The legendary record producer and sound engineer Joe Meek (1929-1967) was a Freakbeat pioneer, an influence on everyone from Eno and Pink Floyd to any number of movie soundtrack composers. His greatest legacy, the other-worldly sound he achieved on his artists’ hit records, is undeniable. However, his own personal problems, paranoia, and gay persecution ultimately led to a tragic ending. Tosh Berman examines the enigma of Meek.
Twenty-eight years ago, I went to the music store WAVE in Roppongi, Tokyo (sadly, it no longer exists), and in the “British Oldies” section I found a compilation called The Joe Meek Story: The Pye Years. I knew of Meek’s name due to my allegiance to the band The Honeycombs, who had a hit song in my youth called “Have I The Right,” released in 1964.
Being a record label reader—in order to glean the most esoteric knowledge of every recording—’Joe Meek’ stuck in my brain because it is such an unusual name. Moreover, the sound Meek attained on The Honeycombs’ recordings is remarkable: compressed and echoey, generating emotional hysterics in an aural landscape full of sensuality, dread, and romance. It’s opera but set in a 3-minute pop song format.
On the same trip, and in the small town in Kyushu, I found a copy of The Honeycombs on CD in an electronic hardware store. They mostly sold stereo equipment and various brands of blank cassettes. They had a small selection of CD’s for sale, primarily Japanese Enka music, but some budget best-of collections such as the Four Seasons, The Beach Boys and, of course, ABBA. For whatever reason, they had a copy of The Honeycombs in the CD format, which was issued in Japan.
Joe Meek and Japan seemed to me, at the time, to be the perfect marriage. This was mostly due to the fact that I don’t speak Japanese and the first thing that I come upon in the English language on that trip were the Meek recordings. At the time, I’d never run into a compilation of Meek’s work in the U.S. The strangeness of being in a foreign land and being re-introduced to The Honeycombs after many years was jarring, juxtaposing the mid-century Japanese architecture I was walking around inside with the sounds of Joe Meek invading my inner space. Nevertheless, it was the perfect combination of two cultures at work.
Meek came out of the generation of men who, because they were gay, had to face the fact that their sexuality was against the law in England. So, in a real sense to have sex with another male was a criminal offense. A horror show of law, but also I’m sure it added a certain excitement in the sexual play between men. Public toilets were often the meeting place between strangers. It does my head in that Joe Meek, now one of my favorite music business figures, may have met my favorite playwright, Joe Orton, in such a setting. Both men were gay, both were fans of the anonymous pick-up, and both came from the same neighborhood in Islington, London.
Whether or not such a rendezvous took place, a remarkable record by one of Meek’s bands, The Tornados, had an intriguing B-side of the 1966 single “Is That A Ship I Hear,” called “Do You Come Here Often?” The composition was credited to The Tornados. It’s pop music but it features two British gentlemen talking at a bar about men passing by the window. They are using a form of homosexual slang, popular in London at the time, called Polari, which allowed them to disguise their intentions from the straight world.
Meek was mostly known as a record producer, but he also was a songwriter and the manager of good-looking male talent such as Heinz, the bassist for The Tornados. Meek was obsessed with making the bleach-blonde-haired Heinz into a solo star, which must have rankled the other members of The Tornados. Even though Meek was from a sort of closed-off world, it proved to be a brilliant landscape inside which he could create aural magic. His world contained a mixture of British gay culture, magic(k), UFOs, outer space exploration, pills, lust, and the presence of a dead Buddy Holly, who according to Meek, gave him instructions to one of his songs. All of these things flowed into the larger mission—the search for the successful 45 rpm single and the Top 10 hit.
As a recording engineer for EMI in the 1950s, Meek was required to wear a white lab coat while clocking his hours behind a recording desk. His character wasn’t made to work for someone else. Not surprisingly, he left the established record label to go independent, after building a recording studio in his flat on Holloway Road in North London. One can go to the building where he once worked and lived and find a plaque on its outer wall. Meek also died there, but that’s another story (see below). What’s important at the outset is that he built his own equipment, capitalizing on his early appreciation for electronics and science.
Even though Meek was from a sort of closed-off world, it proved to be a brilliant landscape inside which he could create aural magic.
In a sense, Meek resembled Jack Parsons, who was both a rocket scientist and a magician under the sway of Alistair Crowley’s magick. Meek wasn’t a magician, as far as I know, but he was interested in the occult arts as well as the afterlife. As stated, he was convinced the ghost of Buddy Holly gave him advice, and he was known to walk around a London cemetery recording sounds that he hoped came from the other side of the spirit world.
Joe Meek (1929-1967) was born in Newest, Gloucestershire, a small market town that at the time of his birth had a population of 3,000. He built the first working television in Newest, as well as dabbling in electronics, building circuits and radios. He also had experience working with radar when he was in the Royal Air Force. He became interested in outer space and, therefore, UFOs and the possibility of life on other planets while he was in the military. He ultimately found his own “planet” to be inside a recording studio.
What makes Meek so compelling was his independent spirit. Not satisfied working in a straightforward environment, such as Radio Luxembourg, he eventually started his own record company, Triumph Records, with the backing of William Barrington-Coupe, a convicted con artist with a love of music. Barrington-Coupe released a series of recordings credited to his wife Joyce Hatto, who was a noted pianist, butin actuality, the recordings later proved to have been made by other pianists. Meek severed ties with Barrington-Coupe and moved his studio into his living space on Holloway Road and started a company, RGM Sound Ltd, which later became Meeksville Sound Ltd.
