Joe Meek and the Blue Men I Hear a New World Sessions

Joe Meek and the Blue Men See the Future on Essential Outtake Compilation

Joe Meek and the Blue Men’s I Hear a New World Sessions delves into Meek’s famed archive and delivers on the promise of an “Alternative Outer Space Fantasy”.

I Hear a New World Sessions
Joe Meek and the Blue Men
Cherry Red
21 April 2023

In our era, we would usually require specialist qualifications to even think of tinkering around with the inner workings of most day-to-day equipment. This starkly contrasts the wide-open spaces and low barriers of the mid-20th century in which amateurs could develop workable and innovative inventions at home. A young Joe Meek, for example, managed to build a fully functioning television set in his parents’ shed, which made the family, for a time in the 1930s, proud owners of the first TV in the whole of Gloucestershire.

Meek would go on from these auspicious beginnings to use equipment borrowed from work to produce his first record in the early 1950s. In these peripatetic times, he moved from the Midlands Electricity Board to a production company making programs for radio, then onward to an apprenticeship under Sidney Preston — potentially Europe’s first independent record producer — while also picking up work as a songwriter.

Though he famously built a studio in his flat above a handbag shop at 304 Holloway Road, Meek had already begun making recordings while living at 20 Arundel Gardens in Notting Hill. Home studios might be normal now, but they were unheard of then; only large corporations, state-backed broadcasters, and various universities had facilities. Meek’s ambitiousness and talent are remarkable when one thinks of this man using jerry-rigged homegrown electronics in ways that allowed him to compete against the largest commercial and public entities on Earth. Continuing to hustle, Meek began Triumph Records, then folded the company to found RGM Sound — coined for his initials, Robert George Meek — and began licensing works to labels.

Now living in his studio, Meek’s workaholic tendencies flourished, often with the aid of barbiturates. By his estimate, he completed three two-sided singles a week, producing 245 in his lifetime, of which 45 hit the Top 50. Such efforts paid off with John Leyton’s “Johnny, Remember Me” reaching No. 1 on the UK charts in 1961; The Tornado’s “Telstar” (written and produced by Meek) becoming the first No. 1 hit by a UK group in the US, as well as a UK No. 1; then a third No. 1, “Have I the Right?” with a group called the Honeycombs in 1964.

Meek’s threadbare finances and the limitations of the flat made it necessary to innovate. On the one hand, Leyton has described the rudimentary recording arrangements: “I was in the sitting room behind a little screen. The rhythm section was in the room with me. The violin section was on the stairs, the backing singers were practically in the loo… the brass section was underneath, on another floor altogether, and there was Joe next door…” On the other hand, Meek deluged his works in a cascade of cutting-edge techniques, often being the first person to either imagine them or deploy them in the context of commercial music.

While “super-producers” of Phil Spector’s ilk would become known for their all-encompassing control over songs and their players, Meek possessed only rudimentary musical abilities. Instead, his focus lay in creating new sounds, in teasing out new possibilities to turn bedsit pop songs into chart-beating productions. He would also cross paths with a number of future stars. Ritchie Blackmore played guitar on a number five hit, “Just Like Eddie”, in 1963, and Jeff Beck appeared on a song with Screaming Lord Sutch a year later. Tom Jones lay down early recordings with Meek, as did David Bowie‘s first band, though it’s unlikely that Bowie was involved at that point, something Bowie apparently confirmed in 2008: “Well, I never worked with Joe Meek, never even met him… would have loved to have though. But, I believe the Konrads did do a track or two with him.”

Unfortunately, Meek was increasingly unable to keep pace with the evolving world of pop or the power of the opposition. Famously, he told Brian Epstein to ignore the Beatles and, on another occasion, suggested a very young Rod Stewart be sacked from a band. Meanwhile, a French composer called Jean Ledrut launched a lawsuit in March 1963 accusing Meek of plagiarism due to some surface similarities between one of his compositions and ‘Telstar.’ The ensuing legal action continued until late in February 1967, with Meek’s victory coming too late for him ever to access the much-needed and substantial royalties earned on the back of his greatest success.

