Joe Meeks highly eccentric life story, and his unique approach to record production, have turned him into a true cult figure. Meeks personality and production quirks have been obsessively documented, most notably in John Repschs compelling biography, The Legendary Joe Meek. The funny-sad, freakish saga of Meeks life is truly fascinating, but other sides of his story have gone untold. Almost nothing 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 Meeks many idols, producer/experimenter/guitarist Les Paul. The money Meek earned from his early songwriting ultimately helped him escape the restrictive hierarchy of Britains 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 Robert Duke.
Meeks songwriting may have been inspired by the lure of money. 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 songwriters work is perfect, and a look through Meeks 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: MEEKS 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 Meeks vocal demo of Telstar on a recent compilation CD, much credit, I think, is due to the various musicians who helped translate his strained, pitch-deficient da-deedle-das, 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 theyve 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 Meeks melodic formula. Its main melody strain ping-pongs innocuously around a very simple chord sequence, creating 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. Theres 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 listeners head, producing a nagging need to hear the whole thing once again, just to get at that brief, beautiful second bit. Like his pop song lyrics, Meeks melodies flutter from one emotional extreme to another. This consistent tension of dark and light may be what makes Meeks song efforts so attractive.
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, Yashmaks melody is instantly recognizable as Meek-work, snaking its way around a primitive note-scape, sounding vaguely ethnic, but more like background music from a cartoon. Unlike most of Meeks instrumentals, Yashmak offers no contrasting second theme, but theres a novelty in hearing the tune played by the brass and woodwinds of this very conventional dance orchestra, as opposed to the countless guitar groups who waxed Meek melodies over the years. Yashmak doesnt amount to much, but it has an undeniable charm, as deserves recognition as a first in Meeks musical career.
Meeks first fully-realized instrumental writing was done for an experimental project not officially released til the 1990s. I Hear A New World, recorded in 1959 with a group led by vocalist/guitarist Rod Freeman, is a formidable piece of work that establishes Joe Meek as both a daring producer and a challenging melody-maker.
Rod Freeman was the first of the many musicians entrusted with the formidable task of making Meeks tune-wary demos coherent to others. In this case, it must have taken a lot of work: the 12 tracks comprising this album contain Meeks least orthodox music. Throughout the album, there are playful bits of dissonance, delicious fragments of haunting melody, and sophisticated chord sequences that successfully venture into far out territory.
Love Dance Of The Saroos is a beautiful piece of exotica, evoking the more complex emotions and colours of Les Baxters alluring compositions, such as Quiet Village. Built on a lush chord-pattern of major sevenths and odd musical intervals, its one of the most subtle, delicate melodies of Meeks career. In contrast, Valley Of The Saroos, a more conventional, Theme From A Summer Place-styled tune, opens with a cliche rock-ballad riff containing a dreadfully off note, creating a curious comic-romantic effect. On most tracks, instruments are deliberately distorted or played out-of-tune, especially those featuring a doctored, lovingly abused piano. Most troubling are the sped-up cartoon chipmunk voices that plague a few tracks.
I Hear A New World ultimately cant choose between being comic or cosmic. I wish Meek had indulged the exotica/space-music side a little more. New World is a diamond-in-the-rough, the earliest example of a production style Meek would build his reputation on, culminating in Telstar. The album falls short of being a masterpiece, for all its avant garde layers of sound effects and music. But its certainly Meeks most fascinating piece of work.
Many of the albums best melodies are so subtle that they only reveal themselves fully through repeated listenings. There are many moments to savour in New World, from the wistful romanticism of the title track and Love Dance Of The Saroos, to the awesome gloom of Valley Of No Return, the rollicking Orbit Around The Moon, and the brooding sound collages of Glob Waterfall and Magnetic Field.
Meek was clearly proud of his songwriting on the album. As R.W. Dopson and A.D. Blackburn have noted, Meek later renovated a few of its melodies. The Outlaws Spring Is Near and Husky Team, two of Meeks best instrumental pieces, were adapted from New World items. Freemans group, dubbed The Blue Men, take an eccentric approach to Meeks eccentric tunes. Their use of pedal-steel guitar and the clavioline keyboard give these melodies a suitably exotic, far-flung feel. The clavioline would become a key part of the RGM sound, appearing in many recordings by The Moontrekkers and, of course, The Tornados.
