The B-side, Order Of The Keys, mines more familiar territory: a simple but exotic melody line, structured like The Tornados Telstar. Like Big Feet, the tune has a hint of ska in its sound, if not its rhythm. Duane Eddy-styled guitar introduces the main theme, built around five notes. The theme doesnt frantically hop up and down the scale, but metes these notes out gracefully, creating a stately, dramatic mood. The lumbering, sing-songy second strain inspires a graceless performance from the group. A surprising change of key returns us to the main theme, played, a la Telstar, by liquid, multi-tracked guitar. Order Of The Keys, unlike many of Meeks post-Telstar efforts, doesnt cheat the listener with a watered down sound alike tune. If its second theme were better, it would rank as one of Meeks best later instrumentals.
Some claim that Sounds Incorporated based their act on that of Peter Jay and The Jaywalkers, another group who did time at 304 Holloway Road. Jays group boasts a razor-sharp musical attack and crisp, assured playing. Of their handful of Meek-penned recordings, the bands personality comes through distinctly; they seem to resist Meeks Svengali touch, which often makes all guitarists and groups sound alike, their playing chopped-up or hopped-up.
Oo La La, from 1963, sounds like something song-hack Mitch Murray (I Like It, etc.) might have brewed up on a bender. I dont think Meek ever devised a more sing-songy tune. Ram-packed with tell-tale major sevenths, its viciously performed by the group. Their sparkling attack and enthusiasm disguise the high irritant factor of the tune, especially in the records breathtaking last chorus.
Jaywalker, co-written with drummer/bandleader Peter Jay, is built around a very modal chord sequence, sounding like a surf-band rendition of the hillbilly chestnut, Old Joe Clark. The tunes first strain has our expected bouncy Meek melody, vividly coloured by unusual chords. The second section, which is absolutely thrilling, sounds decidedly un-Meek, but it fits beautifully with the first. Its certainly a fine collaboration, and the band plays the hell out of it. Bolstered by such distinctive Meek touches as multi tracked lead guitar and ghostly electric piano, Jaywalker has the bold, cocky sound of the best American surf bands.
Totem Pole is a charming, Buddy Holly-esque melody. In the Jaywalkers 1963 version, a chiming keyboard sound reminds the listeners of Hollys delicate recording, Everyday. Jays group plays the melody at a sluggish medium tempo, with a full-bodied sound of saxes vs. double-tracked guitars. This tune may be Meeks single most-appealing sing-song; the melody covers more of the musical scale than normal, and theres a solid connection between the first and second themes. The recording wants to be a shade faster a surprising change of pace for an RGM production. A 1965 remake by The Honeycombs takes a faster pace, but sounds thin in comparison with Jays version.
Meeks best-known instrumental pieces were created for his most popular group, The Tornados. Their sound, based around the antiseptic squeal of the clavioline keyboard, was almost entirely dependent on Meeks production style. Meek composed around 20 pieces for the group, under a variety of pen names. These tunes range from the sublime to the insipid, and mark a decided turning-point in Meeks instrumental writing.
Meeks first piece for The Tornados, Swinging Beefeater, was recorded sometime in early 1962, before the group was officially formed. Taped as a demo, it was later over dubbed and put on a Tornados EP. One of the groups few guitar-driven pieces, Swinging Beefeater has one of Meeks least typical melodies. Fueled by a futuristic, multi-tracked guitar sound, the tune never quite resolves itself, doing a bull-in-a-china-shop routine from section to section. The chaotic melody starkly clashes with the rhythm tracks tidy twist feel. Its a genuinely surprising tune that grows more appealing with repeated listens. A harsh and sloppy production only adds to its attraction.
The Tornados first single featured Meeks unjustly ignored Love and Fury. Dismissed by Repsch in his book, Love and Fury has a strong, haunting melody and driving arrangement. It also offers a fascinating rough draft of the groups next, and most famous, disc, Telstar. All of Telstars elements are present; a galloping, bracing rhythm, shimmering multi-tracked guitar leads, and the presence of the clavioline, identically blended with a lone male voice. Like Jaywalker, Love and Fury is built on a folky-modal chord sequence. Just as Telstar evokes the vast majesty of outer space, Love and Fury creates a mood of endless, windswept landscapes, much like the spaghetti western themes of Italian composer Ennio Morricone. Love and Fury failed to reach the hit lists, which has given rise to the belief that its an artistic failure. Not so; its one of Meeks most potent instrumentals, and deserves a critical reconsideration.
