Graham Reid | | 5 min read
Right up until the time he redecorated his recording studio-cum-living room with the contents of his skull after a self-inflicted shotgun blast in 1967, British producer Joe Meek heard the world differently.
In the late Fifties and early Sixties most British producers were just technicians who pushed “record” once the artist was in front of the microphone.
Certainly Phil Spector was nudging the sound barrier with his stacked-up instrumentation and vocals, and comedy recordings – like those done by pre-Beatles George Martin, and his electronic experiments as “Ray Cathode” – tweaked and fiddled with tape speeds and such.
But few were as innovative as Joe Meek in his homemade studio at 304 Holloway Rd in London's Islington (where a blue plaque commemorates the fact he lived, worked and died there).
The pity was – more so when you consider he made over 500 recordings – how unsuccessful he was in getting his pop songs onto the charts.
The fact is he wasn't a great picker of talent: not just because he dismissed the early Beatles (most people did and on the early evidence still would), the singing of the teenage Rod Stewart or that he rejected the young David Jones (who became Bowie within a few years).
It's that Meek – being gay – rather like attractive young men around him who would do what they were told, and it didn't much matter if they had any vocal talent.
So his chart successes were few . . . but quite spectacular.
His most notable achievement was the instrumental Telstar by the Tornados, not that they appreciated what he did (until fame struck when it went to number one in the UK and the US).
The Tornados – Meek's “studio band” – had laid down their fairly standard instrumental and then went off on tour, but in their absence Meek and songwriting partner Geoff Goddard began to work their weird magic on it adding overdubs, some ripples of piano strings, compression and odd noises.
The result, named to cash in on the space-race momentum, took off.
Even today it is a remarkable instrumental . . . and at some remove from everything else going on around it at the time.
In '62 Meek – who was temperamental, often flew into violent rages, driven and secretive about his methods – was a star producer, especially since Telstar was his second major hit.
Meek's first number one was the melodramatic Johnny Remember Me (boy hears dead girlfriend calling him) by Johnny Leyton, one of those good lookers whose recording career was based more on cheekbones and a blonde quiff than any real talent. No surprises that he went on to movies (The Great Escape among them).
Johnny Remember Me – composed by Goddard – is fascinating nonetheless: it rides a galloping beat (Spike Milligan dismissed it as a lesser Ghost Riders in the Sky), there are mists across the moor, an ethereal woman's voice in the skies above, Leyton gets a good echo which isn't too overt and then the woman's voice gets eerie and ghost-like.
In his book Songs in the Key of Z; The Curious Universe of Outsider Music, American writer Irwin Chusid notes however that years before when he was a staff engineer at IBC Studios Meek had turned his talent to reconstructing the sound of even trad -jazz pioneer Humphrey Lyttelton's Bad Penny Blues.
The brushes are mixed very high and Lyttelton noted “he also did something very peculiar by distorting the left hand of the piano . . . the idea of a sound engineer not doing what you tell him, but actually twiddling the knobs and distorting things – that was a totally new world to me.”
And when Meek quit and started his own studio on three rented floors above a leather goods shop in Islington, he acquired equipment, wiring and instruments.
He was now free to create the sounds as he heard them . . . not easy for a man who couldn't read or write music, play an instrument or even sing a tune without sliding between keys.
Maybe that was part of his gift.
The hits notwithstanding (he took the Honeycombs up the charts with the thrilling and thumping Have I The Right? in '64), Meek went on to record dozens and dozens of artists and songs to very little success.
With the arrival of the Beatles and a more straight-forward approach to pop hits, Meek's experiments seemed a bit too out there . . . and the talent and songs frankly mediocre.
His oddest achievement – although it achieved nothing at the time – was his own concept album I Hear a New World recorded with the Blue Men, a skiffle group, which originally appeared as an EP in '60 (it rose without a trace, all 99 copies of it) but was reconstructed as a full length album from his tapes in '91.
It's brilliant and rubbish at the same time: Meek's idea seems to have been to create music as you might hear in space (cf Telstar) but with weird sound effects such as sped-up vocals (like the Chipmunks), whooshes, multi-tracked vocals, twanging c'n'w guitar and Hawaiian guitar, sound effects (tuned milk bottles on the piece Orbit Around the Moon, again with that Ghost Riders rhythm) and blowing bubbles through a straw for the spooky and dramatic Glob Waterfall (six years before the Beatles did much the same on Yellow Submarine).
There are however some delicious moments: The Bulblight is a keening Hawaiian guitar wash over a relentless beat which at a pinch could be shoegaze for jandal wearers; the Love Dance of the Saroos is very pretty; Magnetic Field is electronic country music gone to Saturn . . .
And then there's the absurdity: the idiotic martial nonsense of Entry of the Globbots and later March of the Dribcots when Meek was clearly off – or maybe too far on – his medication. He also didn't have much idea of how to develop a melody and many instrumentals – try Disc Dance of the Globbots – don't stray too far from a children's playground tune. Albeit bent by his idiosyncratic effects.
So, is I Hear a New World a Pet Sounds for Spike Jones and lounge music fans?
An acid trip into the cosmos for lovers of Martin Denny and Esquivel?
Twenty years ago Wire magazine listed I Hear a New World as one the 100 Records That Set the World on Fire (When No One Was Listening).
That might have remained true were it not for Spotify where one of the reconstructions of Joe Meek's material as I Hear a New World is available.
Joe Meek has become the subject of documentaries and a movie, but I Hear a New World has rarely been up for any serious reconsideration as a lost masterpiece. It isn't.
At best it's weird and “interesting”.
And let's be honest, it isn't for everyone and we can only hope music in space is more like that in a Buck Rogers disco or a Star Wars cantina.
Most of I Hear a New World can clear a room faster than the shotgun blasts that 37-year old Joe Meek first killed his landlady with and then himself.
Yes, it's that good.
For other articles in the series of strange or different characters in music, WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT . . . go here.