to wish Joe Meek had been born in an age when consenting adults were free to love whomever they wished and in a style of their own choosing (not sure when that will be, maybe the future), or had access to talent from a wider pool. There’s no doubt that Meek spread his talent too thinly, and sometimes picked groups to record because he fancied one of their members (of course, no heterosexual would ever allow their libido to influence their judgment — perish the thought.). Either way, these 60 tracks contain some well-known essentials and one or two unheard treats, but plenty of repetition and some tedium best avoided. A standout is the previously unreleased “Moon Rocket” by Roger LaVern & the Microns, an incredibly sweet piece aching with the desire to break out of our atmosphere and get into all that free space, but never quite does. Like Billy Liar unable to get on the train with Julie Christie. “Moon Rocket” is a warmer, sadder “Telstar” that stays on the launch pad and conjures earthbound images of getting ripped off in amusement arcades, fish and chips, ladies coming out of bingo halls, opening umbrellas, windbreakers, beery men, opening new motorways. The Microns’ other pieces are no where near as evocative, especially the two listless Christmas-related efforts which sound like a completely different band.

The Moontrekkers’ “Night of the Vampire” features great creaking sounds and is oddly suggestive of Greek music, while their other cut “There’s Something at the Bottom of the Well” is impressively weird, but might only be good for a listen or two. The disastrously named Chris and the Students did “The Lass of Richmond Hill”, which it’s tempting to think was recorded when Meek either had the day off or was ill, as the folk music tendencies are so incongruous here. They do better with the intriguing “Kickin’ Around”, the rhythm, pulse, and fade of which makes me dream of Meek being born in Jamaica. The other previously unreleased gem is “The Phantom Hussar” (artist unknown), which could easily be an outtake from The Conet Project (a collection of numbers transmissions thought to be code for activating spies). However, the Dauphine Street Six’s irritatingly spry and echoing version of “Shenandoah” would have anyone reaching for a shotgun. Even worse, the Joe Meek Orchestra has three tracks, the nauseating “Cry My Heart”, the nauseating and leaden “Kennedy March”, and its flip-side “The Theme of Freedom”, which is nauseating, leaden, and hollow.

The Outlaws recorded several versions of tunes from Meek’s incredible I Hear a New World under different titles, so it’s disappointing that none of those tracks are featured. Their “Valley of the Sioux” possesses a bubbling and snarling groove. Of the Tornados’ tracks, “Life on Venus” (German version) resembles a musical anagram of “Telstar” in a different key, while their rendering of Meek’s “Robot” is utterly bizarre; like an android in a broom cupboard trying to get out, armed only with a fairground organ! “Ridin’ the Wind” has the lovable galloping rhythm, zany swirling melody, and bubble-light inconsequentiality that are trademark Joe Meek. “Jungle Fever” is a wickedly taut piece of shuffling compression that seems to steal some melody from “Catch a Falling Star”. Time has been less kind to some other tracks: “Globetrotter” is as cheesy as it’s possible to be without actually playing a Vegas airport lounge, and “Dragonfly”, with a running time under two minutes, seems interminable. The stereo version of “Telstar” is here too.

Joe Meek; The EP Collection is more solid and shows what Meek could do with the extra space of an EP. This set is packaged quite beautifully with hilarious original sleevenotes. No point saying much about the best known of Meek’s acts, except to say that the Tornados have two groovy EPs here, Telstar is the best one, and from it “Jungle Fever” is cool, but anyone who has not heard the intro and outro of the groundbreaking, immortal “Telstar” needs to get on it, right now. Joe’s early demise was a tragedy, but at least he didn’t live long enough to hear Margaret Thatcher announce that it was her favorite song of all time.

Two EPs of Meek’s compositions under the title I Hear a New World have been considered both the unlistenable music of a deranged alternative future that would never come, and the initial sketches of the brilliant direction in which Meek would have headed had he not blown his brains out. Clearly it was massively ahead of its time, since now it is the other EPs full of pop tunes that sound like the music of another world: an intense world filled with an apparently endless stream of mostly forgotten young men with haircuts and guitars who seem little more than musical action figures for Meek to pose and set against his increasingly bizarre off-kilter reverberations. It was probably much more fun than that, but clearly Meek could be a dictatorial bully with the shortest of fuses.

