Thursday, February 4, 2010

Blasts from the Past :: A Beer-Gut Reaction to Telstar -- The Joe Meek Story (2008)

The first time I heard "Telstar" through the courtesy of The Magic Organ 8-track in my grandparents Catalina cruiser many, many moons ago I had no idea who Joe Meek was. What I did know was the song was hideously infectious, and I tended to get excited whenever the track cycled around again on those long road trips of yore, and its been stuck in my head ever since. Now, some thirty years later, I've been sufficiently schooled in The Unified Meek Theory and am equally dumbfounded by the number of golden oldies that always stuck with me over the years that had the eccentric producer's fingerprints all over them. Yeah, I'm one of those freaks with the genetic defect who prefers the Tottenham Stomp over the Mersey Beat. Give me The Dave Clark Five over The Fab Four any day of the week -- or better yet, the righteous reverb and ethereal echos of RGM Sound Ltd.

For those of you uninitiated, Joe Meek was a British record producer who rose to fame and infamy in the early 1960's. He was tone-deaf, couldn't read music or even play an instrument, but what he had was a knack for mixing and kit-bashing sounds together -- most famously in his studio split over several rooms, including the toilet, nestled above a leather-goods store. And as with most eccentrics, Meek often blurred the line between mad genius and insufferable prick. Possessing a volatile temper, the man was also highly paranoid (-- in some instances, rightfully so, but others not so much --) and had a bad habit of attacking his musicians when they didn't play things to suit him just right.

Between these extreme mood swings, the producer, always looking for a certain "sonic signature" for each track, hammered out several hit tunes; his biggest being inspired by the launch of the Telstar-1 communications satellite, which served as the opening salvo of the impending British Pop Invasion of America. Alas, after several missed opportunities, and plagued by several personal demons, including a malignant relationship with one of his proteges, along with an addiction to narcotic diet pills, Meek's career, like a faulty halogen light, flashed big and bright but inevitably burned out too quickly, leading to his untimely end with a murder (his landlady) and (his) suicide in 1967.

Nick Moran's terrific bio-pic, Telstar -- The Joe Meek Story, begins here, at the end. Based on Moran's stage play, co-authored with James Hicks, the film then utilizes a series of flashbacks to tell Meek's (Con O'Neill) story, a tragic love story, really, beginning with the hectic recording of John Leyton's "Johnny, Remember Me". From there, it rapidly tics off the highlights and low-lights that followed, fast and furious, as Meek burns the candle at both ends while taking a Dexedrine-fueled acetylene torch to the middle. With the majority of his royalties locked up in litigation and back-taxes, leaving his company to flounder, and his relationship with Heinz Burt (JJ Feild), who was just pulling the honeypot on a man too blindly in love (and perhaps too vainly stubborn) to see it, falling apart, though it may be hard to sympathize with the "mad old bastard," one can definitely empathize with Meek as his world cracks up and falls apart around him both professionally and personally as the movie plays out. And if you already know how this story tragically ends, this will only add another layer of melancholy as we wait for this runaway train to self-destruct and go off the rails, taking several innocent bystanders with it.

Released in the UK in 2008 and on DVD in 2009, unfortunately, as far as I know, there are still no plans for an American release, which is too bad because Moran's tale is a highly kinetic and frenetic assault on your eyes and ears that is well worth your time. As for Joe Meek, well, his unique sound was perfect for the time when it first exploded on the scene. But time, as always, marches on and left the man behind. Behind in an era where science and sound and a hope for a better future were forever linked. Linked in an infectious memory of a song that can be tapped into and replayed. And replayed forever.

Telstar: The Joe Meek Story (2008) Aspiration Films / EP: David Groves / P: Adam Bohling, Simon Jordan, David Reid / D: Nick Moran / W: Nick Moran, James Hicks / C: Peter Wignall / E: Alex Marsh / M: Ilan Eshkeri / S: Con O'Neill, Kevin Spacey, Pam Ferris, JJ Feild, James Corden, Tom Burke, Ralf Little


Tim Lehnerer said...

The actor who plays Heinz in this is going to be Union Jack in CAPTAIN AMERICA. Nice to see he's in something high-profile that will probably make him a lot of money.

W.B. Kelso said...

So looking forward to that movie. And, by some miracle, I have the night off when it opens. No matter how it turns out, fighting the urge to show up for the first matinee and then not leave the theater until the mall closes.

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