Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The weird world of Joe Meek

A couple of months ago I was at a Half Priced Books digging through some records on a week day. I noticed a rather large and odd looking old man to my right sifting through stacks and stacks of 7 inches on the lower shelves. I sensed him getting closer to me, and then I felt a tap on the shoulder as he asked "You ever seen one of these before?"  I reply, " I haven't, what is it?" "This is a Triumph record, Joe Meek's label, you know the label the Beatles tried to get on?" He went on to describe how rare it was, and I naturally tuned him out. I didn't think anything of that encounter again until I started reading Good Vibrations by Mark Cunningham, who subtitles his work as "A History of Record Production". A loose grab bag might have been more suitable than a whole history, since I could really care less about the engineering subtleties of Elton John's "Caribou."  But that is neither here nor there.

Anyhoo, one of the earliest chapters in the book is dedicated to some English DIY engineer and producer from the late 50's/early 60's named Joe Meek. As I read more about Joe and did a little digging, I soon realized that Mr. Meek has had an enormous influence on the way I hear music today. I was also pretty astounded to find out that this was the first Englishman to write and produce a US number one hit (Telstar). Unfortunately, in the eyes of many, his contributions will be overshadowed by his unstable behavior that led to his suicide in 1967 along with the simultaneous murder of his landlady. In lieu of regurgitating Meek's biography, I have concluded that Meek's mark on pop music is three fold. Joe Meek as..... 1) The first "sonic signature" producer 2) The first popular eccentric producer 3) The first popular ambient music writer and producer. So let's briefly touch on each point and listen to some of this dead dude's shit.

1) The first "sonic signature" producer:

Before Joe Meek most studio engineers in the late 40's and early 50's were ex-military scientists or military engineers. In fact, the military was the only organization in the world to invest significant capital in sound recording technology. At the end of WWII, our country's finest sold a lot of their equipment to the burgeoning pop music industry, and the studios were still run in a military like fashion (They even wore lab coats!). The sole purpose of recording a group at the time was to capture their live sound as accurately as possible, and mathematical formulas were used to determine how to record each instrument. You want to record a saxophone? Then a saxophonist must stand at an exact distance away from the microphone, use a certain type of mic in a certain sized room with a certain preamplifier and so on and so on. This rigid process would be repeated for any instrument; the true definition of "by the book". 

 When Meek was hired at IBC studios in 1953, he cringed at the sterility of the big-time London studio environment. Meek soon bought his own tape machine, set up shop in his tiny London flat, and founded Triumph Records (You can take a virtual of tour of his apartment on-line and it's unbelievable to think that such a huge sound came from such a small space!). Soon his flat was filled to the brim with homemade consoles, pre-amplifiers, equalizers, compressors and effects. Meek didn't have the luxury of a large acoustically treated space, so his inclination was to mic the instruments as close as possible and add artificial reverberation. His lack of space inspired Meek to concoct some of the richest delays and echos ever put to vinyl. This became known as "close mic-ing," and it revolutionized the recording industry. In fact, if there are any home-recorders reading, then you can thank ole Joe. Like many of the greats after him, Meek had a sound in his head he strove for. He embraced the same distortion and tape saturation that would have nauseated any old school, big studio fuddie duddie. He wanted nothing to do with simply accurately recreating a live performance, and instead sought to leave his own eternal sonic stamp on everything he touched, even if that meant pushing his equipment and musicians to their breaking points. Phil Spector, George Martin and Brian Wilson obviously took notice of Meek's imprint on pop music, and sought their own sonic signatures after him. The clippity-clop splashy percussion on "The Bublight" is easily reminiscent of Pet Sounds, and his use of large amounts of compression and quirky EQ gave way to the psychedelic pop of the Beatles. Even though Spector's wall of sound was the antithesis of Meek's close and isolated mic-ing technique, their nuanced and manic pursuit of perfection are similar. Thanks to Meek, producers in all genres of pop music now seek out their own sound. Simply put, Meek was the first to break some very rigid big-studio rules in the pursuit of "his" sound.

2) The fist popular "eccentric" producer:

Apparently Meek was hell to work with. Veteran session musicians who worked with Meek knew to start running when things went wrong, because Meek was prone to throw anything at anyone (including a Tape machine down a spiraling stairwell at a guitarist. Anyone seen "American Psycho"?) After all, he was gay and living in a country where homosexuality was illegal at the time, so I guess that could make any dude a little up-tight. His fascination with the occult led to him mounting tape machines in graveyards in an effort to record voices from other dimensions. At one point he recovered the whines of a cat he swore was a human spirit pleading him for help. Buddy Holly's spirit was also a frequent visitor to Meek's unconscious. Meek adored Holly so much that he chose the 8th anniversary of his death to join him on the other plane. The Beatles massive success and the realization that he had thrown their demos in the trash a few years earlier couldn't have helped his mood, especially as he got older and the Beatles got better. The fact that Meek took the life of his innocent landlady, Violet Shenton, at the same time he took his own, makes his life seem that much more troubled. Phil Spector might as well be Bob Newhart compared to the highly erratic Meek.

