Welcome to a Day dedicated to the visionary record producer Joe Meek. I could barely hope to scratch the surface of his prolific output, but here’s hoping it serves as a useful primer.
Robert George “Joe” Meek (5 April 1929 – 3 February 1967) was a pioneering English record producer and songwriter.
His best-remembered hit is the Tornados’ “Telstar” (1962), which became the first record by a British group to reach No.1 in the US Hot 100. It also spent five weeks atop the UK singles chart, with Meek receiving an Ivor Novello Award for this production as the “Best-Selling A-Side” of 1962.
Meek’s other hits include “Don’t You Rock Me Daddy-O” and “Cumberland Gap” by Lonnie Donegan (as engineer), “Johnny Remember Me” by John Leyton, “Just Like Eddie” by Heinz, “Angela Jones” by Michael Cox, “Have I the Right?” by the Honeycombs, and “Tribute to Buddy Holly” by Mike Berry. Meek’s concept album I Hear a New World is regarded as a watershed in modern music for its innovative use of electronic sounds.
His commercial success as a producer was short-lived and Meek gradually sank into debt and depression. On 3 February 1967, using a shotgun owned by musician Heinz Burt, Meek killed his landlady and then himself.
A classic story of rise and fall: This is the life of music producer and pop composer Robert George “Joe” Meek (born April 5, 1929 in Newent, Gloucestershire; died February 3, 1967 in London) – a short life somewhere on the fine line between vision and lunacy, always floating forth and back from the one to the other; oversped, funny, sad, euphoric, depressed; a rollercoaster trip with a dramatic showdown.
It’s not only the singer or the song that makes a hit, it’s the sound as well. Meek was the first European music producer who completely got that. He saw his sound recording studio as his musical instrument, and he was a virtuoso in playing it. As an extra-ordinary sound tinkerer he can be named in the same breath as Phil Spector, George Martin, Lee Hazlewood, Tom Wilson or the “Motown” or “Stax” studio crews; a Meek production is easy to identify. Although Meek didn’t like to stand in the spotlight himself, his influence on the pop music scene is still noticeable.
THE STORIES, near unbelievable, are strange but true. In a flat on the Holloway Road, four people bang their feet on the stairs, stomping their way to a ’60s pop-defining number one. The microphones that record the din are attached to the banisters with bicycle clips. There are singers in the toilet and string sections in the kitchen. In the bedroom, his feet lost in a carpet of reel to reel tape and tangled wires held together with chewing gum, a thick-set man in a suit sets the controls for the heart of British popular music.
These stories would be fantastic enough without rumours of black magic, gangland threats and a pill-popping climax of paranoia, rapidly declining fortunes and murder. The Joe Meek story is a B-movie script without a home.
From his home, a dank flat with famously rickety stairs above a leather goods shop at 304 Holloway Road, London, Joe Meek created some of the strangest and most wonderful sonic experiments ever to attempt to gatecrash the hit parade. Known to the crazed few as the British Phil Spector, Meek a misguided auteur who single-handedly invented the idea of independence in pop by selling his finished products to the major labels, is seldom credited as the creator of some of the best known ’60s records ever.
Meek’s musical innovations are still to achieve the recognition they deserve. These include his pioneering use of overdubbing, compression, sound separation, and distortion; his use of his bathroom as an echo chamber; the launch of his own indie label, Triumph; and, in his final years, his recording of some of the most aggressive and essential Mod and psyche acts. In fact, if Meek hadn’t pushed the envelope to ridiculous lengths, would British music ever have come out of its tepid doldrums and rocked America and the world?
I Hear a New World: an outer space music fantasy is a concept album devised and composed by Joe Meek and recorded by the Blue Men in 1959. It was released in part in 1960 and in full in 1991 by RPM Records. It was later analyzed by Barry Cleveland in his book, Creative Music Production: Joe Meek’s Bold Techniques.
The album was Meek’s pet project. He was fascinated by the space programme, and believed that life existed elsewhere in the solar system. This album was his attempt “to create a picture in music of what could be up there in outer space”, he explained. “At first I was going to record it with music that was completely out of this world but realized that it would have very little entertainment value so I kept the construction of the music down to earth”. He achieved this as a sound engineer by blending the Blue Men’s skiffle/rock-and-roll style with a range of sound effects created by such kitchen-sink methods as blowing bubbles in water with a straw, draining water out of a sink, shorting out an electrical circuit and banging partly filled milk bottles with spoons; however, one must listen carefully to detect these prosaic origins in the finished product. Another feature of the recordings is the early use of stereophonic sound.
