Meek by name, wild by natureThe extraordinary producer Joe Meek recorded British pop's first out and out gay classic, and within six months had shot himself dead. Jon Savage traces the impact of sexuality on Meek's life in the Sixties when persecution and criminal prosecution were very real threats
Observer Music Monthly, Sunday 12 November 2006
On 12 August, 1966, the Tornados released their last ever record with Joe Meek. Beginning with the sound of waves and seagulls, 'Is That a Ship I Hear?' bore all its producer's hallmarks: the boot-stomping drums, the extraterrestrial keyboard sound, and fierce, fierce compression. Like its predecessor, 'Pop-Art Goes Mozart', it was constructed around a gimmick. Meek hoped that the title and the ocean effects would convince the DJs on the pirate stations - Radio Caroline, Radio London, Radio City et al - to put his new record on heavy rotation. Just when the pirates' influence on the British charts was at its height, it seemed like a good angle.
However, this was not the Tornados' time. On 12 August, Revolver was on its first week in the British record shops. Blonde on Blonde was issued on the same day as 'Is That a Ship I Hear?'. While the Dylan album got detailed track by track rundowns in the British music press, the Tornados got short shrift: 'a whistleable little melody of promise'; 'good of its kind and doubtless a hit three years ago, but not for today's market'. It had been a long slow fall since 'Telstar', number one in the UK for five weeks in autumn 1962: the group hadn't had a hit since late 1963 and there were none of the original members left.
Yet while 'Is That a Ship I Hear?' was a shameless attempt to ride the pirate wave, the flip was something quite different. 'Do You Come Here Often?' begins as a flouncy organ-drenched instrumental and stays that way for over two minutes. By that time, most people - had they even bothered to even turn the record over - would have switched off. Had they remained they would have heard two sibilant, obviously homosexual voices bitching, well, just like two queens will.
The scenario is the toilet in a London gay club, possibly the Apollo or Le Duce. The organist is still pumping away, but that's only background, as the sound dims and the bar atmosphere comes in.
'Do you come here often?'
'Only when the pirate ships go off air.'
'Me too.' (giggles)
'Well, I see pyjama styled shirts are in, then.'
'Well, pyjamas are OUT, as far as I'm concerned anyway.'
'Well, I know of a few people who do.'
'Yes, you would.'
'WOW! These two, coming now. What do you think?'
'Mmmmmm. Mine's all right, but I don't like the look of yours.'
(A sniffy pause)
'Well, I must be off.'
'Yes, you're not looking so good.'
'Cheerio. I'll see you down the 'Dilly.'
'Not if I see you first, you won't.'
Exeunt, to swelling organ.
This brief but diverting exchange has the ring of authenticity. Its bickering is not just beastliness but the most important component of the camping which, as English academic Richard Dyer writes, is 'the only style, language and culture that is distinctively and unambiguously gay male'. In its social mode, camp privileges a caustic wit, best expressed by the quick-fire verbal retort, partly as a form of aggression, partly as a form of self-mockery, partly as a form of self-defence. It's an insider code that completely baffles the heterosexual majority, as it's meant to. (Why are they being so horrible to each other? Because it's good sport, and good practice for when you really need it.)
Like the Negro 'dirty dozens' - the ritualised insults of the Twenties and Thirties that have become embedded in rap - the camping spotlighted on 'Do You Come Here Often?' represents a complicated response to a hostile world. Its poisoned psychological arrows can help to control and neutralise the threat of homophobic violence: many bullies are right to fear the queen's forked tongue. Camping can provide a bulwark from which the gay man can sally forth into the world at large: it freezes the typecasting of homosexuals as effeminate, internalises it, and then throws it back in the face of the straight world as a kind of revenge.
However, that long 'mmmmmm', reverberating right through the diaphragm down to the male G-spot, gets to the heart of the matter. Meek's queen bitches are briefly united by an unstable mixture of camaraderie and competitiveness. Ever hopeful, ever alert, the gay man in cruising mode is relentless in pursuit of cock: the usual social rules go right out of the window. Sex drives the gay scene, its iconography, its economy, its inner and outer life. Meek's scenario highlights that heart-stopping instant, that highwire walk between acceptance and rejection that every gay man knows: when the Adonis turns into a Troll - not just the object of your desire but your own self.
