It took some years, at least until the phrase ‘electronica’ became a usable term, for Joe’s legacy to be recognised together with the requisite personal and private CV that would fill an encyclopaedia on self-destruction.
To place Joe in his rightful place as a true pioneer of sound and as a man of fragile disposition, the writer, curator and musician David Toop linked him with Phil Spector, Brian Wilson and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry noting that “one common link between these studio innovators was a state of mind known as madness” but found that “Meek was not mad. The strain (of) forbidden desires pushed him beyond the point of rational restraint”.
Given his practical (if unconscious) application of Pierre Schaeffer’s exploration musique concrete, the legend of Meek rubs cerebral cortex’s with John Cage and Pierre Henry. Rather than the rarefied strata of theory and experimentation, Meek applied his techniques to the everyday, the trashy lowbrow, the giddy thrill offered by Pop music in what was becoming familiar to all as the Hit Parade. Joe Meek was a flawed, but committed field practitioner. His experiments, for the most part, took place in the full glare of public domain and stood or fell by the ringing judgement of the cash till.
Born in 1929 in Gwent, Gloucestershire, Joe found the recreational and professional latitude his ambition and lifestyle demanded in London, and after working as an engineer at IBC studios, Joe found more felxibility at the Lansdowne studio of Jazz producer Dennis Preston.
Though the subject of some stigma amongst even his peers in the liberal show business, that ‘recreational latitude’ gave Joe limited opportunity to pursue his true homosexual proclivities, a practice that remained unlawful in Joe’s lifetime.
Split over four CDs, Joe Meek – Portrait Of A Genius welcomes all-comers of the Meek legacy. Heard from the perspective of modern pop in all its impudence, many of the tracks Joe worked can seem innocent, archaic even. But time has only added a reverberative layer of plain oddness to many of his recordings, from the Preston years, his own ‘Triumph’ label releases, and his later post-Telstar work.
Despite Joe’s naive futurity (or because of it) his commissions and compositions are nothing if not period-pieces. After Britain mortgaged itself to America during the second world war, the country looked towards Uncle Sam for its ambitions and to re-creating an image of itself in an ever-changing urban landscape of slum clearance and social engineering. Many of the song-titles (The Yellow Rose Of Texas, Last Train To San Fernando, Don’t You Rock Me Daddy-O) are self-evident, and any of the jump-blues, trad jazz and teen-dramas Meek recorded carry the vernacular of American Pop, an altogether bouncier and confident beast compared to its poor relation ‘across the pond’.
|Magic Stars – Portrait Of A Genius’ Top 10 transmissions from Planet Meek|
1. Lullaby – Kenny Graham & His Satellites: As spookily exotic as a trip round the Congo with David Lynch. Perhaps its no coincidence that Joe was to decide that space was the place after recording the Satellites in this all too-brief excursion into Tropicalia.
2. Jailhouse Blues – Ottilie Patterson with Chris Barber’s Jazz Band : It’s Trad, but that don’t mean it’s bad, Dad. And is there a John Fahey in the house? No? Oh, well…
3. Johnny Remember Me – John Leyton: The afterlife brought to preternatural actuality in era-defining fatalist death-drama. Hard to believe John Leyton was a soap star of his day. Kinda places Stefan Dennis’ ‘Don’t It Make You Feel Good’ into harsh perspective. As if it needed it.
4. Chahawki – Joy & Dave: Has to be heard to be believed. A geography teacher impersonates Minnie Ha-Ha while the hybrid offspring of Frankie Laine and Arthur Mullard intone the tale of Wounded Knee. Or at least that’s what it sounds like.
5. Telstar – The Tornados: The biggest selling instrumental of all time, and the first British chart-topper in the US. Still the mothership of the Meek chart invasion.
6. Sky Men – Geoff Goddard: If Van Dyke Parks‘s Americana had found room for Frank Lloyd Wright and Jerry Lewis’ Visit To A Small Plane while peyote-happy on helium shots. Demented.
7. I Taught Her How – Benny Parker & The Dynamics: Echo upon echo. You could have heard the sustain in Jamaica.
8. Little Baby – The Blue Rondos: Crooning on Venus. In blue jeans yet.
9. She Comforts My Sorrow – The Bystanders: Eerie Brit-psychedelia and somewhat prescient of The Pretty Things and David Axelrod’s Electric Prunes recordings. SF sorrow for real.
