“Everyone Has Got to Face It One Day…” Joe Meek’s Songwriting Legacy
An opinionated Essay by and © 1997, 2013 Frank M. Young. Newly revised and updated by the author.
When I first wrote this essay, 16 years ago, CD reissues of Joe Meek’s recordings were far from exhaustive. Thus, I hadn’t been able to hear certain key pieces that have proved vital to any discussion of his work as a music composer. I’m thankful for the chance to revisit this essay, revise it and expand it. Joe Meek’s value as a composer is much better recognized than it was in the 1990s—in part, perhaps, thanks to the early version of this essay. I hope this revised essay continues to inspire interest in the curious oeuvre of Joe Meek, the commercial songwriter.
Joe Meek’s highly eccentric life story, and his unique approach to record production, has made him a longstanding cult figure. Meek’s personality and production quirks have been obsessively documented, most notably in John Repsch’s compelling biography, “The Legendary Joe Meek.” The funny-sad, freakish saga of Meek’s life is truly fascinating, but other sides of his story have gone untold. Little has been said about his formidable output as a successful pop songwriter.
Meek made his first major impact in the music world as a songwriter, penning tunes such as “Put A Ring On Her Finger,” which became a top forty hit in America, as recorded by one of Meek’s many idols, producer/experimenter/guitarist Les Paul. The money Meek earned from his early songwriting ultimately helped him escape the restrictive hierarchy of Britain’s established record companies and studios.
Meek put his heart into his work, but his songs were also created for practical purposes. By providing production and material for his groups and singers, Meek wisely sought to give himself complete control over his recording efforts. As well, he devised a number of pseudonyms, to avoid losing part of his mechanical royalties to business associates. A mystery figure to any new Meek fan is Robert Duke, the nom de plume that pops up so often on RGM discs. Other common pen-names are Robert Baker and Peter Jacobs. These were cooked up after Meek had been outed as Duke.
Meek’s songwriting may have been inspired by the lure of money. After all, the B-side of a single also earned royalties. If it was hitched to a top-selling A-side, the rewards could be significant.
If so, his motives were no less noble than all the other producers A&R men, managers and hangers-on who foisted their tunes onto performers in this era, in search of songwriting royalties. Whether the material was pure gold or utter crap, this has been an accepted practice since the dawn of recorded sound.
No songwriter’s output is perfect, and a look through Meek’s barrel-o’-tunes reveals more than a few rotten apples. But the best of his efforts — and these comprise an impressive body of songs — share a compelling consistency of strong melodies and sincere (if bizarre) emotion.
LOVE AND FURY: MEEK’S INSTRUMENTALS
It seems a paradox that Meek, who could not write, read, play or adequately sing music, was able to create so many distinctive tunes. With such evidence as Meek’s vocal demo of “Telstar,” it is clear that much credit is due to the various musicians who helped translate his strained, pitch-deficient “da-deedle-da”s, often sung randomly over inappropriate backing tracks, into distinctive instrumental pieces. Musicians such as Dave Adams, Geoff Goddard, Alan Caddy and Ritchie Blackmore must have had their patience tested time and again, helping temperamental Meek turn the sounds into his head into sensible melodies. They, in turn, may have introduced certain tendencies into the music (unusual chord changes, unexpected shifts in key) that Meek alone might never have created or considered.
A Joe Meek melody is easily recognizable, within its first few measures. For better or worse, his is an enormously consistent body of work. His instrumentals, in particular, almost always contain a banal, sing-songy first section with a more tuneful, reflective second strain. Some of these zig-zagging, wind-up-toy melodies may remind the listener of tunes they’ve mindlessly hummed to themselves in the bath. The second sections, in sharp contrast, often have haunting, beautiful moments which make a strong impression.
“The Ice Cream Man,” recorded by The Tornados is 1963, is a textbook example of Meek’s melodic formula. Its main melody strain ping-pongs innocuously around a very simple chord sequence. It creates an appropriate mood of inane cheer, agreeable yet irritating. The second section, passionately played on an acoustic guitar, is unexpectedly tender and reflective, evoking a wistful sense of nostalgia. There’s no logical reason for this severe emotional shift. Yet this move saves the tune from cutie-pie banality. This clash of moods sticks in the listener’s head, producing a nagging need to hear the whole thing once again, just to get at that brief, beautiful second bit.
The earliest Meek instrumental tune appears to be “Yashmak,” recorded in early 1959 by Chico Arnaz and his Latin-American Orchestra, a fraudulent front for a dance band led by Jackie Davies. Played on electric guitar, then transferred to cheerfully harmonizing saxes and trumpets, “Yashmak”’s melody is instantly recognizable as Meek-work, snaking its way around a primitive notescape, sounding vaguely ethnic, but more like background music from a cartoon.
Unlike most of Meek’s instrumentals, “Yashmak” offers no contrasting second theme. There’s a novelty in hearing the tune played by the brass and woodwinds of this conventional dance orchestra, as opposed to the countless guitar groups who waxed Meek melodies over the years. “Yashmak” doesn’t amount to much, but it has an undeniable charm, as deserves recognition as a first in Meek’s musical career.
Part 2 – coming soon