What’s that? What’s this? Why, it’s the sound of Merseybeat being fed through an electronic blender…
Have I the Right?, by The Honeycombs (their 1st and only #1)
2 weeks, from 27th August – 10th September 1964
This is a Beat-pop song, with everything in the right place: verses, choruses, a solo. Lyrics about love. Have I the right to hold you, You know I’ve always told you, That we must never, ever part… Some whoah-oahs. But… Something doesn’t sound quite right. And by ‘not quite right’ I don’t mean it sounds ‘wrong’ – far from it. I mean it sounds… completely unique.
Take the drums for a start. They are deep and bouncy, and echoey. The drummer might well be in a completely different room from the rest of the band. In the chorus, as they pound out on every note, they sound like one of those huge Japanese drums, echoing across a misty forest.
Then there are the jabs of electronic keyboard that pierce the end of every line in the verses, like a ray-gun in a cheapo fifties ‘B’-movie. The guitar too is sharp, and clean as a knife; but again there’s something kooky about it, as if you were listening to pop music from a different but not too distant dimension. These two instruments combine on the solo and then, perhaps midway through, you realise what this song reminds you of: the one and only, the era-defining, blast from the future that was ‘Telstar’.
That particular #1 was produced by the legendarily maverick Joe Meek, and so was this. All three of his chart-toppers – this, ‘Telstar’ and John Leyton’s ‘Johnny Remember Me’ – were recorded in his apartment in Islington. All three are unique songs; but all contain recognisable characteristics. They’re drenched in overdubbing, they’re tweaked and tucked, they twang with reverb, and they are just all a little bit weird.
Here, for instance, is just one of the tales from the recording of ‘Have I the Right?’ Those drums I mentioned earlier? They were enhanced, not digitally, but by members of The Honeycombs stamping their feet on the stairs outside the studio. A tambourine was thumped against a microphone. And then, for the finishing touch, the tape was sped up. So much for the misty Japanese forest…
This record isn’t quite ‘Telstar’ – how could you recreate one of the most innovative and forward-gazing pop songs ever recorded? But it is still a brilliant #1. And in some ways, maybe, this is actually the more impressive feat. Here, Meek had to use his powers in the confines of a ‘regular’ mid-sixties pop song; while on ‘Telstar’ he was allowed to completely let loose… When we get to the chorus – Come right back, I just can’t bear it, I got some love and I need to share it… The lyrics look normal on paper – a little basic even. It’s the sound, and the propulsive, endearingly home-made feel of this song that makes it what it is.
Joe Meek, while never actually featuring in any of his chart-topping hits, was the main star of all three. From the gothic melodrama of ‘Johnny…’, to the space-age transmission of ‘Telstar’, to this piece of electronically blended Merseybeat. And, as is befitting one of pop music’s greatest innovators, he was an extremely eccentric character. His Wikipedia entry ranges from the bizarre (his belief that he could communicate with the dead, including through the meows of a cat), to the sad (he struggled through long-term drug addiction), to the downright tragic (he shot his landlady, and then himself, in 1967 after a depression brought on by the drugs, impending plagiarism lawsuits and the fear that he was about to be outed as gay.)
Under all this, The Honeycombs – understandably – have to play second fiddle. This was their debut hit and, although Meek produced several of their follow-ups, they struggled to match the success of ‘Have I the Right?’ Their second most successful single could only hit #12, and they broke up in 1967 after several line-up changes. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about them is that their drummer and founding member – Honey Lantree – was a woman.
Let us celebrate, then, this progressive sounding chart-topper, ‘Have I the Right?’, with a progressive bunch of people at the helm: a gay producer, a female-drummer, and a bunch of guys stamping on the stairs…
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