Joe Meek, photo by John Pratt/Keystone Features/Getty Images
Joe Meek wasn’t like his brothers. While they played outdoors in the English countryside, Joe stayed inside, cooking, cleaning and tinkering with radios. He went on to become one of the most influential music producers of the 20th century, pioneering the techniques of overdubbing, spring reverb and tape loops, producing hundreds of songs and creating a sound that defined the British invasion. His groundbreaking 1960 album I Hear a New World: An Outer Space Fantasy predicted not only a future whose music looked to outer space for inspiration but a music world that was producer-driven in an entirely new way. Meek's technical influence can be heard today in the music of Beck, Kanye West, FKA twigs and Dan Deacon, while his thematic influence can be heard in any music preoccupied with the extraterrestrial or the occult, from the B52’s to Grimes.
“Before Joe Meek—in the pop world—it was really about sonic purity, perfection,” Irwin Chusid, author of the book Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music, told me. “Even early rock and roll. You listen to early Elvis, Eddie Cochrane records: They’re well-recorded, you hear the instruments, everything is clear. They didn’t want distortion. Along comes Joe Meek, and there’s this compulsion on his part to over-compress signal, to distort, pinning that VU meter deep into the red.”
Joe Meek was different in other ways, too. He was gay at a time when homosexual acts were outlawed in England. And he suffered from manias and delusions at a time when mental illness was stigmatized and difficult to treat. At age 37, after a string of legal and financial woes, he shot and killed his landlady and then himself.
Despite his far-reaching influence and tragic life story, Meek’s legacy remains largely unknown outside the purview of music geeks. I discovered Joe Meek’s life and work only recently, after my friend John introduced me to I Hear a New World. The album is at once kitschily retro-futuristic and hauntingly contemporary. It imagines a fully realized extraterrestrial realm and puts production at the core of the music-making process. I sometimes feel as if there is no truly different music left for me to explore, but I’ve never heard anything like that album.
Joe Meek was born Robert George Meek on April 5, 1929, to a family of farmers in the small town of Newent, Gloucestershire. At the age of 18, he left home to join the Royal Air Force, where he worked as a radar mechanic. After his military service, he moved to London, where he worked first at Stones record store, then as an assistant engineer at a series of recording studios, including IBC and Lansdowne.
At the studios, he worked with popular musicians. But Meek—who was independent, perfectionistic, and prone to mood swings—chafed in his assistant position, under the studio’s strict protocols. He seemed to see himself as a musical auteur, micromanaging every detail of the songs he engineered.
“The idea of a sound engineer not doing what you tell him, but actually twiddling the knobs and distorting things—that was a totally new world for me,” jazz trumpeter Humphrey Lyttleton, who recorded with Meek at IBC in 1956, said in Songs in the Key of Z.
In the late 50s, Meek was already developing some of his signature techniques. For singer Anne Shelton’s 1956 single “Lay Down Your Arms,” he recreated the sound of a marching battalion by rhythmically shaking a box filled with gravel.
“Joe had this ‘garbage sound’ that still retained commercial appeal,” Chusid said. “I think he proved that his sounds could sell records. People liked it. You’re not worried about perfection. If something is distorted, if something is overplayed, it’s all fine. Joe Meek paved the way for a ‘trashier’ sonic aesthetic.”
Meek was highly protective of his unorthodox sounds. He designed and built a spring reverb to create both an echo effect and dissonant feedback in his recordings. He kept his special creation locked away, like a musical Pandora’s box. He mastered a signature bass drum sound by stomping forcefully on the floor in time with the music. These sounds would later epitomize garage rock, punk, and grunge. He used overdubbing and tape loops years before those techniques became mainstays in dub, hip-hop, and electronica.
In 1960, after an argument with other engineers, Joe Meek quit his job at Lansdowne Studios and struck out on his own. Armed with a roster of industry connections, he recorded out of a studio at 304 Holloway Road, where he also lived.
That same year, Meek founded Triumph Records, a small label that folded in just a few months. But that was enough time for him to compose, produce, and record the album I Hear a New World: An Outer Space Music Fantasy, performed by the band the Blue Men. With complete creative control, Meek was able to explore his lifelong obsession with outer space. The mostly instrumental album varies wildly in style, from the demented marching and pitched-up vocals of “Entry of the Globbots” to the theremin-tinged surf rock of “Love Dance of the Saroos.” Despite its stylistic variances, I Hear a New World is a relatively cohesive concept album, sonically illustrating the lives and interactions of various outer space denizens more than half a decade before cultural touchstones like Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Star Trek. Only 99 copies of I Hear a New World were made, and the album was all but forgotten until it was released on RPM Records in 1991 and then reissued on PoppyDisc in 2013.
The weirdness of Meek’s music was tempered when he worked with clients. But at 304 Holloway Road, Meek was free to fully pursue his “garbage” sound: dirty yet highly engineered, haunted yet futuristic, and always melodic with a driving rhythm. Such a style can be heard on John Leyton’s 1961 single “Johnny Remember Me,” a driving, droning ballad about a teenage boy communicating with the ghost of his dead lover.
Such subject matter—while unusual for a pop song—was Joe Meek’s bread and butter. He was obsessed with the occult. He used Ouija boards and tarot cards, and he held seances at his studio to communicate with the ghost of Buddy Holly, believing that the deceased rock star was guiding his career. Later, Meek would bring his tape recorder to graveyards, attempting to capture the voices of spirits. On one tape, he recorded the meows of a cat he believed to be possessed.