I Hear a New World (A Stereo Fantasy, composed and devised by Joe Meek) predicts plenty of the instrumental popular music of the last 40 odd years. Whether or not the New World of the title refers to outer space or to the freeing of Meek’s creative juices from their inner space, it’s clear he was going outside the box. Unfortunately, he was also outside the box mentally, and would be unable to get back even if he’d wanted. “The Entry of the Globbots” starts strongly, but the chipmunk voices of the happy, blue-faced moon-dwellers appear silly and deranged (how could they not?). If post-rock is re-hydrated astronaut food from the past, then “The Valley of Sarooes” is the astonishing sound of the original granules. “Orbit Around the Moon” is as if Sun Ra were into traditional Celtic jigs and reels. “Magnetic Field” begins like an expressionist soundscape from today, but, like “The Dribcots Space Boat”, eventually succumbs to the Meekian gallops: though some of the sounds on the latter are astonishing by any standards. The treated piano in “Globb Waterfall” brings to mind the pace and tone of Bowie (& Eno’s) “Moss Garden” or “Neukoln”. “Love Dance of the Saroons” is surreal and too sprightly, and I wish I could slow it down a little. Finally, “The Bub Light” squeezes guitar to such an extent that it could fit onto the soundtrack of Trainspotting or a Daniel Lanois record without too much grief. Despite the EPs omiting the great title track with vocals by Rod Freeman, they must be heard.

Heinz Burt was one of the producer’s favorites, and all the tunes on his EP were written by Meek, who also provided music direction, along with Ivor Raymonde (father of Simon from Cocteau Twins). All four songs are gender non-specific urgings to live and love for today, though “When Your Loving Goes Wrong” is unintentionally creepy with its ghastly spoken section. The police would show some interest in Heinz after Joe killed his landlady (the long-suffering Gladys Shenton) and then himself, on the anniversary of the death of his hero, Buddy Holly, using a shotgun formerly owned by the doe-eyed bassist and bleached-blond crooner. Before all that, though, Mike Berry’s EP A Tribute to Buddy Holly, despite the approval of Holly (by séance) and the Buddy Holly Appreciation Society, was banned by the BBC due to its “morbid concern over the death of a teen idol”. Blimey.

The Fabulous Flee-Rekkers seemed to specialize in updating oldies (they had previously rendered “Greensleeves” as “Green Jeans” for reasons best know to themselves, or Meek). Here they burst out of the blocks with a pointless twin guitar/sax butchering of “Isle of Capri” that would have Al Bowly spinning in his grave. The title is the best thing about “Brer Robert”, “Hangover” unfortunately suggests the unappealing beast that is third-generation US ska, and I wish I could be bothered to make up some insulting meaning to go with “P.F.B.”, but the putrid feeble beat has done my head in. Houston Wells and the Marksmen’s cover of Hank Locklin’s “Just for You” is the kind of breathless C & W yodeling and nasal crooning that now seems as splendidly otherworldly and incongruous as riding a steer into a London pub circa 1962. It was a big hit in Ireland.

Meek’s “North Wind” is better, and the accompanying booklet describes it as “another riveting slice of RGM necrophilia”. The Packabeats, another instrumental, er, combo, deliver a hideous version of Bobby Darin’s “Dream Lover” before unleashing the fine surf-glide of “The Traitors” (also featured on Vampires). They also attempt what now sounds like the pseudo-ska of “Packabeat” and the spritely, plinking, “Evening in Paris” written by Meek. (Note: the running order on the disc is correct, but backwards on the EP sleeve). Incidentally, while most of the songs from any of these discs played in the middle of a bunch of other music would be refreshingly cool, I don’t recommend trying to listen to huge swaths of Joe Meek’s work in single sittings, especially not if you keep a shotgun in the house. That’s not a criticism, just an acknowledgement that these songs were meant to be blasted out in sub-three-minute bite-size chunks to chew on until a more flavorful one came along . Listening to a stack of them back to back might be the closest anyone could get to actually being Joe Meek, and it’s pretty uncomfortable. Meek was presumably keen to have “six foot tall, and handsome” former navy diver Don Charles in the studio, but by the time I got to Don’s EP, I felt like I’d walked through a blizzard of twang and his wooden audio-treacle ballads did not appeal. If his work shows up on the soundtrack to the next David Lynch film, I dare say all will be forgiven.

Two EP’s are devoted to John Leyton, who like Heinz Burt, was also an actor. The galloping rhythms, cringe-inducing lyrics, and demented celestial backing vocals of “Lone Rider”, which must have sounded like quite a concoction in 1962, seem even stranger now. That Leyton’s voice belies his wimpy appearance is probably just as well, as the production, for example on “Wild Wind”, is way over the top! So over the top that it’s tempting to imagine the approximation of heavenly choral crescendos are Meek sucking down helium and yelling from the bathroom. “You Took My Love for Granted” (or, “Ya tuk-a-ma-luv-va-fa. Gran-na-ted”, as phonetically laid out) is an amusing teen strut. The tremendous “Johnny Remember Me” takes galloping rhythms to another level, with Spaghetti-western echo-drenched vocals and sparse chords providing the backdrop to a piece of perfect teenage angst. The track is a legend. It is the insane sound of everlasting love reaching beyond the grave. (Joe claimed that through the medium of his cat he received posthumous messages from Buddy Holly. He made recordings in cemeteries like some audio Burke & Hare, when not capturing the sound of ice sliding off his roof, of bubbles, and goodness knows what else.)

