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…?

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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….