Behind the #1s – Joe Meek

Our last entry in this mini-series takes us from the middle of the road hit-machine that was Norrie Paramor, to somebody slightly more niche.

Not that Robert George ‘Joe’ Meek didn’t have his moments in the spotlight; but his was a chart-career that favoured quantity over quality. The bold over the bland. Crazy over sane. Would one expect anything less from a man whose mother supposedly dressed him as a girl for the first four years of his life…?

image-placeholder-title

The achievements in his short career are many and varied – he recorded what was potentially the first ever rock opera, and pioneered the idea of independent record distribution – as well as making music that simply didn’t sound like anything else around at the time… There was overdubbing, distortion and sampling (more on which later…) He worked with big acts like Frankie Vaughan, Lonnie Donegan, Chris Barber’s Jazz Band, and a young Tom Jones. But this is the UK #1s blog and we are here, primarily, for the chart-toppers.

And what a trio of chart-toppers. First came the gothic ludicrousness of John Leyton’s ‘Johnny Remember Me’, in which a dead lover calls across the moors to her still-living beau, daring him to even think about forgetting her. Up last came ‘Have I The Right?’, by The Honeycombs, in which Merseybeat was fed through an electronic blender. And sandwiched in between, the perfect weird filling in a bizarre sandwich, sits The Tornado’s ‘Telstar’. I don’t have the time or space to give that record another write-up – just follow the link here for my original post or press play on the video below. Suffice to say that it is one of the very best chart-toppers that we’ve covered so far. Top five? Definitely. Top three? Probably.

‘Telstar’ sold five million copies around the world, topped the UK charts for five weeks and became only the second British chart-topper on the Billboard 100, a full year before the British Invasion truly kicked off. And it, like most of his hits, was recorded above a shop on the Holloway Road in North London. He used something called a Clavioline on the recording – a sort of proto-synthesiser – to create that alien-craft-hovering-right-above-you sound. But Meek wasn’t fussy, or a slave to technology; the ‘drums’ on ‘Have I the Right?’, for example, came from the band stamping on his stairs.

john-meek-the-telstar-man-762597

And as mad, zany and out-there as his hit records were, they can’t compare to Meek’s life story. This is a man who took recording equipment into graveyards to capture the voices of the dead, who held seances with Buddy Holly, who talked to cats, who thought that the photographs in his studio were trying to communicate with him… It’s perhaps not surprising that some found him a little difficult to work with… Meek was a man, it seems, who knew what he liked. He turned down the chance to work with a young David Bowie, and tried to persuade Brian Epstein not to sign The Beatles. He allegedly ran screaming, with his fingers in his ears, from a 16-year old Rod Stewart the second he began to sing…

Which all sounds perfectly absurd and entertaining; but it’s probably not fair to make light of it. Meek had serious troubles with addiction and paranoia in the later years of his life, stemming largely from the fact that he was gay and feared being outed. He was arrested for ‘immoral acts’ in a public toilet in 1963, which signalled the start of his downward spiral. Somewhat touchingly, it seems that he feared being outed to his mother much more than the general public…

On top of this, he faced lawsuits from one his main collaborators over exactly who wrote ‘Have I The Right?’, and from a French composer for the melody from ‘Telstar’ (which meant he never received a single royalty cheque for his biggest hit.) Meek was, in all honesty, a bit of a musical magpie, and seems not to have had much regard for licensing and copyright. He was above all those prosaic concerns – a true artiste. A one-off. No constraints, no boundaries. Which is why he could create a record as ahead of the curve as ‘Telstar’.

But it’s also why, when he heard rumours that every ‘known homosexual’ in London was going to be interviewed over the murder of a young man, a paranoid and desperate Meek shot himself and his innocent landlady. It was 1967 – he was just thirty-seven. He had had nothing to do with the murder, he simple feared the notoriety and possible prison sentence that came with being gay in the sixties. It’s tragic, given that five years later Bowie was dressing up as Ziggy Stardust on Top of The Pops, and that barely fifteen years later Frankie were saying ‘Relax’. Meek was born just that little bit too early.

He died on 3rd February, the same day as his idol, Buddy Holly, and his ghost can still be heard banging about in his old recording studio every year on that date, if you believe in that sort of thing. I’m including the videos for his three chart-toppers below – knock yourselves out – and would recommend Darryl W. Bullock’s book ‘David Bowie Made Me Gay’, in which I first read about unhinged genius of Joe Meek.

