❉ This is a really deep dive into a pioneering musical genre, writes James R. Turner.
Where to start with the enigma that is Joe Meek? A musical pioneer in many different ways, from his obsession with making new and different music, deconstructing the process, tinkering and stripping down electrical equipment. Producer of hits like Telstar, the massive hit for the Tornadoes that soundtracked the start of the satellite age.
The pioneer of the DIY musical ethic, recording and producing his works in his rented flat on a homemade studio, the maverick who took ownership of the music away from the major labels, and merely licensed his works to different labels.
The gay talent spotter who was gay before it was legal and when every homosexual man in London has to live under the shadow of being arrested for who they were (Meek himself was convicted in 1963, and was subject to blackmail) and who made a star out of his obsession Heinz Burt. The paranoid insecure individual who was struggling with money, his mental health (he was both bipolar and schizophrenic) and finally ìn 1967 he lost what control he had on his health and shot his landlady Violet Shenton and himself, with a shotgun belonging to Burt.
This mammoth 3 disc box from Cherry Red Records takes the original release of his concept album I See A New World (which was originally recorded in 1960, but never released in it’s intended form until 1991) and places it into the wider context drawing in material from pioneering electronic musicians across Europe, including the work of BBC’s legendary Radiophonic Workshop (whose influence on electronic artists was noted by the Pet Shop Boys on their 1999 album Nightlife) as well as work by artists like John Cage. Placing this album into the wider context throws Meeks talent into sharp releif and draws the straight line from the electronic composers and producers to the Beatles White Album, and most points in between.
Originally only 4 tracks from the original concept were released on EP and the original album was left, shelved until it was constructed and issued by RPM records which was the first official release of this seminal music, included for the first time on this CD is the original planned running order.
Joe Meek was the original producer whose name was as a big as the acts (The Mark Ronson of his day), the complete opposite to Parlophone’s George Martin, and the EMI studios at Abbey road, where the producers wore suits and the engineers wore white jackets, and Meek was there in his bedroom, producing and reecording some of the most innovative records of the pre-Beatles rock and roll landscape.
Credited to Joe Meek, who wrote and produced the whole suite, based on his fascination with the space race and alien life, he recorded a band called the Blue Men comprising of Rod Freeman (guitar, vocals), Ken Harvey (tenor sax, vocals) Roger Fiola (hawaiian guitar) Chris White (guitar) Doug Collins (bass) & Dave Golding (drums) and in his lifetime, only 4 tracks (Magnetic Field, Around the Moon, Entry of the Globbots – oh er missus, & Valley of the Saroos) made it out on that limited edition EP.
Wisely, instead of going full radiophonic, Meek decided to create a blend of the new sounds he was experimenting with, but using the traiditional jazz/skiffle group, and structure it in a contemporary context, so woven through this fairly traditional (at first glance) album, are incredible elements of musique concrete, with sound effects weaved through speeded up tape effects, high pitched vocal harmonies and backgrounds, and sonic soundscapes that echo and reverberate around the fairly traiditional LP arrangement.
Disc one is the definitive version of I Hear a New World, re-ordering the album back as to how Meek wanted it (and of course remastering and revitalising it at the same time) and it sounds both entirely of it’s time and completely otherwordly at the same time, Meek rooting it at the cutting edge of the time, without trying to scare off his audience was a brilliant move, and paving the way for sonic experiments of bands like the Beatles, Pink Floyd – in fact the 1969 album An Electric Storm by White Noise (featuring BBC Radiophonic alumni like Delia Derbyshire) is almost the logical conclusion of Meek’s work (and if you haven’t heard it, then it’s on to put on your list).
Starting with the RPM remaster (followed by the original 1960 tracklisting) you get a feel for what Meek was looking to achieve, and he eases you in with quite a contempoary title track (and the only one with conventional vocals) and then we veer through the weird and the wonderful via tracks like Glob Waterfall, Magnetic Field or Orbit around the Moon, and whilst the tracks are short, the mood and ambience that Meek is creating makes this a contemporary classical piece as they ebb and flow
By placing this at the start of a treble disc compilation, the compilers of this well curated triple disc set are rightly putting Joe Meek and his vision of new music, at the heart of those musical mavericks who were pushing the musical envelope in the late ’50s & early ’60s.
