Thoughts after Telstar (the film)

Telstar is a British film about 1960s record producer Joe Meek.

It’s been in some cinemas here for around a month and despite some decent press, apparently it hasn’t “grossed” much at the box office, which is a pity. Why? Influential though he is, Joe Meek was a producer not a performer and hence not an enduring household name. And arguably, the strand of music – early British rock’n’roll – is not among those currently being revisited or re-appraised. But neither of these is a good reason to avoid seeing a film! (Or distributing one, if that’s the situation.)

I recommend it, even if you think you’re totally unfamiliar with the life and work of Joe Meek. Saying that, you might know Johnny Remember Me (from that curious mini-subgenre of teen death ditties which flared up in the early 60s) or Telstar (otherwise known as Margaret Thatcher’s favourite Desert Island Disc).

The weaknesses are the typical ones you get in this sort of film. In particular, they can’t resist some heavy nods to the future significance of certain events, for the audience’s benefit, like when Meek casts a demo tape by a then-unknown Beatles into the bin, that sort of thing. I guess that was deemed more important than showing any of the other performers he actually did work with that were left out. Admittedly, there are bound to be details glossed over in a career as prolific as Meek’s. Despite these minor flaws it’s well worth a look.

This isn’t a proper film review by the way, so here’s a piece of space age skiffle called I Hear A New World, from Meek’s formerly long lost album of the same name.

For me, Joe Meek’s tunes are a more recent part of a musical adventure starting with latter-day electronica and going via 1970s dub reggae. In other words, I suppose my discoveries have gone backwards chronologically. Meek, in my head, belongs in a kind of loose collection of 1960s pioneers of sound experimentation, like Delia Derbyshire, John Baker and Brian Wilson.

(In terms of electronic pioneers, I have some Kraftwerk albums but they’re not my favourite band or anything. I continue to listen to stacks of other stuff especially dub and reggae, which never ages.)

All this reminded me of the book Ocean Of Sound by David Toop (from 1995), especially this bit:

Ask musicians of a certain age a question: Who revolutionised the recording studio? Invariably, the response will include the following names: Phil Spector, Joe Meek, Brian Wilson, Lee Perry. At critical moments of their lives, one common link between all these studio innovators was a state of mind known, for the sake of society’s convenience, as madness.

Whether this is a link of causation or correlation, I don’t know. Could it be unhealthy, in itself, to be so obsessive about creating a perfect sound? Or is this a more general burden those with artistic genius are commonly said to struggle with?

Toop’s book goes further but the film doesn’t deal with these kinds of questions directly. We see Meek suffer from paranoia, depression and mental illness. But he also begins to believe his own hype and reject nearly everyone who’d helped him find success. That and the drug abuse, money worries, obsession with the occult, blackmail attempts and social maladjustment (in relation to Meek’s sexuality) and legal challenges probably form, you might think, some basis of an explanation.

As with Phil Spector now, it’s an odd juxtaposition to celebrate the genius and listen to such fantastic music yet be reminded how dark things ultimately became.