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Joe Meek
Joe Meek in the studio, 1966

Joe Meek: sound pioneer

Joe Meek

Tone deaf, paranoid and unable to read music, Joe Meek somehow became one of the most important music producers of the 60s yet lived in shame. Here is his tragic story

Taken from the January 2008 issue of Dazed & Confused:

Joe Meek’s life was brief, but he appears in the history of music like a human anachronism, popping up wherever you least expect him. It’s easy to say his path in life and eventual demise was partly due to the repressive attitude towards homosexuality in the 60s, but to some degree, it’s fair to say that Meek just liked to live on the edge. His appetite for ever more extreme experiences eventually destroyed him, but not before he gifted music with reverb, compression, delay, echo, the mawkish death tribute record, the concept album, goth and DIY ethics.

Musically, he compulsively took things apart, only to put them together again in an unprecedented way. Today this can be seen today in the work of artists like Ariel Pink, Casiotone, and Daniel Johnston, among many others. In the forthcoming documentary, A Life in the Death of Joe Meek, Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand succinctly sums up Meek’s unique place in the history of music when he says: “I loved Joe Meek’s music before I even knew who he was.”

Meek achieved huge commercial success in 1962 with his production of “Telstar” which quickly became the best selling instrumental in British pop history. The compression technique mastered by Meek on the record makes it sound like it’s performed by a huge orchestra of children’s toys, when it was in fact played by an instrumental outfit called The Tornados in a back room on the Holloway Road. Epic, fractured and delicate, the tracks’ enormous commercial success was such that Margaret Thatcher described it as a “lovely tune”. She probably hadn’t heard Meek’s album of “outer space music fantasy” called I Hear A New World, which was partly released briefly in 1960 before being quietly shelved. Meek’s obsessive experimentation generally meant that he either wowed audiences into amazed submission or alienated them entirely.

Born in 1929, Meek grew up the youngest of three brothers and his mother had so desperately wanted a daughter that she dressed Meek as a girl until he was four years old. Isolated by his brothers, Meek employed technology in an effort to reach out to other people and has been credited with inventing the mobile disco and building the first television in his hometown of Newent in Gloucestershire. He produced his first record at the RAF by recording some amateur singers and despite his lack of studio experience, he was soon taken on by Radio Luxembourg. Later on at the BBC, Meek battled with studio heads nonplussed by both his recording techniques and mainstream success – in all, he produced three UK number one hits. In 1960, Meek decided to set up his own production company, RGM Sound Ltd, in his flat at 304 Holloway Road, London.

Meek’s life, death, music – and maybe even his after-life – are inexorably bound with that rickety North London flat. A recent occupant was Fidel Villeneuve of London-based, fake-blood-splattering noiseniks The Applicants, “The flat was split into two bits,” he explains. “Our bit was the room above the cycle shop, which was the main room for recording. The kitchen was his control room, where he had all of the reel-toreels, the desks and things, and in the bathroom, he recorded the vocals. I’ve never tried to record in there, but it does have quite an echo.” The contours of the house, it seems, literally shaped the music. Meek often attached his microphones along the banisters with bicycle clips, recorded instruments on different floors, used his landlady Violet Shenton’s broom to keep time, and left sounds of the toilet flushing and the constant roar of the traffic outside.

“An intense confidence in his creative value, a strong belief in the supernatural, an accelerated sexual attraction to men, and a deep idolatry of Buddy Holly are all things that shaped his success" — Howard S. Berger

Meek produced well over 100 bands from his studio. He rejected David Bowie, Rod Stewart and the Beatles in favour of good-looking young men that he could model for recording purposes. Svengali-like, he literally pulled them in off the street to record. One of his more famous protéégéés was Screaming Lord Sutch, the comedy horror figure who inspired controversy with the video for his song “Jack the Ripper”. The relative studio inexperience of Meek’s musicians meant that they rarely questioned why a tone-deaf man, without the ability to read music, ordered them about. Meek simply demonstrated what he wanted the performers to do by howling tunelessly, they would then attempt to interpret the howling. The occasional, awe-inspiring gem provide testament to his methods.

Documentary makers Susan Stahman and Howard S. Berger were inspired to document the producer’s life by one such classic, “Dumb Head” by The Sharades. “In the mid-90s there was an excellent US compilation of his work released on the indie label Razor & Tie,” says Stahman. “The liner notes related this really complex and extremely sad story that haunted us for some time. A few years later we came across another Meek compilation that featured Joe’s girl groups. One song blew us away – “Dumb Head” – it made the hairs on the back of our necks stand on end. The sounds were eerie yet compelling with a killer melody. That did it, a month later we had left our jobs and were conducting the first round of interviews in England.”