176. ‘Have I the Right?’, by The Honeycombs

What’s that? What’s this? Why, it’s the sound of Merseybeat being fed through an electronic blender…

the_honeycombs_have_i_the_right_ep_spain_500_49412

Have I the Right?, by The Honeycombs (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 27th August – 10th September 1964

This is a Beat-pop song, with everything in the right place: verses, choruses, a solo. Lyrics about love. Have I the right to hold you, You know I’ve always told you, That we must never, ever part… Some whoah-oahs. But… Something doesn’t sound quite right. And by ‘not quite right’ I don’t mean it sounds ‘wrong’ – far from it. I mean it sounds… completely unique.

Take the drums for a start. They are deep and bouncy, and echoey. The drummer might well be in a completely different room from the rest of the band. In the chorus, as they pound out on every note, they sound like one of those huge Japanese drums, echoing across a misty forest.

Then there are the jabs of electronic keyboard that pierce the end of every line in the verses, like a ray-gun in a cheapo fifties ‘B’-movie. The guitar too is sharp, and clean as a knife; but again there’s something kooky about it, as if you were listening to pop music from a different but not too distant dimension. These two instruments combine on the solo and then, perhaps midway through, you realise what this song reminds you of: the one and only, the era-defining, blast from the future that was ‘Telstar’.

That particular #1 was produced by the legendarily maverick Joe Meek, and so was this. All three of his chart-toppers – this, ‘Telstar’ and John Leyton’s ‘Johnny Remember Me’ – were recorded in his apartment in Islington. All three are unique songs; but all contain recognisable characteristics. They’re drenched in overdubbing, they’re tweaked and tucked, they twang with reverb, and they are just all a little bit weird.

Here, for instance, is just one of the tales from the recording of ‘Have I the Right?’ Those drums I mentioned earlier? They were enhanced, not digitally, but by members of The Honeycombs stamping their feet on the stairs outside the studio. A tambourine was thumped against a microphone. And then, for the finishing touch, the tape was sped up. So much for the misty Japanese forest…

HONEYCOMBS-HAVE-I-THE

This record isn’t quite ‘Telstar’ – how could you recreate one of the most innovative and forward-gazing pop songs ever recorded? But it is still a brilliant #1. And in some ways, maybe, this is actually the more impressive feat. Here, Meek had to use his powers in the confines of a ‘regular’ mid-sixties pop song; while on ‘Telstar’ he was allowed to completely let loose… When we get to the chorus – Come right back, I just can’t bear it, I got some love and I need to share it… The lyrics look normal on paper – a little basic even. It’s the sound, and the propulsive, endearingly home-made feel of this song that makes it what it is.

Joe Meek, while never actually featuring in any of his chart-topping hits, was the main star of all three. From the gothic melodrama of ‘Johnny…’, to the space-age transmission of ‘Telstar’, to this piece of electronically blended Merseybeat. And, as is befitting one of pop music’s greatest innovators, he was an extremely eccentric character. His Wikipedia entry ranges from the bizarre (his belief that he could communicate with the dead, including through the meows of a cat), to the sad (he struggled through long-term drug addiction), to the downright tragic (he shot his landlady, and then himself, in 1967 after a depression brought on by the drugs, impending plagiarism lawsuits and the fear that he was about to be outed as gay.)

Under all this, The Honeycombs – understandably – have to play second fiddle. This was their debut hit and, although Meek produced several of their follow-ups, they struggled to match the success of ‘Have I the Right?’ Their second most successful single could only hit #12, and they broke up in 1967 after several line-up changes. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about them is that their drummer and founding member – Honey Lantree – was a woman.

Let us celebrate, then, this progressive sounding chart-topper, ‘Have I the Right?’, with a progressive bunch of people at the helm: a gay producer, a female-drummer, and a bunch of guys stamping on the stairs…

Follow along here:

141. ‘Telstar’, by The Tornados

To fully appreciate this next #1, I want you to go back and listen to the previous chart-topper, Elvis’s ‘She’s Not You’. Off you go. Done? Good. Because we need to make sure we know exactly where we are in October 1962. We’re in a bit of a post rock ‘n’ roll slump, with lots of middling pop and quirky novelties rather than an easily definable ‘Sound of ‘62’. And after that mediocre piece of Elvis-by-numbers, this song’s going to Blow. Your. Mind.

