The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Sunday, August 18, 2002

The poor magnificent bastard. He wasn't to know there wasn't supposed to be any pop between 1959 and 1963. We were in unofficial mourning. British showbusiness remained dependent upon a matrix of subterranean, grey networks, controlled by laundered money dirtied by unclean capitalists straight out of the pages of Derek Raymond or Alexander Baron. British pop music was then still supposed to be on the point of strangulation by the umbilical cord with the 1950s which it hadn't quite worked out yet how to untie. It's strange how nearly all of the leading operatives of that Camay-cleansed era - Alma Cogan, Dickie Valentine, Michael Holliday, David Whitfield - vanished and obligingly died off before their time, even though the limits of their time had already been decided by external factors. Cancer, 150 mph Ballard-inspiring car crash, suicide, heart attack in Australia - it is as though we willed these people never to have existed, to forgive ourselves for, as Glenda Collins would put it, not being worthy.

And Joe Meek was there. Was he the Ed Wood of Britpop, a shoestring coordinator out of a grimy flat in Holloway with a small, unpaid but loyal retinue of colleagues, but with sufficient capabilities to realise his aesthetics (im)properly?

It's time to re-evaluate, for Sequel Records have now issued a long-required 2CD 56-track compilation, Joe Meek - The Alchemist Of Pop: Home Made Hits And Rarities 1959-66. Previously his productions have been available on CD, but dispersed over an unappetising number of not altogether satisfactory niche compilations. Now we have everything he was known for, and almost everything for which he should have been known, all together in one package. It is simultaneously the most lighthearted and harrowing sequence of pop music to which you may ever listen, optimistic and pessimistic, sometimes in the space of the same song.

He started out as an engineer under Denis Preston at Lansdowne in the '50s, tweaking some echos, turning up the treble on various hits of the time, including Humphrey Lyttelton's "Lady Madonna"-anticipating "Badpenny Blues" and several of Lonnie Donegan's finest, including the still adrenalising and radical "Cumberland Gap" - surely the first punk number one? Eventually he branched out on his own, set up his own Triumph record label but soon afterwards opted to license out his productions to the various major labels of the time (principally Pye, Decca and Columbia).

This compilation starts out with Emile Ford and the Checkmates' "What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For?" both the last #1 of the '50s and the first #1 of the '60s. I had no idea that Meek had anything to do with this record, but as with most discs of the period heard in digital close-up - as opposed to the medium wave crackle of Jimmy Savile's Double Top Ten Sunday lunchtime show in the '70s - it has an awful lot more power than you might have thought, particularly the sudden rush of the rhythm section in the "well that's all right" lead up to the climactic finale. Some of this stuff is gossamer light; Lance Fortune's "Be Mine," a #4 hit a couple of months later, is essentially Adam Faith (with John Barry-orchestrated strings) but "due to technical problems" came out after "What Do You Want?" and was therefore dismissed.

The superb sleevenotes indicate a clear and depressing pattern in Meek's career; time and again we are told of records which "could have gone all the way to the top" but for distribution problems, or were banned by the BBC, or came out in the middle of the Beat boom, or whose promotions were hindered by Equity strikes. In his lifetime he received no monies from "Telstar" due to a long-standing copyright court case which was only resolved posthumously. It was an uphill struggle with not much evident joy; thus the fatalistic and downbeat mood of many of his lyrics.

But there was excitement too; listen to the Fabulous Flee-Rekkers' gleeful demolition of "Greensleeves" (retitled "Green Jeans") which in its own way almost outdoes Coltrane's deconstruction on the contemporaneous Africa/Brass or the Outlaws' extraordinary "Ambush" where the band is virtually obliterated by multiple overlays of Western sound-effects, apparently taped off the TV. And an odd yearning for otherness, articulated by Charles Blackwell's orchestrations; listen to Peter Jay's "Paradise Garden," which sounds almost like a relic from 1955, with its compressed strings, hovering wordless female vocal (Adelaide Hall's "Creole Love Call" meets Caterina Valente's "The Breeze and I") - a gateway to the next world, some three decades before Deserter's Songs. Or, like Michael Cox's "Angela Jones," strangely asexual ("we can be man and DO DO DO DO").