'Do You Come Here Often?' was an extraordinary achievement: the first record on a UK major label - Columbia, part of the massive EMI empire - to deliver a slice of queer life so true that you can hear its cut-and-thrust in any gay bar today. Before 1966, homosexuality had been hinted at in odd mainstream records like Donovan's 'I'll Try For the Sun' or the Kinks' 'See My Friends', indeed had saturated Meek epics like 'Johnny Remember Me', but the allusions had been veiled. They didn't offer an insider viewpoint, just a mood or a stray word that seemed to briefly open a door usually locked and barred.
Since the early Sixties, there had been a trickle of products aimed at a market that was so off- the map as to be beyond marginal. Apart from Rod McKuen's vague but signifying spoken-word albums such as In Search of Eros , all of them were on tiny, fly-by-night labels. They took two different forms. Some took the Rod McKuen path: the sad young men, fated to wander through the twilight world of the third sex, condemned, like Peter Pan, to always be on the outside looking in. Their sensitive meditations on lust and loneliness were dramatised by covers of show tunes.
While these tragic figures, in accepting their exiled status, took care to be non-specific, the period's other archetypes were far more feisty. Unlike their more sober compatriots, drag queens could not pass, and so camping was honed into a corrosive chatter that could strip paint at 10 paces. Dovetailing into the market for outrageous adult albums by the likes of Rusty Warren ( Banned in Boston! ), nitroglycerin queens like Rae Bourbon, Mr Jean Fredericks and Jose from the Black Cat offered frank meditations on queer life: 'Nobody Loves a Fairy When She's 40', 'Sailor Boy', et al. Too real and too ghettoised, none had a hope of finding any wider distribution.
There were firm reasons for this state of affairs.
Although the law that would decriminalise it was passing through Parliament during 1966, homosexuality was still illegal in the UK, as it was in the US: punishable by prison and social ostracism. However, laws do not always reflect contemporary realities, and gay people continued to conduct their illegal sexual and social lives. For older men like Joe Meek, pleasure might have been irrevocably stained by guilt but, for the upcoming generation of 20 year olds, the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 was an anachronistic irrelevance. @#$%& Lily Law and her evil twin, Laura Norder.
In fact, Joe Meek was unusually privileged, if only he had been able to take some comfort from that realisation. The music industry was one of the few places where gay men could be themselves, and indulge their sexual predilections in a way that was economically viable. Forty years ago, it was far from being the respectable career option that it is today, and indeed derived much of its energy from its outcast status. This was a natural consequence of its roots in showbusiness and theatre, but even more basic was the way in which the sexual and social aesthetic of genuine innovators such as Larry Parnes alchemised the raw material of working-class adolescents into hit parade gold. From 1957 on, Parnes bossed British rock'n'roll, and transformed all his Reginalds and Ronalds into a new Olympus peopled by emotional deities-cum-archetypes like Billy Fury, Dickie Pride, Vince Eager, Georgie Fame. His sensibility, and that of many who followed him, transmuted gay lust into the erotic longing that excited the passions of the young women who pushed these idols into the charts.
Meek arrived as the period's foremost independent producer with John Leyton's summer 1961 smash, 'Johnny Remember Me', an eldritch spasm that epitomised the heightened melodrama of teenage emotions. (Meek used to speed up all his records to achieve that very effect.) It also acted as a metaphor, for those who chose to hear, for the sense of loss and disassociation that many gay men then felt. 'Telstar' confirmed his elite sta tus and, although superseded by the Beat Boom, he was able to pull out huge hits such as 'Have I the Right?' by the Honeycombs, a summer 1964 number one and an oblique comment on his own blocked right to sexual and emotional fulfilment.
This was his last chart-topper, but Meek adapted to the prevailing conditions better than most of his contemporaries. Although identified with Fifties rock'n'roll - Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran in particular - he was too restless and forward-thinking to get totally trapped in the past. He made a stone freakbeat classic with the Syndicats' 'Crawdaddy Simone', a Brit R'n'B record so frenzied that it put the Yardbirds' rave-ups to shame. His 1966 singles with the Cryin' Shames featured the sinuously menacing garage stomper, 'Come on Back', while the overwrought vocal contortions of 'Please Stay' - Meek's last ever hit - attracted the attention of Brian Epstein.