MAINtornados

Telstar, by The Tornados (their 1st and only #1)

5 weeks, from 4th October – 8th November 1962

The intro alone to ‘Telstar’ has enough innovative weirdness for there to have been papers written and conferences held on it. It’s an intro that sets a scene. I imagine a dust track at night in the Nebraskan desert. What sounds like a car coming to a stop. A weird humming and hissing. Ominous music that grows nearer and nearer. Pure B-movie soundtrack brilliance. It sounds bizarre listening to it from the comfort of 2019. It must have freaked people the hell out when they first heard it in 1962.

‘Telstar’ is an instrumental, one with a pretty simple and fairly repetitive melody. I’m no musician, but I’m guessing that, looking at the music written down on paper, it’s a tune that The Shadows – the pre-eminent instrumental group of the age – could have knocked out in their sleep. But, if you study ‘Telstar’ simply as notes on a page then you are missing everything else that makes this record amazing.

This is The Shadows recast as aliens. This is The Shadows playing as the Cantina band from Star Wars. There ain’t no guitar or drums here. Or, at least, there might be; but they’re way off in the background. This is an electronic record. A fully electronic record drenched in ethereal echo and lots of effects. This is what was hinted at in the Musitron on Del Shannon’s ‘Runaway’ and in the ghostly effects on ‘Johnny Remember Me’, come to full fruition.

It’s a record that tells a story. One of my major complaints whenever an instrumental number one comes along is that, without lyrics, they often struggle to be anything more than a melody looking for a home. There are exceptions to this rule, of course; and none bigger than ‘Telstar’. When the key-change comes and the backing singers join in with the tune you really can picture that car on the dust track in Nebraska, a girl clinging to her boyfriend’s arm, a huge light opening up in the sky above, ready to beam them away…

It’s also a record that is, perhaps more than any other #1 we’ve covered so far, a very specific product of its time. The Telstar Communications Satellite was a real satellite, launched four months before this disc hit the top spot. Barely a year before that, Yuri Gagarin had become the first man in orbit. The space-race had lift-off (pardon the pun) and this record sounds as if it comes from a distant galaxy compared to Elvis, Frank Ifield et al. It was also during ‘Telstar’s five weeks at the top that the world held its breath over the Cuban Missile Crisis, and I can’t think of a better song to put on the gramophone ahead of a nuclear Armageddon.

THE-TORNADOS-TELSTAR-b-w-JUNGLE

I mentioned ‘Johnny Remember Me’ and, as many will already know, both it and ‘Telstar’ were products of the bizarrely brilliant mind of producer Joe Meek. But whereas ‘Johnny…’ was the sound of Meek flexing his creative muscles; this disc is his masterpiece. He has one more chart-topper to come so we’ll save the main bio for then (though I could reserve a whole blog post, nay a full-on book, for an overview of his brilliant, troubled and ultimately tragic life.)

The Tornados, on the other hand, only ever had this moment at the top. I have to admit that in doing my research for this post I’ve fallen down something of a Tornados rabbit-hole… They were perhaps better known as the backing band to Billy Fury – an early British rock ‘n’ roller, a cooler version of Cliff, if you will, who never quite made it to the top of the charts. They were also a vehicle for Joe Meek’s experimental flights of fancy, and released a bunch of innovative, funny and outright bizarre records throughout the early to mid-1960s. Check out, for example, ‘Do You Come Here Often?’ – the B-side to their final ever single – in which two men full-on flirt over a loopy lounge-jazz melody. It was released in 1966, when ‘that sort of thing’ was still very much illegal…

However, nothing else they ever recorded came close to matching the success of ‘Telstar’. Not only was it a huge hit in the UK; it was the first ever US #1 by a British group – beating a certain foursome from Liverpool by just over a year. You can hear its influence in, say, prog rock, the electronic acts of the late ‘70s and ‘80s, and in the ‘Dr. Who’ theme. Muse scored a Top 10 hit in 2006 with ‘Knights of Cydonia’, a song which was, how to put this, lovingly influenced by ‘Telstar’. (Muse frontman, Matt Bellamy’s father was actually the guitarist in… wait for it… The Tornados! How ‘bout dat.)

Anyway… Glancing down my list of upcoming chart-toppers, I’m under no allusions that this has been anything other than a wonderfully freak occurrence, rather than a shift in the British musical landscape. But what a freak occurrence. That this song was the 141st UK #1 single should be celebrated long and loud. Press play once more and imagine that it’s you in that car on that dusty desert road. Beam me up…!

