Joe Meek was born Robert George Meek on 5 April 1929 and died on 3 February 1967 in London. Joe Meek was a pioneering English record producer and songwriter acknowledged as 1 of the world’s 1st and most imaginative independent producers.
Joe Meek’s most famous work was The Tornados’ hit “Telstar” (1962), which became the 1st record by a British group to hit #1 in the US Hot 100. It also spent 5 weeks atop the UK singles chart, with Joe Meek receiving an Ivor Novello Award for this production as the “Best-Selling A-Side” of 1962.
Joe Meek’s other notable hit productions 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 and “Have I the Right?” by The Honeycombs, “Tribute to Buddy Holly” by Mike Berry. Joe Meek’s concept album I Hear a New World is regarded as a watershed in modern music for its innovative use of electronic sounds.
Joe Meek was also producing music for films, most notably Live It Up! (US title Sing and Swing), a 1963 pop music film starring Heinz Burt, David Hemmings and Steve Marriott, also featuring Gene Vincent, Jenny Moss, The Outlaws, Kim Roberts, Kenny Ball, Patsy Ann Noble and others. Joe Meek wrote most of the songs and incidental music, much of which was recorded by The Saints and produced by Joe Meek.
Joe Meek’s commercial success as a producer was short-lived and Joe Meek gradually sank into debt and depression. On 3 February 1967, using a shotgun owned by musician Heinz Burt, Joe Meek murdered his landlady before turning the gun on himself. Aged only 37, he died 8 years to the day after his hero, Buddy Holly.
A stint in the Royal Air Force as a radar operator spurred a life-long interest in electronics and outer space. From 1953 he worked for the Midlands Electricity Board. Joe Meek used the resources of his company to develop his interest in electronics and music production, including acquiring a disc cutter and producing his 1st record.
Joe Meek left the electricity board to work as a sound engineer for a leading independent radio production company that made programmes for Radio Luxembourg, and made his breakthrough with his work on Ivy Benson’s Music for Lonely Lovers. Joe Meek’s technical ingenuity was 1st shown on the Humphrey Lyttelton jazz single “Bad Penny Blues” (Parlophone Records, 1956) when, contrary to Humphrey Lyttleton’s wishes, he ‘modified’ the sound of the piano and compressed the sound to a greater than normal extent. The record became a hit. Joe Meek then put enormous effort into Dennis Preston’s Landsdowne Studio but tensions between Dennis Preston and Joe Meek soon saw Joe Meek forced out.
In January 1960, together with William Barrington-Coupe, Joe Meek founded Triumph Records. The label very nearly had a #1 hit with Joe Meek’s production of Angela Jones by Michael Cox. Michael Cox was one of the featured singers on Jack Good’s TV music show Boy Meets Girls and the song was given massive promotion. Unfortunately, Triumph Records, being an independent label, was at the mercy of small pressing plants, who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) keep up with sales demands. The record made a respectable appearance in the Top Ten, but it proved that Joe Meek needed the muscle of the major companies to get his records into the shops when it mattered.
Despite an interesting catalogue of Joe Meek productions, indifferent business results and Joe Meek proving difficult to work with eventually led to the label’s demise. Joe Meek would later license many of the Triumph recordings to labels such as Top Rank and Pye.
That year Joe Meek conceived, wrote and produced an “Outer Space Music Fantasy”‘ concept album I Hear A New World with a band called Rod Freeman & The Blue Men. The album was shelved for decades, apart from some EP tracks taken from it.
Joe Meek went on to set up his own production company known as RGM Sound Ltd (later Meeksville Sound Ltd) with toy importer, ‘Major’ Wilfred Alonzo Banks as his financial backer. Joe Meek operated from his now-legendary home studio which he constructed at 304 Holloway Road, Islington, a 3-floor flat above a leather-goods store (currently empty).
Joe Meeks’ 1st hit from Holloway Road was a UK #1 smash: John Leyton’s Johnny Remember Me (1961). This memorable “death ditty” was cleverly promoted by John Leyton’s manager, expatriate Australian entrepreneur Robert Stigwood. Robert Stigwood was able to get John Leyton to perform the song in several episodes of the popular TV soap opera Harpers West One in which he was making a series of guest appearances. Joe Meek’s 3rd UK #1 and last major success was with The Honeycombs’ Have I The Right? in 1964, which also became a No.5 hit on the American Billboard pop charts. The success of John Leyton’s recordings was instrumental in establishing Robert Stigwood and Joe Meek as 2 of Britain’s 1st independent record producers.