Telstar is considered Joe Meeks crowning achievement. More has been said about this disarmingly simple melody than any of Meeks other compositions. But is it really his greatest piece of work?
Telstar creates a special mood of yearning, exploration, of diving madly into the future that never was and has an optimistic rush that still commands the listeners attention. Some 35 years after its creation, Telstar has become a poignant relic of the Space Age. In 1962, the melody was an international shot in the arm, an uplifting antidote to the grave international scenario of nuclear crisis.
You can still feel that intense, brilliant burst of emotion while hearing Telstar. In classic Meek fashion, two sections contrast highly different moods. The main theme, started on the brazen clavioline, is forceful, propulsive, suggestive of an aggressive assent into another world. The second theme, dreamily conveyed on a buoyant, multi tracked guitar, has a soaring, meditative aura. The listener has the sensation of coasting gently through an awesome vastness. Hearing this part of Telstar is something like staring upwards at a field of stars on a clear night. Perfectly captured is that sense of endless awe; the understanding that the universe is larger than any of us could possibly imagine, its boundaries extending into infinity.
The brashness of the first theme, on its return, is softened by the addition of a single male voice, doubling the melody line and lending a human element to the synthetic bray of the keyboard. With the voice joining the clavioline, the reflective quality of the tunes second strain influences its main theme. The mood also rides out the end of the melody, bolstered by triumphant chords from the clavioline, as the sound effects that open the disc finally devour the tune.
The triumph of Telstar leans heavily on the tunes arrangement and production. The songs main theme, reduced to a simple melody-line, is standard issue Meek tuneage, coloured by Meeks usual major-sevenths, played against the chords rather common chord changes. The second strain is even simpler, yet due to its quieter feel, its more emotionally affecting. Telstar is far from being Meeks most complex or accomplished piece of music. Compared to similar melodies from I Hear A New World, it seems just ordinary. Its the mood of Telstar, and Meeks completely confident production technique, that ultimately distinguish the piece.
Telstars international success caused its creator both acclaim and agony. As John Repsch explains in his book, Telstar was the centre of a long and painful lawsuit, in which Meek was unjustly accused of plagiarizing another composers work. As a result of this trial, Meek never receive any of Telstars songwriting royalties.
The success of Telstar ironically reduced Meek to copying his own work. Time and again, he pillaged the tune that won him international fame, sometimes merely borrowing the tunes galloping beat and general sound, but often just barely squeezing by, changing only a handful of notes to fabricate a new instrumental. His efforts became increasingly less creative and interesting thereafter. Two of Meeks closet clones are The Tornados Life On Venus and The Outlaws The Return Of The Outlaws.
The follow up, Globetrotter, thankfully avoids the Soundalike Syndrome, at least in its mood. Its relaxed and fluid throughout. While its tune is obviously built like Telstar, its much more cheerful and upbeat. Its one of Meeks rare up tempo tunes that doesnt resort to ping-pong melody. The tune has a charming effect on the listener, and its refreshing after the space age strum n drang of Telstar. Globetrotter is one of Meeks more durable instrumental melodies.
Hymn For Teenagers, from 1963, reverses the Telstar formula, with a haunting, delicate main melody followed by a less distinguished second strain. Similar to two other Tornados recordings, Dreamin On A Cloud and All The Stars In The Sky, Hymn has, in its first strain, one of Meeks most reflective, gentle melodies. The second part, as in Order Of The Keys, is a little blah, as if Meek ran out of inspiration, but just wanted to get the thing done. This drab section disrupts the tender mood, and the recording never does quite get back on track.