Although he found it difficult to place many of his productions during 1966, Meek was far from being a spent force: his interest in the possibilities of sound remained vital. He also remained a player among the British music industry's gay mafia. During the brief entente cordiale that followed 'Please Stay', Meek accompanied Brian Epstein to witness Bob Dylan's June 1966 Royal Albert Hall concert from the Beatles' box. When the freezing of all 'Telstar' royalties thanks to a copyright dispute threatened to render him bankrupt later in the year, Meek was thrown a lifeline by the EMI chairman, Sir Joseph Lockwood, who offered him a job as an in-house producer.
'Do You Come Here Often?' also emerged into a more open cultural climate. The playwright Joe Orton had used camp's caustic cadences in his smash 1964 West End success Entertaining Mr Sloane : this was the key weapon in his desired 'mixture of comedy and menace'. The extremely popular BBC radio serial Round the Horne featured two flagrant queens talking in the gay argot of the time. Executed by Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams, Julian and Sandy's quickfire Polari - that mixture of gypsy language, cockney backward slang, and thieves' cant - slotted right into the verbal surrealism that the Goons had made the hallmark of British comedy.
At the beginning of the decade, Meek had entitled his futuristic but stillborn space concept album I Hear A New World . Music is always ahead of social institutions, and the new world that Meek had dreamt of became tangible after 1963. The Beatles' unprecedented success marked the death knell of the Fifties hegemony, and during the next few years, the agitation for social and sexual liberation gathered pace throughout the Western world: the civil rights struggle, the women's movement, the campaigns for homosexual equality in America and Britain. The long years of stasis and repression banked up the flood, and it was ready to burst.
The most obvious sign of this uprising was teen fashion's hothouse blooms, as young women went Op and young men squeezed themselves into striped hip-huggers and polka-dot shirts - topped off with Prince Valiant bangs. 1966 saw the full mainstream media recognition of Swinging London and its associated fashion, mod. Trumpeting the 'revolution in men's clothes', Life's 13 May cover showed four young men, making like Brian Jones in front of the Chicago skyline. The cutaway teal corduroy jackets, Rupert Bear check trousers and fruit boots were not standard male gear, and the copy played up the freak-ish angle: 'The Guys Go All Out To Get Gawked At'.
Mod's hint of mint was not entirely in the heads of hostile observers. Peter Burton, who ran London's Le Duce in those years, remembered the crossover between the mods and his young gay clientele: 'both groups paid the same attention to clothes; both groups looked much alike.' Not surprising really, as their clothes came from the same shops - initially Vince in Carnaby Street (whose catalogue of swim- and underwear could almost be classified as an early gay magazine) and eventually from the John Stephen shops in the same street. Both groups took the same drug - basically 'speed', alternatively known as 'purple hearts', 'blues', 'doobs' or 'uppers'.
In February 1966, the Kinks had a huge UK hit with their dissection of this Carnebetian army. They backed up the risque 'Dedicated Follower of Fashion' - 'he pulls his frilly nylon panties right up tight' - with some extraordinary costumes, like the thigh-length leather waders sported with such gusto by Dave Davies. On the flip was one of the period's definitive statements of outsider pride, 'I'm Not Like Everybody Else', to be racked up against other garage band staples like the Yardbirds 'You're a Better Man Than I' and the Who's 'Substitute'. These calls for non-conformity and the acceptance of difference were becoming more and more strident.
This urgency defined pop's cutting edge during the first half of 1966: the unforeseen complexities and demands of 1965's emblematic records were amplified, their abrasion and innovation honed to a razor-sharp point. 1966 was a hot year, crowded with clamour and noise as seven-inch singles were cut to the limits of the then available technology. Hit 45s by the Yardbirds, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Supremes, James Brown, the Byrds, the Who, Junior Walker, Wilson Pickett, and Bob Dylan were smart and mediated, harsh and sophisticated, monomaniacally on the one or, raga-like, right out of Western perception into the eternity of one chord.