Drummer Dave Golding played on the sessions for New World: “At the time it we didn’t know what he was trying to achieve. He wasn’t talking about space when we recorded some of those tracks. He was going on about lighthouses and lights across the sea, which makes some sense when you hear the record and forget about the titles”. Dave recalls the sessions as fraught late night affairs, either at the flat or Lansdowne with Joe attaching knives and forks to his bass drum pedal and insisting he played his drums with pennies spread across the skins. On hearing this record 40 years later you can only comment that Joe is the other lost Aphex Twin, born an age before his time. Charles Ward, whose Thunderbolts record ‘Lost Planet’ is another example of Meek’s outer space obsession, believes Joe was really a child of the times.
“Destination Moon was the film of the ‘50s. In Hollywood they were throwing dustbins up in the air at night and filming them as UFOs. There was plenty of that stuff around, and Joe was listening to as much of it as anyone else”. Now feted by electronic cultists like Orbital and Andrew Weatherall, ‘I Hear A New World’s genius is tempered by comic tunes and further warped by Meek’s twisted sense of pop. Aside from the heavily layered effects, these made up the bulk of the record’s musical substance. The sleeve notes, apparently written by Meek, show a man innocently obsessed with aliens, The Space Race, and Sputnik flights into the beyond. Joe dribbles on about the ‘Dribcots Space Boat’. “Owned and built by the Dribcots, it is shaped like an egg,” he informs us with barely contained enthusiasm. ‘The Entry Of The Globbots’ is “the sound of, happy jolly little beings. As they parade before us you can almost see their cheeky blue faces.”
It’s believed that only 100 of the records were originally pressed. There wasn’t much call for fledgling electronica in 1960. With I Hear A New World Joe had revealed the template for his way of thinking, a personal Space Race. This was his particular way of hearing things, with all his secret sounds out on display. It was statement of intent, often underlined in the next seven years.
“Looking back at it now, it’s clear that Joe did have a plan for the record”, says Dave Golding. “It was only when ‘Telstar’ came out three years later that it all began to make sense to me.”
Joe Meek would have a hand in creating some of the biggest hits of the time – and worked with well known artists such as Lonnie Donegan, Petula Clark, Shirley Bassey, Gene Vincent, Frankie Vaughan, Acker Bilk, Anne Shelton and Tom Jones.
His most famous song “Telstar” which was recorded with The Tornados earned him both an Ivor Novello Award and the title of becoming the first ever single recorded by a British group to hit #1 in the US Billboard chart. The single also spent five weeks at the top of the UK charts.
Other hits Joe had a hand in included John Leyton’s “Johnny Remember Me” and The Honeycombs’ “Have I the Right?” which was another #1 in the UK charts and entered the US charts at #5.
However “Have I the Right?” would be Joe’s last big hit. Joe had gained a reputation as being difficult to work with, he was very controlling and would often become angry and violent if musicians didn’t do as he told them to.
Joe’s fascination with the unknown would take a darker turn when he would experiment with the occult. He would engage in séances and leave recording equipment in graveyards to try and contact his hero Buddy Holly.
It was thanks to Joe Meek’s experimentation that techniques such as echo and reverb would be introduced into popular music, a technique used by virtually every artist or band ever since.
Technically, the Joe Meek sound is relatively easy to describe: Its typical trademarks are strong reverb and echo effects (his main reverb unit Meek had custom-built from the spiral springs of an old fan heater; nobody ever was allowed to touch this device) as well as massive overdriving, especially the vocals. Besides this, Meek used to speed up the vocals (sometimes to a grade not far from the absurd, sometimes beyond that), often he added a slapback echo to the vocals (as best known from several Sun Records productions), and usually he backed them up with a two- or three-voice female harmony choir (the legendary “heavenly choir”). Reverbs as well as echo effects were usually made artificially. Besides this, Meek provided his records with a massive bass and an amount of compression that makes the music literally jumping out of the speaker.