Much of Meek's work was outright necrophilia; witness the Moontrekkers' "Night of the Vampire," Mike Berry's "Tribute to Buddy Holly" (which really does sound like a seance), Heinz' "Just Like Eddie," the slightly too knowing for his own good Screaming Lord Sutch (represented here by "'Til the Following Night" and "Jack the Ripper"), and most famously, John Leyton's "Johnny Remember Me." Driven by a galloping guitar/rhythm onslaught which almost sounds as if it is being played backwards, this is superficially a Frankie Laine-style cowboy ballad, but uniquely British - the cold wind howls "across the moor" in realisation of a terrible event which cannot be properly comprehended (the heartbreaking way in which the female vocal remains in the unresolved minor key at the fade out magnifies this). With the possible exception of the Specials' "Ghost Town," the bleakest British #1 single ever? Yet by his follow-up "Wild Wind" he has become positively hormonal. Listen to how the whole band suddenly jacks up a gear for the chorus and the treble suddenly imposes itself upon us (cf. Alternative TV as per piece below) with the speed variance apparently random (especially Geoff Goddard's piano). Sometimes the ingredients would mutate and work themselves into an ethereal ecstasy (the anticipation floating behind Don Charles' "Walk With Me My Angel"); sometimes reverberate back into unexpected quarters (Michael Cox's terrific "Stand Up" - Sweden's Xmas #1 for 1962! - is a rocker about signing on the dole, and the wordless soprano makes a totally inexplicable and genuinely surreal appearance towards the end). Sometimes death is enough - Houston Wells' "North Wind" where the singer first kills his "baby" and then himself while pleading to be forgiven and not have his soul burn in hell. Sometimes a rave-up is enough - Peter Jay (a different one; neither has anything to do with the economist)'s canter through "Can Can '62," with an enjoyable moment when the band momentarily loses it after the drum solo. Notice also the alterations between group riffs and instrumental solos - surely a subliminal influence on Roxy's "Re-Make/Re-Model."

And then there is "Telstar."

Poor misbegotten bastards, the Tornados. Yes it's Thatcher's favourite pop record (which would have no doubt horrified Meek), yes it's been played to death, but ERASE all of that. Imagine you are listening to this for the first time. It is heartbreaking. The audacious intro (20 seconds of electronic crackle, interference and bleeps) which leads into a rapid ascent of a strange processed organ/guitar line (over the same "Johnny Remember Me" galloping rhythm) which sounded like nothing else which had ever made the charts, or indeed like nothing anyone had ever heard (Sun Ra's records didn't start becoming available in the UK until 1965/6, and even then only as expensive imports). It imparts some awesome idea of hope, welcomes the future yet simultaneously realises its own redundancy. It is a future desired but transitory and unlikely to happen, underlined by the strange processed vocal which adds itself to the final refrain, and its ultimate disappearance into the electronic void (another 20-second fade-out). It was, as the sleevenotes state, already Joe Meek's epitaph. It was simultaneously #1 in Britain and America in October 1962, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, and could quite easily have been the last song you ever heard. Think about that when you listen to this for the first time.

It was as if, having staked his own precarious territory, Meek was suddenly unsure what to do with it. On the compilation there ensues a rather dull and long patch with failed Tornados follow-up attempts, the completely uninteresting Heinz (ultimately reduced, in "Questions I Can't Answer," to ripping off "Louie Louie"), dullards like Pamela Blue and Mike Berry, appalling, over-speeded up covers of "Surf's Up" and "All My Loving" by no-hopers - Meek really looked as though he had no answer to the Liverpudlians. Just as ZTT could never have signed the Smiths, so RGM could have had nothing to do with the Beatles; George Martin read their minds and placated and encouraged them. Meek would have sulked in his converted kitchen. Only Glenda Collins' "I Lost My Heart At The Fairground" really stands out amongst this bunch, and possibly Geoff Goddard's beyond peculiar "Sky Men" with his vocal again speeded up to 55 rpm, and Dalek-style voiceovers alternating with Goddard's trademark pub piano. Why did Meek speed up his tracks in this way? Was it to attain a certain kind of asexual or even "feminine" voice? Compare with the very purposeful and playful way in which Prince uses the same device (as "Camille") in "If I Was Your Girlfriend" - assured and confident in its lack of confidence. Whereas Meek's voices sound - well, other-worldly, perhaps the way in which they were intended to sound ("I Hear A New World," unrepresented here, for example).