A blistering hostility was in the air on 12 August, so much so that you could taste it. That day the Beatles faced the first concert of their third American tour, an event marred by the controversy surrounding John Lennon's comment that the group were 'more popular than Jesus'. The formerly inviolable avatars of youth were suddenly vulnerable as DJs burned Beatles' records and the Ku Klux Klan threatened.
Time magazine's 12 August cover - 'The Psychotic and Society' - featured Charles Whitman, the sniper who installed himself in the clock tower at the University of Texas and, without warning, killed 15 and wounded 31 people. The horror triggered an anguished self-examination: Whitman's 'senseless mayhem' was not an aberration but intimately linked to American society. 'Potential killers are everywhere these days,' a psychiatrist warned; 'they are driving their cars, going to church with you, working with you. And you never know it until they snap'.
Across the Atlantic, 12 August saw 'the worst crime London has known this century'. Around 3pm, three police officers stopped a suspicious looking van near Wormwood Scrubs prison, north of the mod stronghold Shepherd's Bush. All three were gunned down by the vehicle's three occupants. A 10-year-old boy saw the whole thing: 'I saw a man shoot the policemen,' he told the newspapers; 'it was horrible and I was so scared.' Cop-killing was a huge taboo, and the nation recoiled.
'Do You Come Here Often?' partook of that season of violence, as did its author. Its candid dialogue uncovered a deep seam of outcast aggression. Camp's downside is that, unless employed with a light touch and a sure understanding of the game's rules, its ritualised viciousness can reinforce the hostility of the wider society. Peter Bur ton remembered that when he was entering the gay scene in the mid-Sixties, nothing 'was more daunting as an encounter with some acid-tongued bitch whose tongue was so sharp it was likely to cut your throat. These queens, with the savage wit of the self-protective, could be truly alarming to those of us of a slower cast of mind.'
Internalised homophobia fuels the twisted expression of an outcast's low self-esteem: instead of fighting the oppressors, why not fight those nearest to hand? Donald Webster Cory's groundbreaking 1951 survey, 'The Homosexual in America', had clearly identified poor self-esteem as one of the greatest threats to gay men's mental health - infecting every aspect of life - but it was difficult, given society's attitudes, to break the cycle of prejudice and self-hatred. Despite his bravado, Meek felt his homosexuality as a deep source of shame. He was too stubborn to tell it otherwise than it was but, ultimately, 'Do You Come Here Often?' presented gay life as a nitroglycerin nightmare.
Born in April 1929, Meek was sensitive, almost clairvoyant, but highly volatile. Brought up as a girl for the first four years of his life by a mother who had hoped for a daughter, uninterested in most boyish pursuits, Joe was called a sissy and left alone by most of his peers. This difference, coupled with his hair-trigger temper, led to the start of the persecution (both real and imagined) that lasted for the rest of his life.
As soon as he could, Meek fled rural England for London, but in the late Fifties, despite his reputation as one of the best sound engineers in the capital, he remained haunted by the fact that his emotional and sexual orientation was illegal. This laid him open, as it did generations of gay men, to ridicule, arrest, imprisonment, violent attacks and - perhaps worst of all - blackmail. In November 1963, Meek was arrested for cottaging, importuning in a public toilet: the news of his conviction made the front page. His friends were amazed. Joe could have had all the young men he wanted, as they were queuing up to be recorded by him: they concluded that he actually liked the risk.
It didn't help that Meek was spooky: obsessed with other worlds, with graveyards, with spiritualism. He claimed to be in regular contact with Buddy Holly through the spirit world, while the negativity that he experienced clung to him like worn-out, not yet shed skin. Charles Blackwell - who arranged 'Johnny Remember Me' - remembered Joe as scarier than Phil Spector: 'He was a split personality. He believed he was possessed, but had another side that was very polite with a good sense of humour. He was very complicated.' Meek terrified the usually confident Andrew Loog Oldham: 'He looked like a real mean-queen teddy boy and his eyes were riveting'.
By mid-1966, Meek's mental state was worsening as his heyday receded into the past. Giving free rein to his instincts with 'Do You Come Here Often?', he gained satisfaction from exposing a reality long suppressed. But this was a small victory, a transient revenge, as the forces ranged against him gathered speed. Jekyll overtook Hyde, as his money troubles and declining fame caused him to up his pill intake and to dabble further in the occult. He was beaten up and his prized Ford Zodiac trashed. He was also threatened by gangsters who wanted to take over the Tornados' management. His paranoia was justified; his loneliness became all-consuming.