The remaining tracks on Disc 1 are devoted to the original electronic pioneers, the BBC Radiophonic workshop, with 10 tracks featuring Radiophonic workshop founder Daphne Oram, legendary Delia Derbyshire and Maddalena Fagandini. What was obvious about the list of names, is how many women were involved in this pioneering genre, where they were building their own machines to do what synthesisors did in the late ’70s.
Highlights from this set are Phil Young’s The Artist Speaks, and the remix (although that word wasn’t known then) of Maddalena Fagandini’s Time Beat – a piece of work originally done for a BBC clock, released a single with orchestration under the pseudonym Ray Cathode (producer behind this, none other than George Martin) & the other ‘Ray Cathode’ track Waltz in Orbit.
Taking their cues from Europe, and pushing the recording technique to it’s absolute limit, the Radiophonic Workshop casts a long shadow over everything that followed in television soundtracks and effects (there’s no wonder that for Record Store Day they reissue Radiophonic Workshop soundtracks) and the impact they’ve had on countless musicians is immense. Even better is the fact that members from the latter years before John Birt closed them down continued the legacy with the amazing release Burials in Several Earths from 2017.
It seems such a shame that this free-wheeling, experimental musical commune where everything went and nothing was irrelevant was destroyed by cost-cutting, but that is the danger of prioritising money over art.
The remaining two expansive discs are literally a who’s who of electronic pioneers from across the continent, drawing together the work done by composers like Bruno Maderna & Luciano Berio at Radiotelevisione Italian, Eimert & Bayers’ Studio for Electronic Music of the West German Radio, as well as Pierre Schaeffer in Paris.
Noted 20th century composers like Stockhausen, Edgar Varese, Pierre Boulez – whose suite Deux Etudes de Musique Concrete for Magnetic Tape is featured here in all it’s maginificent glory – were all part of a pan European musical movement, crossing countries and genres, and building a new European movement free from the shackles of the traditional form of composition.
The three part Visage V by Luc Ferrari is also a welcome addition to this set, and again showcases how boundaries were being pushed and how far beyond the guitar, drum and bass format of contemporary popular music these musicians were going.
This is a really deep dive into a pioneering musical genre, and with the complex wave of sound, the mix of the ordinary with the extraordinary, and it really is a definitive guide to the pioneers of electronic music and musique concrete, arguably the two building blocks for the dominant forces of musical creation in the latter part of the 20th century, and the way this set succeeds is placing Meek, a musical pioneer with the nous of a salesman, forefront of transitioning the movement from being on the fringes of music, to the charts and into the consiousness of the average rock fan, by slowly drip feeding it in, echoe by echoe, effect by effect and slowly and subtly distorting what was the musical norm and leading directly to the sonic collages the Beatles and George Martin produced, and the birth of progressive music by bands like Pink Floyd – whose musique concrete inspired approached culminated in the dominance of Dark Side of the Moon.
This is well worth the money, and you can dip in or immerse yourself in these sonic pioneers, and be amazed that this was all done pre synth, by visionaries flying by the seats of their pants and doing things, because, well they wanted to, and don’t we just love that approach?
❉ ‘Joe Meek: ‘I Hear A New World’/Various Artists: ‘The Pioneers Of Electronic Music’ (3CD Box Set) is released 20 September 2018, by Cherry Red Records (ACME349BOX), RRP £12.99. Click here to order.
❉ James R. Turner is a music and media journalist. Over the last 25 years he has contributed to the Classic Rock Society magazine, BBC online, Albion Online, The Digital Fix, DPRP, Progarchy, ProgRadar and more. James’ debut book is out in September and he is head of PR for Bad Elephant Music. He lives in North Somerset with his fiancee Charlotte, their Westie Dilys & Ridgeback Freja, three cats and too many CDs, records & Blu-Rays.