Meek worked again with Freemans group, now called The Stonehenge Men in 1962. Their recording of Big Feet follows a classic Meek formula. A quaint, bobbing main melody gives way to a haunting, minor-keyed second strain. Big Feet has a cartoony, cheerfully weird mood. The endearing dopiness of its main melody reminds me of some of the Marx Brothers musical numbers from their 1930s films. It also evokes the atmosphere of early Jamaican ska instrumentals.
Meeks next extended streak of instrumental writing was done for The Outlaws, whose nine singles contain at least a dozen pieces he either wrote or co-wrote. Their LP, A Dream Of The West, is completely composed by Meek (in his not-so-secret Robert Duke identity).
Songwriting credits on Outlaws recordings have been disputed by various band members. Certain songs are unmistakably Meeks work; others could well be group jams that Meek usurped. Many of them, starting with Swingin Low, have short, repetitious melodic lines, with frequent shifts in key and playful variations to keep them bouncing along.
The Outlaws debut 45, Swingin Low, is credited to the groups road manager, Peter Raymond. Its a spirited jam on the P.D. tune Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, cleverly flaunting each Outlaws instrumental skill. According to John Repsch, the recording was collaged together by Meek from some 35 different fragments. In this case, Meek arguably composed by piecing the thing together, although the band members had all improvised their various bits.
The various Outlaw-musicians elaborate freely on Meeks basic tunes. Their witty interpolations brighten such recordings as Ambush, Ku-Pow and Crazy Drums, which rely on novelty sound effects and production gimmicks in lieu of strong, recognizable tunes.
Others, such as Spring Is Near, Valley Of The Sioux, Indian Brave, Last Stage West and Return Of The Outlaws are lyrical, affecting melodies, full of invention despite their apparent simplicity. Meek rarely strayed from tried-and-true chord progressions, but his melodies ventured into more sophisticated realms.
Spring Is Near is a fine example of Meeks melodic approach. It opens with a cliched four-bar strain that automatically says 50s rock-ballad. The resultant melody, though simple and straightforward, is built on surprisingly complex material, suggesting a much more sophisticated chord structure of major sevenths, minor sixths and ninths, and suspended minor fourths. The tune succeeds by layering these exotic notes over a very basic (and common) late 50s chord progression.
Compared to its New World twin, Valley Of The Saroos, Spring Is Near bears evidence of a thoughtful revision. Its now more fluid and reflective, with a plaintive tone not found in the original. The recording is too brief, and the tune desperately wants a second strain, but the short melody line is moving and haunting. Its doubtful Meek had any thoughts about major sevenths or major ninths as he hummed the tune into a tape recorder. If Meek had been music-literate, he might have felt confined to notes found in the simple chords. Because he basically free-associated his melodies, he wasnt weighed down by rules of whats right and wrong in music. He just went with what sounded good to himself. Its surprising that his musicians didnt change the chord structures to accommodate these unusual notes. If they did, though, the unique effect of these pieces might have been lost.
Dream Of The West, released in late 1961, stands as Meeks finest album project. Clocking in at less than 27 minutes, the LP hurtles through a dozen tunes--- three familiar from New World, with two others recycled as single tracks. This is Meeks most consistent piece of work---- played with spirit by the group and produced with unusual clarity and restraint.
This appears to have been another pet project of Meeks. His liner notes, which include attempts at poetry and unashamed mawkish sentiment, are genuinely touching in spots, and reflect his sincere interest in the recording.
Dream Of The West opens the album in memorable form. Sounding much like the old hillbilly tune Hambone, Dream is formula Meek at its best: a simple, repetitious but very effective melody, played at an ideally laconic tempo, and given variety by clever changes in key. Its clear, wide-open melody line, decorated by minor seventh chords, evokes images of the romanticized American west; you has only to close your eyes and imagine a wide screen, Technicolor image of James Stewart or Randolph Scott riding the range. Meek drolly acknowledges, in the LP liner notes, that this was the only West he would ever know, aside from ...the horses that ride through Hyde Park and the West End of London.