3) The first popular ambient music writer and producer:

Okay this might be a stretch, but its hard to imagine after listening to the first two tracks listed here what Brian Eno and similar artists would have become without the world of Joe Meek. He couldn't play a note or read music, and was more fascinated by sounds, texture and space than notes and chords. Meek's heavy use of sound effects were nothing short of astonishing for the time period, and his use of feedback, compression, effects and eclectic instruments fool the listener into thinking he had stolen keyboards from the future. There is no question that early keyboard developers had Meek's sounds at the forefront of their minds during the dawn of the electronic music age.

Let's get to the music and just hear what all this fuss is about. The first two songs listed are the furthest thing from traditional Joe Meek pop song of the early 60's. Both are from a concept album he partially released in 1959. "The Bublight" and "Valley of the Saroos" by The Blue Men are the best representations of both the quantum leaps Meek had taken creatively as a producer and the possibility of ambient music for the future.
The third song listed became the first US number one from an English group, "Telstar" by the Tornadoes. Although all three songs are instrumentals, its worth noting that Meek produced hundreds of pop songs with both male and female singers.

The Bublight by the Blue Men

"Valley of the Saroos" by the Blue Men

"Telstar" by the Tornadoes


Anonymous frd said...

very good article and track selection. thanks for this.

1:13 AM  
Anonymous Dean said...

Great info on Joe Meeks. Thanks for posting. I discovered the Telstar 45 at Half price. I just thought it was a strange, weird find. Nice to know is has a checkered past.

1:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

good writing, johnson. thanks for the insight.

10:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the meek shall inherit the earth!

11:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for putting this here! EVERYthing I do on Pro Tools goes through my Joe Meek quilizer plug in, great to know why.

12:16 PM  
Anonymous 64 eels said...

at the UFO show Saturday, "Telstar" played with the Omega Man showing in the background while Delmore Pilcrow set up. It was pretty rad.

12:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Who gives a fuck!!!! Nobody wants to read your book report on some weird producer that offed himself during the prime of his life. I would have rather listened to a Zanzibar Snails CD!!!


1:31 PM  
Anonymous 64 eels said...

there was music before 1991 dude

1:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

1:31, then why didn't you listen to Zanzibar Snails? No one forced you to read?....In fact that would have been a healthy alternative, Zanzibar Snails are good.

2:42 PM  
Anonymous tim duncan said...

blah blah blah - who cares

3:00 PM  
Anonymous avery johnson said...

i hear the knicks have an opening coming up. i may go apply with them.

3:44 PM  
Anonymous shane said...


4:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

thanks... I've been wanting to hear the original Tornadoes Telstar after hearing the Ventures do it.

4:37 PM  
Anonymous momar said...

i didn't see any mention of his album "I hear a new world" in your write up. if you haven't heard it, it will become your favorite thing.

5:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i say dear boy, fancy a listen to the incomparable zanzibar snails??


very well then.. good choice. more wine?????????????

5:40 PM  
Anonymous chris paul said...

I don't know why I started reading that article because I never read the long winded articles on here, but I know why I finished it. Well done, I feel smarter. Your dow jones average just went up.

Now I'm ready to make the mavs look foolish again.

5:50 PM  
Anonymous Howard Bob..... said...

5:33 Momar

This is the author, I guess I have no way to prove that but I'm having trouble logging in. The first two songs were taken from "I hear a new world" and I encourage anyone who is interested to listen to the entire album if you can get a hold of it. However some of it does sound horribly dated with all of the sped up chipmunk/martian voices. Good point though, check it out if you can.

5:52 PM  
Anonymous redsean said...

when did chipmunk voices become dated?

great article btw. i read something in a recording magazine about this guy a few years ago, and i've used some of his mic techniques ever since.

6:37 PM  
Anonymous chad said...

It's Hard to Believe... is definitely one of the most bizarre collections of songs I have ever heard.

Bizarrely awesome.

Didn't know much about his history, thanks for the overview and desire to pursue more!

6:44 PM  
Anonymous t walkuh said...

Somebody needs to make the movie!
Tim Roth as Joe Meek

7:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


9:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

awesome article, don't listen to the haters, give us more

10:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, this is the kind of shit that lets wsjr shine.

7:49 AM  
Anonymous Doom for Playstation said...

I'm with 7:49. I really liked reading this. I am interested in hearing more, learning more about this. I love rock history.

9:46 AM  
Anonymous -|zs|- said...

We like Joe Meek, and we loved this little tidbit, and have no clue why we got mentioned randomly by the same person who dissed this article and Joe Meek. But while we're here, we do have two new full-lengths out, both of which were highly influenced by Joe Meek (if you listen really closely, you can hear backwards chupmunks & martians in the left speaker).

NOW: Brown Dwarf ... ... in two weeks ... Vanadium Dream ...

And no, we didn't post our names anonymously above.

10:00 AM  
Anonymous HowardBobJohnson. said...

There is a documentary called, "A death in the life of Joe Meek", that premiered at the Glasgow film festival earlier this year. I contacted the production company and it should be out later this year for distribution. We will keep you posted. Can't wait to see it!

10:15 AM  
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