Who Is Joe Meek?
Before a music producer was viewed in the way that they are today, they were simply a technician working on a salary for a recording studio. That all changed with Joe Meek. His renegade style of production combined with songwriting, arrangement, and far out imagination made him one of the most important and unique figures in the British music industry.
How Did Joe Meek Start?
Born in Gloucestershire in 1929, Meek’s early years were spent tinkering with electronics and circuitry, being said to have constructed one of the first working televisions in the region. He was always fascinated with sounds and building his own devices, and during his National Service he worked as a radar mechanic, sparking his interest in space. This was a theme that would remain with him throughout his life and which was key to his musical success.
In 1954 Joe Meek arrived in London and managed to get a job as a sound engineer for a radio and music shop, before moving on to working in Lansdowne Recording Studios. It was here that he began to keep a box of items under his desk that he discovered could make strange and interesting sounds for use on recordings. Meek eventually grew frustrated with working for a large recording studio, as he was primarily employed to work on music in a regular fashion and produce by the book, but his interest and temperament was to experiment and create interesting sounding records by breaking the rules.
Where Was Joe Meek’s Studio?
This led to him taking up residence at a flat in 304 Holloway Road, where he built a studio in his living room and began to record and produce bands there. This kind of setup was unheard of at the time, as most studios were tightly controlled environments run by businessmen who employed men in white coats to use precise equipment. Joe Meek’s studio set-up was very much improvised, and his unorthodox methods included recording singers from his bathroom instead of using an echo chamber to achieve a reverb effect, one of the hallmarks of his production style. Other methods invented by Meek included having a band stomp their feet on the floor to create a beat he could record, dropping a microphone in the bath and stamping on the floor outside, and having musicians drop marbles in the toilet to achieve otherworldly sounds. Many of Joe Meek’s devices were also built by himself out of unusual objects, including a box that was later found to incorporate a spring from a piece of garden machinery.
What Made Joe Meek a Great Producer?
The sounds that Joe Meek was making, and his fascination with outer space, began to become more relevant as the world became gripped by the space race and the launching of satellites such as Sputnik. His most successful record followed this formula, and was named “Telstar”, after the satellite of the same name launched in 1962, broadcasting the first television signal that reached across the Atlantic. “Telstar” was an instrumental record performed by Joe Meek’s house band, The Tornados, and the tune for it was said to have come to Meek in a dream. Meek composed the song along with his writing partner Geoff Goddard, and it became a number 1 hit in both the USA and the UK, the first single by a British group to do so.
Despite the record’s excellent performance, Meek was prevented from receiving royalties from the recording due to a lawsuit claiming copyright theft from a French composer that was ongoing until it was dismissed after Meek’s death in 1967. This, along with personal struggles including his hidden homosexuality, which was then a criminal offence in the UK, led to turmoil throughout Meek’s life. Financial troubles put Joe Meek in heavy debt which led to much of his studio being dismantled, and in 1967 his mental state deteriorated to a desperate point.
Joe Meek’s Death and Legacy
One evening, when his landlady came in to speak to him, Meek was so paranoid that he picked up a shotgun he kept in his room, usually used to scare musicians and people when he was angry with them. A turn of events led to Meek shooting his landlady and then committing suicide with the same shotgun.
Despite his tragic life and death, Joe Meek led a fascinating career and changed the way that music was made and thought about. Musicians that worked with Joe Meek include David Bowie, Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple, Chas Hodges of Chas and Dave, session musician Clem Cattini, Tom Jones, Gene Vincent and countless others.