And then, at the end of this long dry spell, comes a wake-up call - "Have I The Right" by the Honeycombs. Astonishing to hear how this sounds, properly remastered - it is positively feral in its attack. Sexuality, never much of a component of Meek's work previously, now becomes apparent. Honey Lantree's drums lock with the rhythm in a fixed and ecstatic conduit of aesthetic semen. The four on the floor (actually more like 12 on the bathroom floor) stomp also foresees Slade's use of the same device seven or eight years later.

(Diversion: what a radical #'1 "Coz I Luv You" was when you think about it. That keening minimalist violin, always threatening to go over the brink - the Honeycombs meet John Cale)

The follow-up "I Can't Stop" almost outdoes it in frantic activity, but then someone ran scared and they didn't get near it again. They did produce a near-Northern Soul record in a fine reading of Ray Davies' "Something Better Beginning" but by the time of "That's The Way" had turned into the Seekers.

And yet something must have prompted Meek into his astonishing, final phase of creativity - almost luminescent, like the sudden extra brilliance in a light bulb just before it is extinguished forever. Pre-shadowed by the Blue Rondo's "Little Baby," where 17-year-old Mickey Stubbs sounds uncannily like Chris Isaak, and "Diggin' For Gold" by David John and the Mood, which indeed indicates something, an emotion, about to go on the boil.

And boil over it does, into the mindblowing "Crawdaddy Simone" by the Syndicate, to emerge as prototype freakbeat. Suddenly it is as if all the pent-up emotions implied in Meek's previous work now have to be expressed, honestly and wholly, and by God does it happen here. Guitars out of synch, atonality, phasing - for 1965, this very nearly parallels what the Who were producing at the time, and to some extent went further. This is pop epiphany. "He's so alone! He's a loner!" Meek screams through their mouths.

And now that he senses that the end is coming, the money is running out and the rope is getting thinner, Joe Meek unleashes his final testament to the world through his records. Observe Glenda Collins' "Something I've Got To Tell You," almost prostate in its apology. "I'm sorry I'm not worthy," sobs Collins. Sorry I'm not EMI. Sorry I'm not Lennon and McCartney. Sorry I'm not my bigger and smarter (if unemotional) cousin Phil Spector - whereas Spector's work is about maximising his resources, Meek's are about make do and mend, by necessity - cramming everyone into as little a corner as he could find, yet still making a giant sound.

The almost apostolic prayer of the Cryin' Shames' "Please Stay" - only #26 on the national chart but certainly a #1 in the Scottish charts for a long time, and still in demand as a last dancer in Glasgow clubs in the '80s - again, that weirdly asexual, speed-variated voice, but now sounding slowed down, as if he were coming to the end of a long and struggle-filled road. He is trying to talk himself out of committing suicide. The Riot Squad's "I Take It That We're Through" tells the same story, but via a proto-raga groove and a dessicated sax line which sounds like a desaturated Flee-Rekkers, exhumed in 1966 and bereft of joy. Jason Eddy and the Centermen's atonal restaging of "Singin' The Blues," the Tommy Steele recording of which Meek had engineered a decade earlier, now forcibly smeared with Barry Tomlinson's almost random scrapings and Leslie cabinet filtered guitar - again, like Xinlisupreme's "Amaryllis" discussed below, almost heard through a semi-conscious haze. Glenda Collins' farewell note in "It's Hard To Believe It" wherein she proposes going to the moon, only to realise that "they'll be sending them back soon [mice and men]" before disappearing into a final, funereal fog of electronica.

And the suicide note, though not the last track on this compilation, I have saved for last - "You're Holding Me Down" by the Buzz, where Meek more or less trashes everything he has ever done. It sounds as though the studio was burning down while the band were recording this. Tam White's unparalleled, near-psychopathic vocal whimpers, snarls and hisses through a rejection of life. "GO BACK! GO BACK WHERE YOU CAME FROM!!" the band howls. The singer, the artist, is truly alone in the centre of this maelstrom. And of course, at the end the umbilical cord is finally cut, the pump shotgun fired into his landlady and then into his mouth, having just heard Brian Wilson make the definitive "Joe Meek" record in "Good Vibrations" (think about it and listen to it again), and everything dissolves/erupts into a freeform echo of despair, a mind collapsing, a humanity exploding. "I DON'T LIVE TODAY" 12 months before Are You Experienced? No life



Meek was 38 years old when he committed suicide.


