In the words of Sly Stone, ‘heard ya missed me, well I’m back’: although, thankfully, my living situation is not of the four-wheeled, camper-van variety in which the profligate Mr. Stewart now unfortunately resides.
What follows is my contribution to the mother of a fanzine that is the 300th issue of The Drink Tank. For those unfamiliar, it’s the brainchild of Christopher J. Garcia; Chris is a curator at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, as well as one of the most culturally savvy and genial gents on the planet.
THE DRINK TANK (co-ruled by James Bacon of Croydon, UK via Scotland), was the about-time recipient of this year’s Hugo Award for Best Fanzine, and I felt truly fortunate to be witness to the unforgettable acceptance speech seen here.
Anyway, have a look-see over at Efanzines.com and tell Chris and James that the Grottomaster sent you.
Robert George ‘Joe’ Meek (1929-1967) was the first independent record producer of the Rock and Roll era, an ingenious electronics wizard, and a supremely eccentric, fatally driven lunatic/genius working at the edge of his limitations.
As a result, he has been compared to everyone from Thomas Edison and Ed Wood to Les Paul and, most infamously, Phil Spector. In the case of the latter, both had a singular vision of creating ultimate Pop hits.
Where they diverge is that, for starters, Spector maintained a stable of top-quality songwriters: Greenwich and Barry, Gene Pitney, Mann and Weil, Goffin and King. Joe Meek neither played nor wrote music, and was supposedly tone deaf. Meek instead relied on more accomplished musicians to perform the unenviable task of translating tapes of his tunelessly hummed ideas into proper songs. (Meek’s demos, to hear them today, make for uneasy listening only rivaled by the latest Justin Bieber chart-topper.)
Another difference was that Spector had the cream of L.A. studio players and state-of-Pop-art recording studios at his disposal. His U.K. counterpart Meek produced the bulk of his recorded legacy at 304 Holloway Road in north London, a three-story walk-up that was both home studio and audio laboratory.
It was not uncommon, on any given Meek production, for the singer to be doing his bit inside a closet as the rhythm section occupied the main area of one floor. Strings and horn players were stationed on another. When needed, assorted folk would be on the stairs between floors, stomping their feet in time for added percussive effect. Meanwhile, Meek would oversee from behind his self-built recording desk on the top floor, filtering sounds through an arsenal of tape-delay, echo and reverb effects, also of his creation.
Lastly, Spector’s recording approach would become legendary as the Wall Of Sound. Joe Meek seemed more concerned with fashioning a Galaxy of Sound, one that reflected and externalized a lifelong interest in outer space, the possibilities of space travel and life on other planets.
Meek was also fascinated by the occult: on one occasion in February 1958 after attending a séance, Meek believed he had information about the imminent death of one of his American rock idols, Buddy Holly. Since he was touring the UK at the time, Meek felt compelled to warn Holly personally. As it turned out, he was wrong, but only just: Holly’s fated plane ride took place a year later, to the day, of Meek’s premonition.
Joe Meek is best known to the average music fan for producing two massive and classic hits of the Sixties. One remains a high point of the early British Invasion, the Honeycombs’ 1964 smash ‘Have I The Right’ (which features the aforementioned stair stompers underlining the capable time-keeping of Honey Lantree, one of Rock’s first female drummers). The other was the Tornados’ deathless instrumental ‘Telstar’ from 1962: reportedly Margaret Thatcher’s all-time favorite song, it still gloriously captures the optimism and hope in that first blush of the Space Age.
‘Telstar’ was not the first time, however, that Meek had given vent to his solar-system obsessions. In 1959, assisted by a local skiffle rock combo he dubbed the Blue Men, Meek created a twelve-song album entitled I Hear A New World.
Only four out of the twelve tracks Meek and the Blue Men recorded were eventually released, as an Extended Play 45, on the Triumph label in 1960. Ostensibly a device for demonstrating the new possibilities of stereophonic sound, the average record buyer might be forgiven for slotting its contents within the genre of Exotica records popular at the time: records by Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman, attempting to sonically create an atmosphere of South Pacific or Hawaiian paradise for a martini-and-tiki-besotted American upper-middle class. There was even the woozy sway of a Hawaiian guitar on the opening title track.
And yet…what were those sped-up Chipmunk voices doing inhabiting this ersatz Bali Hai?
