Sunday, May 16, 2010


"Just Like Joe Meek's Blues" / Graham Parker

Anybody remember Joe Meek? He was England's first independent record producer, though only because he was too temperamental to hold a job at any major label; working out of his own home studio, he introduced techniques such as echo, reverb, compression, and multiple over-dubbing on one- and two-track machines. If you haven't heard of Joe Meek, you must know some of his hits, which included "Have I the Right?" and the classic instrumental "Telstar" by the Tornados.

So is that why Graham Parker wrote a song about him on his 1992 album Burning Questions? Most likely it's not just Meek's visionary production skills that inspired Parker, but also the tragic way he died, shooting his landlady and then himself with a shotgun. Mired in depression, debts accumulating, work drying up, paranoid that his homosexuality would land him in prison, Meek was probably a time bomb waiting to go off, but his 1967 suicide -- newspaper accounts described the blood-spattered scene in gruesome detail -- certainly shook the music world.

Parker's tribute to Meek is hardly a straightforward thing, however. Verses one and three aren't about Meek at all, but about Parker and some friend, or lover, traveling around Europe, heading for "a Joe Meek revival." Some kind of oldies show? More like his traveling companion descending into a Meek-like case of depression.

It's interesting how Parker characterizes Meek's suicide, in the second half of the first verse: "It takes a leap of faith, / To pull the trigger on the world you're accustomed to / You might as well take out the landlady too / It's only a small thing to choose." He isn't mocking Meek here; he truly seems curious about that state of mind, just before pulling the trigger. In each subsequent verse, he repeats that "leap of faith" line, but he's no longer talking about Meek -- "you might as well save a bullet for me too" in verse two, and the verse three, "Sure we might have torn each other's hair out by the roots / And recorded it on two-track tape."

The chorus is simple, a repeated "Just like Joe Meek's blues" over and over, with reverbed vocals and spooky keyboards (two signature Meek effects) giving it a disconnected, floaty quality. Still, it's perversely bright and upbeat. You'd think a song about suicide and depression would be in a minor key, but it's not; you'd think it would have a funereal tempo, but no, it clips along quite jauntily, with boot-stomping drums in classic Meek style. It's catchy, even -- damn catchy, with a fluid melodic line. Graham Parker is famous for his dark sense of humor, but the contrast between snappy tune and gloomy subject is pretty extreme. Compare this to Wreckless Eric's song "Joe Meek" which came out the year before this one, which comes off as a tragic folk-Western ballad. (Was this song GP's response to Eric's?)

My favorite verse is in the middle, the only spot where he really does sing about Meek himself: "It's a twisted world so let's twist again / There's a bass drum sound going round in my brain / A cat communicates with an artichoke / Lord Sutch delivers a homophobe joke / Heinz gets his nose chewed again." Footnotes may be in order: Screaming Lord Sutch was one of the artists Meek recorded, and Heinz is the German bassist /singer Heinz Burt, formerly of the Tornados, whose shotgun Meek used in his suicide. And ooh, don't miss the faint trace of "Telstar" in the fadeout.

It's my guess that this song grew out of very specific incidents, which verse three pinpoints in place and time: "Back in London and it didn't even rain / The Joe Meek revival was happening again / But the clocks went forward and the revival got choked / British summertime came like a cruel joke." (I do love that last line -- it reminds me of the Beatles' "sitting in an English garden waiting for the sun / If the sun don't come you get a tan from standing in the English rain".) Whatever was going on, the crisis seems to have been averted -- for now.

Maybe the key to this whole elliptical song is that line, "It's a twisted world so let's twist again." GP wrote earlier about how "Love Gets You Twisted"; considering how ghastly life can be, perhaps the only sane response is to dial up your transistor and enjoy a little Chubby Checker. Whatever. This song's a puzzle, no question about it, but I have to say I love it.


Betty C. said...

I somehow know this song, although I don't have the album. I'll try not only to drop in often (can't promise every day) and also catch up with your GP posts.

Holly A Hughes said...

Maybe it sounds familiar because of all the echoes of Joe Meek's sound? Anyway, I find that these songs do have an eerie familiarity to me, as if maybe I heard them in the background somewhere and just didn't register whose music I was listening to....

TwennydollaBill said...

I've listened to this song many times over the years, and have never understood who Joe Meek was, and so really didn't appreciate the lyrics. (I was too lazy to wiki him, but that might not have been an option in 1992). So, thank you, Holly. (I'm not sure where you two might have heard much GP from this era, unless you were listening to WMBR in Cambridge in the early 90's where a Saturday morning show called "Rockin' with Greg" kept GP on the radio, and bridged my early 'Squeezing out Sparks' interest to his later (and better!) records.

Holly A Hughes said...

Joe Meek's story is a pretty sad one -- I remember reading about in a couple of music histories of this era. He was a real visionary, but a head case. "Have I The Right?" was one of the first singles I ever owned.