I HEAR A NEW WORLD by Joe Meek
Pros: Nifty experimental techniques; relaxed surf/island music vibes; great melodies; great CD package
Cons: Hasn’t aged all that well in the 50 years since it was made
The saga of British-born record producer and songwriter Joe Meek is a pretty strange, ultimately sad one. Regarded in some circles as a sort of “poor man’s Phil Spector” due to his ability to utilize music production techniques that, in the early 1960s, were trend-setting (and the opposite of Spector’s expansive “wall of sound” technique), Meek scored a couple of hits as a songwriter – including the first British song to hit number 1 in America when The Tornados’s “Telstar” topped the charts – despite the fact that he wasn’t a trained musician. After that early triumph, Meek set up his own recording studio in a loft in North London, crafting hits for the likes of John Leyton and The Honeycombs. This success had a downside for Meek (a well-known homosexual who grew increasingly paranoid, especially since homosexuality was illegal at the time in the UK) however, and in 1967, a broke and destitute Meek borrowed a shotgun from a friend, and killed his landlady and later himself. Through the years, his contributions to the process of music production have been recognized and lauded, so much so that the Music Producers Guild created an award for “Innovation” in his honor in 2009 (first recipient – appropriately enough – Brian Eno).
Perhaps one of Meek’s most interesting contributions to the world of music was the 1960 album I Hear a New World, a sort of space opera concept album, written by Meek and performed by Rod Freeman & the Blue Men. Using all sorts of experimental techniques, this disc attempted to, in the words of Meek, “create a picture in music of what could be in outer space,” and I think to a large degree, it accomplishes the goal of sounding quite different from much of anything else being produced at the time. One can almost see how various “out there” albums of the late ‘60s drew from the types of sound that Meek imagined for this project, yet there’s a playfulness and warmness to the whole thing that was often missing from subsequently-produced experimental music. I Hear a New World at times sounds like a recording of an interstellar luau, with surf-guitar melodies and a tropical vibe established through use of Latin percussion. At others, the disc incorporates homemade sound effects to create images of alien landscapes and armies on the march. It surely is an interesting album to listen to and definitely fits the generally relaxed vibe of early ‘60s surf rock, though I’m not sure that I’d call it an honest-to-goodness classic.
The album’s title track (the only one with traditional vocals and lyrics) begins with growling low tones and what seems like the sounds of winds blowing across distant planets, before a laid back samba bass line kicks up. Several layers of vocals are heard, the most prominent one being a main melody, with accompanying harmonies and in the distance of the mix, high-pitched and sped-up vocal takes that are nearly identical to the sound of novelty group David Seville and the Chipmunks. This track fades out with bubbling sound effects that lead into the second track “Orbit Around the Moon,” which eventually works itself into a percussive frenzy of hypnotic, calliope-like organ and heavy, surf guitar strumming. I love the warbling, nearly out-of-tune guitar featured as a harmony element, providing a wacky base for a chorus of wordless vocal parts. “Entry of the Globbots” includes more gurgling atmospheric sounds and thundering crescendos of low tones before a military march section bounces along to a rhythm of loud snare drum and a sinister, menacing underlying bass progression. Above all of this, we get more delirious, Chipmunk-like vocals, laughing and blurting out the melody.
“The Bublight” plays to me like an early run at making an instrumental like the later hit “Telstar;” built off a manic, scratchy rhythm of shakers and guiro, a warbly guitar line surges over another bouncy and energetic bassline. Follow-up track “March of the Dribcots” sounds as if it were performed by a marching band who had ingested too much scotch. The manipulated “dooby-dooby” vocals only seal the deal as this being one of the more demented (but positively fun) tracks on the album. “Love Dance of the Saroos” sounds more like surf or “island music,” with a bellowing accordion-like harmony over a crisp, plucked guitar line and stand-up bass. Eventually, a somewhat screechy main melody joins the fray, but though there’s a lot going on, the production remains clean and the overall sound very relaxed. Following this track, I Hear a New World heads into its most blatantly experimental section for “Glob Waterfall” and the beginning section of “Magnetic Field.” Lots of unconventional sound here, as Meek, probably literally inventing the sounds as he went along, gets a chance to show off his ability to create space in a recording.
The second half of “Magnetic Field” again lets loose with a bleepy guitar-driven instrumental that sounds quite similar to “Telstar,” and the round-like song works through several variations of the main theme. “Valley of the Saroos” sounds like a cracked-up slow-dancing song, with most of the instruments played just slightly off-pitch. The main, plunky guitar sounds particularly strange, seeming to imagine a world that’s off-kilter or tilted ever so slightly, thus making it seem downright bizarre to an Earthling. “Dribcots Space Boat” injects instant energy into the proceedings, pushed along by a nearly-distorted electric organ and throbbing two-note bass line. “Disc Dance of the Globbots” has a rockabilly feel to it, with a back-country banjo melody and resonant player piano harmony. I could almost see this track playing at a hoe-down, and it gradually picks up pace until it’s really moving by the end. The album concludes with “Valley of No Return,” a slowed-down number which incorporates some of the melodic themes from earlier tracks and precisely expresses a reluctant departure – there’s a slight somberness to the piece, making it work ever so well as a coda to this enchanting little album.
Sadly, I Hear a New World was never released during the lifespan of the visionary producer and songwriter who envisioned it, and for the longest time, this album sat unreleased in its completed form. Finally, in 1991, Meek’s pet project saw the light of day in the context it was intended to be heard, released on CD by RPM Records. 2001 saw the album re-issued on that label, this time with a full thirty-minute interview with Meek (“A Day in the Life”) tacked onto the end of the 30-minute album. In this interview (recorded in 1962), Meek matter-of-factly discusses his early history, work in the British recording industry, and production techniques. I daresay that not everyone will be interested in this archival material, but the interview certainly does provide a fascinating, first-hand account of the early days of music production as well as material for those interested in audio production or engineering to think about. I should also point out that the liner notes for the album explain the ongoing “story” Meek was trying to tell with this recording, thus making sense of the outlandish song titles.
Having been listening in recent months to a large variety of early rock and roll, surf music, and experimental albums of yesteryear, I’d say that I Hear a New World definitely is of interest to those who appreciate any or all of those things. This undeniably fun, atmospheric album is all about creating a listening experience all its own, and it demonstrates the types of material that can be produced with a little ingenuity and creativity since at the time it was made, technology (especially in the world of experimental and electronically-based music) was in its infancy. Though there are some upbeat, more highly-structured songs to be found here, I’d say the general mood of this album is slightly lazy and carefree, with glowing melodies that are frankly astounding considering that Meek wasn’t the least bit musically inclined by conventional standards. This sonic journey probably wouldn’t impress listeners used to modern production and musical techniques (it’s very simplistic when compared to contemporary recordings and hasn’t aged all that well), but I think it’d be worthwhile for those with an appreciation of older music of the early 1960s.