If “Joe Meek’s Dream”‘s baroque, overprocessed ambiance and obscure lyrical content brings Neutral Milk Hotel to mind, the song’s particular fusing of retro-futuristic electronics to folk-singer strumming doesn’t sound like anything anyone has managed to think of before. At the same time, if the space-age synthesizer melody sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because Joe Meek was the eccentric Brit who wrote and produced the song “Telstar,” a 1962 hit by the Tornados that surely inspired the Star Trek theme music a few years later. More on all that in a minute.
In the meantime, consider this song’s rollicking momentum, which wants you to love it, and its lack of definable structure, which wants you to be disoriented. There is no real hook here; I don’t think there are even any verses or chorus. But, aha, there is instead a recurring melodic moment that feels to me like the song’s musical heart—first heard at 0:59, there supporting the lyrics “I fall asleep and think of other things.” On the one hand it’s just the simple, time-honored progression from the IV to the V chord (F major to G major here), with the melody quite literally sketching out each chord in arpeggio form; on the other hand, coming in the midst of a fuzzy, buzzy, busy piece of off-kilter pop, this modest melodic motif resounds with a homemade kind of glory. We move quickly on, and are never actually quite sure where in the song we are, but that’s the moment that, to me, allows everything else not only to happen but to make sense. It comes back just one more time, at 1:42, with different lyrics, but because the chord progression cycles regularly through the song, your mind starts filling the melody in even when it’s not really there.
And okay, now for the back story. An innovator in the studio who did unprecedented things with distortion and compression and echo, Joe Meek was interested in electronics, outer space, and the occult. Over time he became obsessed with Buddy Holly, whom Meek believed was guiding his career from the afterlife. Meek sadly fell into debt and depression, and ended up killing his landlady and himself on the eighth anniversary of Holly’s death, in 1967. Among the many tragedies here was the fact that Meek never made a dime off “Telstar,” which was (good trivia question) the first song from England to be #1 on the U.S. charts. The royalties were held up for years in an apparently wrongful lawsuit; it was finally settled three weeks after he died. How much of any of this is directly dealt with in the song here is impossible to say, as the lyrics are largely lost in the mix. But the general atmosphere of fuzzed electrical overcharge prevails.
“Joe Meek’s Dream” is from the debut Narrow Sparrow EP, entitled Synthworks, which was self-released earlier this month and is available for free via this new, and promising, Chicago-based band. Vinyl is due out next month.