Dopson and Blackburn claim that The Outlaws was based on The Bublight, but a back to back listening shows no valid comparison to the New World tune. Both melodies share a jaunty attitude, and both quickly jam themselves in the listeners mental repeat-mode mechanism. The Bublight, due in part to its tremulous production, is the more dignified of the two melodies. The Outlaws treads the most common Meek melodic path, jerking up and down the scale, within a limited range of notes, including his typical use of major sevenths forced onto plain major chords. A nod is given to Buddy Hollys sound with the Peggy Sue-ish chordal introductions to each verse.
Husky Team is one of Meeks best instrumentals. Based on New Worlds Orbit Around The Moon, The Outlaws version has a raw, powerful mood. Its furious galloping rhythm, a harder-edged version of Telstars tempo, lends a bracing air to a brash, minor-keyed melody. Its first section is based on a common 60s chord sequence; youve also heard it in Del Shannons Runaway and California Dreamin by The Mamas and The Papas. The second strain rides a minor-flavoured circle of fifths, changing keys with each measure of music. A dramatic resolution slides back into the first strain, with vicious variations on its descending melody. Husky Team gives the listener an exhilarating sense of speed and motion, soaked with frozen-tundra atmosphere.
The Saints 1963 version, which is better-known, has a slicker arrangement, including changes in key, moving the melody upward. The tune itself is more filled out. Instead of isolated phrases of music, as in both Orbit and The Outlaws version, the main melody line is a seamless conduit, creating a more propulsive and completely different mood of excitement, Its fascinating to compare these three renditions, in which a compelling tune is refined to the point of perfection. The Outlaws version is the most affecting. Its bleak, dark atmosphere has no equal in Meeks legacy of recordings.
Smoke Signals begins and ends with muted, brittle guitar chords, played in the style of George Tomsco, lead guitarist for The Fireballs. Its melody, similar to Spring Is Near, calls upon the common Meek formula of insistently repeated notes, with many major sevenths. Its brief second section, built on a series of relative minor chords, is plaintive and very attractive. A vocal chorus joins the group on the last go-round of the main melody. Smoke Signals succeeds despite its obvious similarity to several other Meek melodies.
Homeward Bound opens with atmospheric rolling drums and banjo. Its melody, an unlikely blend of rustic old-time and faux-calypso, nonetheless has an authentic hillbilly feeling. It could be transferred to a Depression-era fiddle band recording, with only slight changes in the chord structure.
Western Sunset gives a sparse melody a sparse setting. With a few well-chosen notes, insistently repeated, the tune quietly incites an emotional response from the listener, evoking a cinema-vision of majestic, sweeping landscape. A slightly sophisticated chord progression adds welcome colour to the melody. The meditative mood of Western Sunset anticipates Meeks later Hymn For Teenagers.
Tune for Short Cowboys is a very faithful remake of New Worlds Entry Of The Globots. It follows the same arrangement, with manic, military-style percussion leading into an amusingly high-spirited tune. Gone, thank God, are those annoying Chip n Dale voices from the original. This second try manages to be comical without exaggerated effects, and brings the album to a rousing close.
Law and Order, from 1963, is the most impressive of the groups late singles. With its springy, sing-song melody, it sounds like a Meek attempt to join the Merseybeat craze. Its zig-zagging line, played on an acoustic 12-string guitar, is instantly recognizable as Meeks handiwork. It harkens back to the melodies of I Hear A New World, with its insistently odd notes colourfully forced onto basic building-block chords. The use of pedal steel guitar, especially in the tunes second strain, strengthens this resemblance. Law and Order is an exciting tune and performance. The Outlaws can be seen performing this tune in the endearing 1963 film, Live It Up.
Live It Up showcases yet another fast and furious Meek instrumental, performed by Sounds Incorporated. Keep Moving takes a primitive stair-step melody, throws in a call-and-response motif, and creates 2:06 of high-spirited rock. Musically, theres very little going on here, but the listener cant catch his breath in time to notice. Few of Meeks instrumentals are played with such forceful, free-swinging spirit. Set to an infectious Bo Diddley beat, Keep Moving ping-pongs its basic riff from piano to saxophones to guitar to drums. High-pitched brass joins in as the piece rolls on, building to a rousing climax, fading away just as its primal tune has gotten into the listeners bloodstream.