Meek was increasingly overwhelmed. He developed a persecution complex related to his hidden homosexuality, fearing blackmail. His bipolar disorder led to violence, for example, destroying a phone when Spector got in touch because he believed Spector was stealing his ideas. Suffering from schizophrenia, he believed a purring cat was talking to him; that aliens were subjecting him to mind control; that Buddy Holly was speaking to him in dreams; that microphones planted in graveyards might allow communication with the dead. The more Meek reached out for contact with one esoteric force or another, the more he moved beyond the range of human touch. His life ended in a shocking murder-suicide on 3 February 1967.

Meek’s unreleased works now entered the realm of legend. Soon after Meek’s death, a musician and businessman called Cliff Cooper — whose band had been produced by Meek — approached the estate intending to pick up items of recording equipment. Instead purchased Meek’s archive for £300 on the condition that he wasn’t to release them (the copyright wasn’t for sale); he could only use them to study Meek’s production techniques. The quaintly named Tea Chest Tapes consisted of close to 2,000 reels of analog tape stored in 67 large boxes.

Cooper was good to his word and ensured all the tapes were appropriately preserved. Years later, he allowed the President of the Joe Meek Appreciation Society, Alan Blackburn, to catalog the recordings and to attempt to decipher whatever information accompanied them. Blackburn was a milkman and would finish work at 10:00 am, whereupon he would work on the tapes until 7:00 am most evenings across 18 months from 1983 to early 1985. While a testament to Meek’s work-rate and brilliant mind, the recordings also indicated his financial stresses and increasingly disordered thinking, with tapes flitting from one song to another or suddenly playing backward where he’d reversed them, having been forced to reuse the reels he had to hand.

Finally, in 2021, Cooper was convinced that Cherry Red Records could offer an appropriate and respectful home to the archive, having previously rejected substantial sums of money for fear that these recordings might be unduly exploited. Everything has now moved to a secure, temperature-controlled location, and Bristol-based producer, Alan Wilson, has reached the end of a two-year process of working through each tape to capture, understand, and surface the best of the material. In a remarkable feat of audio archaeology, Wilson discovered that yet more songs lurked unseen on the reels because Meek recorded initially in mono before switching to stereo. While mono recordings would fill the entire width of the quarter-inch tape, stereo recordings would be laid down in two tracks positioned at left and right, leaving a gap down the middle of the tape. Isolating that gap allowed Wilson to hear and recover mono recordings Meek had chosen to sacrifice and likely never knew could still be resurrected.

The first results of this archival effort emerged on two ten-inch records in 2022: The Telstar Story, featuring a variety of demos and alternate versions of the famed 1962 song, and The Heinz Sessions Vol. 1, showcased Meek’s protégé, Heinz Burt, who had been part of the Tornados. A major five-CD set, The White Tornado: The Holloway Road Sessions 1963-1966, is due in May, comprehensively documenting the significant work conducted in service of Meek’s belief that he could make Heinz a star. In the meantime, Cherry Red’s attention turns to what is — in a twist of fate that would likely have surprised Meek himself — the producer’s most enduring work: I Hear a New World.

Originally released as a seven-inch EP consisting of four songs, the record was a tribute to Meek’s fascination with space exploration and the possibilities of alien life. Meek took a local skiffle group and drowned their basic compositions in a wide range of sound effects derived from such pedestrian origins as milk bottles banged with spoons or bubbles blown in the water. The result became a hallowed touchstone for electronic, DIY, and experimental music in the following decades. Unfortunately, at the time, while it was intended to be released as a full LP, Meek was in the midst of closing Triumph Records, so his full vision never emerged. The band also chose to head back out on the road, which meant plans for new recordings toward a second EP were shelved.

I Hear a New World would become one of the most triumphant results of patient archival disinterment. Only 99 copies of the original 1960 release made it out into the world, with only a handful of preview copies of the intended LP surviving. If one overlooks Meek’s decision to repurpose a number of songs a year later to fill out an instrumental LP of country and western songs, it was only in 1991 that the entire LP was issued with I Hear a New World blossoming into 12-track form. This makes Cherry Red’s further posthumous elaboration seem all the more appropriate, given this album was only truly and fully appreciated in retrospect.

