It’s Hard to Believe It: The Amazing World of Joe Meek (1995)
[NOTE: I don’t know if this is the best introduction to Joe Meek’s music, just that it was mine. It got away in the Great CD Selloff of 2002 and I eventually replaced it with a 56-track, 2-disc set, which I don’t hear adding anything new or vital to his vision.]
It pays to take care when tip-toeing around cults. I trust them a little more when the object of shared affection has achieved some legitimate Pop success. I trust them a little less when said object is a murderer.
One whiff of Death Chic and my horse manure detector goes straight to eleven.
The day Phil Spector was arrested for murdering Lana Clark (a murder which fulfilled a spiritual contract he had been threatening to carry out on anyone but himself for decades and for which he was ultimately convicted), I got in my car, put my cassette copy of this in the tape deck and took the long way to town and back.
I got home just as “Black Pearl” was cutting to the fade. I sat in my driveway, sang along with Sonny Charles the way I always do, then closed my eyes and listened to Bobby Hatfield close it out with “Ebb Tide.”
Then, eyes still closed, I shook my head and said out loud:
“Well, he wasn’t a murderer then.”
He also wasn’t someone who really needed Death Chic, or even the common air of carefully cultivated eccentricity with which he was already associated, to ratify the genius part of his Genius.
All you had to do was listen to the records.
With Britain’s Joe Meek the equation, musical or human, isn’t so easy.
He, too, was a murderer.
He, too, was some sort of genius. Perhaps just not a musical one.
I hear three great records below and they are very great indeed. I also hear a lot of interesting technology, near misses and talent seeking an identity.
The Death Chic odor that surrounds Meek, then, is an especially strong one. Unlike Spector’s, his murder occurred while he was still young and active. It’s not so easy to disassociate the evil act with which he finally defined himself from the music he made or the public’s affection for it.
He was definitely no talent scout. Having, at some point, turned down the Beatles, Rod Stewart and a young David Bowie (and for no other reason than they stank), he did discover one of England’s finest female vocalists, Glenda Collins, and a good rockin’ band with a hard-driving female drummer (Honey Lantree of the Honeycombs), with whom he even had some commercial success. But his preference, always, was for weird, quasi-musical sound effects and studly young males who couldn’t sing. It may have been that talent put him off somehow.
Anyway, back and forth I go…
Does a minor genius–one tormented by being a closeted gay in an England where homosexuality was still outlawed–deserve the same respect for his work as a major one?
Especially if, unlike Phil Spector, he at least had the decency to off himself?
And if, unlike Spector, he committed his evil deed without first spending decades convincing himself he wasn’t satisfied with making all those great records, that he wouldn’t really amount to anything until he had blood on his hands?
It’s a close call, with no easy answers.
I guess the best thing to do is promise to listen close before we decide…
“Telstar” – The Tornados: #1 on both sides of the Atlantic in December, 1962. The first British rock and roll record to hit #1 in America, more than a year before the Beatles hit The Ed Sullivan Show. It deserved its place in history. It’s a furious, mad record, as exciting and unrepeatable as “Rumble” or “Eve of Destruction.”
“Johnny Remember Me” – John Leyton: Meek’s first UK #1, from 1961. The production is already forward looking, especially given Meek’s preference for recording in his flat. It wouldn’t be the last time he got a unique sound out of his need to keep everything close and completely under his control. Nor would it be the last time he failed to find a singer who could live up to that sound.
“Tribute To Buddy Holly” – Mike Berry & The Outlaws: From 1961. What this has going for it is sincerity. The singer has the voice to put that sincerity across, but doesn’t seem to quite know what to do with it. The producer seems more interested in cramming in as many sounds as he can than with producing an effective record. It did hit the top 40 in the UK.
“Chick A ‘Roo” – Ricky Wayne & The Flee-Rakkers: This is a near miss. Somebody knew their Buddy Holly front to back. The only thing they forgot was to come up with one of those great songs Buddy wrote like it was as easy as breathing.
“Night Of The Vampire” – The Moontrekkers: All atmosphere. In keeping with the vibe that was coming from comic books and the cheapest horror flicks. It’s probably effective background music for something….I’m just not sure what.
“Paradise Garden” – Peter Jay: Another great production in every respect except the vocal. If this was what Joe really preferred, one can hear how he missed on the Beatles. Paul McCartney would have killed this, if he could have been induced to sing it instead of one of his own little compositions.
“My Friend Bobby” – Pamela Blue: A pleasant girl group entry from 1963. The singer does not live up to her name.
