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By Brian Palmer
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By Lauren Wise
Think the rock pantheon's already overcrowded with mad musical geniuses, do you? Well, make way for England's Joe Meek--the late, great Sixties record producer who merits an entire mental ward all for himself.
Because he was highly eccentric and specialized in over-the-top production techniques, Meek is typically compared to his more famous American contemporary, Phil Spector (who produced recordings by the Righteous Brothers and the Beatles, among others). In reality, however, the two producers are light-years apart. Spector worked in the finest recording studios, surrounded by topnotch sound engineers. Joe Meek labored alone in his cramped home studio, twiddling knobs on his antiquated equipment in such a manic frenzy that he didn't even use a chair for most sessions.
And while both men's productions often eclipsed the very singers they were supposed to showcase, the Spector touch was usually applied to artists who were already successful. Meek mostly cut sides with talent-show rejects no one in his right mind would offer a recording contract, and still managed to score incredible hits.
Furthermore, while Spector's work favored typical teen-pan-alley love themes, Meek was far less conventional, celebrating man's rush to leave this Earth for the heavens--whether it be in a rocket ship or a big black coffin. No one made weirder space recordings or more heartfelt death discs than Joe Meek, so it's no surprise that his own demise was dramatic and more than a little spaced-out.
On February 3, 1967--eight years to the day that Meek's idol Buddy Holly perished in an airplane crash--a crazed Joe took his shotgun and opened fire on his landlady. After sending her lifeless body spiraling down a flight of stairs (without the last month's rent), he turned the weapon around and, blasting his own face off, became the only rock 'n' roll suicide ever to take a hostage.
Prior to his untidy demise, Meek was a hotly contested suspect in another grisly murder, this one involving a dismembered youth found in several suitcases left strewn about the British countryside.
But even if you weren't privy to all the macabre details of Meek's bleak personal life, one listen to It's Hard to Believe It: The Amazing World of Joe Meek (Razor & Tie) should convince you that true dementia was at work.
The recently released overview was compiled and annotated by Dennis Diken, better known to many as the drummer for the Smithereens. Diken was initially drawn to Meek through "Telstar," the Tornadoes' classic instrumental from 1962 which the pop vanguard wrote and produced to commemorate America's then-newly launched first communications satellite.
"'Telstar' was and still is a riveting record," remembers Diken in a phone interview. "It kinda scared me, too," says Diken, who was 5 years old when the hit came out. "Joe was an eerie guy and he was able to translate that onto his recordings."
It lost something in the eerie translation for the Tornadoes, who, after first hearing all the male voices and harps Meek overdubbed on the track, denounced the results as "crap."
Nonetheless, the Tornadoes and their "crap" soared all the way to No. 1 in the United States, boldly going where no British group had gone before and staying there for three weeks. It would be a full year before a certain other British group with mop tops would stick the Union Jack atop a U.S. Billboard chart.
It wouldn't be the last time Meek beat the Beatles to uncharted territory. Many of the innovations credited to the Fab Four--and their producer George Martin--turn up in Meek's work years earlier. For the distinctive blastoff sound effects heard in "Telstar," Meek recorded a toilet flushing and played it backward, four years before the Beatles' Bside "Rain" popularized backward tracking.
And while "I Feel Fine" is said to capture the first deliberate use of feedback on a pop record, Meek clearly uses feedback on his little-heard 1960 meisterwork I Hear a New World.
Initially conceived as a stereo-demonstration disc, I Hear a New World duly demonstrated what music from outer planets might sound like. Yessir, Meek was psychedelic before there was such a word, treating the few who heard New World to stereo panning, distortion, extraterrestrial roller-rink organs and out-of-tune tack pianos seven years before Hendrix and Pink Floyd made such devices commonplace.
There is a strong possibility that Meek once worked with George Martin at IBC Studios as an engineer. A BBC documentary on Meek cites "Bad Penny Blues," recorded by the Humphrey Lyttleton Band in 1956, as being the first significant Meek production for its astonishingly loud drum sound. Yet author Mark Lewison claims in his book TheBeatles Sessions that "Bad Penny Blues" was produced by Martin, while noting the intro was nicked by the Beatles for later use on "Lady Madonna." Lyttleton, interviewed in the BBC documentary, makes no reference to Martin whatsoever. Not long after "Bad Penny Blues" became a hit, Meek left behind the sterile British recording-studio regimen that demanded engineers wear white lab coats and became Britain's first independent producer, a step Martin dared take only after he had two years of Beatles success under his belt.
Meek was riding high in 1962, when a desperate Brian Epstein played him the Beatles' Decca audition tapes that everyone else in London had already passed on. "There's a reference in the CD booklet that Meek dismissed the Beatles as 'matchbox music,' but he did have serious talks with Epstein about producing them," says Diken.