All the local town hipsters dug Orange Juice. There they were, in their collapsed quiffs and looking quite the thing in their dirty brown suede jackets, a shade on the small side but bought from Flip for a fiver. As long as you didn’t raise your arm to adjust the Rayban copies, no-one would notice the wee rip under the armpit. Irvine boys, you know who you are.
When Orange Juice did the unmentionable and had an actual bona fide Top 40 smash hit, a new band was needed. Looking backwards for inspiration, The Beatles were quickly disregarded (Paul McCartney in the 80s….). As were The Byrds (too obvious). And The Doors (Jim Morrison…). Love. Now, there was a band. Decent tunes, small back catalogue and obscure enough to deter the rest of us. As were the Lovin’ Spoonful.
Formed from the same alumni of assorted jug and folk bands that would give birth to the Mamas and Papas, the Lovin Spoonful’s star shone briefly but brightly before the cliche of drugs split the band. Put together by Zal Yanovsky and John Sebastian, between 1965 and 1967 the Lovin’ Spoonful released a series of stripey jumpered, tight panted, pointy booted, denim jacketed pop nuggets, in equal parts sparkling 12 string blasts from heaven and soft focus introspection.
Do You Believe In Magic?
First single Do You Believe In Magic is a beauty. But you knew that already. John Sebastian was infatuated with the hollerin’, handclappin’, speaker-blastin’ energy emitted from Martha & the Vandellas Heatwave,so set about reconstructing it. Essentially, he just played the intro twice as fast as the Motown original and no-one noticed. Then he wrote a set of lyrics about how brilliant music is. Perfect.
We’ll go a dancin’ baby then you’ll see, how the magic’s in the music and the music’s in me.
It’s over and done with in 2 minutes. What more d’you need?
Summer In The City
Dig through the back catalogue and you’ll find all manner of film themes, quirky 2 minute pocket symphonies and enough looney tunes and merry melodies to soften even the hardest of hearts. Summer In The City‘s my favourite. “Cool cat lookin’ for a kitty” they sing, on top of a descending electric piano riff. A claustrophobic anthem to wilting heat and sticky summer pavements, the breakdown features honking horns, road drills and a great wee drum break/guitar riff that runs until the end. Long lost indie band Eat did a version at the turn of the 90s. Which is almost 25 years ago. A quarter of a century. Ouch. Having just listened to it, the Eat version hasn’t aged all that well. Double ouch.
Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind?
This record surely gave birth to Duglas T Stewart and the BMX Bandits.
You might argue that without having heard the Lovin’ Spoonful, the whole ‘C86’ movement would’ve shambled along to a different beat, Sarah Records wouldn’t have existed, Lawrence might never have formed Felt and ‘indie’ music as it was when that sort of thing mattered would have been very different. Or perhaps not.
We’ll finish with the close-miked and breathy Coconut Grove.
D’you know how the Lovin’ Spoonful got their name? It’s from an old blues lyric actually, but the blues lyric refers to a phrase associated with the male reproductive system. It’s also how 10CC came (ahem) about their name. Google it. And then go and buy a Lovin’ Spoonful LP.
Robert George Meek was better known as Joe Meek. A maverick record constructor, sonic architect and visionary of what was possible from the seemingly impossible, he led a turbulent life, permanently perched on the line right between madness and genius. Many of the main protagonists in the Joe Meek story went onto bigger and more successful things (though not necessarily better), but equally, many of the characters who crossed paths with Meek during his quest for sonic perfection ended up troubled, broke (mentally, physically and financially) and even dead. By comparison, Joe Meek’s story makes Phil Spector’s look almost insignificant.
From his rented flat above a handbag shop on London’s Holloway Road (Number 304 – there’s now a wee unobtrusive plaque there for anyone with a keen eye and musical trainspottery tendencies), and with financial backing from a somewhat eccentric ex-army major who made his fortune from importing children’s toys, Joe crafted a selection of minor hits, major hits and million-sellers, all sewn together from an unlikely array of self-built echo chambers and a Health & Safety Officer’s wet dream of spaghettied electrical cables across landings and staircases via the bathroom and bedroom to the wee cupboard/control room where it all came together. Windows were covered up for sound-proofing. It could be the height of summer but no-one inside the ‘studio’, least of all Joe, could have known. To the piano keys Joe added drawing pins to give it a more sparkly sound. Vocals were nearly always recorded in the tiled bathroom, where there was a better, more natural reverb.