Meek being Meek, you see, he was aiming at a soundscape to represent the Great Beyond. Specifically, the indigenous music that might be found on the Moon, one populated by such creatures from Meek’s alien-fixated brainpan as the Dribcots, Globbots and Saroos.
‘This is a strange record. I meant it to be’, Meek wrote in the EP’s liner notes.
To accomplish this, he augmented the rudimentary tunes Blue Men leader Rod Freeman aided in shaping with favored sound effects. These included such things from Joe’s trick bag as (quoting one of the several Meek fan sites online) “corrugated fiberboards, metal ashtrays, a comb moved over a table edge, pebbles on a baking tray, feedback, artificially made short-circuits (and) intentionally detuned instruments.” In this context, the frequent appearance of the Hawaiian guitar helps reinforce a sometimes doleful, other times giddy atmosphere; the more upbeat tracks (‘Valley Of The Saroos’, ‘Orbit Around The Moon’) even convey what might be perceived as an outer space hoedown.
Then there’s Meek’s own liner notes that accompany and fancifully describe each track. Here’s his description of ‘Globb Waterfall’: “Gravity has done a strange thing, [forming] a type of overflowing well. The water rises to form a huge globule at the top of a plateau, and when it’s reached its maximum size, it falls with a terrific splash to the ground below and flows away into the cracks of the moon. Then the whole cycle repeats itself again and again.” And damned if that’s not exactly what the track sounds like!
Meek’s imaginative concept and its results are all the more remarkable when one considers the time frame in which they were formulated. Manned space travel was two years in the future. Computers were used only by the military and certain privileged corporations, and customarily the size of a medium to largish room. Music synthesizers were barely a transistorized gleam in Robert Moog’s eye. Green moon cheese, green alien armies and the possibility of a flying car were as far as most average earthbound futuristas could project.
Meek’s, on the other hand, was a construct of which was only otherwise proposed or fantasized about in stories found in your popular SF/F magazines of the day. (In fact, it’s quite the delightful notion to think that, had they and Meek possessed the foresight and means, that a magazine like Amazing Stories could have offered I Hear A New World as a bonus to subscribers, like contemporary music mags like MOJO and Uncut include complimentary CD’s with each new issue.)
In any event, the first EP sank with barely a trace; a second EP of excerpts was scheduled, but ultimately shelved. I Hear A New World (the album) was reportedly pressed in a run of only 99 copies, becoming an instant obscurity that only saw a proper release in 1991, via British label RPM.
And though hugely prolific as a producer, turning out tons of product on his RGM label, hits like ‘Telstar’ and ‘Have I The Right’ were far and few between for Joe Meek. He even had royalties for the worldwide success of ‘Telstar’ denied him during years in litigation, the result of a trumped-up plagiarism suit.
The case was ultimately settled in Meek’s favor, though tragically not in his lifetime. After years of career frustration, compounded by mental instability due to both drug abuse and harassment by police and blackmailers for being gay (a punishable offense in the U.K. at the time), Joe Meek shot his landlady to death, then turned the gun on himself, at the Holloway Road home studio in February 1967. Eight years to the day of Buddy Holly’s death.
Synthesizers are now an integral part of making music. Handheld computers inform, alert and annoy, and we still don’t have that flying car. Yet I Hear A New World remains, as one man’s perception — bewildering, enchanting and thrilling in its naivete — of what might very well be Out There.
I HEAR A NEW WORLD is available on the RPM Label out of the UK; look for the deluxe edition which has bonus features, including an audio interview with Joe Meek and a brief CD-Rom newsreel clip of him at 304 Holloway Road.
The best entry into Meeksville UK for the curious is the IT’S HARD TO BELIEVE IT compilation done by Razor and Tie in 1995. A nice overview with hits, representative misses, and two cuts from I HEAR A NEW WORLD.
Meek also produced his share of post-Brit Invasion rock groups: players found in their ranks included Ritchie Blackmore and Mitch Mitchell (Meek also took a pass on producing David Bowie, Rod Stewart and the Beatles).
JOE MEEK’S GROUPS: CRAWDADDY SIMONE (on the RPM label) skims the cream, with place of privilege given to the rip-roaring garage rock title track, by the Syndicats.
A 2009 British biopic of Meek, TELSTAR, is apparently decent viewing as well.