Much of Meek’s output sounds like nothing else you have ever heard, and I Hear A New World is a particularly good example of his genius. Meek only pressed 100 copies, and since its full re-issue in 1991, it’s been described as the first concept album. It was meant to be the music of spacemen and the band who performed the songs were named Rod Freeman & The Blue Men. “Love Dance of the Saroos” and “Dribcots Space Boat” are dreamy instrumentals, with the occasional eruption of laser-gun and video-game sounds, whereas “Glob Waterfall” is almost a precursor to the later work of Bowie and Eno. The uniquely strange single-mindedness of Meek’s vision seems to have also informed later bands like The KLF and Orbital. Meek produced most of the sounds himself, which would later reappear on records by artists as diverse as Grandmaster Flash and MARRS. He had definitely made a ‘journey into sound’, which would be continued by others in years to come.

Marco Fasalo of the Sub Pop-signed Italian avantgarde group Jennifer Gentle has just underscored A Life in the Death of Joe Meek and was fascinated by him.“The sound of his records is really otherworldly,” he enthuses. “Some of his songs have a very enigmatic aura around them, and the sound is both palpable and ghostly. I am a big fan of his work with Screaming Lord Sutch and Glenda Collins, ‘I lost my heart at the Fairground’ is one of the spookiest, most heartbreaking songs ever.”

Meek’s collaborator, the late Geoff Goddard, described Meek’s life as “inextricable” from his work. In 1963, Meek was arrested for “smiling at an old man” in Madras Place, a notorious cottaging area near Highbury. He took it personally, and was quoted as retorting, “Why would I smile at a fucking old man?” Following the newspaper headlines, he was regularly subject to casual blackmail attempts and the atmosphere in his studio very rapidly declined.

Meek used casual encounters in the same compulsive way he used Preludin, the slimming pill – the latter kept him working in the studio, the other let him mentally escape from its pressures. Stahman and Berger believe that Joe’s commercial work and his private obsessions were counterparts. “An intense confidence in his creative value as an artist, a strong belief in the supernatural, an accelerated sexual attraction to men, often accompanied by frequent promiscuous relationships, and a deep idolatry of Buddy Holly are all things that helped him shape his initial success,” says Berger. “As time moved and cultural tastes changed around him, these things turned against him in a way that contributed to his mental and commercial downfall, if not a literal decline in his actual talent.”

"He regularly “contacted” Buddy Holly via the Ouija board, as well as more distantly deceased historical figures like Emperor Rameses II"

At one stage, Meek told Geoff Goddard that he thought something was “growing” in his head. Meek’s sense of isolation was compounded by the fact he was having fewer hits and his paranoia was such that when Phil Spector called him to express his admiration, Meek screamed at him for “stealing his ideas”. He had to go to extremes to feel in control, which meant that his musicians were often on the receiving end of violence. Meek even bugged his own f l at in case they talked about him and his personal life became increasingly dramatic. There was one sighting of Meek running down Holloway Road in his pyjamas, screaming that there was a man chasing him with a knife and he regularly “contacted” Buddy Holly via the Ouija board, as well as more distantly deceased historical figures like Emperor Rameses II.

The Meek-produced single “Tribute to Buddy Holly” was banned by the BBC because of its “morbid concern over the death of a teen idol”. Meek claimed later that he actually told Holly that a tarot card reading had divined the exact day of his death – February 3rd 1959. Holly’s death on this date was followed by Meek’s own death on the same day eight years later. He had been arguing with his landlady on the stairs and he took out a shotgun and killed her, before killing himself. Meek’s assistant Patrick Pink told Stahman and Berger that the deaths were accidental, “He believes that it was a tragic accident,” says Berger. “Joe’s landlady Violet Shenton was like a mother to him and Patrick feels that Joe probably called her upstairs to his studio in the hope of talking him out of using the gun on himself and it accidentally went off.”

Meek’s death is perhaps less confusing than his diff i cult life, which was by all accounts, bizarre, tortured and for the most part, entirely unliveable. That Meek relentlessly created music and new sounds, despite all of this, makes him an inspirational f i gure for many musicians. Killing himself might be the last example of his insatiable desire for total creative control. Although there are still rumours of a “February 3rd death curse” at 304 Holloway Road.