Welcome to the first in a new series of blog articles from Cherry Red. Each month we ask an industry expert to explore a different facet of Cherry Red’s releases, our history, or even wider music industry matters. We hope you find it interesting and informative. To kick things off we’ve asked MOJO journalist Dave Henderson to look at the fabled Tea Chest Tapes – the unheard archive of recordings from legendary producer Joe Meek…
I love a good detective story – not Columbo or Morse, more Indiana Jones for me; a search for something that unlocks a thousand possibilities; something that takes you somewhere you wouldn’t expect to go. Like a website that mentions a record you can never find, some holy grail lurking… somewhere; or a MOJO Buried Treasure that you’d never come across before; or an earworm stuck in your head after overhearing somebody play it on a radio station that wanes before you get to hear who it is. Oh, but that sweet melody…
So, I’d always been fascinated by ‘The Tea Chest Tapes’, Joe Meek’s legendary off cuts that would, so the garbled story goes, take a team of legal eagles a century to unlock. A mysterious box of goodies containing who knows what? I remember Mark Stratford from RPM talking about them when he released some Meek-related stuff years ago. They were recordings that boasted early outings from Bowie, Ray Davies, Rod and Bolan, things by Gene Vincent, Sir Tom Of Wales and the man himself; the offbeat sound technician so perfectly captured for me in John Repsch’s book…
John Repsch’s book The Legendary Joe Meek, was first published by Woodford House, in 1989; before being updated and published by Cherry Red Books, in 2001. Mysteriously, there is no mention of ‘The Tea Chest Tapes’ in the original book’s index. Nothing.
I interviewed John when the book first came out, he perpetuated the myth of Joe perfectly; a little info here, not too much though; just enough to let the mind wander and make up its own stories. Then, much later, there was the Nick Moran film. The film itself is derided by some and holds intrigue for others; with James Corden playing Clem Cattini, Carl Barat as Gene Vincent and Justin Hawkins as Screaming Lord Sutch…
Telstar: The Joe Meek Story (2008) was based on James Hicks and Moran’s play, scenes from the movie capturing the merry-go-round of performers who filtered in and out of the studio in Holloway Road in a time where the tape kept rolling and the hits kept coming.
Joe Meek, in my mind, was a charismatic eccentric, a workaholic who made time to record his own sound experiments, some of which can be heard on the el recordings re-issue of ‘I Hear A New World’, a futuristic journey into Meek’s off-world; a punctuated sound collage, a few light years away from ‘Johnny Remember Me’ by John Leyton – his big time hit record from 1962. ‘I Hear A New World’ was an incredibly strange record, right up my street, a piece of wonderful nonsense that sounds like cartoon Beatles in a discarded Yellow Submarine… in space. After seeing the film, I could imagine it being created in Joe’s private “control room” a place where no mortal should tread; a room that actually seemed to reverberate of its own free will, a place that has an alien presence; alive to the touch.
So, when Music Week, September 3, 2020, reported: “Cherry Red Records have acquired legendary producer Joe Meek’s ‘Tea Chest Tapes’ – a near mythical collection of almost 2,000 reels that contain a vast amount of the producer’s work. In the early ‘60s, Meek had a string of UK No 1s, including ‘Telstar’, which was the first song by a British artist to top the US charts. Meek pioneered numerous recording techniques in his studio flat (304 Holloway Road in North London). Following Meek’s death in 1967 the tapes passed on to Cliff Cooper, who worked with the producer when playing bass with the Millionaires and went on to found Orange Amplification. The fabled quarter-inch tapes got their name because they were contained and sold in 67 tea chests. Amongst the recordings are previously unheard songs by David Bowie’s first band The Konrads, recordings by Billy Fury, several songs by Tom Jones, and unheard material from The Honeycombs, Heinz and John Leyton (who had a UK No 1 with Meek).” I was excited. 67 tea chests? That’s some haul.
“We are so proud to now be the custodians of this unique library,” commented Cherry Red Records founder, Iain McNay, in the article. An understatement there…
This was always going to be a great story; a murder mystery already, and a man who was survived by a suitably mysterious “society” who kept his name alive.
“The Joe Meek Society’ (formerly Joe Meek Appreciation Society) was formed in the early ‘90s to remember and celebrate the music and life of legendary ‘60s record producer and song writer Joe Meek. The society is dedicated to keeping Joe Meek’s name and his musical legacy alive.” So claims the website of The Joe Meek Society.
By the end of September dribs and drabs of info were beginning to circulate, a short film of McNay with many cardboard boxes and sound engineer and Meek enthusiast Alan Wilson pulling random tapes out of them with scored out writing added to the intrigue; there was also an interview with Cliff Cooper who had sold the tapes from the long discarded tea chests to Cherry Red.
Cliff Cooper was the bass player of The Millionaires who were named by Joe Meek and recorded at his studio in 1966. A year or so later, he was in the process of setting up Orange Amplification when liquidators were disposing of the equipment from Joe’s studio following his death in 1967. “I went in to see the liquidator with the idea of buying some equipment but it was all gone,” Cooper recalled, “then the guy said, ‘we’ve got tea chests full of tapes we’re looking to sell if you’re interested, although it would be a litigation nightmare if you wanted to release any of them.’ I thought I’d just get them and have a nice time listening through them all. I never realised there were so many, I had to make five or six journeys in my Bedford van to collect them. I think I bought them for about £300.”
