I’m somebody who will definitely give certain songs points for context. A truly great song will hold up regardless of where or when it’s being listened to and by whom, but sometimes it can be a powerful trick to try to let yourself experience it through the ears of those who heard it first.
Sometimes context is necessary, even.
Maybe this is just the sort of thing that only vinyl snobs and people obsessed with old music think, but I have an early pressing of White Light / White Heat, for example, and it’s not especially valuable or super-duper rare or anything, but when you’re listening to it you get a real extra bit of shine off that record. It’s not just thinking on how it isn’t merely a digitized reproduction of sound as instructed by ones and zeroes encoded on a disc or streamed to the cloud. It’s that there is a tangible physical connection to the actual recording, and to whichever hip asshole put their needle in those exact same grooves back in 1968 — when there was nothing else like it in the world, and what was there hardly anybody had heard.
I say this because I Hear A New World by Joe Meek and the Blue Men needs to be understood through the prism of its times to truly be appreciated. Otherwise it probably comes off as little more than a cute, tinny-sounding space age ditty — a piece of Googie architecture come to life. It lumbers just a little bit awkwardly, the vocal rounds are just a touch too lethargic, the chipmunk voices grate, and it sounds like it was recorded in a damned kitchen.
Which, of course, it pretty much was.
Joe Meek. If you don’t know his incredible story, you really should. A star-making record producer working out of his apartment. An indie businessman pushing back against the big companies. A peerless innovator in the recording studio. The perpetrator of a murder-suicide.
Meek was an occultist and a paranoiac, but also the subject of very real blackmail and police harassment because he was a gay man in a time of actively enforced anti-homosexuality laws in the U.K. He was a man, at the end of his life, distraught and crushed by financial burden, in part because he had been sued for plagiarism of his biggest hit, the Tornados’ Telstar, the royalties withheld while the case was pending.
The Telstar case was ultimately judged in his favour… three weeks after, as the Daily Express put it in a 2009 piece, “he blasted a hole in [his landlord] Violet Shenton’s back before turning the shotgun on himself and blowing off his face.”
But the more salacious details of his life really shouldn’t be the focus, except in that they underline how we’re still only just starting to come out of the dark ages in terms of understanding the importance of mental health (in a 1991 documentary, seen below, one of Meek’s brothers says Joe had been taking pills for depression, but that “he should have come home and had a good rest and he’d have been alright”), and of letting people live with dignity no matter their orientation or gender.
Meek was an auteur working out of a modest flat, pushing the boundaries of sound recording and engineering — boundaries that we’ve now pushed so far past as to make the original ones seem quaint. He was experimenting with mic placement, overdubs, effects, tape loops, home-built instrumentation, and more. He was exploring different sounds and using the studio itself as an instrument years before Dave Davies was cutting his speaker cones.
I Hear a New World is the title track off an EP inspired, as U.K. mag The Wire put it, by “transmundane” sounds that Meek had become obsessed with during his time as a radar operator in the National Service. This is maybe the most conventional sounding track on a very intentionally unconventional record. It shows off much of what Meek was capable of using his studio to do, it’s just not quite as fabulous a demonstration of it in a pop format as the more subtle studio-craft of the Honeycombs’ Have I The Right, Mike Berry and the Outlaws’ Tribute to Buddy Holly, or John Leyton’s incredible, ethereal Johnny Remember Me.
And, of course, there’s the aforementioned Telstar, too.
Is there some hopelessly dull stuff in his catalogue? For sure. But with the right context…
This is very 1991, but still worth your time, I think — especially once it really gets going…