Joe Meek is considered the UK’s first independent pop record producer.
Among the thousands of tracks Meek recorded at his small apartment studio in North London from 1960-1967, the apex by far was TELSTAR, a multi-national No.1 instrumental hit that he also composed, in 1962. Half a century later, Joe Meek’s contribution to music, previously forgotten (and done no favors by several projects both narrative and documentary that continue to blur, omit or outright misrepresent facts), is finally being recognized and respected. He has become a figurehead amongst the DIY music revolutionaries — a veritable poster child for rule breaking innovation in recording sound.
Born the eldest son to a hard-working English farming family in 1929, everyone knew that Joe Meek was different from an early age. While his rough-edged brothers enjoyed toiling in the orchards and fields with their father, the more sensitive Joe preferred the company of his schoolteacher mother and soon revealed a deep love of music and an intuitive ability and compulsion to create records. Young Joe was an avid ‘tinkerer’ – recording and cutting discs in his backyard shed, DJ-ing local dance halls, creating sound effects and music for plays and crafting the first television set available in his hometown of Newent.
As Joe reached early adulthood, he left his rural home and headed for London. Here, his obvious talent landed him a job at a major recording studio – IBC — and that’s where a buried, but crucial history of modern pop music began.
Joe quickly became one of the UK’s most popular engineers – in demand with the top pop artists of the day like Petula Clark, Shirley Bassey and Cilla Black. His rise to prominence coincided with his need for more control and the development of a manner and method of recording that broke every rule in the rigid studio guidebook. After a series of ferocious ego battles with studio heads (despite continuously providing hit tracks), Joe struck out on his own. First came the opportunity to design and run Lansdowne studios (where most of the early James Bond scores were recorded) – this was an innovative design that led to the studio’s attached moniker: “The House Of Shattering Glass”. After clashes at this studio, Joe had the good opportunity to go completely independent.
The sale of one of his song compositions to equally innovative US producer/guitarist Les Paul (Joe’s personal production idol who immediately had a hit with the tune), enabled Meek to form a recording studio at 304 Holloway Road — an unsightly and unlikely residence in a rough area of London — and with little concern for the polish and pomp of major recording studios like EMI or Lansdowne.
Joe cared only about the nature and quality of the sound being recorded and the psychology of a new, younger record-buying audience whose tastes and needs were being virtually ignored by the major studios.
To augment his brave and comparatively experimental approach to recording, Joe surrounded himself with youthful session musicians who were able to exercise a stylistic freedom in their playing (while at his studio) that was discouraged at the majors. This freedom gave artists like guitarists Jimmy Page (Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin), Steve Howe (Yes, Asia), Ritchie Blackmore (Deep Purple, Rainbow), Big Jim Sullivan (Tom Jones band), Chas Hodges (Chas & Dave) a rare opportunity to hone their individual styles and sounds — sounds that Joe further tinkered with and transformed electronically — after-hours and behind closed doors — into #1 chart-topping hits. (Page himself admitted to us that there are specific Led Zeppelin tracks whose production was directly influenced by what he learned from his servitude at Joe Meek’s studio).
This was a remarkable time. The artists were going in and out of 304 like there was a revolving door. Joe was licensing these tracks to labels like Decca and Pye and they were charting – and with incredible success. Joe’s penchant for catchy, kitschy pop tunes were just the ticket for an early ’60′s teen market. Singers like John Leyton (actually a popular young actor who moved on to breakout Hollywood and UK productions like THE GREAT ESCAPE, GUNS AT BATASI, VON RYAN’S EXPRESS and KRAKATOA, EAST OF JAVA), Mike Berry, Glenda Collins (the UK’s Lesley Gore) and his instrumental bands like The Moontrekkers, The Outlaws (featuring prolific UK trad-jazz and rock session drummer Bobby Graham) and The Tornados (whose drummer, Clem Cattini, has beat on over 46 UK no.1 tracks) were all phenomenally successful under Joe’s production and song-writing guidance.
With these recordings, Joe pushed the very limits of imagination, innovating such techniques as close miking instruments, dampening a bass drum with blankets, direct injecting electric guitars, using compression aberrations (pumping and breathing) like an instrument, blowing the EQ high into the red as a practice of embracing artifact noise and rhythms, and the incorporation of sound effects that painted a wide array of atmospheres and aural landscapes.
These wonderful and wild years of experimentation culminated with the breakaway instrumental hit, TELSTAR. Joe’s masterpiece became number 1 in nearly every major record-buying country in the world. This wünder-track by The Tornados bears additional distinction of being the very first No. 1 by a British band in the United States (one year before The Beatles). TELSTAR has been covered innumerable times since its debut in 1962 (it may very well be the most “covered” song in pop history) and garnered another hit for the US surf-guitar gods The Ventures. A prestigious Ivor Novello award for Joe soon followed.
Joe’s workaholism never flagged for a second, but his popularity alerted the major studios — and by maneuvering against Joe’s independence — were able to put a squeeze on his released output. This along with his dependence on pills and increasing paranoia may have contributed to his tragic end on February 3, 1967, when for unknown reasons, he shot and killed his landlady and himself.
Despite the tragic end – deemed a murder/suicide by police without much of an investigation – despite a myriad of personal eccentricities (he was deeply involved with the occult — even to the point of contacting the spirit of Buddy Holly to predict whether a tribute song to the late idol would make no.1, which it did), character issues (he was extremely volatile – possibly due to being an undiagnosed bipolar and slept perhaps one day a week for months at a time due to his obsessive work schedule) — and, for the time, controversial sexual preferences (he was gay when it was “illegal” to be so in the UK ) — Joe has emerged as an inspiration to those who create and sell their art on their own terms and at whatever the personal sacrifice.
Joe Meek embodies the notion of Independent Spirit and his story isn’t just biography — it’s representative of the ongoing struggle for success and acceptance that fuels each and every artist, no matter what medium they strive in.