Posted on: April 8, 2016
This paper argues that many of the influences, choices, decisions and the technology Joe Meek used to make Telstar can be attributed to Meek”s status as an independent record producer, or are in some ways a consequence of Meek”s sub-cultural and sub-social position in London society between the mid 1950”s and early 1960”s. This is attempted through an examination of the general, or popular cultural influences of the period, such as science fiction and American culture, along with additional influences that could have been particular to Meek”s situation. Rather than advocating the creative benefits of social struggle, this paper intends to examine its roll in creative musical expression, and how it may have contributed to Telstar”s sound. As well as issues pertaining to the music business, a number of musical production topics are also examined including Meek”s position within the history of electroacoustics, the development of the concept album and the creative use of signal processing effects in popular music, along with the sociological, and political functions of 1950”s and 1960”s popular music. Although by no means exhaustive, this paper attempts to go some way in outlining the creative importance and significance of independent music production in general. This is undertaken through an examination of Meek”s legacy and the lasting influence of his approaches to music technology and musical production methods.
In 1962 independent London based record producer Joe Meek recorded and released a track entitled ‘Telstar’ (Decca, 1962), inspired by the launch and subsequent broadcast by the first transatlantic telecommunications satellite of the same name just a few months earlier.
Telstar was performed by Meek’s studio band The Tornados and, like its namesake, became a transatlantic success story. Just as Telstar the satellite broadcast it’s first grainy and static filled television pictures across the Atlantic, Telstar the record would go on to be the first British-made record to top the charts in America and transmit its grainy and static filled introduction, albeit via the medium of vinyl, into the bedrooms of teenagers on both sides of the Atlantic. Telstar consequently became the best selling instrumental record of all time (McCready, 2001).
After making a name for himself at the studios of The International Broadcasting Company (IBC), recording hits such as ‘Georgia’s Got A Moon’ (Pye Records, 1955), ‘Behind The Green Door’ (Philips, 1956) and ‘Burn My Candle (At Both Ends)’ (Philips, 1956), by artists Betty Miller, Frankie Vaughn and Shirley Bassey respectively. Meek became one of Britain’s first independent record producers and certainly one of the first to license an independently made recording to a major label (Repsch, 2000 p.78-79).
It is this transition from working at the studios of a major label, to working at his own independent studios at Arundel Gardens and then Holloway Road, and releasing music on his independent record labels (Triumph and RGM) that arguably, made Meek’s Telstar a possibility.
There exists several good sources for material regarding Meek, but much of this has a tendency to focus on his character. Lewen’s 1991 Arena documentary contains many first hand accounts from Meek as well as from his friends, family, associates, colleagues and music industry contemporaries, many of whom have since died, rendering it an important resource on this subject.
But, as with many of the available sources that deal directly with Meek, for example Telstar: The Joe Meek Story (2009) and Telstar: The Joe Meek Story (2005), the focus remains chiefly on the flamboyancy, strange nuances and difficult qualities of his character. Although some do contain many useful insights into Meek’s innovative thinking, his recording techniques and his musical objectives, such as Repsch’s 2000 biography The Legendary Joe Meek, the focus on Meek’s character and his potential for iconic status, perhaps due to his successful hit records and early death, still often distracts from the importance of Meek’s staggeringly advanced and in-depth technical knowledge, his acute business acumen, and the lasting influences these have asserted on the music industry.
Becker (1984, p.228) suggests that there is an inclination to focus on the ‘eccentric’ or ‘crazy’ characteristics of artists who operate outside of the mainstream due to the fact that they have already drawn attention to themselves as eccentrics who are going against the grain. He also concludes that these traits are no less evident in individuals who operate within a traditionally mainstream professional environment.
These characteristics are not of primary concern here. This paper focuses, not just on Meek’s technical ability, but on the cultural, social and economic environment within which he choose, and perhaps was propelled, to work and live, and how this impacted on the ultimate success and the then unique sounds of used in Telstar.
As Cleveland (2001) identifies with regards to Meek’s struggle with his sexuality and mental health: ‘One is hard pressed to explain how he benefited from either of these things’. It could be suggested that Meek’s homosexuality and the consequences of attitudes towards it during the 1950’s and also the forces of constraint imposed by a sparsely-funded production environment led him to have more of an affinity with certain cultural phenomena and working practices than if he were heterosexual and rich. Influences that would ultimately manifest themselves in his unique sound.