Joe couldn’t play a note of music, so he would hum and sing the tune he was wanting to the musicians, who would then be instructed to play it back note perfect. Often, in the search for perfection, they would be asked/encouraged to play the same tiny fragment of a song over and over again, way into the wee small hours if necessary, until they captured the essence of what Meek was hearing in his tortured head (sometimes even at gunpoint, when Joe’s demons got the better of him – more on them in a bit). It’s quite clear that Joe was not like any of the other 9 to 5 shirt-and-tied record producers of the day. Lee Mavers would’ve loved him.
Joe’s personal life was significant for two reasons. One: He had an interest in the spiritual world and the occult. He regularly channeled the spirits for guidance and inspiration. On meeting Buddy Holly, Joe told him he had foreseen his death. “February 3rd,” said Joe. “That’s today,” replied Buddy. A year later, on February 3rd 1959, Buddy Holly hopped on board a light aircraft in Iowa and died when the plane crashed.
Joe, like many people in the early 60s, had a huge interest in space travel and the possibility of civilisations on other planets. Watching the launch of the Telstar satellite and mesmerised by it’s capabilities for beaming live television and audio around the world, Joe began working on his most famous record. The music for Telstar came to Joe in a dream. Re-creating the drama of lift-off and the other-worldliness of outer space, Telstar was like nothing that had been before. A combination of twanging minor key surf guitar and distorted clavioline it has since had the dubious distinction of being known as Margaret Thatcher’s favourite record. But don’t let that put you off. Telstar was also one of the catalysts for Joe’s descent into madness. But more of that in a moment.
Have a listen to Telstar by The Tornadoes:
The other significant aspect of Joe’s life was that he was homosexual. Still illegal in early 60s Britain, Joe was forced to keep his true self under wraps. Surrounding himself in his studio with eager young boys, Joe was on a mission to find the next Billy Fury, a singer he nearly ‘got’ before showbiz giant Larry Parnes snapped him up, and who’s success Joe found hard to cope with. Joe began managing a young German-born hopeful called Heinz. Heinz had little talent and minimum appeal but Joe spent the major’s money on far too many promotional shoots in an attempt to hype him into the charts. He lavished clothes, cars and even a boat on him and began a very one-sided love affair that was doomed to failure from the start.
No hits were forthcoming and the major was starting to ask for a return on his money. So too was Joe’s landlady, a woman who put up with much and to a point had allowed Joe to defer payment on his rent. But Joe had no money to give them. Around this time, Joe was arrested, George Michael style, for soliciting an undercover policeman in a public toilet. Named and shamed in the newspapers, friends stopped calling and Joe slipped into a spiral of drugs and the unpredictable madman/genius behaviour he has since become known for – waving guns around the studio, sacking the session musicians who had played on all his tracks and constantly checking for hidden bugs around his studio/flat when he became wracked with paranoia thinking Decca Records and even Phil Spector were somehow stealing all his ideas.
Hey Joe! Where you goin’ with that gun in your hand?
The success of Telstar should have eased the situation. It spent 5 weeks at Number 1 in the UK. It was the first British record to reach Number 1 in the USA. It won an Ivor Novello award. More importantly, it sold millions. It should’ve made Joe and everyone involved very comfortable. However, as the record grew in success, Jean Ledrut, a French composer decided that Joe had taken the melody for Telstar from his track La Marche d’Austerlitz.
Contrast and compare with Ledrut‘s tune:
Royalty payments were subsequently frozen and a lengthy courtroom case began. This deprived Joe of much-needed income. Perhaps, more significantly, along with the public toilet episode and the subsequent hushed-up blackmailing of him, it robbed Joe of any dignity he had left. Joe maintained his innocence, that the tune had come to him in a dream, but by now the people doubted his talent. Joe spiralled even further into madness. With his studio dismantled and possessions confiscated following a court order for non-payment of bills, he got into an argument with his landlady over his over-due rent. Pulling the gun on her, he shot her before turning the gun on himself. The date? February 3rd. Albeit 8 years apart, the same date as Buddy Holly’s death.
John Leyton – Johnny Remember Me.
John Leyton was the original actor-turned-singer, long before Simon Cowell trawled the karaoke bars of Blackpool in search of the inspiration required in order to turn a couple of ugly actors into million-selling chart stars, and make himself a fortune in the process. Along with The Shangri-La’s Leader Of The Pack, Johnny Remember Me is all you really need for sides 1 and 2 of Now That’s What I Call Melancholic Teen Angst. Like a spaghetti western theme, all galloping Spanish guitars and teen heart throb vocals, Meek’s trick is to add a gallon of reverb, a ghostly female wail and enough pathos to soften the collective hearts of every spiv, shyster and Kray Twin who flirted with the music business in the early 60s. Wee Alex Turner and Miles Kane, when doing their Last Shadow Puppets album had this on constant rotation, I’d bet.