Finally, a recent ’60s favourite is JOE MEEK, the first successful, fully independent record producer in the U.K. He was barely known in this country, but was an unseen hand in ruling and shaping pop music pre-Beatles in England on a scale the size of Phil Spector ‚ except that his taste was wierder. As a producer, not only did he not play any instruments, but apparently he couldn’t sing very well either…yet he was very exacting in getting the sounds he wanted out of musicians. He not only sang the notes to a keyboard person, but was very specific as to how he wanted the keyboard to sound. He was fascinated with Outer Space, and one of his songs which is best-known in the U.S. was the TORNADOS’ “Telstar” instrumental; it has an organ sound like no other. And as soon as he found a skiffle band with Hawaiian guitar, there was no stopping him. Remember, “Exotica” was an America-only phenomenon. The only English Martin Denny release I’ve seen had a generic ocean photo, probably xeroxed off a Mantovani album. Yet here was someone persuing the same outer reaches, but from a completely different angle!
His fascination with sci-fi and ethereal sounds and other-worldly female voices and Outer Space is so unique ‚ you can tell a Joe Meek record a mile away. He recorded the instruments way into the red so that even drums distorted; he used all kinds of wild echo and reverb. I read that not only did he use everything but the kitchen sink ‚ he even recorded in the kitchen sink the sound of running water, blowing bubbles, drinking straws, and half filled milk bottles played by spoons! He also used the teeth of a comb across an ashtray, electrical circuits shorted together, etc. He had problems getting along with mainstream music industrial powers, but eventually got his own studio together above a leather store. It was on three floors, so some instrumentalists would literally be playing on different floors, with the console on the third floor.
An instrumental with space sound effects, this is about the Telstar communications satellite, which was launched shortly before this song was written.
This was the best-selling British single of 1962. It was also the first song by a British group to hit #1 in the US. This did not happen again until The Beatles “I Want To Hold Your Hand” in 1964.
Producer Joe Meek was intrigued by the sound of the organ on Dave “Baby” Cortez’ #1 hit, “The Happy Organ” – so entrapped by it that he tried to duplicate it with the Clavioline keyboard on “Telstar,” which was played by a studio musician named Geoff Goddard, who also supplied the “humming” vocal you hear at the end of the song.
Joe Meek idolized Buddy Holly and claimed he could make contact with Holly’s spirit. Meek committed suicide on February 3, 1967, the eighth anniversary of “The day the music died.” (thanks, Brad Wind – Miami, FL)
After the Tornadoes had laid down track for this song, Meek wanted to give it more, so after the band left the studio at the end of the day, he played around with effects to get it just right. Latter when he played the demo to the lads, they were not sure. The beginning was just Joe being his creative self, however, the “Ah Ah” voiceover in the final part was a bit much and they expressed some dismay. This mixture of music and voice was usual and had not been done in a Pop tune, yet this track exploded on the music scene. (thanks, Geoff – Sydney, Australia)
The Tornados – a journeyman club band – disliked the song, but Meek added his own distinctive magic at his home-cooked studio above a leather shop in northern London. An overdubbed Clavioline keyboard provoked spooked space effects, while a backwards tape of a flushing toilet evoked all the majesty of a spacebound rocket. (from The Observer Music Monthly)
Thanks to Telstar, Joe Meek is seen as British pop’s first great futurist, but the vibe of this Meek production reaches back into our fog-struck, ghost-ridden past. It’s an urgent Gothic romance, with John Leyton’s vocal clutching at your sleeve, desperate to tell a story of loss and madness. Meek turns the drums into phantom horsemen and fills the record’s dark spaces with melodrama – a keening female voice on the chorus rounds the effect off. Pure corn, perhaps, but sold with a dread conviction, which makes this the weirdest and most gripping British record to hit the top yet.
“Jack the Ripper” is a song by English musician Screaming Lord Sutch, released as a 7″ single in the UK and Germany in 1963 on Decca. It was produced by Joe Meek and recorded in his Holloway Road studio in Islington, England. The song was banned by the BBC upon its release.
The song begins with the sound of footsteps and a woman screaming, followed by a rendition of the “Danger Ahead” motif by the guitar and drum kit, accompanied by a ghoulish moan from Screaming Lord Sutch. The song itself is a three-chord song, with a vamp played by guitar and bass, with accompaniment by piano and drum kit, which is repeated throughout.
The Cryin’ Shames were a six piece band formed from a previous band called The Bumblies.
They changed their name to The Cryin’ Shames in 1965. Their first single ‘Please Stay’ was released on the Decca label produced by Joe Meek in early 1966. It reached no 27 in the charts and was to be his last hit record before his suicide in 1967.
‘Do You Come Here Often?’ begins as a flouncy organ-drenched instrumental and stays that way for over two minutes. By that time, most people – had they even bothered to even turn the record over – would have switched off. Had they remained they would have heard two sibilant, obviously homosexual voices bitching, well, just like two queens will.