Meek’s legacy and lasting influence is considerable. The name Joe Meek is familiar to a new generation of producers through a range of outboard hardware and software signal processors manufactured by the PMI Audio Group that bear his name. The information sheet for their ‘Meequalizer’ product boasts: ‘We have recreated the exact treble and bass circuit used by Joe Meek’ (Fletcher, 1998). Ted Fletcher, who worked with Meek between 1963 and 1965, designs this range of equipment based very closely on the bespoke, do-it- yourself (DIY) devices and circuits that Meek made himself in small tobacco tins for use in his studio at Holloway Road (White, 1998). In addition to this, Avid is one of the world’s best-known technologies for the audio, visual broadcasting and production industry. On the Avid website they claim: ‘In use by top producers, JOEMEEK gear is the secret weapon that gives your sound the character and excitement it deserves’ (Avid Technology Incorporated, 2011).
Recent pioneers of electronic music such as Orbital, Andy Weatherall and Aphex Twin have each acknowledged the importance and influence of Meek within the genre (McCready, 2001; Savage, 1995). Weatherall’s track ‘Glowing Trees’ is a tribute to Meek’s 1959 science fiction themed concept album I Hear A New World (Triumph Records, 1959), (Savage, 1995). An important musical production of Meek’s career, which will be discussed in detail later.
The Experimental Frontier
Perhaps Meek’s most important legacy is one that groups him with a number of other producers of the period and is one that places him within a crucial moment in music history. Cleveland notes that during the period with which we are concerned (the mid 1950’s to early 1960’s) ‘recording and music were only functionally related’ (Cleveland, 2001). This issue is key to the discontent Meek felt at IBC studios. Not only does it go some way to explaining the nature of the working practices of the major studios of the period, it also highlights the crucial change in working practices of which Meek played an important part.
Hegarty (2010, p.77) suggests that from the 1950’s the studio had taken the form of one of two possible locations, that of a laboratory in the case of musique concréte, and ‘the location of commodification of ‘authentic’ music’ in the case of popular music, meaning the place where live music was recreated with the best possible accuracy for the purposes of mass commodification. Hegarty (2010, p.85) goes on to cite Meek, along with the likes of Martin Denny, Bob Lind and the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop as key contributors to the change in thinking that resulted in the studio being considered as an instrument, and an integral part of the creative process.
Producer and musician Brian Eno in his article The Studio As A Compositional Tool (Eno in Cox & Warner, 2010, pp.127-129) suggests that this change was due to what he terms as the ‘effect of recording’. Eno attributes this change largely to the versatility of the magnetic tape medium:
The move to tape was very important, because as soon as something’s on tape, it becomes a substance which is malleable and mutable and cuttable and reversible in ways that discs aren’t. It’s hard to do anything very interesting with a disc – all you can do is play it at a different speed, probably; you can’t actually cut a groove out and make a loop out of it. The effect of tape was that it really put music in a spatial dimension, making it possible to squeeze the music, or expand it. (Eno in Cox & Warner, 2010, p.128)
This account from Eno is consistent with developments in the manipulation of recorded sound such as those pioneered by the likes of Pierre Schaeffer at Radiodiffusion Télévision Française in Paris in the 1940’s and Karlheinz Stockhausen at the Cologne Conservatory of Music in the 1950’s. It also reflects some of the techniques utilised by Meek in his early independent works.
This recorded medium also enabled people to engage with music in a different way. By playing and replaying the same pieces of music over and over again audiences became aware of nuances within the music that previously would have passed them by, and composers could adapt their techniques to take advantage of the new aural awareness and sophistication of their audiences (Eno in Cox & Warner, 2010, p.129). In addition to this Eno explains that it was the further advances in the technology of the tape machine, from simple one track, through to four track models that enabled the compositional process to take place within the surrounds of the studio. Musical parts could be over-dubbed on top of each other and this, in combination with the versatility of tape, created a sense that the actual authentic or original musical recording was only one stage of the process.
In the previous extract Eno refers to the enhanced ‘spatial dimension’ that the manipulation of recorded music allowed. This notion of the creation of space through the use of mechanical effects in music is of special interest to us in regards to many of Meek’s productions, including Telstar.
Doyle refers to Les Paul as an artist who ‘did more than any other operator in the recording industry to break the authenticity nexus’. Using Paul’s 1950 hit record ‘How High The Moon’ as an example, Doyle illustrates his argument by referring to Paul’s creative use of multi-tracking techniques, delay, echo and equilisation to create a ‘compelling sense of drive and urgency’ and a mechanically created harmonic swing through the clever application of delay. He goes on to suggest that these techniques created an ‘airborne’ feel and quality to the recording, highly appropriate given the song’s subject matter (Doyle, 2004, p.39).