In Hot Pot, another 1963 recording, clever sound effects and a deep, pulsating rhythm track distinguish one of Meeks most simple, mesmerizing melodies. A seeming Meek attempt at world music, the tunes second strain is extremely hypnotic, using manic repetition of a few notes to lull the listener into a momentary trance. Less ambitious than usual, Hot Pot is a later standout among Meek instrumentals, making imaginative and effective use of very simple material. Like Husky Team, Hot Pot is unique among Meeks melodies.
There are many other Meek instrumentals worthy of comment. I Hear A New World certainly deserves a longer study. But these tunes are essential pieces of Meeks songwriting career. Telstar was Meeks greatest and most lasting success. Meek may have needed help to fully realize these pieces, but they bear his distinct mark in their often surprising melodies, and mood swings.
Meeks pop song efforts are, inevitably, a different breed. The free-flying wonder of Telstar and all its instrumental cousins could not be reduced to a few lines of simple verse, set to a three-chord melody. Instead, Meek, like countless other songwriters, mined material from his own emotions and from the works of other writers he liked. Meeks early songs bear a strong resemblance to those of such established songsmiths as Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran and Elvis Presleys stable of composers, including Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and Felice and Boudleaux Bryant.
As well, the exaggerated, often morbid emotions found in 50s country music are close to those in Meeks lyrics. A casual listen to the hits of Don Gibson, for example, reveals some genuinely creepy emotions, disguised by peppy, buoyant melodies and productions. Gibsons Give Myself A Party, from 1959, is strikingly similar to a Joe Meek lyric in its theme of resigning from life, of choosing to be a lonely SOB, simply because its the easy way out. Though they sometimes lack the crafty wordplay of Nashvilles best, many of Meeks best songs could easily have been recorded by American country singers of the 50s and 60s.
Meek certainly found his greatest inspiration in the works of Buddy Holly. Hollys songs honestly and simply express genuine emotions, using clever turns of phrase and colloquialisms. Theres also a strong romantic optimism in his songs, tempered with the insight of lost love and loneliness. Hollys was a fresh, direct eloquence that Meek sometimes equaled, and often approached. Whether Holly did, as Meek often claimed, guide his creative hand from beyond the grave, is anyones guess. But Holly was unmistakably Meeks guiding light in his songwriting inspiration.
Many of Meeks early songwriting/production efforts Just Too Late, Believe Me, With This Kiss, Dont Pick On Me, My Baby Doll, Make Way Baby are fine pieces of hook-filled commercial songcraft. With This Kiss, a stately R+B flavoured ballad given a dramatic production, is particularly choice.
Meek also dabbled in different types of song from the eras typical fare. 1959's Magic Wheel is a silly, weird song about love in the abstract sense. 1960's Early In The Morning is a spirited, clever folk song pastiche, and 1960's Paradise Garden is a daft epic of overblown, windswept romanticism. None of these songs, though, step outside the comfortable boundaries of convention. They could have come from any halfway-decent songwriter, British or American. Meek could certainly have done worse by his various artistes and groups, and performers such as Ricky Wayne and Yolanda perform these early Meek songs with style and enthusiasm.
One of the first Meek songs to introduce what I believe are his personal emotions about life and romance is 1960's Im Waiting For Tomorrow, recorded by Danny Rivers. A stately, Presley-styled ballad, its very simple lyrics express a sense of nostalgia and longing that will soon pervade Meeks work:I'm waiting for tomorrow and I'm praying every day that you'll come back to me tomorrow, and love me the same old way. I'm waiting for tomorrow, if you would only say that you'll come back to me tomorrow, never more to stray... In all this great wide world, with all its precious things there's nothing quite as wonderful as your love and what it brings... I'm waiting for tomorrow and I'm praying that you'll say that you'll come back to me tomorrow, and love me the same old way.
A constant of Meeks lyrical work is this sense of displacement, of being put on hold by memories and lost affection. These themes are a staple of songwriting, of course, and as commercial as they come. Yet in Im Waiting For Tomorrow, the listener receives a strong feeling that these lines, basic as they are, seem to come from the heart of the person who wrote them.