Meek's slide into the depths of decline was played out against a minatory pop climate. Disturbance had already hit the US top 10 that summer with Napoleon XIV's banshee 'They're Coming to Take Me Away' and Count Five's 'Psychotic Reaction'. During September and October, the pure punk propulsion of Love's 'Seven and Seven Is', the Yardbirds' 'Happenings Ten Years Time Ago' and the Rolling Stones' 'Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow?' rode the year's white line fever right off the rails. The last was an amphetamined apocalypse, glossed thus by Andrew Loog Oldham: 'The Shadow is the uncertainty of the future. The uncertainty is whether we slide into a vast depression or universal war.' Later that autumn, David Bowie's 'The London Boys' and the Kinks' 'Big Black Smoke' delivered bleak cautionary tales of speed psychosis. Meek's own productions - the few that were actually released - had already reached new levels of pill-saturated oddity: the bizarre helter-skelter rhythm of Jason Eddy and the Centremen's 'Singing the Blues', the nuclear-winter visions of Glenda Collins's late protest, 'It's Hard to Believe It'.
Like the Marvelettes sang, the hunter gets captured by the game, and, in January 1967, Meek's game was up. While his last ever single, the Riot Squad's 'Gotta Be a First Time', was dismissed as 'a corny bit of beat', he was implicated by association with a gruesome gay crime dubbed 'the Suitcase Murder'. Although the hapless producer had nothing to do with the young victim's dismemberment, the police interest tipped him over the edge. On 2 February, he burst into a friend's house all dressed in black, claiming he was possessed. The next morning, the 18th anniversary of Buddy Holly's death, he blasted his landlady with his shotgun before eating the barrel himself.
Joe Meek's was an extreme pathology, to be sure, with its incredible highs - just listen to the aerated hysteria of John Leyton's 'Wild Wind' - and annihilating lows, but what remains shocking is just how much his suicidal impulse was shared by many gay men of his generation. In his diary for
11 March 1967, Joe Orton wrote about a conversation he had with his friend Kenneth Williams, by then a national figure in the UK for his appearances in Round the Horne and the Carry On film series. Orton found Williams 'a horrible mess' sexually: 'He mentions "guilt" a lot in conversation. "Well, of course there is always a certain amount of guilt attached to homosexuality".'
Williams talked to Orton about a friend who had been caught soliciting: 'Found in a cottage she was,' he said. 'They gave her a choice of gaol or a mental home. She chose the mental home. "Well," she said, "there's all the lovely mental cock. I'll be sucking all the nurses off. I'm sure it'll be very gay." Kenneth said this man went into the mental home and was given some kind of treatment "to stop her thinking like a queen". The man apparently was very depressed after this and committed suicide. Kenneth then spoke of all the people he'd known who killed themselves ... he told all the stories in a way which made them funny, but it was clear that he thinks about death constantly.'
By early 1967, Orton was so successful and well-regarded that he had access to the new elite. He was approached by Brian Epstein to write the screenplay of the Beatles' third movie, which he titled 'Up Against It'. His diary entry for 24 January describes meeting Paul McCartney and listening to a pre-release copy of 'Penny Lane' and 'Strawberry Fields Forever'. As the public avatar of the new, aggressive homosexuality and, in private, an enthusiastic sex hunter - one of his most memorable diary entries concerned an orgy in a public toilet in Holloway Road in north London, just down the road from Meek's studio - Orton totally rejected Williams's sexual guilt as the holdover from a bygone era.
But even he could not escape its shadow, embodied by his older partner, Kenneth Halliwell. As the playwright's star rose, the balance of their 15-year relationship tipped irreversibly. The more that Orton flaunted his promiscuity and revelled in his success, the more depressed and inhibited Halliwell became. On 9 August 1967, he murdered Orton with nine frenzied hammer blows to the head, and then swallowed 22 Nembutals. Their bodies were found side-by-side in their shared bedsit.