In addition, Doyle (2004, p.36) gives a detailed account of the use of mechanical reverb to heighten the listener’s perception of an imagined space, mimicking the acoustic qualities of a physical space through the use of added reverb within the music. For example adding reverb to the sound of someone whistling in order to construct an imagined space relating to a mountain trail in the American West.
Doyle (2004, p. 36) also goes on to identify that during the 1930’s and 1940’s such effects were predominately utilised in film soundtracks to accompany and reinforce visual references on screen.
This resolve to attribute early sonic experimentation to the film industry, or rather those composers working within the film industry, is also taken up by d’Escrivan when discussing the early history and relationship of electronic music and the moving image:
I would argue that the sound designer is also a music composer and further, that the acousmatic compositional techniques of Pierre Schaeffer, Pierre Henry and later electroacoustic composers were prefigured by the experiments of directors and sound artists in film. In fact, it could be said that electroacoustic (as opposed to electronic) experimentation actually starts with filmmaking, perhaps up to seventeen years before Schaeffer began formulating his musique concréte theories. (d’Escrivan, 2007, p.157)
In relation to d’Escrivan’s argument above it is, perhaps, worthwhile defining the differences between electroacoustic experimentation and electronic experimentation. The term electroacoustic relates largely to the manipulation of pre-recorded sounds, of both the electronic and acoustic variety, such as those techniques attributed to the musique concréte movement. As opposed to electronic experimentation which would suggest the manipulation and generation of sounds created primarily by non-acoustic means (Cox & Warner, 2010, p.411).
Doyle (2004, p.38) attributes the lack of creative use of such effects in the popular music of the 1940’s, as opposed to its use in film, to the industry’s ‘thrall of the authentic’ or, in other words it’s insistence on duplicating as near as possible the original sound of the live event. This did include the use of reverbs, for example in an attempt to emulate the sound of an orchestra within a concert hall, but their experimental and creative uses for imaginary acoustic spaces were largely confined to the film industry.
The tune of Telstar fades in and out of a static filled and echo laden introduction and finale, as if it were a broadcast from the satellite itself, relaying its signal within a small orbital window of opportunity. Cleveland’s account of how the introduction, and the end, of Telstar was composed and recorded puts the techniques that Meek used to produce it strongly within the realms of electoacoustic experimentation.
Meek begins with different sound sources, none of them which can be precisely identified by listening because he never presents them in their original forms. He feeds them into his spring reverb and his tape delay, with the regeneration on the delay up so high that it immediately goes into self-oscillation. Much of what you hear is the sound made by the recorder/delay unit itself, not the source sound used to trigger it. He also gets the “spring” sound – not the signal passing through the spring, the actual spring itself – by knocking against it. Joe’s now familiar “tapping” sound, which may be the test oscillator, puts in a cameo appearance as well,. These sounds were all edited together and then played in reverse. (Cleveland, 2001, p.175)
Although in 1962 such techniques had been around for sometime, as discussed in relation to the film industry and the musique concrete movement, it was possibly one of the first times such techniques had been used on a such a popular and successful hit single.
Also of interest is that Cleveland (2001, p.175) suggests that the experimental sounds Meek used for Telstar were the outcome of his 1959 concept album I Hear A New World (I Hear A New World: An Outer Space Music Fantasy by Joe Meek. Triumph, 1959), produced in Meek’s first independent and self- constructed studio at Arundel Gardens, after his departure from Lansdowne Studios (Cleveland, 2001, p.68-69; Repsch, 2000, p. 74). He also suggests that some of the same material may have been used. If this is the case, then we really can begin to place Meek within the early history of electroacoustic experimentation. Many similarities can be found between the introduction to the track ‘Orbit Around The Moon’ (Triumph, 1959) on the I Hear A New World album, and the introduction to Telstar. In relation to this one can begin to appreciate the importance of Meek’s independent operation in connection to the development of his musical production practices.
Hegarty (2010, p.77), while considering the impact the introduction of the twelve-inch, thirty-three revolutions per minute (rpm) album had on the rise of the concept album genre, cites the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1965), produced by Brian Wilson, and The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper (1967), produced by George Martin, as key moments in the introduction of the concept album genre. This also places Meek’s I Hear A New World (1959), very early in the history of the concept album. Repsch (2000, p. 77) claims I Hear A New World was ‘the world’s first concept album’ and that this credit is normally attributed to Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift for You (Philles Records, 1963).
