Monday, September 26, 2005

I hear a new world calling me

The entry for 1962 on the list is "Telstar" by the Tornados, a rousing and poignant tribute to a satellite, and it's the most successful and enduring song recorded by Joe Meek, the tragic oddball producer and songwriter. Strangely enough, Meek wasn't a musician and was actually tone deaf. Sometimes referred to as "the British Phil Spector" (which is only accurate in the fact that both had distinctive sounds that were immediately recognizable), Meek's production techniques were unusual in his day, as he used liberal amounts of reverb, compression, and delay effects and employed the fruits of his electronic tinkering.

In several ways, Merritt has a kinship with Meek, with their shared affinity for pop music and experimentation. Until recently, Merritt recorded his music in a home studio, and Meek used his home at 304 Holloway Road in London to record numerous acts. The Wikipedia entry for Joe Meek describes the recording of "Johnny Remember Me": "...he placed the violins on the stairs, the drummer almost in the bathroom, and the brass section on a different floor entirely."

Meek productions are often peppered with unusual sound effects, and Merritt himself has an arsenal of odd techniques for making sounds. In this interview for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Merritt describes one of his favorites:

Bay Guardian: Please explain the Slinky Guitar.
Merritt: It's an appropriation of two guitars. You connect them with a slinky and block, or let [the slinky] oscillate between them. You plug in both guitars and pan them left and right, and you get a sound from the spring. I usually use it for percussion.
Bay Guardian: Do you like Joe Meek?
Merritt: I obviously identify with Joe Meek.
Bay Guardian: Have you read his biography?
Merritt: I can't imagine someone who spent his life in the recording studio would have a very interesting biography. Except for the last five minutes, which would be pretty interesting.

Merritt is referring to the disturbing conclusion to Joe Meek's life, documented in this excellent article by John McCready. In 1967, the paranoid and mentally ill Meek murdered his landlady with a shotgun and then turned the gun on himself.

The first selection this week is from the proto-concept mini-album I Hear a New World from 1960, which Meek described as "An outer space stereo music fantasy" and involves chipmunk-voiced, blue-skinned inhabitants of the moon. "Telstar" was Meek's sole American hit and one of the biggest selling instrumentals of all time; it's simultaneously epic and cheesy, and by the way, that reedy keyboard you hear is a Clavioline. This page features an MP3 (track #10) of Joe Meek singing the "Telstar" melody over a different song (I wasn't kidding about him being tone deaf), along with a number of other Meek demos. The 4-CD boxed set Portrait of a Genius: The RGM Legacy was released a few months ago, but a more reasonably-priced introduction is the sterling 2-disc compilation Joe Meek: The Alchemist of Pop, which I recommend highly.

Rod Freeman and the Blue Men - "I Hear a New World"
The Tornados - "Telstar"


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