Photo by John Pratt/Keystone Features/Getty Images
Meek was, by most accounts, a difficult personality to work with. He once threatened drummer Mitch Mitchell at gunpoint for not playing a beat correctly.
“He most certainly had some kind of schizophrenic condition,” keyboardist Dave Adams, who worked with Meek on the Tornados’ hit “Telstar,” said in Songs in the Key of Z. “You’d be talking to him one moment, then turn away and come back, and he was a completely different person. I always referred to his alter ego as ‘Robert Meek.’ ‘Robert’ was this bad person, and ‘Joe’ was this nice person.”
Inspired by an American satellite launched into orbit the same year, “Telstar,” released in 1962, was Meek's most famous hit. Meek wrote, produced, and mixed the song for the British instrumental group.
“‘Telstar’ was the first record I bought,” Chusid told me. “‘Telstar’ was something that changed my way of hearing things.”
The song seems to drone and swirl electronically into outer space, forging a new path into the future. “Telstar” is full of overdubbed recordings, including a melody played on a Clavioline, an early electronic keyboard, and the sound of a “rocket” blasting off, which was rumored to be a tape of a flushing toilet played backwards. The unusual song was recently revived for extradiegetic scoring during the second season of Mad Men, playing as Don boards a plane to an uncertain future in Los Angeles. “Telstar” hit number one on the UK Singles Chart as well as number one on the Billboard Hot 100, selling 5 million singles between 1962 and 1963.
Joe Meek always paid extra attention to the handsome musicians in his studio, often asking them to stay late with him to work on overdubbing. Heinz Burt, the Tornados’ bassist, was no exception. But Meek was unusually successful with his passes at Burt, convincing the young musician that he would become a star if he bleached his hair, shortened his named to Heinz, and moved in with him. Like all of his projects, Joe attempted to control every detail of Heinz’s planned rise to stardom. But Heinz only had one hit, 1963’s “Just Like Eddie”: an ode to Eddie Cochrane, who died in a car accident in 1960.
“The reason Joe didn’t have greater commercial appeal had nothing to do with his recording techniques but had everything to do with the inferior quality of the singers, the songwriting, and the lyrics in a lot of his songs,” said Chusid. “If Joe Meek had better quality material, he would have had more hits.”
Many of the artists Meek was drawn toward were unusual, like Screaming Lord Sutch & the Savages. The Savages sported ripped leopard skin costumes and were fronted by the titular Lord Sutch, an Alice Cooper-like figure who donned white pancake makeup, howled like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and sang about monsters and serial killers. Meek produced Sutch’s 1963 hit “Jack the Ripper” for Decca, as well as his 1964 single “Dracula’s Daughter.” Both their stage presence and their sound is a direct predecessor to the Cramps’ warped take on rockabilly, as well as a more general acceptance of macabre themes melded with pop melodies.
Joe Meek’s life was thrown into a tailspin in 1963, when he was arrested for soliciting gay sex in a public restroom. Meek worried that scandal would affect both his career and his relationship with his family. But even before his arrest, his sexuality was hardly a secret.
“He had a terrible reputation as a raging old queen,” said singer Jonathan King in the 1991 BBC documentary Arena: The Strange Story of Joe Meek.
The Tornados’ 1966 song “Do You Come Here Often” is a shockingly frank depiction of gay cruising for the era. The mostly instrumental organ song is musically forgettable. But listen long enough, and sandwiched in the center is a dialogue between two gay men (written by Meek), ostensibly in the bathroom of a club. And while not an element of sexual queerness, Meek’s oeuvre was heavily camp, with its focus on the extraterrestrial and the macabre through a theatrical lens.
Around the time of his arrest, Meek was already beset by legal and financial problems. He was embroiled in a lawsuit over “Telstar” with the the French composer Jean Ledrut, who claimed Meek had stolen the melody of “Telstar” from his song “La Marche d'Austerlitz.” Because of the dispute, Meek could not receive royalties for the hit, and his work was slowing to a trickle. He did have one last big hit in 1964 with the Honeycombs’ “Have I the Right,” which he produced. But it wasn’t enough. His debts were mounting.
In this context, he became increasingly paranoid. He believed that record companies were conspiring to steal his ideas. At one point, he was convinced that songwriters had bugged his flat.
“No one should be left in the office alone, even if you think they can be completely trusted or are friends of mine,” Meek wrote in a note to his studio assistant, Patrick Pink.
While Meek was delusional, he wasn’t entirely wrong about the deviousness of the record companies. The cutthroat industry was dominated by large corporations. Meek ran, in effect, an indie recording studio before there was a word for such a concept.
“The major record companies decided that they didn’t want small operators and so they did their best to squash us,” Meek said in an early 1960s BBC interview.
On February 3, 1967, Meek got in a fight with Patrick Pink. Violet Shenton, the landlady, heard the disturbance and went upstairs to speak with Joe. She found him agitated in his bedroom. Pink heard the first gunshot, and saw Mrs. Shenton collapse dead on the staircase. Then he heard the second shot. Joe Meek killed himself eight years to the date after the death of his idol Buddy Holly. He was 37.
“I hear a new world, calling me, so strange and so real, haunting me,” the Blue Men sing on I Hear a New World. Joe Meek heard a new world in outer space, beyond the grave and in the avant garde. He forged a path forward, with his music, his sexuality and his mind, allowing others to follow. But like many so explorers, he was swallowed by the strange terrain.
Colette Shade is somewhere in outer space, chilling with the Globbots. Follow her on Twitter.