Though perhaps some caution should be exercised here. there are earlier examples of the concept album such as Frank Sinatra’s In The Wee Small Hours (Capitol, 1955), and Marty Robbins’ Gunfighter ballads and Trail Songs (Columbia, 1959), though these are admittedly, like Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift for You, collections of songs brought together around a concept, rather than a collection of songs written as a concept which comprises some kind of narrative structure.
Making a distinction between these two types of concept album, Hegarty defines one type as ‘collections of songs loosely tied together’ and the other as ‘those which try to evoke sensations through an imagined but not fantastical setting’ (Hegarty, 2010, p.77).
It therefore appears that Meek’s I Hear A New World deserves special consideration in relation to our topic. It not only demonstrates Meek’s potentially pioneering use of audio manipulation and the source of Telstar’s special effects it is also a very early, if not the earliest example of the concept album as we recognise it.
I Hear A New World was Meek’s showcase experimental project after quitting the major studios, a chance to put into practice what he was denied the opportunity to do within a commercial studio. It was also a product of the time, in that it reflected society’s ongoing fascination with space travel and extraterrestrial life in the wake of Sputnik 1, Unidentified Flying Object (UFO) sightings, flying saucer movies and an abundance of science-fiction literature. Furthermore, McLeod suggests that rock and roll developed ‘roughly contemporaneously with the era of space exploration’ (McLeod, 2003, p.340) and refers to the launch of science-fiction magazines, books by the likes of Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke, and films such as The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) and It Came From Outer Space (1953).
The first Hydrogen Bomb tests had taken place at Eniwetok Atoll in 1952, the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957 had signaled the start of the space-race, and shortly afterwards the space probe Lunik III would send back the first close-up lunar photographs in 1959 (McLeod, 2003, p.340).
I wanted to create a picture in music of what could be up there in outer space. I can already see from the studies I have made on outer space what wonderful new sights and sounds are in store for us.
There is another reason for making this record, that is to show off stereo, and as you will hear on this record things actually move, and makes it ideal for demonstrating the abilities of stereo equipment. (Meek, 1960)
It is hard to determine whether Meek was aware of musique concréte but, as has been previously suggested by d’Escrivan (2007, p. 157), these techniques were present within the popular film industry prior to the advent of the theories of musique concrete by Pierre Shaeffer. We have accounts of Meeks interest in The science fiction genre of the 1950’s so one could conclude, given also the science-fiction themed I Hear A New World album, and their sonic superiority, that the soundtracks to the science-fiction films of the mid to late 1950’s may have had some influence on Meek’s production and compositional considerations.
The Creative Underground
Although Meek’s Telstar has much in common with many other tracks of the period, and was obviously subject to the same external cultural influences. There are many unique elements within it that are arguably the direct consequence of Meek’s transition in working practices from major to independent, and a consequence of his position as a creative practitioner within his sub-cultural environment.
Hebdige, in his essay Youth, Surveillance and Display, outlines the complex reality of the sub-cultural by concluding:
Subculture is, then, neither simply an affirmation or a refusal, neither simply resistance against symbolic order nor straightforward conformity with the parent culture. It is both a declaration of independence, of Otherness, of alien intent, a refusal of anonymity, of subordinate status. It is an insubordination. And at the same time, it is also a confirmation of the fact of powerlessness, a celebration of impotence. (Hebdige, 1997, p.404)
There are many references relating to Meek’s frustration with being unable to experiment with, and develop, new production techniques within the professional recording environment (A Life In The Death Of Joe Meek, 2008; Arena, 1991; Cleveland, 2001; Repsch 2000). There is also reference here to the struggle Meek experienced climbing the professional ladder that could, perhaps, have afforded him more independent creative control. In other words, in order to realise his alien intent, or creatively experiment, Meek had to declare his independence.
It is worth, at this point, considering the professional working environment of the recording industry in the early 1960’s. The main London studios of the period included EMI, Abbey Road, Decca, Star Sound and IBC, all of which were either owned by, or associated with, the main broadcasting and record companies.
Cleveland (2001, p.18-19), Repsch (2000), Arena (1991) and McCready, (2001) all contain detailed observations of the scientific nature of these institutions. Depicting images of studio personnel in white laboratory coats, with documented and detailed scientific approaches to using the studio equipment. As Bruce Welch of The Shadows reflects: ‘Abbey Road [studios] resembled a hospital, with orderlies in white coats’ (Welch in Cleveland, 2001, p.18). Certain microphones were to be used with certain instruments only, and then only to be used at specific distances and angles from the sound source, all in accordance with the institution’s and the manufacturer’s protocol (Arena, 1991).