So, what do we have here? The label has done a fine job lacing together odds and sods — stray takes, rehearsals, extended versions, leftover sound effects — into a continuous suite of music in keeping with Meek’s intention of immersing the listener in an imaginary visitation to an alien civilization. Side A opens with a laser-like sound echoing into space before we encounter “Orbit Around the Moon”, a beautiful piece of exotica slightly overpowered by a pragmatic approach to the drums. On this first take, specific notes sound out of tune or tentative, but this is in keeping with the otherworldly intentions of the music, so it plays like a valid alternate take. The most notable addition is a haunting female croon that ghosts partway through to tremendous and positive effect.

A cascade of crackling static leads into a few guitar notes that sound so unintended they might be accidental before the band locks in on the marching band rhythm and perky children’s TV-worthy vocal — there’s even what sounds like a comb and paper kazoo. This all cuts to juddering laser tones, then echoing metal or perhaps human breath rendered into great sheets, as we enter the “Love Dance of the Saroos”. I appreciated the shrill and discordant moments of this first take attempt as they enhance rather than destroy what is still a beautiful piece of exotica. The song subsequently gives way to rumbles and pulses that could double as a demo recording of Doctor Who’s TARDIS.

Side B opens with a rough origin point for what would become “Glob Waterfall”. On the LP, stately chords were answered by burbled responses — quite clearly bubbles blown in water — with sudden crashes overlaid. Compared with that subdued result, this is a full-throated duet focused on just the chimes and bubbles. Then there’s the tinkle of bottles, woodblock hits, chirps on guitar, and a voice murmuring in the background. It feels like being in the room as the individuals improvise around an initial idea.

“Magnetic Field”, in its final form, is another rather sedate instrumental illustration that blooms into a perky march. In stark contrast, seen here in rehearsal, it’s a bonkers mashup of sound effects — including the laser that is very much the signature of this EP — and a noisy tune that sways between 1970s keyboard solo or madman on bagpipes. The extended droning component that was a significant part of the LP edition, foreshadowing decades of TV sci-fi engine room soundscapes, is almost entirely absent. We’re very much confronted with the live band dynamics of Holloway Road in 1960. While I don’t prefer it over the known version, it’s so hugely different that it’s a genuinely wonderful surprise. I’d been worried that maybe this long-awaited excursion into Meek’s demos might yield nothing more than a few subtle or barely tangible tweaks. Instead, Cherry Red have accomplished two feats: first, they’ve made this release into a coherent ensemble, and second, they’ve selected the most strikingly fresh treasures.

Next comes an extended take of “Valley of the Saroos”, which provides some relative calm while also upping the effects levels and outer-space discordancy versus the LP version, which was always a rather conventionally pleasant song. Proceedings come to a finale with take four of “Dribcots Space Boat”. This is quite a daring alternative version, with each note of the main tune allowed to fuzz and fray wildly — I wish Meek had stuck with it for the LP! It moves the piece decisively away from the kazoo vibe toward what becomes increasingly like the death throes of some perky-faced computer. As is desirable, everything ends with Meek soundtracking the hull of a spaceship rupturing and blasting out into the vacuum — awesome!

The EP does an intriguing job balancing snatched attempts at the songs, usually extending between one-and-two minutes, against Meek’s experimental improvisations. It’s very understandable why the 1960 EP and planned LP were honed to pop market standard with the producer’s esoteric efforts trimmed and contained within the seven-inch track lengths that were the norm for the era. What this new release allows is for Meek’s freakier excursions to assume more of the spotlight, not at the expense of the tunes, but in a way that will satisfy anyone interested in hearing what this unique but ultimately tragic soul was able to achieve before entities like the BBC Radiophonic Workshop began to catch up to what he could hear in his head. In some ways, the intrusions and interludes that now circle the compositions are the components that resonate most heavily in 2023, while the songs feel like the past: Meek was ahead of his time in ways that human creativity has not yet exceeded.

RATING 9 / 10