Eighteen days later, the body of Brian Epstein was found in the locked bedroom of his Belgravia house. The cause of death was, according to the coroner's report, 'poisoning' by Cabrital - a kind of sleeping pill. Epstein's mental state had deteriorated since August 1966, after the Beatles' stopped touring: he hadn't been able to attend their last ever show at San Francisco's Candlestick Park because his then current boyfriend, a hustler called Diz Gillespie, had robbed him of money and valuable documents. According to his attorney and close friend Nat Weiss, that accounted for 'his first major depression: that was the beginning of his loss of self-confidence.'
The deaths of Meek, Orton and Epstein occurred just at the point when the freedoms of the Sixties were institutionally recognised, in Britain at least. As well as the relaxation of the laws on abortion and divorce, the famous 1885 statute that had done for Oscar Wilde and several successive generations of gay men was finally overhauled. The Sexual Offences Act, which became law right at the end of July 1967, substantially decriminalised homosexuality: allowing for the existence of gay social and sexual relationships, it removed the threat of blackmail and enabled the first, very basic steps to be taken towards the ultimate goal of total parity.
'Hey, you've got to hide your love away,' John Lennon had sung in one of the Beatles' most poignant songs, and, for almost every adult gay man born before the mid-1940s, the strain of having to do so was psychologically disastrous. In far too many cases, the result was alcoholism, drug addiction, compulsive cruising, crippling guilt, an inability to form lasting emotional relationships - a monstrous waste of lives.
Reactions to the new law within the gay underworld were not always positive: a renewed bout of 'queer-spotting' in the media unleashed all the old venom about bestial 'buggers'. The historian Jeffrey Weeks remembered meeting men who were 'actively hostile, nervous that the new legality would ruin their cosily secret double lives'. In the same way that the gay underworld had existed despite, if not in defiance of, the law, then the long fought-for turnaround towards partial acceptance would not easily erase the decades of vitriol and prejudice. 'We'll be free,' Kenneth Halliwell had exclaimed to Joe Orton in late July, but it wasn't that simple.
Nearly four decades on, 'Do You Come Here Often?' remains sad, eerie, funny, and true: you can still hear its vivid vituperation in the gay hardcore dance records of the 21st century. By the same token, it is time-locked, a bulletin from a pivotal point in homosexual history: that moment when an oppressed minority began to claim its rightful place in society. However, that struggle was not without its sacrifices. Like Orton and Epstein, Meek would not live to see the sun, and his August 1966 single remains testament to the lethal power of the homophobia that, once rampant in Western society, is still virulent. Guilty pleasures can kill.
· 'Do You Come Here Often?' is available on Queer Noises, an anthology of gay records from 1960-78 curated by Jon Savage, out now on Trikont. A great collection of Meek's recordings, including most of the other records referred to here, is available on The Alchemist of Pop: Home Made Hits and Rarities 1959-1966 (Sanctuary UK 2xCD). An expanded version of this article originally appeared in Black Clock (California Institute of the Arts) Issue 4: Guilty Pleasures. Thanks to Steve Erickson
The sixties' space cadet
Since his death, Joe Meek's reputation as a pioneer of space-age pop and an eccentric English Phil Spector has grown apace. But in the early Sixties the record industry hardly knew what to make of the man who made a series of hits from his home studio at 304 Holloway Road in north London.
Born in 1929 in the Forest of Dean, he developed an early obsession with gadgets which he nurtured while working for the Midlands Electricity Board and which found full rein when he started to make records in 1956. The best-known of these - John Leyton's 'Johnny Remember Me', the Tornados' 'Telstar' - sounded like nothing else and, far ahead of George Martin, Meek used the studio as an instrument, taking mixing desks apart, playing tapes backwards and adding washes of sci-fi inspired effects. The fact that in his studio people played guitar in the bathroom while others sang on the stairs only adds to the fun.
Scorned by the mainstream, Meek launched his own label, so becoming an indie pioneer in yet another field. Members of Meek's house bands became huge stars a decade later - Ritchie Blackmore, who played the guitar solo on Heinz's 'Just Like Eddie', went on to form Deep Purple, along with the Syndicats' Roger Glover, whose guitarist, Steve Howe, joined Yes.