10. My Baby’s Coming Home – The Cameos – Louise and Bebe Baron’s score for Forbidden Planet in a secret rendezvous with Tom Springfield’s Seekers. Despite the name, posterity doesn’t let on if the band wore huge codpieces or not.
But listen closely, and Joe’s personal stamp gives these many chart hits an otherworldly quality that the US imports often lacked. Modifying and re-designing sound compressors and equalisation systems, Joe was embracing the ‘white heat of technology’ three years before Harold Wilson’s famous speech
Given due financial reward for his efforts, Joe set up his own label though the more ‘experimental’ (some might say self-indulgent) of his efforts were less commercially successful. Not the least of these ‘flops’ was I Hear A New World released under the name of The Blue Men and to deafening silence. Inspired by the Space Race, I Hear A New World – An Outer Space Music Fantasy was Joe’s concept album, concerning man’s very first close encounter with alien life forms.
Released in 1960, the world just wasn’t ready for I Hear A New World, with even generous estimates giving sales figures at less than 200 copies. Given Joe’s penchant for fast-pitching vocals to Pinky & Perky levels, much of the world is still resistant to Joe’s space oddity, but to the electronica cognoscenti it is sui generis, pre-Aphex Twin, pre-Juan Atkins, pre-Cabaret Voltaire, pre-anything. Still, slowly igniting abstractions like Magnetic Field and Entry Of The Globbots are impossible to resist and more than fulfil Joe’s steroscopic ambition to create an “impression of space, of things moving in front of you, of a picture of parts of the moon”.
Though Joe and co-writer Geoff Goddard began to write many of their hits (and misses) together, it was Joe’s emphasis on sound rather than song that gave him his own individual edge. As the taped interviews on this set demonstrate, the run of London’s top-notch session musicians that came to Holloway Road came prepared for his particular range of recording technique “Where do you want me? Am I supposed to be in the bathroom?” being a typical enquiry.
Though the arrival of Merseybeat and the R&B boom threatened to make Joe obsolete, there was still time for one last chart-topper in 1964 (the headbanging Have I The Right by The Honeycombs). In true Tin Pan Allley style, Joe and Goddard tried every which-way combination. Though Joe sniffed enviously at the success of The Beatles, he certainly wasn’t above Bob Dylan pastiches (The Cryin’ Shames What’s News, Pussycat and Let Me In), Roy Orbison rip-off’s (Lee Starr & The Astrals Come Back To Me) and various sub-Elvis melodramas of the day (particularly the tracks by Danny Rivers & The Alexander Combo). Magpie Meek tried his faddish hand at all styles, however short-lived, and were just a writ away from outright steals.
Found guilty of ‘importuning’ an elderly man in a public lavatory, the minor fine was only the thin end of the wedge compared to the impact on Joe’s increasing paranoia, fed by diet pills and blots of LSD. A wealthy man by normal standards, it was rumoured that Joe was the target of various blackmail attempts and even shadier interference by the underworld. Its hard not to pick up the signals of biographical detail in the later recordings, that for all their relative commercial failure hold the allure of flawed genius.
Joe’s unalloyed camp elegy, No One Waved Goodbye (released under the name of The Cryin’ Shames) recounts the story of a smalltown boy wandering away unloved to the big city to seek his fame and fortune (the lyrical conceit matching that of Bronski Beat‘s own Smalltown Boy some twenty years later).
On one of the unreleased tracks that flesh out Portrait Of A Genius, Joe himself sings a fragmentary, distant ‘Not Sleepin’ Too Well Lately’. Sounding exhausted and spent, Joe’s frustration, persecution and sense of distance is compelling, and a million light years away from the new world confidence of his piece de resistance Telstar.
Joe’s peroxide prodigy Heinz was present at the tragic denouement, and was the subject of Joe’s unrequited feelings. . It was Heinz’s shotgun that put Joe put to its end use. Some years earlier Joe had attended a seance and predicted the death of his idol Buddy Holly.
As it turned out, Joe missed the date by exactly one year. Holly met his untimely death on 3 February 1959. To add further intrigue, Joe met his own demise eight years later. The date? 3 February.
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