When his landlords, who lived downstairs, felt that the noise was too much, they would indicate so with a broom on the ceiling. Joe Meek would signal his contempt by placing loudspeakers in the stairwell and turning up the volume.
A blue plaque has since been placed at the location of the studio to commemorate Joe Meek’s life and work.
Joe Meek was obsessed with the occult and the idea of “the other side”. Joe Meek would set up tape machines in graveyards in a vain attempt to record voices from beyond the grave, in one instance capturing the meows of a cat he claimed was speaking in human tones, asking for help. In particular, he had an obsession with Buddy Holly (claiming the late American rocker had communicated with him in dreams) and other dead rock and roll musicians.
Joe Meek’s professional efforts were often hindered by his paranoia (Joe Meek was convinced that Decca Records would put hidden microphones behind his wallpaper in order to steal his ideas), drug use and attacks of rage or depression. Upon receiving an apparently innocent phone call from Phil Spector, Joe Meek immediately accused Phil Spector of stealing his ideas before hanging up angrily.
Joe Meek’s homosexuality – illegal in the UK at the time – put him under further pressure; he had been charged with “importuning for immoral purposes” in 1963 and was consequently subjected to blackmail. In January of 1967, police in Tattingstone, Suffolk, discovered a suitcase containing the mutilated body of Bernard Oliver, an alleged rent boy who had previously associated with Joe Meek. According to some accounts, Joe Meek became concerned that he would be implicated in the murder investigation when the Metropolitan police stated that they would be interviewing all known homosexuals in the city.
In the meantime, the hits had dried up and as Joe Meek’s financial position became increasingly desperate, his depression deepened. On 3 February, 1967, the 8th anniversary of Buddy Holly’s death, Joe Meek killed his landlady Violet Shenton and then himself with a single barreled shotgun that he had confiscated from his protegé, former Tornados bassist and solo star Heinz Burt at his Holloway Road home/studio. Joe Meek had flown into a rage and taken the gun from Heinz Burt when he informed Joe Meek that he used it while on tour to shoot birds. Joe Meek had kept the gun under his bed, along with some cartridges. As the shotgun had been registered to Heinz Burt, he was questioned intensively by police, before being eliminated from their enquiries.
Joe Meek was subsequently buried in plot 99 at Newent Cemetery in Newent, Gloucestershire. Joe Meek’s black granite tombstone can be found near the middle of the cemetery.
Despite not being able to play a musical instrument or write notation, Joe Meek displayed a remarkable facility for writing and producing successful commercial recordings. In writing songs he was reliant on musicians such as Dave Adams, Geoff Goddard or Charles Blackwell to transcribe melodies from his vocal “demos”. Joe Meek worked on 245 singles, of which 45 were major hits (top 50 or better).
Joe Meek pioneered studio tools such as multiple over-dubbing on 1 and 2 track machines, close miking, direct input of bass guitars, the compressor, and effects like echo and reverb, as well as sampling. Unlike other producers, his search was for the ‘right’ sound rather than for a catchy musical tune, and throughout his brief career he single-mindedly followed his quest to create a unique “sonic signature” for every record he produced.
At a time when many studio engineers were still wearing white coats and assiduously trying to maintain clarity and fidelity, Joe Meek, the maverick, was producing everything on the 3 floors of his “home” studio and was never afraid to distort or manipulate the sound if it created the effect he was seeking. For Johnny Remember Me he placed the violins on the stairs, the drummer almost in the bathroom, and the brass section on a different floor entirely.
Joe Meek was 1 of the 1st producers to grasp and fully exploit the possibilities of the modern recording studio. Joe Meek’s innovative techniques — physically separating instruments, treating instruments and voices with echo and reverb, processing the sound through his fabled home-made electronic devices, the combining of separately-recorded performances and segments into a painstakingly constructed composite recording — comprised a major breakthrough in sound production. Up to that time, the standard technique for pop, jazz and classical recordings alike was to record all the performers in one studio, playing together in real time, a legacy of the days before magnetic tape, when performances were literally cut live, directly onto disc.
Joe Meek’s style was also substantially different from that of his contemporary Phil Spector, who typically created his famous “Wall of sound” productions by making live recordings of large ensembles that used multiples of major instruments like bass, guitar and piano to create the complex sonic backgrounds for his singers.
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