Another early song of distinction in that it sticks out like a sore thumb is 1960's The Night You Told A Lie, recorded by Iain Gregory. This song also looks ahead to Meeks later lyrics in which intense, sometimes sinister emotions duke it out with catchy pop melodies:There was a clap of thunder that shook the earth and my heart started to cry; for I was through, and I knew it too -- The night you told me a lie. The wind was strong, it began to rain and dark clouds filled up the sky; Forsaken plea, you deserted me The night you told me a lie... Just by chance, I saw you walking with another guy. Then my world turned upside-down, for I knew our love was to die... There was a clap of thunder that shook the earth and my heart started to cry; for I was through, and I knew it too -- The night you told me a lie.
The songs mood, from the opening crash of thunder to the minor keyed bridge (Just by chance, I saw you walking...) is a close cousin to may of Del Shannons early 60s songs. But its aura of desolation and separation are pure Meek. Once again, the narrators frustrated romantic experiences put him outside the regular world. In his helpless state, he roams this songs comic-book landscape of shaking earth and clouded sky, moaning like a lost cat. Gregorys awkward, strained performance complements the tortured outburst of the lyrics. He sounds like hes really acting out the songs scenario, in his attempts to hit the right notes of the tune.
Gregorys hapless delivery also abets 1962's Pocketful Of Dreams and Eyes Full Of Tears. Smothered in a perky production of plucking strings and exotic vibraphone, this songs psycho-dramatic lyrics cant help coming off a bit ludicrous;Got a pocketful of dreams and my eyes full of tears, can't seem to laugh or cry... Since my baby said goodbye. Got a pocketful of dreams and my eyes full of tears, all because of you... now that I know our love is through... They all say it's just a passing phase, we're both in a haze; love has funny ways... Got a pocketful of dreams and my eyes full of tears, oh, I think I would die... If you really mean goodbye.
An obvious try at writing a Buddy Holly song, Pocketful Of Dreams has a certain woebegone charm. The phrase-making is colourful, and the lyrics are frightfully in touch with the berserk emotions of teen angst. From the memorable line, Cant seem to laugh or cry, to the bridge, with its nod to adult condescension (They all say its just a passing phase...), Pocketful Of Dreams could have easily been the work of some precocious, lovelorn 15 year-old. Whether Meek was expressing his own emotions or trying to make an appealing song for the pop market, he conveys the agony of teen heartbreak with cringing accuracy.
1962's output also included Poor Joe, a song recorded by both Carter-Lewis and Cliff Bennett and The Rebel Rousers. Meek didnt produce the Carter-Lewis version easily the best of the two, thanks to the duos crisp harmonies and an unaptly cheerful arrangement. Once again, the lyric resembles some love-sick teens secret scrawl;Poor Joe, he's fallen in love, and he vowed that he wouldn't. Poor Joe; it was easy as pie, and he thought that he couldn't. Poor Joe saw two eyes look his way, and heard a voice like a dove. Poor Joe took one kiss from her lips, and he had fallen in love... Everyone has got to face it one day -- no use shaking your head or running away. Poor Joe -- tied up on a string; He's crying today. Poor Joe, he's ended his fling; he gave his heart away.
Self pity is the fuel of a million pop songs, past and present. But few self-pitying songs include their author, by name, as the main figure of the lyric! In Poor Joe, were back to the stick-figure language of Im Waiting For Tomorrow. Though the lyrics lack in information or imagination, theyre redeemed by the songs bridge: ...no use shaking your head or running away! This romantic philosophy makes falling in love sound as appealing as catching the Ebola virus!
According to Repschs book, Bennetts group rebelled when Meek presented this song to them. The Rebel Rousers, more at home with impersonal, Jerry Lee Lewis-style rockin, considered this quirky tune a piece of crap, and Meek forced them to record it. Carter-Lewis happily tuck into Poor Joe. Its their sincere, unaware performance, matching Meeks sincere, unaware lyric, that makes Poor Joe as fascinating as a nasty car wreck.