Nearly four decades on, ‘Do You Come Here Often?’ remains sad, eerie, funny, and true: you can still hear its vivid vituperation in the gay hardcore dance records of the 21st century. By the same token, it is time-locked, a bulletin from a pivotal point in homosexual history: that moment when an oppressed minority began to claim its rightful place in society. However, that struggle was not without its sacrifices. Like Orton and Epstein, Meek would not live to see the sun, and his August 1966 single remains testament to the lethal power of the homophobia that, once rampant in Western society, is still virulent. Guilty pleasures can kill.
Joe was now broke, with the ‘Telstar’ case still unresolved. He was hiding from his creditors and the hits had all but dried up. John Repsch’s The Legendary Joe Meek talks of him only eating when assistant Patrick Pink brought food he’d’ stolen from his own family’s cupboard. His new recordings were still being turned down. Séance calls to Rameses The Great and, it’s said, Aleister Crowley for advice, did nothing to help him. Some believe he developed an obsession with Crowley, and say his interest in the black arts had now taken him much further than using an upturned tumbler to ask his beloved Buddy Holly about chart positions.
Among the last dozen recordings that made it to release, among the increasing rejections, was The Cryin’ Shames’ poignant ‘Nobody Waved Goodbye’. At a funeral in his home town of Newent, maybe 200 people turned up.
Joe Meek was largely forgotten until his records began to fester in the minds of a few obsessives in the mid-‘70s. It is only in the last ten years, with the publication of John Repsch’s book, the BBC Arena documentary, and the contemporary appreciation of Joe’s sonic vision, together with the appeal of an irresistibly absurd and tragicomic story, that Joe has become an icon for those able to laugh as they a marvel at his garden Wall Of Sound.
“He turned the British record industry on its head and though they may not have bugged his flat, there were some people who hated him for that, for showing them up. They were having to buy hits from Joe when there were people being paid good money to bring the new groups in house before the likes of Joe got a look in”, says Tornado Clem Cattini.
Joe Meek died at the age of only 37 years. Tornados’ drummer Clem Cattini stated: “It was dreadful, but without wishing to sound morbid, I couldn’t see Joe dying any other way. He was never going to die a natural death. I don’t think his success brought him any happiness …” – Screaming Lord Sutch, who’s career would have been different without Joe Meek, had this to say: “I was amazed as well as shocked and sad when I heard all this, as I had always thought of him as a fabulously successful producer, and it never occurred to me he had no money and only rented his flat. He was a great man and is much missed.”
Meek, who described himself as “fairly rich man”, had absolutely no money left at the time of his death. His remains were six hundred pairs of shoes and a lorry, besides this he left tax and royalty debts, chaotic bookkeeping and around 100 Winston Churchill commemorative coins, the latter probably giveaways for important customers.
p.s. Hey. ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. Interesting about your friend. I get it. Everyone, If you didn’t click over to read Mr. Ehrenstein’s piece about Scorcese/Melville the last time I alerted you, here’s another chance. This way.. ** Jeff J, Hey, Jeff. Thanks, man. Mm, the Paris premiere of the Walser piece got cancelled due to you-know-what, but she had a series of ‘invitation only’ performances for curators, friends, etc., so I saw it in basically its final form. I still have issues with the piece, and, since it’s finished, I guess I will always have them. She said the performances got very good responses, so maybe it’s a piece that just isn’t for me. Awesome you got ‘Sure Fire’. That’s not all that easy to come by. My fave Jost, as you probably know. I haven’t read ‘Solar Throat Slashed’, no. Curious. I mostly know Cesaire’s more political work too. Huh, I’ll look for it. Thanks, buddy. ** Jack Skelley, Hey, Jack! I didn’t know Joey is ensconced at Hollywood Forever. How strange. I guess I thought he’d be buried in Queens or something. I used to like taking the Graveline Tour. Did you ever do that? Touring the death spots of celebrities far and wide in a converted hearse. Kind of fun. Like driving down Hollywood Blvd., and the hearse pauses, and the guide says, ‘See that palm tree just to the left of the Pantages ticket booth? That’s where James Frawley of ‘I Love Lucy’ dropped dead of a heart attack.’ Pretty thorough. And I’ll see/talk with you tomorrow. Yay! ** Misanthrope, Bob Flanagan wanted there to be a video camera in his coffin streaming his decay to a monitor placed on his grave, but luckily it didn’t happen. It seems like everyone I know watches ‘The Mandalorian’. Cool people, dumb people, holier than thou people. It’s weird. 104,000 words is huge by my standards. Yeah, polish the sucker off, man. ** Dominik, Hi, Dominick! Oh, that’s a really good gravestone. Someone really thought ahead. I’m impressed. Yeah, the hard part of the cool writing assignment thing is the ‘responding to’ part. That’s intimidating, especially with something that’s excellent as it is and doesn’t really seem to need any extra like the film to which I’m assigned, and responding is the whole ball of wax, so I’d better figure it out. Challenging, for sure. We bought the pottery Buche, but they sold out of them in three seconds, so instead they gave us a few mini-versions, and they were pretty crappy looking, but they tasted pretty good. Puppy, sweet! Love singing this for a thousand years, Dennis. ** Bill, Hi, B. Weird, I know about Peter Rock, but I don’t know that book. Bill = windfall. ** David S. Estornell, Cool. Hygenic hugs. ** Sypha, The unfriender said they were the president of the German Jonathan Brandis Fan Club. I didn’t know there were fan clubs anymore. Nice Xmas, well, except for the meat pie or its aftermath, or both. I miss trees with presents underneath them. ** JM, Hi, J! Thanks, pal, you too. I’m doing all right. It’s winter. I dig it. Like I told Sypha, the unfriender drew the line at Jonathan Brandis. That particular besmirching, in their eyes, was one transgression too far. Triangles. nice. Yeah, that’s exciting. That made me percolate. Way excited for ‘Solsa Virgo’, needless to say. Mm, I think I was assigned ‘1984’ in high school. I honestly don’t remember a syllable of it. Yum, acid. Bresson on acid is a fascinating idea. I don’t think I ever did that. Wow. The mind boggles. I did give someone a blowjob on acid once, or tried to. I think all kinds of art are calling out to me. Like a flurry. It/they always are. But I have some work deadlines so I’m trying not to indulge. Video games are calling out to me the most, if they count, which I believe they do. Or rather a Switch is calling out to me. But getting a Switch is a suicidal gesture when you have work deadlines. It’s a dilemma. You? SELFFUCK still hasn’t sent me the books. And I need them. The post seems totally normal here, but it was basically normal when he sent them to the correct address last time, and they got sent back, and I don’t want him to waste postage money again, so I don’t know what to do. I’d rather mistake a lit firecracker for a lit cigarette than watch two of the films on your possible viewing list again. But that’s just me. Enjoy every living and even non-living thing until I get to see you next, maestro. ** Paul Curran, Merry Xmas + HNY to you, Paul! I saw on the news last night that Japan has just blocked everyone from entering again. Not that I could anyway. But Zac and I are watching the traveling status stuff like hawks with one finger on the bookmark for the Expedia website. You good? Writing at all? Etc.? Love, me. ** _Black_Acrylic, I wondered if you knew about them. And, hey, does today’s post look familiar? ** wolf, Glug glug glug! Belated Xmas shout out to you too. It was a weird one, but not so entirely different from my usual one. I didn’t Zoom on the big day with anyone. Did exchange some texts. I know ‘I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas’! I could even sing it out loud to myself without having given it a thought since I was, what, eight years old? The Buche was sold out so we were given mini-knock off versions that looked thrown together at the last minute, which they were, and which fell apart in their boxes on the way home, but it/they tasted good enough. Much love including all of love’s best whoop-di-doo right back at you! ** Steve Erickson, I’ll see if I can find that video essay. and you’ve intrigued me enough to do an audio peek at that Playboi Carti. I must admit it does sounds very surprisingly curious. ** James, Hi. I don’t know where they’re from. Maybe I knew when I made the piece, but that was 12 years ago or something. A TV movie would be my guess. I spent two days with Courtney Love when I was working on a cover story about her for Spin, and we hung out at their house, and she kept saying Kurt would be home any minute, and then it turned out that I was there during the period where he had disappeared on a drug binge for a week or two, so she was lying, but then she lied a lot. So, no, I didn’t. She did show me the little apartment over the garage where he ended up blowing his brains out. I got zero, zip, nothing for Xmas. Not a thing. But I don’t mind. ** Okay. Today I resurrect _Black_Acrylic’s wonderful post about producer/auteur Joe Meek from some years ago. It’s a feast. See you tomorrow.