While Joe Meek's influence over the British and American music scenes lasted little more than six or seven years, it signaled a sea change within the industry. In 1960, when Meek began producing hits by various bands in his three-room flat in London, no one knew what an independent producer was. By the end of the decade, the Who, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles would all be recorded by independent producers. Meek further influenced the industry with his heavy use of studio innovations, mirroring similar work by Phil Spector in the United States and laying the groundwork for later experimentation by groups like the Beach Boys in the mid-1960s. Although Meek often found himself marginalized within the music industry, his legacy continues to be celebrated today.
Robert George Meek began his strange odyssey in 1929 in Gloucester, England. His parents, George and Biddy Meek, were farmers who lived in the Forest of Dean. His mother decided to call the young boy Joe, the name of a brother who had died as an infant. She was also disappointed that he was a boy, so she dressed him in girls' clothing until he was four. The young boy lived a sheltered life, listening to the radio indoors while his brothers played outside, and he became interested in electronics at an early age. Meek rigged a set of speakers in the family's cherry orchard to frighten birds away and introduced his town to television by building the first set in the area.
Meek started working as a staff engineer at IBC Studios in the mid-1950s. He seemed to know from the start that he would not approach recording in the traditional fashion. In 1956, when he was asked to record trumpeter Humphrey Lyttleton's version of "Bad Penny Blues," he purposely over-recorded the drums and added a warble to the piano to create a very unnatural sound. Meek accomplished all of this without Lyttleton or the band realizing what he was doing. Although no one was happy with the results, believing that a producer had no business "doctoring" a recording, angry feelings dissipated when the song reached the British charts. Two years later Meek also achieved a modicum of success on the American charts when Les Paul and Mary Ford recorded his composition "Put a Ring on Her Finger" (retitled "Put a Ring on My Finger").
Temperamental and prone to depression, Meek found himself confined professionally to work with a handful of British labels. After working for several labels over a four-year period, he struck out on his own, a choice that now seems common for producers but was unheard-of at the time. He moved into a three-floor flat above A.H. Shenton Leather Goods shop in north London, and proceeded to fill up the apartment with recording equipment. When the downstairs occupants complained of the noise, Meek would place large speakers on the stairwell and treat his neighbors to music played at earsplitting volume.
Meek revolutionized recording techniques on a shoestring budget in squalid living quarters, and he showed little patience with those who failed to grasp his vision. He began recording a parade of performers who visited his flat, and by 1961 he had produced his first number one hit, "Johnny Remember Me," by John Leyton. "At the time," wrote Irwin Chusid in Songs in the Key of Z, "the 45's success stunned Meek's rivals, who had him pegged as a bottom-feeder with a tin ear." Meek worried little over a song's lyrics or even the recording of the vocal itself. What obsessed him and occupied his time was the overall sound of the recording and the creation of odd effects to spice up the beginning and end of a single.
At first, the straitlaced recording industry thought "Johnny Remember Me" was a prank, but over the next half-dozen years Meek released 250 singles, 45 of which reached the top 50 in the United Kingdom. His career high arrived in 1962 with the recording of an instrumental titled "Telstar," by the Tornadoes. The band had recorded the single before going on tour, and its members were appalled when Meek sent them a copy of the finished product. As was his practice, Meek instructed assistant Geoff Goddard to add overdubs, including a Clavioline—a cheap keyboard—and something resembling a harpsichord. On top of these, Meek added ominous humming to the last verse. Although the Tornadoes were embarrassed to admit their role in the recording, the song raced up the British charts and remained ensconced there for 25 weeks. The instrumental did equally well in the United States. "'Telstar' … brought the futurism to the public," noted Richie Unterberger in Unknown Legends of Rock 'n' Roll, "in a melodic fashion that remains riveting today."
Meek continued to stretch his innovations and score hits over the next two years. The Honeycombs' "Have I the Right" reached the top five in the United States, and he worked with future stars like Ritchie Blackmore (Deep Purple) and Steve Howe (Yes). Meek's erratic and sometimes violent behavior, however, made him difficult to work with. Multiple stories survive of Meek throwing phone books and even tape recorders at musicians who failed to follow his instructions. In one incident, he reportedly pointed a shotgun at drummer Mitch Mitchell (later part of the Jimi Hendrix Experience) and threatened to shoot him if he didn't get the part right. Meek, who many believed was tone deaf, also missed a number of promising opportunities. He turned down one band because he thought their singer—Rod Stewart—was awful, and he rejected a young David Bowie.
For the Record . . .
Born Robert George Meek in 1929, in Gloucester, England; died on February 3, 1967, in London, England; son of George and Biddy Meek (farmers).
Worked as a staff engineer at IBC Studios, mid-1950s; recorded Humphrey Lyttleton's "Bad Penny Blues," 1956; produced first number one hit, John Leyton's "Johnny Remember Me," 1961; reached career high with recording of "Telstar" by the Tornadoes, 1962; worked as an independent producer, 1960-67.
Despite his originality and success, Meek felt himself marginalized by the mid-1960s. His innovations had been absorbed by the industry, and although successful performers like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones used independent producers, they also wanted artistic control in the studio. Battling substance abuse and financial problems, Meek sank deeper into depression. By 1967 his career had stalled. His personal problems were complicated by his homosexuality, the practice of which was still a crime in England at the time. On February 3, 1967, the ninth anniversary of his idol Buddy Holly's death, Meek murdered his landlady and then returned to his upstairs apartment, where he fatally shot himself. Over the next 20 years Meek's recordings would be reissued, and a society—the Meek Appreciation Society—would be founded, giving the pioneering producer the recognition that had escaped him during his lifetime.
I Hear a New World: An Outer Space Music Fantasy, RPM, 1991.
The Joe Meek Story, Vol. 1, Line, 1991.
The Joe Meek Story: The Pye Years, Sequel, 1991.
The Joe Meek Story, Vol. 3: The Complete Houston Wells, Sequel, 1994.
The Joe Meek Story, Vol. 4: The Best of Michael Cox, Sequel, 1994.
The Joe Meek Story: The Pye Years, Vol. 2; 304 Holloway Road, Sequel, 1994.
Work in Progress: The Triumph Sessions, RPM, 1994.
It's Hard to Believe: The Amazing World of Joe Meek, Razor & Tie, 1995.
Joe Meek Presents 304 Holloway Road, Castle, 1996.
Let's Go! Joe Meek's Girls, RPM, 1996.
Early Years, Sequel, 1997.
The Alchemist of Pop: Home Made Hits and Rarities 1959-1966, Castle, 2002.
Chusid, Irwin, Songs in the Key of Z: the Curious World of Outsider Music, A Cappella, 2000.
Unterberger, Richie, Unknown Legends of Rock 'n' Roll: Psychedelic Unknowns, Mad Geniuses, Punk Pioneers, Lo-Fi Mavericks & More, Backbeat, 1998.
"Joe Meek," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (February 17, 2004).
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
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