“Swingin’ Low” – The Outlaws: The Outlaws were sort of Meek’s house band. This is a nice little number, a little Duane Eddy twang, a little rockabilly flavor in the drums, some weird echo. The Wrecking Crew, they were not. This is one of many records where it’s fair to ask whether Meek lacked access to top session men or they simply didn’t yet exist in Great Britain….or whether he preferred it this way. The Outlaws (who later on featured Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple fame), did make a record called “Crazy Drums” which lives up to Meek’s reputation. It, uh, did not make the charts.
“Valley Of The Saroos” – The Blue Men: In his liner notes for the EP on which this first appeared in 1960, Meek billed the music within as suitable for space travel. It was/is unclear whether the astronauts having it piped in their ear were supposed to be asleep, moon-walking or making out. Fun to speculate.
“The Bublight” – The Blue Men: From the same I Hear a New World project. I don’t think anyone was supposed to make out to this one. It may have been for going a step beyond…with space aliens.
“Til The Following Night” – Screaming Lord Sutch & The Savages: Still in 1961. Look the man was dedicated to his vision. Jungle music on the moon. Good story line, though, something about a fellow who goes about doing terrible things in the night but has to crawl back in his coffin during the day. One of Meek’s true fellow visionaries, David Sutch eventually founded the Official Monster Raving Loony Party in Great Britain and lost a record-breaking forty elections. I have no idea of his platform, but it’s hard to imagine the Brits being any worse off for him winning a couple.
“Just Like Eddie” – Heinz: Heinz was the bass player for the Tornados. This was his big shot at solo stardom and did chart in the UK. He had a white-haired version of Pink’s cropped-head look down forty years early. Alas, he did not have Pink’s vocal chops. But there’s a moment at the very end where he reaches for Eddie Cochran’s spirit and style and, for about five seconds, grabs it. That and some nice early session guitar from the aforementioned Ritchie Blackmore keep things interesting.
“North Wind” – Houston Wells & The Marksmen: This one is almost all the way there. The production and guitar work are arresting, the vocal is good. Its buried too deep in the mix for maximum effect, leading me to wonder if Meek was simply scared of good singers? He rarely signed them and, when he did, he failed to show them off. Was he afraid they would get the credit? Give Phil Spector credit for this much: Even Ronnie Spector (who received credible death threats from her former husband decades before Lana Clark met her fate) said the one person who had complete autonomy on a Phil Spector record was the lead singer. He hired great voices and showcased them. To this point, no one would accuse Joe Meek of that.
“Huskie Team” – The Saints: British surf music. Very fine. It would have fit right in on a collection of obscure South Bay bands from the Dick Dale era, though it wouldn’t have stood out.
“Have I The Right” – The Honeycombs: 1964 and at last it all comes together. Meek signs a good band with a distinctive singer (Denis D’Ell) and straight off comes up with a stomping masterpiece that goes #1 UK and Top 5 US. Despite a string of fine singles (a few of which scraped the charts on either side of the pond), they never came close to this level of commercial success again. Evidently, some ensuing copyright issues going all the way back to “Telstar” were a major factor in destroying Meek’s finances and helped put him in a murder/suicide state of mind. The court issue was decided a year after he killed his landlady, then himself, in 1967. Apparently, British courts run along the same lines as American ones: The process is the punishment. The Honeycombs’ sides, along with “Telstar” and the best work of Glenda Collins, certainly make him the greatest British producer who never worked with a major band.
“My Baby Doll” – Mike Berry & The Outlaws: A straight-up rockabilly tribute–with what sounds like zippy strings. Another near miss that goes by swiftly and painlessly.
“Something I’ve Got To Tell You” – Glenda Collins: I said what I have to say about Collins’ vocal here. It was the finest she delivered on a series of strong singles for Meek and the one moment when she was the equal of Brenda Lee or Dusty Springfield. I’ll just add that Meek’s beautiful production–recorded in his flat, like everything else–is just as great, the one moment he really could have been Phil Spector.
“I Take It That We’re Through” – The Riot Squad: 1966 and Meek is back to his old tricks, but he’s certainly learned a thing or two. This is a good record and has some great elements, including a wild instrumental break played on God knows what. If there’s a tragedy for the rest of us in Joe Meek’s story, it’s that he was clearly getting better as the decade went on.
“Lost Planet” – The Thunderbolts: I couldn’t find out anything about the Thunderbolts, or when this was recorded, but it sounds like it would have fit on a Tornados album from 1962. There are people who can’t get enough of this stuff. I’m not one of them, but a touch of it here and there is good for the soul.
“It’s Hard To Believe It” – Glenda Collins: A British “Eve of Destruction,” which means it lacks a certain air of the Apocalypse, lyrically and vocally. Still a fine record and a great closer, bringing Meek’s sonic, emotional and political concerns together in memorable fashion…and when he goes full sonic at the end–dispenses with everything except his own mad take on the world–the Apocalypse arrives anyway.