124. ‘Johnny Remember Me’, by John Leyton

If you enjoyed the OTT angst of our previous #1 – Woaah-oo-wooah-oo-woaah… ‘You Don’t Know’ – then you’ll probably love this next one. Probably. Because while Helen Shapiro coyly flirted with melodrama on her hit, this next disc grabs melodrama by the hand and elopes with it.

jhpub7edvpbmbxmlotdu

Johnny Remember Me, by John Leyton (his 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 31st August – 21st September / 1 week, from 28th September – 5th October 1961 (4 weeks total)

Picture the scene. A rainy, misty moor. Wind whistling across the heather. A galloping rhythm introduces the recently bereaved John Leyton. I hear the voice of my darlin’, The girl I loved and lost a year ago… Then we hear said voice of his late love… Johhnnnnyyy Remember Meeeee…. straight from the cheapo ghost house at the local carnival. Off the top of my head, this is the first and perhaps only #1 to feature the ‘voice’ of a dead person.

Well it’s hard to believe I know, But I hear her singing in the sighin’ of the treetops, Way above me… I’d like to point out here that moors tend not to have many trees – what with them being bleak and open spaces – but I feel that trying to apply logic to this song might be missing the point. As it progresses I’m on the fence. This is clearly a ridiculous song. But is it good-ridiculous; or bad-ridiculous?

One moment sways it for me: when poor, bereaved John lets rip with a Yes, I’ll always remember…! He doesn’t sound like he particularly wants to keep remembering her; but she does insist on speaking to him from the treetops. Till the day I die, I’ll hear her cry, Jooohhnnnny remember meeee… He goes on, in the final verse, to describe that while he’s sure he’ll find another love, he is equally sure that he’ll never be allowed to forget his first love. She’ll always be there… Joooohhhnnnnyyyy…. I love that. Who knows, maybe the singer is the one who killed her off, and it’s his conscience he can hear in the wind…? It’s like a full Gothic novel in under three minutes, this song.

What to make of all this, then? I can’t file it under ‘Novelties’ – the musicianship is too good, and the lyrics are clearly heartfelt. But at the same time… Who was buying this and taking it seriously? It’s extremely camp – a word that I’ve found myself writing quite a lot in recent entries (‘Surrender’, ‘You’re Driving Me Crazy’, ‘Tell Laura I Love Her’…) Turns out people in the early-1960s had a much higher tolerance for camp than we do now. Or at least, they clearly didn’t think of this stuff as ‘camp’. They took this song at face value – the BBC banned it, for God’s sake, due to all the references to death – and connected with the sentiment. In the intervening fifty-eight years since ‘Johnny Remember Me’ became a huge hit record, we’ve become a much more cynical, irony-loving people. This song just wouldn’t work in 2019.

john_leyton_johnny+remember+me-419641

This is, of course, another dreaded Death-Disc! Dun-dun-dun! That oh-so early sixties phenomenon. It joins ‘Running Bear’, ‘Tell Laura I Love Her’ and ‘Ebony Eyes’ to become the fourth death disc to hit the top in the UK… But it’ll be the last. And, for what it’s worth, I think this is the best of the four. It’s mad, it’s OTT and then some; but it grabs your attention and doesn’t let go till it’s done. John Leyton was actually an actor by trade, starring at the time in an ITV drama in which he played a rock star. Said rock star sang this song in one episode and, hey presto!, it became a real-life hit. Leyton had very few others in his singing career, but once he returned to acting he did star in one of the most famous British films of all time, ‘The Great Escape’ (you’re humming the theme already, aren’t you?)

Perhaps worthy of more note than Leyton himself is the fact that this disc was produced by Joe Meek, a man who was dragging rock music forward thanks to his innovation in the recording studio. He overdubbed, he sampled, he added lots of echo and reverb, using his recording equipment like an extra instrument. The real stars of this song – the eerie atmosphere and the shrill voice of the ‘dead’ woman – all stem from him, and we’ll hear from Meek again before long in this countdown. Along with Del Shannon’s recent ‘Runaway’, and its use of the Musitron, we’re starting to get a glimpse of the future of pop music as the sixties unfold. What started off as a funny, campy, Halloweenish gimmick of a record is actually pointing the way forward… Listen carefully and you can just about hear it beckoning… Joooohhhnnnnyyyy….