What I love about Meek’s work, especially recordings made in his home studio, is that there is no other sound like what he created. Meek’s records are not only unique, there is something a bit off or strange about them too. At his commercial and artistic peak, his recordings can be broken down into instrumentals, teenage pop (idol) songs, and what is now called Freakbeat, a strange amalgam of pop, experimental sound, and the presence of the occult or magic.
Meek had a genius for understanding teenage angst but also had a deep interest in the spirit world. According to the slightly insane producer, Buddy Holly contributed some advice to him through the medium of the Ouija board. I don’t think for one minute that Meek ever considered himself an outsider or avant-garde artist. His attitude toward the marketplace was that record producers should make hits. In his mind, he was making new sounds that should be commercially successful.
Case in point: Dave Clark Five. When DC5 had a hit, it drove Meek insane because he was convinced that record companies and other artists were secretly stealing his recording techniques and spying on his home and studio. The sound of Dave Clark Five was way too reminiscent of Meek’s Freakbeat sound to be a coincidence. Meek even reportedly hung up on Phil Spector for the same paranoid reason. The Flower Power era was approaching, but it had no meaning in Meek’s dark world of paranoia, pills, and psychosis.
“Jack The Ripper”-Screaming Lord Sutch, produced by Joe Meek:
Meek’s great importance is not his songwriting nor the songwriting talents of his collaborator Geoff Goddard, but the overall sound of his records. In theory, they were all recorded using a technique called Musique Concrete, which was employed by experimental European composers of the late 1940s and early 1950s.
History doesn’t tell us if Meek was familiar with the experimental music of Pierre Schaeffer or Pierre Henry when they composed for the RTF in France. The two French composers used ‘real-world’ sounds to make music, such as the sound of trains running along railroad tracks. Also, tape looping was used to create rhythmic and textural sounds that become part of the composition.
Similarly, Meek used sound effects in his music by taping the flushing of the toilet and then playing it backward. Schaeffer and Henry wanted to make severe high-end music using the Musique Concrete technique, but Meek was after a hit-record. Meek was like the missing link between these early experimenters and Brian Eno, who used some of the same procedures by treating instruments through his various tape recorders to create avant-garde pop and ambient music. Eno, Schaeffer, and Henry were dreamers and visionaries; Meek was a practical person who was limited by English society at the time, as well as closing himself off to the world, to concentrate on making hit tunes on his own terms.
I would argue that every Joe Meek production is, in a sense, a solo record. He, in fact, officially released a solo album in 1960, I Hear A New World: An Outer Space Music Fantasy, which was credited to Joe Meek & The Blue Men. Within the album’s 33 minutes of music, you can hear every one of Meek’s obsessions. At moments, the record sounds like a Pierre Schaeffer/Pierre Henry experiment, and even early ‘70s Pink Floyd, but Meek based his melodies on Country & Western as well as 1950s rock & roll to make this strange outer space music.
A contemporary listener may even hear traces of Brian Eno’s Another Green World, in that they share the same sense of adventure and technique in the studio. However, Meek did it in 1960; Eno’s album was released in 1975. Eno is unquestionably a better songwriter, but alas, that’s not the issue here. Ennio Morricone’s scores for various Italian horror films also reveal traces of the influence of Joe Meek.
There’s an interesting interview (on YouTube) with the session drummer Clem Cattini, who was a member of The Tornados. When he first heard “Telstar,” he thought it was a horrible song, and he still thinks it’s a bad tune, but with respect to Meek’s recording, he thought it was something special.
The beauty of Meek, or being a fan of his work, is not totally about music or even melodies, but more of the essence of the recorded sound and how he worked his magic and turned it into an art. He had to record the artist/band and to add his effects; he had to make another copy of the recording, which deletes the original sound a bit. To add the punch he once again had to transfer the recording tape back, to add percussion, hand claps and aural special effects. Les Paul may have invented the multi-tracking, but Meek as Les made it into a singular art form that is just as important as the voice, guitar, or any other instrument on a record. The sound of not catching a live feel, but something made in a laboratory.
As I praise Joe Meek’s music and records, one cannot or should not forget that he was also a murderer. Due largely to his untreated mental illness and acute paranoia, he shot and killed his landlady Violet Shenton, and then shot himself in the head with Heinz’s rifle. I have always felt that the blue plaque to honor Meek’s work at his home, should also mention Shenton. The dear woman had to have put up with a lot as Meek’s downstairs neighbor.
As I praise Joe Meek’s music and records, one cannot or should not forget that he was also a murderer.
Still, all things considered, Joe Meek was a pioneering sound artist. And his records, even though strange and exotic in a North London manner, were brilliant.
Tosh’s Top Ten Joe Meek Recordings:
“Have I The Right” – The Honeycombs
“Johnny Remember Me” – John Leyton
“Dumb Head” – The Sharades
“Telstar” – The Tornados
“Little Baby” – The Blue Rondos
“Jack The Ripper” – Screaming Lord Sutch
“I Hear a New World” (The whole album) – Joe Meek and the Blue Men
“I Lost My Heart at the Fairgrounds” – Glenda Collins
“Crawdaddy Simone” – The Syndicats
“Do You Come Here Often” – The Tornados