The reason they had these rules about how something was supposed to be recorded is they looked at recording technology as a science. The engineers all wore white lab coats and had big thick glasses and little pocket protectors and everything was done by the book and was very strict. The art part of it really didn’t enter into the picture for the engineers, the engineers were scientists. And so you had these recording manuals that told you if you are recording a trumpet you take a particular microphone, and you place it a particular distance away from that instrument, and you have your settings on your mixer at a certain level. (Cleveland in A Life In The Death Of Joe Meek, 2008)
Mike Mailes who worked at Decca for over forty five years reports: ‘if you did anything that was slightly different you were not considered one of the real Decca people’ (Mailes in Cleveland, 2001, p. 19).
Doyle reflects on this attitude in relation to the creative application of effects in popular music of the period:
In the late 1940’s, music recording was still mostly in the thrall of the ideal or authentic – the idea that sound produced when the shellac disc was played on a phonograph should be as close and as true an analogue as possible of a single prior, empirical sound event. (Doyle, 2004, p. 38)
James Lock, who was Meek’s assistant at IBC, gives the following account of the working environment at IBC, and also gives us a glimpse of Meek’s attitude towards it.
There was a technical department you see at IBC which were very rigid, you don’t touch their tape machines, you don’t go inside or open those doors, we do all the setting up, we do all the lining up of the tape machines and so on. Of course Joe knew all that, we all knew it you know. But some how, you know, the technical department, three or four people were the kings down in the cellar. They would stop anybody using anything that wasn’t passed by the technical people. So this was now the frustration for Joe you see. (James Lock in A Life In The Death Of Joe Meek, 2008)
As mentioned previously, Meek’s Telstar shares much with other early 1960’s pop instrumentals, the likes of which The Shadows had popularised two years previously with their hit ‘Apache’ (Columbia, 1960). This included a particularly English blend of American exoticism, also evident in the style of the teddy boys (Hebdige, 1979), with its Hawaiian sounding ‘twangy’ guitar, galloping rhythmic guitars, and harmonic male choral elements. This American exoticism is also evident in previous works by Meek such as John Leyton’s ‘Wild Wind’ (RGM Sound, 1961), ‘Johnny Remember Me’ (RGM Sound, 1961) and ‘Son This Is She’ (RGM Sound, 1961).
Bradley (1992, p.88) points out that after the end of the Second World War what he terms as ‘American cultural artifacts’ attained great value within British culture and points to a number of reasons as to why this is the case. Firstly, the size and economic power of the American entertainment industry enabled them to colonize the British working class market (Bradley, 1992). This created a stark contrast between American cultural content and the more traditional content of the British post-war cultural industries, such as that propagated by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the broadsheet and tabloid newspapers of the period. This sense of excitement regarding American culture led to not only American music topping the charts in Britain by artists such as Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran, but also the emulation of the American sound and the inclusion of these American cultural artifacts into much of the popular music being produced in Britain at the time.
Along with music, popcorn, automobiles and hula hoops the American Western was another popular cultural import from which, not only a sense of cultural liberation could be extruded by the British working classes, but also a sense of escapism. This was indulged through immersing stories of unexplored frontiers, gunslingers, bandits, wild countryside and a general intoxicating sense of adventure. Some examples of these would include: Bonanza (1959-1973), Cheyenne (1956-1963) and Laramie (1959-1963), within the theme music of which you can identify the cultural artifacts which are so prevalent within Meek’s John Leyton productions, and ultimately Telstar.
Hebdige (1979, p.50) refers to the cultural significance of America amongst the British working classes as ‘a fantasy continent of Westerns and gangsters, luxury, glamour and automobiles’. He also reflects on the ‘teddy boy style’ which as Arena (1991) and various photographs of Meek from the late 1950’s to early 1960’s suggest, was at least Meek’s overt sub-cultural style. Adding that their trade mark ‘quiffs’, ‘Brylcream’ and the ‘flicks’ came to mean America themselves, and represented ‘both the alien and futuristic’ (Hebdige,1979) in post-war Britain.
Loving The Alien
In response to the sci-fi films of the 1950’s, such as The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) and Forbidden Planet (1956), Barry (2011), reflects: ‘with this new kind of out-of-this-world monster, a need seems to have been felt for new out- of-this-world aural signifiers’. Barry also suggests that there was an interesting turning point around the end of the 1940’s where the inclusion of electronic sounds in films changed from being a signifier of ‘internal terrors’ in films such as Spellbound (1945) and The Lost Weekend (1945) to being signifiers of the extraterrestrial and otherworldliness.