“A litigation nightmare!” m’lud? So, where do the tapes go from here?
Iain McNay, on the phone surrounded, one imagines, by cardboard boxes, sporting an AFC Wimbledon away kit: “It’s not a legal nightmare as such, it’s just going to be a lot of work clearing the material with artists, artist estates and labels, but that’s what we do at Cherry Red, we put together a lot of compilations.”
But a mystery nonetheless. Some 67 tea chests full of tapes weighing in at around two tonnes of music on around 2000 reels of quarter-inch tape; titles written, nay scrawled on and scored through; some mould; some decaying particles; very little in the way of recording detail.
Another Meek enthusiast, Alan Blackburn, it transpires, did do a partial inventory about 20 years ago. He went through the boxes and played them and where he could, he made notes of what they were. But get this…
“I had that list but it’s not 100% accurate,” Iain McNay tells me, “as some tapes have disappeared and turned up as releases or gone around as digital files in the Society and, to further add layers of intrigue to the plot, there are some tapes that have appeared that weren’t originally listed.”
Where is Doris Stokes when you need her? Enter Alan Wilson.
Alan Wilson is the analogue tape engineer, mastering guru, audio detective and now star baker for the project who runs his own studio in Bristol, “a lifelong Meek fan”, no less. And a man who knows about the technicalities of tape…
“If you record on quarter-inch tape you use the full width of the tape… edge to edge,” Alan tells me, in no uncertain terms – I hope he is wearing protective gloves and a brown overcoat as was the garb of technical assistants back in the day (or at least on the Morecombe And Wise show), “Joe recorded in mono for years but at some point he upgraded to a stereo machine. Stereo machines work in a different way. The heads have a gap in the middle to separate the left and right channels. Being a Meek fan I am well aware that Joe was often broke and my guess was that he would re-use tape. So I got a stereo reel and isolated the very centre of that tape, the no-man’s land that the stereo head doesn’t touch between the left and right. Sure enough I was able to hear what was underneath the stereo recordings because what Joe failed to do was blank the tape with a mono (full width head) before re-using the tape. Joe’s lack of studio etiquette or his sheer rush to get his work done means we can actually lift off the tracks beneath the stereo recordings, where the tape has been re-used. This is of course all undocumented stuff – no-one would have heard these tracks, because when playing the tape back on a normal stereo player the playback head misses that centre strip. But I’m curious and quite nosey about these things!”
Alan is undoubtedly the right man for the job. So, by my reckoning, 2000 reels (ish) with music in both directions and overlayed probably recorded at seven and a half inches per second could unlock, er, a lot more music.
“So far I’ve found lots of out-takes, alternate versions, like take 1 and 2 where perhaps take 3 was the released version we all know. You can hear Tom Jones talking between tracks and Clem Cattini counting in at the start of songs. I’ve only just scratched the surface at this point – I’m about 50 tapes in.”
I heard you re-edited one track, from various takes, how did that turn out?
“That was just a bit of fun. We were listening to a Tornados’ reel recently and there were several takes of ‘Cyclone’ where the guitarist made a mistake at various points in each take. So, we edited all of the best bits together from all of the takes to make one good one. That’s what Joe would have done in the ‘60s but he’d have used a razor blade, whereas we did it digitally.”
Alan Wilson is spending the next 12 months going through every tape, baking, restoring and in some cases re-editing the various spools. I’m told he has already found one recording of a young girl reading a story that’s never been heard before, one can only hope that there are spurious noises and Meek-esque musical interludes behind such a thing. Who’s the girl, though?
“That for me is probably the most interesting part of it all,” Iain McNay muses, “the mysterious people who never had a hit or never got past the audition, but they recorded with Joe Meek; they are all potentially fascinating stories.”
It’s a call-to-arms to everyone who padded up the stairs at the Holloway Road studio/flat, I can see the classified ad now (if such things actually did still exist) but for the sake of film noir aspect and this narrative…
Were you in Holloway Road in the late ‘50s/early ‘60s? Were you lured up a flight of stairs to play cello in a bathroom, or to sing harmony in the hall?
Some time ago Cherry Red released an Outsiders’ album called ‘Songs In The Key Of Z’ and it included Joe’s original demo for ‘Telstar’, with Joe singing the melody line in the bathroom at the studio. That recording was what he gave to The Tornados as the demo of the new song he’d written. I really, really hope that there’ll be lots of things like that in those tea chest.
I love that version in which he takes the early synthesiser melody line over what sounds like someone playing a cardboard box; a true creative genius. Give us more of that stuff. Sure, unlock the box of Bowie and Rod, let us hear Tom Jones muse between takes on what he’s having for lunch, add further layers of artifice and chicanery (thanks Thesaurus) to the story but serve up a healthy portion of Joe Meek at the controls, splice the backing tracks and take us further out to his new world. That’s where we want to be.
– Dave Henderson, MOJO magazine, October 2020