The stories are hard to believe, yet however strange, they are true. A
flat on Holloway Road containing a home-made studio, above a leather
goods store. A procession of musicians would clamber up the stairs
carrying drum kits, guitars and dreams of making the hit parade. People
bang their feet on the stairs to accent a bass drum sound. The string
section is in the kitchen and the singer in the bathroom. Joe was known
to the few as the first recording engineer to form his own studios and
record label. Triumph would last little over a year, but its status as
the first truly independant label remains. Joe Meek would be the first
independant producer, under the name RGM Sound, recording the artists
himself then licensing / selling the results to the major labels. Meek
is rarely credited for the full contribution he made during the sixties.
Innovations such as backwards recording, compression and echo techniques
among others were pioneered by Meek years before becoming common-place.
His was a Britain of the fifties, he'd been brought up when we still had
an empire and music hall ruled surpreme. He was also homosexual, and
whilst being in the music industry was perhaps one of the best places
for a homosexual to safely earn a living, let us remember both Meek and
Brian Epstein would end up taking their own lives. Meek had an
inferiority complex that resulted in control freak tendencies in the
studio. It was either recorded his way or no way. Perhaps he turned down
The Beatles not because he didn't like them, as is often stated, but
because they had a little too much independence? It's hard to imagine
John Lennon and the guys ever toeing the Meek party line or recording in
a kitchen, although many others did and enjoyed chart-topping status for
their efforts. |
He produced three UK number one hits in three different styles, quite something. The first was 'Johnny Remember Me', a dramatic 'death-disc' epic with a galloping rhythm and fine, soaring vocals from Johnny Leyton, an actor-turned singer. The 2nd number one was the most famous Meek recording of all, The Tornados 'Telstar'. With a spooky electronic lead melody line, that same galloping rhythm amidst outer space sounds, 'Telstar' became the first single by a British group to hit number one in America. Numerous sound-alike follow-ups were recorded by Meek, one merely using the same tune over which vocals were added. Something about a 'magic star' and lyrics mentioning being lonely. The third and final Meek number one would be 'Have I The Right', a hit right in the middle of the beat-boom. With those floorboards well and truly stomped, with a female drummer that directly inspired Karen Carpenter to take up the drums, The Honeycombs were a great act that unfortunately failed to repeat their intial Meek produced success.
Meek was no musician and would hum his melodies whilst stamping his feet in order to record and cut his own acetate demos. These were then given to often trusted Meek musicians ( Richie Blackmore was a member of a Meek house band ) to transcribe to the other session players. Meek composed a lot of his earlier hits with Geoff Goddard with whom he shared an interest in the occult, in Buddy Holly and in outer-space. Several goddard co-composed tunes are now rightly hailed as classics, yet for bands like The Honeycombs, Meeks lack of access to top singer/songwriters would see him relying on second or third rate compositions, musicians and acts. Meek believed enough in his own abilities that he felt he could turn anything into hit material. Pre-dating American-Idol/X-Factor by decades, his attempt at turning Heinz, The Tornados uniquely untalented bass-player, into a massive star met with only partial success. Heinz had a big hit with the Eddy Cochran tribute 'Just Like Eddy', a couple of strong selling follow-up singles and EPs, yet would soon fade from the music chart radar. On the other-hand with a succession of bad luck, poor distribution and lack of funds, the talented female singer Glenda Collins would fail to have a single hit single, despite the obvious quality of her Meek produced efforts. Between 1956 and 1967, Meek was responsible for over 300 records, most of them recorded, written and produced in his flat on Holloway road. He would live, eat and breathe music, recording pretty much every single day. In addition to those 300 records, much more material was recorded. Acts such as David Bowie, Tom Jones among others. Well, there are by now infamous 'tea-chests' kept under wraps containing dozens of tapes that one day may reveal early Bowie meek-produced cuts. Who knows, maybe The Beatles?
February 3rd 1967, Meek took a shotgun and summoned his long suffering landlady upstairs and blasted her to death before turning the gun on himself. All the funds from 'Telstar' were held up in a court case, it claimed Meek had stolen the melody. By the time the case was settled in his favour, it was all too late. By 1967 Meek was facing eviction, facing financial ruin although with an offer on the table from EMI to become one of their in-house producers. He felt the walls closing in on every front, feared he would be held up over a then recent and unrelated homosexual murder. No doubt his mind wandered back to his first four years on this earth, brought up by his mother as a girl. A fascination with radios and record players, which he'd take apart led to him building his own electronics and becoming a budding DJ around his local area. Taken on by IBC studios as an engineer circa 1953, he learned the ropes. Joe would try to stamp his own personality and sounds on recordings whether the studio and artists wanted him to, or not. Often termed the first ever concept LP, his 1960 effort 'I Hear A New World' was pressed as a stereo-demonstration disc. Never actually released until 1991, it has since been hailed as a visionary classic, inspiring many different artists, electronic act Orbital among them. Kind of like a brother to Aphex Twin forty years too early.
Despite comments Meek never progressed with the times once The Beatles swept all before them, recordings Meek made 1964-1966 showed he had a growing knack for recording beat-music after all. The likes of the sizzling, barely containable frenzy of The Syndicats 'Crawdaddy Simone' effectively predated acid, garage and psychedelic punk by a good two/three years. Nobody much noticed at the time. For a man perceived as being square and out of fasion, for a growing cult to surround his life and work is fascinating. At a time where the perceived cannon of classic rock and pop music is seemingly fixed in stone and you almost have to mention The Beatles somewhere in any conversation concerning the Sixties, more and more youngsters are turning to the weird and out-there music of Joe Meek for what they perceive to be a more authentic, alternative view of The Sixties.
Recommended recordings? Well, I recently placed all of the Meek related material i've acquired on my computer as MP3. Although many tracks are repeated, it turns out I have over 800 Meek MP3's in my possession. Some of the material he produced is quite frankly terrible, but an awful lot of it qualifies as being among the finest music recorded during the finest decade for music, the 60s. Here's a quick list of a few major Meek produced efforts for you all to track down. Many of the names may not exactly be familiar to you. Let the journey of Meek discovery commence, and I envy you that.
1 Telstar - The Tornadoes
2 Johnny Remember Me - John Leyton
3 Have I The Right - The Honeycombs
4 Just Like Eddie - Heinz
5 Ridin The Wind - The Tornadoes
6 I Hear A New World - The Blue Men
7 Night Of The Vampire - The Moontrekkers
8 Something I've Got To Tell You - Glenda Collins
9 North Wind - Houston Wells
10 Love Dance Of The Saroos - The Blue Men
11 Little Baby - The Blue Rondos
12 Lost Planet - The Thunderbolts
13 You're Holding Me Down - Buzz
14 Crawdaddy Simone - Syndicats
15 It's Hard To Believe It - Glenda Collins
16 Evening In Paris - Packabeats
17 My Little Baby - Mike Berry
18 Jungle Fever - The Tornadoes
19 I Lost My Heart At The Fairground - Glenda Collins
20 I Love To See You Strut - John, David & The Mood
21 Hangover - Fabulous Flee-Rekkers
22 Bring It To Jerome - John, David & The Mood