Additionally, Doyle (2004) in relation to the creative use of mechanical delay and reverb recognises that these techniques were commonly employed during 1940’s Hollywood productions to ‘denote states of terror, mystical revelation and supernatural transformations’ (Doyle, 2004). He also suggests that this changed with the advent of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950’s, where its use was more involved with the creation of positive emotional and pictorial spaces.
The inclusion of space, alien and techno futuristic themes in popular music has a long history. One can conjure up a broad range of contemporary examples such as Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Third Stone from the Sun’ (Track Records,1967), Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of The Moon (Harvest/Capitol, 1973), David Bowie’s Major Tom and Ziggy Stardust characters, George Clinton’s Funkadelic and Lee Scratch Perry’s ‘I Chase The Devil’ (Island, 1976) with relative ease.
Prior to Telstar we can find space inspired rockers Bill Haley and The Comets 22 (formed in 1953), The Cosmic Rays’ ‘Bye Bye’ (Saturn, 1955) and, of course, Billy Riley and His Little Green Men with ‘Flying Saucers Rock and Roll’ (Sun, 1957) amongst many others.
McLeod (2008, p. 338) attributes the popularity of such themes to their ability to offer an alternative to the often hard, militaristic and scientific associations of space and also their ability to provide ‘an empowering voice to many marginalised identities’.
This is, perhaps, most evident within the genre of afro-futurism. ‘Afro-futurism’ was termed by Mark Dery (McLeod, 2003, p.341) and refers to ‘African- American signification that appropriates images of advanced technology and alien and/or prosthetically enhanced cyborg futures’ (McLeod, 2003, p.341). This genre is best illustrated musically by artists such as Sun Ra, Lee Scratch Perry and George Clinton’s Parliament and Funkadelic groups where futuristic imagery, costumes, and artwork are combined with cutting-edge approaches to music technology and black identities.
This demonstration of empowerment through the use of futuristic imagery is not limited to afro-futurism. If we take Bowie’s alien persona, as depicted in Alladin Sane (RCA, 1973), Ashes To Ashes (RCA, 1980) and Loving The Alien (EMI, 1985), one can see, as McLeod argues, that this ‘was emblematic of his bi- sexual alienation from the heterosexual male-dominated world of rock music’ (McLeod, 2003, p.341).
The musical power of the disenfranchised – whether youth, the underclass, ethnic minorities, women or gay people – more often resides in their ability to articulate different ways of construing the body, ways that bring along in their wake the potential for different experiential worlds. (McClary in McLeod, 2003, p.339)
Additionally, in relation to afro-futurism, McLeod himself offers this observation: ‘This sense of African-Alienation is also, of course, transferable to other marginalised social groups’ (McLeod, 2003, p.342)
In Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (1973) we can see yet another example of futuristic imaginary space, distinct from the African-American experience and the Gay experience, and one which identifies with the escapist needs of 1970’s counter culture and a drug altered state, depicting another possible marginalised social group. Interestingly, like Meek’s I Hear A New World, this was achieved through a non-commercial approach to creating alien soundscapes through a process of sonic experimentation (McLeod, 2003).
The creation of futuristic and imaginary spaces in music can also carry potentially important sociological and political messages, as one can observe this creation of imagined futures by marginalised groups as not just a way of imagining the future, but also as an attempt to control the future, if we view afro-futurism as an attempt to assert a black identity on essentially white dominated technologic futures, as not just an attempt to create an imaginary future, but also as an attempt to influence that future.
For Werner (1998) this is part of an identifiable history within black musical culture which runs from gospel to hip-hop, although, he argues, this is established covertly in the former through use of religious metaphor.
When Mahalia Jackson sings that she’s going to make heaven her home, she’s most certainly singing about saving her soul. When she moves on up, her destination is a place by the side of Jesus. But she’s also, and without any sense of contradiction, singing about freedom, moving up to full participation in American society. Heaven is Heaven, but it’s also a seat at the front of the bus. (Werner, 1998, p.6)
It does not take a giant leap of the imagination to replace Mahlia Jackson’s Heaven with Sun Ra’s, or for that matter Joe Meek’s outer space. When Sun Ra declares that ‘Space is the place, there’s no limit to the things that you can do’ in ‘Space Is The Place’ (Blue Thumb, 1973) one can see, through the use of both actual and metaphorical space, the real cultural importance on the present and future, as religion is replaced by the harnessing of technology and space travel as the primary means of salvation.
