Top 10 List – Mental Musical Masterpieces # 4 (Joe Meek)

Authored by Dale Nickey:

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Joe Meek (featuring the Blue Men) – “I Hear A New World”

British producer/composer Joe Meek was certainly a sociopath and was possibly a paranoid schizophrenic. However, it’s a safe bet any condition he suffered was exacerbated by the intolerant environment of postwar Britain. Additionally, his parents desire to dress baby Joe up as ‘the daughter they never had’ couldn’t have helped matters. Meek was a closeted, alpha-gay man in an era where you could be cited by the authorities for openly expressing your same-sex preference. Professionally, Joe Meek cut his teeth in the  1950’s as a tape-op and sound engineer for a production company that produced shows for Radio Luxembourg during the British recording industry’s most intractable period. At EMI Studios (for example), recording engineers were required to wear white lab coats and run their sessions by the strictures of EMI’s bound text instruction manual. Meek couldn’t abide, so he established himself as an independent producer and built his own studio in his apartment.

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Pioneers of any new frontier usually suffer the slings and arrows of skepticism, and Meek certainly took a lot of verbal darts from his fellow record professionals. However, this didn’t stop him from creating some of the most innovative and thrilling records of his day as well as some of the worst. Meek secured his legacy by composing and producing the futuristic (1962) single “Telstar”; a record that changed the ears of the world. The stuffy establishment of the British music industry still branded Meek a crackpot. In a sense their observations weren’t that far off.  His production methods were unorthodox to the extreme and involved assault, bullying, threats and/or harassment of his male musicians and protégés. As an engineer, he routinely pinned VU meters, drenched vocals and instruments with industrial strength reverb and favored the use of household appliances as sound effects.

Joe Meek’s long-form masterpiece was the sound-cycle, “I Hear A New World”. Recorded in 1960, the album was an outsider’s love letter to an extraterrestrial, alien world that Meek surely would have preferred to this one. The album was too ‘far out’ to be released in his lifetime. It contains most of the signature elements of Meek’s sound. Including high-speed vocals, distortion, copious amounts of echo, and a strange ancestor of the keyboard synthesizer called “The Clavioline”. If you wish to examine the tea leaves foretelling Meek’s masterpiece, “Telstar”, listen to “I Hear A New World”. Meek had his moments of clarity and commercial success. However, as The Beatles and their progeny took over the music industry, Meek’s fortunes declined dramatically. Meek finally achieved closure with a self-administered shotgun blast to the head. He committed this final act of sonic audacity shortly after performing the same ritual on his long-suffering landlady who lived on the first floor below his studio. Genius seldom comes in a neat, tidy package.

Top 10 Countdown – Mental Musical Masterpieces # 9 Wild Man Fischer

NUMBER  9…..Number 9…..Number 9……

Wild Man Fischer – An Evening with Wild Man Fischer (1968)

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Wild Man Fischer - An Evening With Wild Man Fischer

Larry “Wild Man” Fischer was a regular sighting on the streets of Hollywood in the 60’s and beyond; the type of guy you would go to great effort to avoid or ignore despite the fact Larry would sell you one of his songs for a dime.  Fischer was a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic with bi-polar disorder. He was institutionalized at the age of 16 for attacking his mother with a knife. He claims he escaped and remained at large simply because nobody bothered to look for him.  What may have repelled others attracted Frank Zappa.  Maestro Zappa met Fischer and saw something different. He saw an artist.  Zappa befriended Fischer and signed him to a record deal with his boutique label “Bizarre Records”.

Fischer’s masterpiece is “An Evening With Wild Man Fischer” Produced by Frank Zappa,“Evening…..” is a sprawling mess of a double LP album. Songs like “Merry Go Round” are maddeningly repetitive and catchy. Much of the album consists of Fischer engaging in banal chatter with loiterers on the streets of Hollywood.  These lo-fi man-on-the-street field recordings are backed by Zappa’s studio overdubs’ which sound like mechanized ticking sounds of a mind gone mad.  Elsewhere Fischer performs his original songs a cappella with varying degrees of  cogency. Other songs approach conventional rock song craft. To paraphrase Zappa himself, “Wild Man Fischer had something to say, whether you wanted to hear it or not”.

Fischer’s corrosive ramblings were equal parts harrowing and hilarious.  It’s easy to write off  Fischer as a nutter on first listen. However, a careful study of his music reveals the seedling of an artist struggling to break through the concrete of mental illness. Aside from Fischer’s violent teen episode, he seems to have managed his madness into a benign lunacy in his adult years. And, we’ll never know how much Zappa’s patronage or the healing powers of music helped Fischer during his bittersweet struggle through life (he died in 2011 at age 66).  The following tune “Jennifer Jones” is probably Fischer’s most revealing song.  WARNING…Not for faint hearts or delicate sensibilities……