July 20, 2015
Finally cracking my VideoBeat stash: The Joe Meek stuff
VideoBeat had a 40% off sale and I went a little nutty.
Among other things, I stocked up on some Larry Parnes/Joe Meek stuff, from the era when English singers tried to sound American, and not the other way around.
Meek and Parnes worked in the uniquely English tradition of the gay and/or Jewish pop music impresario. Brian Epstein and (arguably) Malcolm McLaren are more famous today, while Bernie Rhodes is familiar only to first and second generation punks.
The trainspotting “anorak” — a garden-shed tinkerer and crank who claimed to be on speaking terms with Buddy Holly’s ghost, and had been raised as a girl for the first four years of his life.
(Note: tone deaf record producers and industry executives are, amusingly, not rare at all, on either side of the Atlantic...)
…in the early Sixties the record industry hardly knew what to make of the man who made a series of hits from his home studio at 304 Holloway Road in north London.
(…) The best-known of these — John Leyton’s ‘Johnny Remember Me’, the Tornados’ ‘Telstar’ – sounded like nothing else and, far ahead of George Martin, Meek used the studio as an instrument, taking mixing desks apart, playing tapes backwards and adding washes of sci-fi inspired effects.
The fact that in his studio people played guitar in the bathroom while others sang on the stairs only adds to the fun.
NME voted him the #1 Record Producer of All Time, which I think was them just being pesky.
Some of his most famous recordings are, of course, “Telstar,” which was the British first single to hit number one in the US charts (shortly before Beatlemania) and which I presume inspired the theme from Star Trek.
Along with recordings like:
(Pardon the Jimmy Saville…)
While far lesser known, this one shares many common Meek elements:
I bought a copy of the Joe Meek biopic Telstar from VideoBeat.
I was thinking to blame Guy Ritchie for the cloying effect seen in Telstar and so many British films — that jarring, hamfisted feint at “zany” surrealism: Switching to black and white and speeding up the action “silent movie” style, for instance.
That biopic about the making of Life of Brian was so afflicted by this sickness in the clips I saw that I can’t bring myself to view the whole movie.
Then I remembered the frankly off-putting opening scene in …Colonel Blimp (thank God I endured it), and A Hard Days Night and pretty much anything in the soul curdling Confessions of… series and realized that this compulsion has afflicted English film for some time.
When done well — as in Annie Hall — this crazy cocktail of cinematic styles is whimsical and charming. That happens exceedingly rarely.
Between that and the annoying expository dialogue — characters loudly and pointedly introducing each other to each other, their names freighted with import to English viewers of a certain age — and “on the nose” touches (like “Meek” tossing a Beatles demo tape into his trashcan) Telstar never rises above the average.
It doesn’t help that the actors don’t do their own singing; ever since A Coalminer’s Daughter, I’ve considered that mandatory for true greatness. I prefer my biopics more poetic and “show don’t tell”: 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould, or An Angel at My Table.
I’m too far away geographically and temporally to judge whether or not the actors playing Heinz or others in Meek’s stable are good mimics — and was Billy Fury really that short?? — but perhaps that’s just as well. I wasn’t caught up in analyzing how exactly they inhabited their characters.
Certainly Con O’Neill does well with Meek’s distinctive speaking voice, when he puts it on (which isn’t that often, and perhaps Meek too reserved it for special occasions.) Otherwise he seemed a bit… butch.
Kevin Spacey makes a surprise if not 100% convincing turn as the (stereotypical) “Major” who bankrolls Meek’s audio experiments. Of the Tornados, James Corden is the most recognizable, as he now — astonishingly — hosts an American late-night talk show. As Meek’s equally gay and “spiritualist” collaborator Geoff Goddard, I’ve only seen him interviewed in the documentary below, and Tom Burke chose not to imitate him exactly, but still manages to capture his fey yet oddly firm demeanor.
Along with the biopic, I nabbed a doc called by various names, here as The Legendary Joe Meek, one of those one-hour TV music documentaries the English (in this case, an Arena production) do so very well. In these, the penchant for “zany” self-conscious clashes in style and tone seem to work better, or perhaps I’m more forgiving because I’m not watching a fictional work.
I watched the documentary first. So for instance, the footage of John Leyton performing “Johnny Remember Me,” while turgid, is nothing like the hammy hyperkinetic version from Telstar.
I don’t know if that mattered but do note that while the 1991 doc raises (and quickly discards) the possibility of an affair between Heinz and Meek, the 2009 biopic — filmed after the former’s death — has them going at it like rabbits. I’ve not heard of any lawsuits but then again, you can’t libel the dead.
If you’re interested in everything from the history of popular music to the phenomenon of English eccentricity, and like me have a peculiar and inexplicable compulsion to watch “Post-war England Was a Shit-Hole” films, you’d probably enjoy both.
Joe Meek’s is a rather sad and even tragic story:
Always troubled, and probably hooked on drugs, Meek shot his long suffering landlady (the film portrays this as an accident) and then himself, on the anniversary of Buddy Holly’s death.
Three weeks later, a groundless yet costly French plagiarism suit over “Telstar” was settled in Meek’s favor. During his lifetime, he’d never been able to collect any royalties earned by the multi-million selling record. But he died deeply in debt, and the millions of pounds awarded went to his many creditors.
There are also a surprising number of songs about or referencing Joe Meek.
Host of related links here.