Mike Stax on Joe Meek
As I write this it’s been forty-six years to the day since Joe Meek ended his life.
What is it about his work that, almost half a century later, continues to astound and fascinate us? After 35 years or so of listening to Joe’s music, I’m still trying to get my head around it all. For one thing, there’s just so much of it—hundred of tracks in a multitude of different styles: pop ballads, beat groups, girl groups, R&B groups, instrumental groups, outer space concept albums, tributes to the dead, horror rock, goofy novelty records and good old-fashioned rock & roll. Although he worked in so many diverse genres, Joe’s productions all have a unique, instantly identifiable sound. Eight bars into the song you know beyond a reasonable doubt that you’re listening to a Joe Meek production. The name of the artist on the label is secondary; first and foremost it’s a Joe Meek record.
Meek had his own vision to which he was completely and utterly committed. Utterly convinced his path was the true one, he refused to deviate from it to even the slightest degree. A true maverick he chose to operate alone on the fringes of the music industry as Britain’s first truly independent producer.
Otherworldly is a word often used when describing Joe’s productions, and for good reason. From his fourth floor flat on a busy north London street, Meek conjured sounds that could transport the listener to a distant planet, a fog-shrouded graveyard, or the desolate moors of southwest England. He could send you spinning through space on a satellite or riding a stagecoach across the wide open prairies of the American west. Joe was a loner, an abnormally sensitive misfit who had never been able to find his place in this world, so he created other worlds to escape into; alternative realities where he could hide away from the scorn and rejection he felt directed at him from conventional society.
My own immersion into the weird world of RGM and Meeksville was a gradual one. As someone who enjoyed and collected ‘60s era rock, I must have had a half-dozen or so of Meek’s productions in my collection before I became aware of the full scope of his legacy. The Joe Meek Story double-album, compiled by Jim Blake and Alan Blackburn and released on Decca in 1977, played a big role in opening up that world to me. Alongside already familiar numbers by the Tornados, Heinz and Screaming Lord Sutch, the anthology included tracks by lesser-known artists like Don Charles, Pamela Blue, the Saxons and the Millionaires. Even more revelatory were the copious liner notes, which provided reams of new information for budding Meek fanatics like myself to obsess over.
Blake and Blackburn ran the RGM Appreciation Society, which carried the torch for Joe’s music throughout this period. I corresponded with Jim for several years and he was an endless font of information and music, helping me fill many of the gaps in my growing collection of Meek discs, and even sending me unreleased tracks from the legendary ‘tea chest tapes.’ Greg Shaw was another source for Meek rarities at the time. When I sent him a list of tracks I was missing from Joe’s discography, he responded with more than a dozen 90-minute cassette tapes filled with rarities from his collection. The number of records Meek produced is mind-boggling. At his early to mid-sixties peak, he must have been cranking them out on a daily basis – and that doesn’t even take into account the small mountain of unreleased tracks, many of which still remain unheard. My obsession with all things Meek was stoked still higher by the publication in 1989 of John Repsch’s book, The Legendary Joe Meek: The Telstar Man, and continues to the present day.
I’d be hard pressed to pick my favorite Joe Meek record. There are so many contenders: “Telstar” (of course), John Leyton’s gorgeously desolate “Johnny Remember Me,” Screaming Lord Sutch’s bone-chilling debut “Till the Following Night,” the tension-fueled racket of the Syndicats’ “Crawdaddy Simone,” the bizarre science fiction pop of Geoff Goddard’s “Sky Men,” the hushed drama of the Cryin’ Shames’ “Please Stay,” Mike Berry’s “Tribute to Buddy Holly,” the Blue Men’s ethereal “I Hear A New World” or the playful rhythm & blues of David John & the Mood’s “I Love to See You Strut.” All of these records continue to thrill me a thousand and sixty-five plays later.
Yet, in searching for a favorite, my mind circles back to those records by Heinz. There was nothing particularly special about Heinz Burt, an ordinary, not especially bright young provincial lad with a barely serviceable singing voice. But Joe was smitten with him—he saw something in him no one else did. No one else.
What was it? I think that to Joe, Heinz was a blank slate, a white screen onto which he could project all his creative aspirations. Meek himself was no musician; the recording studio was his medium, and he used every hard-earned, hard-learned technical trick at his disposal, along with some of his best backing musicians, to make Heinz sound like something he could never possibly be: a star. In reaching at full stretch for the unreachable, Meek created some of the most compelling records in his catalog, tracks that were forced to push the extreme in order to elevate Heinz’s innate mediocrity to a higher realm. Certainly a lot of the records bearing Heinz’s name fall short, but the best of them are magical: songs like “Questions I Can’t Answer,” “I’m Movin’ In,” “Heart Full of Sorrow,” “The Beating of My Heart,” and “Don’t Worry Baby” — the latter two written by Joe himself. There’s an almost unbearable poignancy to some of these songs. In them you hear the dreams of one lonely man wrapped tightly around that one thin hope that everyone else knows is sure to lose. You can hear it especially on the first single Joe made with Heinz, “Dreams Do Come True.”
In that song those hopes and dreams are still sweet and wistful, not yet soured by desperation:
I drift on a big white cloud
Over house tops high above
Dreaming there must be someone
A certain someone for me to love.
I listen to those lines and picture Joe Meek sitting at his window late at night, the hum of the tape machines now silenced as he gazes across the wet streets and rooftops of the city.
Alone. Always alone.
- Mike Stax, February 3rd, 2013