Don't try to contrive too much. It doesn't work.

So what about the Polyphonic Spree then? They look and sound very much like an unironic Mormon redemption choir; all dressed in white robes in Coke-ad sunshine. The front man appears to be one Tim DeLaughter. He appears rather smug.

Their debut album The Beginning Stages Of... will brook no materialistic tendencies such as song titles; no, there are Sections 1-10. Nor is there much in the way of songs. The first "section" begins with the 14 musicians and 15 choir members singing "Holiday! Celebrate!" over and over to the tune of "Someone Saved My Life Tonight." Most of the lyrics are non-specific homilies about following your heart and looking up to the sun. Essentially we are talking alt. rock S Club 7, except that the latter are occasionally capable of some pretty good tunes. Things pick up rhythmically in "section" 4 but after about two minutes lapse into contemplative quiet with some desultory trumpet/flute freeforming. About a minute into "section" 7 Mr De Laughter sings "God only knows what you're missing!" and he's right - "God Only Knows" is what this record is missing, indeed any Brian Wilson-style architecture, emotion or purpose. All the signifiers without anything signified.

And indeed, Mr De Laughter's exceptionally irritating sub-sub-Donahue/Coyne whine. One urges to make it federal law that Deserter's Songs and The Soft Bulletin not be gazed upon and slavishly emulated as though they were the Sermon on the Mount - or at least to hire James Ingram or Michael McDonald to get someone who can actually sing.

"Section" eight I know as the single "Soldier Girl," yet, as with so much else on this record, one gets the feeling of scraps of songs waiting for an actual song to be written - lots of things which would be perfectly usable as middle-eights or fadeouts, but do not in themselves constitute a song.

After about half-an-hour - and knowing that the playing time of the CD is some 68 minutes - one apprehensively approaches "section" ten, and yes, it's an exceptionally dreary 36-minute minimalist trudge which every American band seems obliged to paste on to their otherwise well under running order albums - a long, "evolving" voice/electronica gradual loop/overlay/modify/bury me now. Suffice to say that Stockhausen's Stimmung it ain't. If you want adventurous electronic/voice interplay, please go forth and seek out Alvin Lucier's 32-year-old I Am Sitting In A Room, which will make you dream and your mind blossom.

If you want to listen to a genuinely different large-scale collective of musicians - not one which wishes to make ironic appropriations of the last two years' Spin front covers - then I would suggest that you bag yourself a copy of New Apricot by the 11-piece collective, the Armenian Navy Band. Unlike the Spree, Arto Tuncboyaciyan's ensemble actually are driven to play, work well together, and are not self-crucified on the cross of what is acceptable to listen to. It springs from their own culture and dives into other cultures because it is inquisitive, not ironic, because it wants to do something new.

Some of it is raucous jazz-rock-funk, somewhere between an unironic (i.e. interesting) Mothers of Invention and a slightly more reined-in Willem Brueker Kollektief (superb sax work from Armen Husmounts throughout). Having been subjected to an album of "Sections 1-10" it is rather refreshing to be faced with an album whose titles include "You Love Me From 15 Feet Away" and "My Aunt Mari Doesn't Care About My Jacket." There is good humour, but also great musical profundity; the latter-named track is in fact a slow money/image doesn't matter meditation with an unbearingly poignant melody and the fantastic voice of Tuncboyaciyan himself, one of the finest living on this planet. He bills his genre as "avant garde folk music" but states that he simply means openness to everyone. The band name, of course, is a metaphor for this; Armenia is entirely surrounded by land and therefore has no navy, so it's the human cooperation and effort required to steer a boat across land.

For me the slow ones cut deepest at the moment - "Love, Respects, Truth" where Tuncboyaciyan does some phenomenal multiphonic singing/fluting, ululating over a synth drone (cf. Jeff Buckley's "You and I") and above all "Don't Go Far Away From Yourself," which uses the same piano line as Dido's "Breathe" - yet instead of destroying music, this tries to rebuild it. A beautiful, unhurried performance with a devastating vocal worthy of Milton Nascimiento. Played on R3's world music show on the afternoon of Saturday 25 August 2001, some nine months ahead of its release, it was the last song that she heard. Please make this the first song that you hear after reading this article.

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