The music is different here, the vibrations are different – not like planet Earth. Planet Earth sounds of guns, anger and frustration. There was no one to talk to from planet Earth that would understand. We set up a colony of black people here. See what they can do on a planet all of their own with no white people there. They could drink in the beauty of this planet. It would effect their vibrations, for the better of course. Another place in the universe, up under different stars, that would be where the alter-destiny would come in. Equation wise the first thing to do is to consider time as officially ended – we work on the other side of time. We’d bring people here through either isotope teleportation, trans-molecularisation or better still – teleport the whole planet here through music. (Sun Ra in Space Is The Place, 1974)
Just as Sun Ra was imagining a future space for creatively and culturally disenfranchised African-Americans, Joe Meek was imagining future spaces for the creatively and sexually disenfranchised of 1950’s London.
Can one therefore attribute some of Meek’s keen interest in outer space to influences outside of those general to the population as whole during the late 1950’s? To a kind of cultural futurism particular to the disenfranchised and marginalised in general? One through which, similar to Bowie, he was attempting to imagine, create and control possible utopian future spaces, one where his sexuality would be accepted, a future space free of homophobia and full of limitless creative possibilities and resources? If so, then I Hear A New World was the manifestation of this, and so, by its association, was Telstar.
The Role Of The State
Perhaps the greatest indication of the importance of the role of the state in Telstar’s success is demonstrated by the fondness which former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has for the record. Thatcher apparently named Telstar as one of her desert island discs in 1979 on the radio program of the same name (Sandhu, 2009). She also wrote of her great fondness for the record in a letter to Tornados member Roger LaVern in 1990 (Coda, 2011). Telstar the satellite, for Thatcher, was a tangible representation of the United Kingdom’s ‘special relationship’ with the United States. A galvanisation of the ‘special relationship’ represented in the form of satellite communications, previously represented umbilically by the transatlantic telegraph cable of the 1850’s. For the British state Meek’s Telstar was not only a celebration of this ‘special relationship’ but also of the technological achievement of satellite communication, the importance of American cultural artifacts, global capitalism, the free market and the state’s own possible futures.
Becker (1984, p.165-191) in his chapter ‘Art And The State’ considers many aspects attaining to the role of the state in the production of independent or ‘underground’ artworks, their subsequent assimilation into the mainstream and their usefulness regarding what he describes as ‘cultural development’ and ‘national sophistication’. Telstar’s political and cultural importance in relation to Telstar the communications satellite make such considerations highly relevant.
In addition, Becker (1984, p.169) argues that: ‘states have a monopoly over making laws within their own borders’. Because of this he suggests that the state always plays some kind of role in the making of artworks, either by promoting and supporting artworks that it feels are ‘congenial to its own goals’ (Becker 1984, p.166), or falling to exercise control, which Becker suggests itself ‘constitutes an important form of state action’.
Further more, Becker (1984, pp.165-191) notes that the state has a special interest in cultural mediums that have the ability to unify a population. Whether they see it as a potential threat, through its possible ability to incite and mobilise forces against it, or as in Telstar’s case, it’s ability to unify a population and propagate attitudes and habits that it believes are of benefit to it.
The song [Telstar] embodied the youthful and optimistic outlook that was the Gestalt of the time. “Telstar” served as an archetypal anthem for a world poised on the brink of the Space Age – a time of miracles where anything might be possible. It also provided a respite from the ever- present horrors of the Atomic Age, and the apocalyptic destruction that might be released at any moment. (Cleveland, 2001, p.175)
The above extract from Cleveland not only goes some way to explaining the cultural significance of the Telstar satellite at the time, but also alludes to two important and significant political factors which had a bearing on the both Telstar projects, namely the cold war and the space race.
The Telstar satellite project was a joint venture between the American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the British General Post Office and the French National Post, Telegraph and Telecom Office (Gavaghan, 1997, p. 188). Not only did the satellite and its collaborators represent a new age of international communications, but also a provide a united front and the West’s alternative to the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1 satellite that launched in 1957.
Is it therefore possible to attribute some of the success of Meek’s Telstar to its importance within the political environment of the period? Considering Becker (1984) we can certainly conclude that it encapsulated many of the states interests of the period which it would have been more than willing to covertly or overtly support: a display of technological achievements and advances, a reaffirming of the Anglo-American special relationship (both physically with its transatlantic communications, and musically with it’s use of American cultural artifacts) and an important display of western power and technical ability during the cold war era.