The Outlaws – Swingin’ Low.
A post-Shadows, pre-Beatles twang affair, this is neither rock nor roll. On account of all the wee bits where the musicians get to showcase their individual talents, it falls into the almost novelty record category – the sort of record Benny Hill might have sequenced one of his dolly bird chases to. The Outlaws were Meek’s backing band of choice and various combinations of them played on many of Joe’s sessions. Given the chaotic nature of Meek’s recording, and the sheer volume of un-labelled tapes in the Meek archive, no-one knows for sure exactly who played on what. Bass player Chas Hodges went onto greater fame in his own right as Chas from Chas ‘n Dave. Guitarist Richie Blackmore went on to join Deep Purple, form Rainbow and live more recently as a 17th century mandolin playing medieval minstrel. Occasional drummer Clem Cattini went on to do sessions for The Kinks, Tom Jones and played un-credited on any number of 1960s hit singles.
The Honeycombs – Have I The Right.
Stealing the chorus from the Everly Brothers Walk Right Back, Have I The Right is yer classic stomping 60s smash. The stomp was created by banging brooms, boots and all manner of bangable things on the studio’s wooden floor, much to the annoyance of everyone in the handbag shop downstairs. It’s just my opinion, but I think the Sex Pistols based their jackboot stomp on this record when they recorded Holidays In The Sun.
Other-wordly, of its time, yet still contemporary sounding today, Telstar is Meek’s legacy. In an ironic post-script to the Joe Meek story, just 3 weeks after Meek’s death, a judge ruled in favour of Meek, citing the fact that Ledrut the Frenchman’s music hadn’t been played outside of France and that Meek could not possibly have heard it. Given that Meek spent every hour cooped up in his little flat/studio, he does have a point. Had the judge’s ruling been made earlier, perhaps Joe might still be with us today, kicking against the pricks and doing something interesting. We’ll never know.
I wrote this on Saturday, telling myself I’d finish it later and went out to enjoy the weather. It’s now Tuesday and the storm clouds are gathering.
Y’know, I make a point of digging deep to turn up the rarest of the rare when sometimes it’s the obvious ones that are the best. With the school holidays nearly over, the weather has (naturally) taken a turn for the better and we’re currently basking in what the tabloids of yore might refer to as a heatwave. Phew, what a scorcher and all that. There’s no denying. I’m in shorts. I’ve cut the grass. The smells of barbecuing meats are wafting from somewhere across my back door. The shrieks and high pitched laughter from wee ones in paddling pools is competing for ear space with the football on the radio and I’m contemplating painting my fence, safe in the knowledge that the job’ll be done before the rain comes on. Because at the moment it looks like we’ve as much chance of rain as the Costa del Sol. Great, eh!
Heat Wave was a 1963 hit single for Martha Reeves & the Vandellas. From the collective pen of Holland-Dozier-Holland, the oft-forgotten about songwriting team who are up there with your Lennons & McCartneys and Jaggers & Richards in the Sixties Premier League of hit songwriting teams, it’s sometimes referred to as (Love Is Like A) Heat Wave. Straight off the Motown production line, it’s a Funk Brothers piano-led, hand-clapping, gospel-tinged, giddy call-and-response shout-out to the joys of being in love, ell you vee love and all that, and it gave the Vandellas their first big hit single, reaching number 4 on the Billboard charts. Since then, it’s been covered by all manner of artists, from label mates The Supremes (a facsimile of the original), via celebrity coat ‘n hat checker Cilla Black (Surprise, Surprise, it’s very good!) to Linda Ronstadt’s mid 70s FM-friendly AOR version, replete with subtle bongos and meanderingly polite soft rock guitar solo, the sort of thing you might expect a half-arsed covers band to be playing at a Holiday Inn in the background of a TV movie. The most effervescent covers tend to have been by the boys. Both The Who and The Jam channeled their inner mod and bashed out R ‘n B tinged faithful reworkings. The Who’s version is fast. The Jam’s is faster.
Martha & the Vandellas‘ vocal-only studio outtake. These vocals gained the group a Grammy Nomination. And rightly so. They’re terrific!
Martha & the Vandellas‘ vocal-only take of Jimmy Mack.
That fence painting job? I’m just contemplating, though. Not doing. This weather doesn’t happen too often. I think I’m going to get some sounds on and sit in the sun and enjoy it. I might even pour myself a drink. Costa del Sol, or Costa del Peroni, it won’t matter.