It’s hard to suppress a smirk at the news that Leyton played the part of Ginger in a TV production of Biggles. W.E. Johns’s creation appeared in the story The White Fokker and countless other tales of decent chaps, flying planes, battling the “Hun”, dreaming of Blighty, pulling on joysticks and keeping a dashed stiff upper lip. Biggles had one or two romantic trysts, but the whole bally erect gang, which also included Algy, stayed steadfastly single and therefore ripe for the kind of contemporary sniggers that Monty Python would inflict in Biggles Types a Letter , which suggested that Biggles and Ginger were gay lovers. Python’s Spanish Inquisition sketch also had a Cardinal Biggles in flying helmet and goggles. Talking of inquisitions, after police announced their intention to interview every known homosexual in London (in connection with what became known as the Suitcase Murder), the threat caused Joe Meek to become further unhinged. Homosexual activity was illegal at that time in Britain, punishable by prison, with social consequences to follow. Joe’s mother had raised him as a girl for the first few years of his life. Sadly, after fleeing to the metropolis he remained consumed by guilt at his sexual orientation.

The Joe Meek Freakbeat: You’re Holding Me Down collection is more explosive and adventurous than Vampires, Cowboys, Spacemen & Spooks, and more punchy than the EPs (though anyone who considers themself a music buff should listen to I Hear a New World at least twice). There are amazing tracks, like the Syndicats’ tight and powerful “Crawdaddy Simone”, featuring future Deep Purple man Roger Glover and the ferocious fuzz guitar of future star of Tomorrow and Yes, Steve Howe. Heinz, revamped by Meek from Tornados’ bassist on “Telstar” to quasi-solo star, was unable to reach stellar heights despite being backed by future Deep Purple icon Ritchie Blackmore! Heinz’s “Big Fat Spider” has a definite lively charm and combustible clusters of ferocious guitar playing. (What looks like) the picture of the quiffed and be-suited Blackmore splendidly suggests Henry from Eraserhead rather more than the bare-chested, progressive-rock gunslinger.

The Birds of Prey enjoy a taut clunking rhythm that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Young Marble Giants disc, and it’s easy to see how the Mod beat and growling singing has been mistaken for the work of the Small Faces and Steve Marriott. The Blue Rondos’ “Little Baby” seems something of a Roy Orbison knock-off, but Meek gets plenty of propulsion from the simple chink and swoop of tambourine and organ. Despite the group feeling that it sounded nothing at all like them (not an unusual complaint from artists after a session at 304 Holloway Road), Meek was convinced that his recording would be a massive hit. It wasn’t.

Elsewhere, there are Merseybeat echoes (although Meek had declared that sound to be “nothing new”). The Riot Squad’s “Walking on Ice” is about the least riotous song I’ve ever heard, but illustrates the remnants of the staid beats and compositional ideas that Meek and others were leaving behind. Strange feelings surface in a listener. Some of the backing to the Buzz’s “I Got a Buzz” assimilates the avant-shuffle of the Velvet Underground at their sludgy primordial best. The Hotrods predict the insanely successful inane shangalanging of the Bay City Rollers by a decade. In Meek’s hands, Jason Eddie & the Centremen’s cranked take on Guy Mitchell’s “Singing the Blues” is a spurt of sputnikian sound that shakes with an almost coital energy. The Cryin’ Shames also crank out “Let Me In” with admirable gusto. Almost as outstanding as another great distillation of Meek’s talent: “No More You and Me” by Tornados ’66. The repeated chant of “There’ll be no one else for me / Nobody but you” carries a vague yet disturbing threat. At the time, EMI was reluctant to break with formula and release a vocal track by the Tornados. It would eventually emerge, but only as a b-side. By which time Joe Meek was dead.

A new documentary, Something I’ve Got to Tell You: A Life in the Death of Joe Meek by Susan Stahman and Howard S. Berger, is out this year. The likelihood is that this music will sound better and weirder the further it gets from its inception. Interestingly, Jon Savage has written about Joe Meek in the context of his sexuality in the England of his lifetime, and there have been several recordings made with Meek as the subject or inspiration (the one I like best is “Joe Meek” by Pluto Monkey). While we’ll never know for sure how far Meek could have traveled on his exploration of sound, interest in him will continually loop around like an orbiting satellite. It’s not possible, but I like to think that when the last gunshot rang out, Joe Meek would surely have thought: ‘That would sound better with loads more compression…”

RATING 6 / 10
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