It is also certain that the publicity which surrounded the launch, and first broadcast of the Telstar satellite would have made Meek’s record of the same name instantly recognisable and exciting to both British and American consumers. Gavaghan (1997, p.193) suggests that the publicity campaign launched by AT&T around Telstar was: ‘impressive’ and ‘rivaled even that of NASA’. She goes on to mention that more than half the population of the United Kingdom watched Telstar’s first transatlantic broadcast, which is a considerable number given the limited availability of private television sets in the early 1960’s compared to today.
This is also, perhaps, further evidence of Meek’s savvy marketing abilities. Rather than just being inspired by Telstar’s launch, perhaps he also saw it as a marketing opportunity to be taken advantage of. Meek made no secret of wanting to make commercially successful music (Repsch, 2000) and there is plenty of evidence that he employed various publicity stunts in order to try and draw attention to his work. Arena (1991) includes documentary evidence of two such publicity stunts one including the artist Screaming Lord Sutch parading as Jack The Ripper in the back streets of Whitechapel, and another involving Meek’s house band The Outlaws driving a horse drawn stage coach through the streets of London’s West End in order to draw attention to their latest release.
Despite being sanctioned by the state it is possible that Meek’s Telstar was appropriated by teenagers on both sides of the Atlantic in, what Bradley (1992, pp.107-132), would term as ‘a ritual of resistance’. This was expressed by its abundant record sales and popularity amongst the young.
Meek’s Telstar contributed to this sense of transatlantic cohesion through what Bradley (1992, p.131) terms as ‘the communalising function of music’ and ‘the ritual of togetherness’.
But rather than a ritual of resistance through acceptance, this was a ritual of resistance through appropriation, although adventures in outer space were being sanctioned and advertised by the state, there was still plenty of space out there for individuals to imagine their own possible futures and utopias.
In a world of seriality, atomisation and the consequent feelings of loneliness and boredom, the music involves its listeners, if they are sympathetic, in a ritual togetherness which by its very nature is Utopian in its implications (Bradley, 1992, p.131)
The fact that Meek failed to receive any composer’s royalties for Telstar during his life, should not distract from its greatness. Due to a French lawsuit, that alleged he had stolen the opening chord sequence from Jean Ledrut’s ‘Le Marche d’ Austerlitz’ from the film Austerlitz (1960) royalties were withheld only to be received by his estate three months after his death.
There are similarities between the two tracks, but it is unlikely Meek drew any inspiration from Ledrut (Repsch, 2000, p.182-183). In a contemporary context this question of copying is unimportant. They are different pieces of music. The lawsuit was, conceivably, the consequence of Telstar’s success, and a cultural industry that still maintained a strong focus on the superiority of individual authorship. Remembering that it was produced prior to the influence of any post-structuralist theory, prior to the sanctioning of borrowing and replication through advances in copyright laws and the introduction of sample clearance mechanisms and twenty-one years before The Sugar Hill Gang, would interestingly enough, loop samples from Michael Viner’s percussion solo in the Incredible Bongo Band’s version of Bert Weedon’s ‘Apache’ (Top Rank, 1960), a tune most popularly associated with The Shadows (Matos, 2005).
In Telstar, Meek uses a combination of American cultural artifacts and experimental electroacoustic techniques to launch the imaginary, pictorial and escapist 1950’s utopia out of the prairies of the Wild West and into outer space. When comparing tracks from I Hear A New World with tracks from The Outlaw’s Dream Of The West (1961) one can hear how, though the use of different electronic instrumentation and effects Meek has created two different imaginary spaces from what are essentially the same tunes.
His sub-cultural position, as defined by both creative choice, and creative necessity and his sub-social position, as defined by his sexuality, influenced his decisions and ideas and combined with his advanced technical skill to make, not just what Telstar is, but what his legacy as a music producer is, and what it remains to be.
All these sub-cultural influences combine to enable us to credit Meek with several possible important musical achievements including: the first to produce a concept album, the first to include the results of experimental electroacoustics in a number one hit record, the first independent music producer and the first British producer to have an American number one. There is also perhaps space for considering him as being the first successful bedroom producer. A bedroom producer, or a bedroom production is a contemporary term used to describe a musician or music that originates from a small home-based studio operation. This usually suggests music that has been created, or composed, using solely computer software and hardware (Braddock, 2004), a technology that has enabled a new generation of producers to create independently made hit records some forty years after Meek made Telstar.
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