Poor Joe may seem laughable, but Loneliness, also from 1962, has been widely cited as one of Meeks finest lyrics. Its one of a handful of his songs that might explain how Joe Meek really felt about the world. This song also sports a beautiful melody, especially in the songs bridge (Ill keep on a-waiting...):Loneliness, woh woh, he's got his claws in me. Loneliness, woh woh, seems ot be my destiny. Made to cry in the night, no-one seems to treat me right... Loneliness, woh woh, what's to become of me? Happiness, yeh yeh, always seems to pass me by. Happiness, yeh yeh; give some to this lonely boy. I can treat someone good, with everything a lover should. Loneliness, woh woh, what's to become of me?... I'll keep on a-waiting, and I know by and by, out of the blue, I'll find you, and all the angels in Heaven will cry; in happiness they'll cry for you and I... Loneliness, woh woh, he's got his claws in me. Loneliness, woh woh, seems to be my destiny. Made to cry in the night, no-one seems to treat me right. Loneliness, woh woh, what's to become of me?
Loneliness is as good as pop songwriting gets. Its everyday words intimately connect the listener in a way comparable to Buddy Hollys Well All Right, Listen To Me or Wishing. While these lyrics still express an adolescent sense of pain and isolation, they show more emotional maturity than Poor Joe or The Night You Told A Lie. Coupled with its excellent melody, the lyrics of Loneliness walk a spiritual-emotional ground that is uniquely Meeks.
This ground is also trod in the obscure Hey There Stranger, recorded by Pamela Blue in 1963. Like Loneliness, this appears to be one of Meeks more personal pieces of songwriting. Its also one of his most atmospheric, conjuring vivid images out of an early 60s British film like Billy Liar, or Saturday Night and Sunday Morning:Hey there, are you a stranger? Or just a-passin' through? I haven't seen that face before; let me show you what my love can do. Hey there, are you a wild boy, a-rovin' this crazy land? I'm a tear-away without a care, and this love of mine you'll understand... This town ain't no good for a girl or a boy; it's as dead as the flies on a wall. Some days I feel I want to squeal and shout out -- "I hate it all!"... Hey there, are you a wise boy? If so, then pass me by. I'll break your heart if you give me the chance. I'm no good, just leave me here to cry...
Hey There Stranger, one of the most overtly homosexual lyrics in Meeks songbag, isnt your ordinary pick-up scenario. Compared to Roy Orbisons Oh Pretty Woman, or Ken Howard and Howard Blaikelys catchy knock off, Just A Face In The Crowd, Meeks song may seem rather despairing. The narrators touch of self loathing, along with his/her lack of doubt that anything will come of a sexual union, takes the tale of this song outside the usual boundaries of boy-girl relationships.
Theres none of the sexual promise hoped for in the other songs, which both build to a feverish crescendo of desire, even though the protagonist of Crowd doesnt luck out at songs end. Both these songs are narrated by cowardly straight males: Hey There Stranger assigns the sexual quest to a woman. The narrators bluntness (Ill break your heart if you give me the chance...) is completely at odds with the submissive role usually given to females in pop songs of this era. The song could well be Meek recounting some of his furtive sexual experiences, and venting his frustration at not finding (or wanting) a long term companion. Its powerful, realistic material, a completely un-romanticized version of a staple pop-song scenario.
Meeks lone musical reference to his gayness happens in The Tornados Do You Come Here Often?, the b-side to the last single he produced with them. John Repsch describes the song as ...a conversation between two homosexuals meeting...in a nightclub loo...their dialogue, spoken in limp wristed, flirty fashion...(is) full of double meanings. According to Repsch, meek was delighted to get away with the songs catty, campy stereotyped asides. The number may have been, as Repsch also notes, especially daring for Joe, but its self-depreciating attitude is light-years away from modern attitudes of acceptance.
One has to read between the lines of Meeks lyrics for clues about his more serious emotional and sexual feelings. Its notable that the majority of his pop lyrics are gender-free. Im Waiting For Tomorrow and The Night You Told A Lie are unisex scenarios no different from thousands of similar pop songs churned out in this century. Yet they taste strongly of the isolation and ostracization gay men certainly felt in the pre-liberation 1960s. Loneliness, for that matter, could almost be seen as an anthem of the plight of many 60s homosexuals perhaps the main reason its words seem so touching and direct.
In contrast, Nice While It Lasted, a 1964 album track for The Honeycombs, is a sneering celebration of romantic rejection very likely the way many of Meeks relationships came to an end, fueled by insecurity and low self-esteem: