Joe Meek: The Meek Shall Inherit the Stars
Joe Meek, shaper of sound, can be heard in all his private and obsessive glory on a demo which appears as the last track on Work in Progress: The Triumph Sessions. Over two takes of a sketch of a song tentatively titled "My Baby Doll," he sings, with little regard to standard pitch or even lyrical coherence. An audio fragment over a clattering beat, the track would never come to fruition, but it nonetheless reveals the primitive impulse of his madcap genius. The song itself is a trifle, something which serves to un-distinguish Meek's body of work except for his two classic productions, the Tornados 'epic 1961 instrumental "Telstar" and the Honeycombs 'beat-era "Have I the Right"; but his sound is otherworldly, the ex's of -traterrestial and -istential, and when he would finish working his miracles of compression and equalization and sound effects and strange instrumental textures (the Clavioline, the Hawaiian slide guitar), he had made not so much a live performance but a record, the illusion of live performance, with all its volume and presence and impact intact. In Joe's sloganeering for his short-lived Triumph label, they were "Records Made for the Hit Parade."
His milieu was the London music scene of the pre-Liverpool '60s, so well embodied by Cliff Richard's character in the 1960 film Expresso Bongo, a Britain deeply in America's pop shadow. (In fact, Richard's backing band was the Shadows.) Pretty boy and girl prefab pop idols, package shows, a handful of conservative record companies and studios with the atmosphere of a laboratory, complete with "balance engineers" who were encouraged not to move the dials of their meters, or their microphones (there are some who say Joe invented close miking inside a bass drum), even as an onrushing rock & roll pushed them toward the red line. Meek grew up in and rebelled against this environment: three-hour sessions with a fifteen-minute break for tea, listening to the producer drone on when he knew how to do it better, filtering and processing, learning how to manipulate the studio as its own instrument.
In these days of cut and paste, grid and slip mode and a Garageband in every laptop, it's amazing what Meek accomplished with his custom gizmos, a razor blade and two magnetic-tape recording machines to fly tracks back and forth. His records sound like no others in pre-Beatles England, as innovative in the expansion of sound as a Les Paul, or the American producer with whom he is most compared, Phil Spector. There was quite a debate at the time, one which still continues whenever the science of technology is placed against the art of performance, about how much each can entwine before the other has to give way. "Electronic product" was how Meek artist John Leyton was denounced, his voice sounding "like it was recorded at the bottom of a well." A dozen years later, engineer Roy Hallee would put a snare drum at the bottom of an elevator shaft to capture a thunderous crack on Simon and Garfunkel's "The Boxer." That's the hit parade: electronic product, and nowhere more so than now, the ever now. (And Joe, bless his ears, is now a virtual plug-in himself, the Joe Meek "optical" compressor a well-used studio tool.)
He did love to squash his records, making them so loud and punchy that the needle practically jumped out of the grooves, squeezing breathing space so that no matter how treacly the song's sentiments, it had a power and a personality to match Joe's own sense of sonic mission. He made his tracks in a cramped home studio over a leather bag shop on the Holloway Road in London. Inspired by the first television images broadcast by satellite in those opening moments of space flight, he wrote "Telstar," a love theme for the heavens; he had previously shown a taste for the outre spatial with I Hear a New World!, a "stereo fantasy" that he hoped would "create a picture in music of what could be up there in outer space" Inner molecular mind-melding is more like it. New World! not only demonstrated "the abilities of stereo equipment" from a time when people truly did listen and marvel at a train traveling from one speaker to the other, but showed off Joe's own bipolar magnetic field. His alien creatures — the merry Globbots and the melancholy Saroos — all point to the lunar "Valley of No Return," which Joe was rapidly entering with his hair-trigger temper and relentless perfectionism. Though "Telstar" sold millions of copies worldwide, epic legal hassles and a rapidly changing pop landscape left Meek paranoid and delusional. In 1967, on the eve of the eighth anniversary of the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, a particular favorite of Joe's (he had penned and produced Mike Berry's "Tribute to Buddy Holly"), he called his Holloway Road landlady upstairs, shot her and then himself, a scandal that would overshadow his work and reputation.
He was extraordinarily prolific in his time, turning out slices of 45 RPM vinyl for any company who would lease them. In the time it took Phil Spector to release 24 records on Philles, Joe produced 141 sides, according to John Repsch's comprehensive and detailed biography, The Legendary Joe Meek: The Telstar Man, and they ranged from the dire to the poignant. Sometimes the telling details are more in the soundcraft than the songcraft. Meek's first independent label was Triumph, which throughout 1960 struggled with distribution while Joe gave free rein to his imagination (culminating in a hit, Michael Cox's "Angela Jones," that covers one of my own secret favorites, originally done by Johnny Ferguson). Most of Work In Progress — The Triumph Sessions takes us behind the scenes of Joe's reach-and-grasp, assembling rare tapes and ideas on their way to the final master, unlocking Triumph's tape vault with cuts by the Fabulous Flee-Rakkers on the cusp of discovering surf music, and the West Five/Cavaliers (choose your name, musicians the same) with the aforementioned Hawaiian guitar. Comparing the demo of Yolanda's "With This Kiss" and the released version from March of 1960 is a study in process, which, in the end, far more than the emotion of the records, is what makes Joe Meek such a paramount figure in record production. George Martin, for one, when he cut up the taped pieces of a calliope and randomly reformed them on "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite," was going to Meeksville; so was Eddie Kramer when he recorded "Are You Experienced?"
"With This Kiss" is one of the stars of the excellent compilation, Let's Go — Joe Meek's Girls, which gathers with an upraised penciled eyebrow the bouffanted babes Joe hoped to launch into the all-important charts, none of whom succeeded but all of whom presaged such Brit thrushes as Dusty Springfield and Petula Clark (he'd recorded the latter on her television show in the '50s). Classic girl-group abounds: Pamela Blue perkily remembering her dead lover in "My Friend Bobby"; the nyaaah-nyaaah delivery of the Sharades '"Dumb Head"; Glenda Collins '"I Lost My Heart at the Fairground," with its carnival atmosphere; Peter, Paul & Mary meets the beat from "Peggy Sue" in "Your Love Keeps Me Going," courtesy of Denise Scott & the Soundsmen; German schatzi Gunilla Thorn on the "Merry-Go-Round."
Joe himself saved his heart-throbbing for the lads, epecially Heinz, the dyed-blonde bassist of the Tornados into whom he poured his hopes and aspirations, all to no avail. Pop was moving on without him, to self-contained bands that could make their own distortions and echoplexing, and he knew that they were stealing his ideas, conspiring to rob him of the "Telstar" profits and blackmailing him for his sexual proclivities and if the bloody landlady came up to tell him one more time that she wanted him out…
In the early '90s I visited the site of the Holloway Road studio to pay my respects, standing in the doorway of 304, stepping in his vanished footprint. Behind me, in a red London call box, the phone began to ring. I picked it up. There was no dialtone, only a silence that seemed enclosed, like a reverb chamber waiting for its sound to enter.