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.
Rock music might have changed irrevocably had Epstein been just a trifle more patient. Imagine the stops and starts of "Love Me Do" punctuated with backward toilet-flushing! Or how bone-chilling the Beatles' stab at "A Taste of Honey" would've been in Meek's hands. No doubt he'd have splattered that recording with enough heavenly harps and female soprano voices looming in the background to make even Spector's overproduction of "The Long and Winding Road" seem subdued.
The Beatles weren't the only Meek rejects to ascend to British pop royalty. "Meek auditioned Rod Stewart's band the Moontrekkers," says Diken, "but he didn't like Rod's voice and subsequently only cut instrumentals with them!"
But who needs Rod the Mod when you've got rattling chains, moans, ghostly winds and a bloodcurdling scream from Meek himself on the Moontrekkers' 1961 rocky-horror showing, "Night of the Vampire." That cut also featured a disturbing reverb effect that no one would attempt to replicate until Pink Floyd used it on "See Emily Play" in 1967.
Horror of horrors, Meek also passed on David Bowie, who was in a band called the Conrads at the time. "But that might've been while Bowie was only playing sax," Diken points out in Meek's defense.
So who did Meek wind up signing? Aside from a pre-"It's Not Unusual" Tom Jones, primarily a bunch of oddballs you've probably never heard of, including a Jamaican bodybuilder named Ricky Wayne, and John Leyton, a singer/actor with the dubious distinction of appearing in both The Great Escape and Freddie and the Dreamers' unwatchable cinematic stinker, Seaside Swingers.
You want stars? Meek had a stable of what Diken calls "answer stars," or clones of already established performers such as Cilla Black (Pamela Blue), Screaming Jay Hawkins (Screaming Lord Sutch), the Shadows (the Outlaws) and Buddy Holly (Mike Berry). Meek pushed the Holly/Berry mimicry envelope to the maximum by recording "Tribute to Buddy Holly," a 1961 United Kingdom hit which accurately captures what it must've felt like for Buddy to leave his body behind in a plane wreck on that fatal winter's eve. After an instrumental break that reprises "Peggy Sue," Berry's heavily echoed voice breaks in like a bulletin from the Great Beyond to inform us that "Buddy Holly died in a plane crash in 1959, but his songs will always be remembered. Always."
In a word, weird.
"The whole British fascination with Buddy Holly has always been weird, too," adds Diken. Holly continued to have hits in Great Britain for years after his death. Yet Meek's morbid fascination with Holly began while the Lubbock, Texas, legend was still alive. Meek regularly consulted tarot cards to ascertain what Holly's next career move would be. Once, he stumbled across unsettling information that led him to believe Holly would die in a plane crash on February 3, 1958. That date passed without incident, and Meek told Holly about the gloomy prediction when the singer last toured England. One can only imagine Holly's horror at not only plummeting to his fiery doom in a charter plane, but also realizing in his last moments that some loony limey predicted his death to the day and merely got the year wrong--February 3, 1959! "Guess it doesn't matter anymore," jokes Diken.
Seances with the late singer abetted Meek's efforts to pick up where his dead idol left off. A later Meek/Berry recording, "My Baby Doll," hypothesizes what Holly would've sounded like if the orchestral strings Holly had been experimenting with before his death were applied to the more rocking earlier sound of the Crickets. In 1963, Meek launched a second dead-rock-star clone--the Eddie Cochran sound-alike Heinz--who scored a British Top 5 hit by sounding "Just Like Eddie."
While Meek could sculpt hits with crumbly clay like Berry and Heinz, he found stronger raw material in the Honeycombs. Quite a progressive unit for 1964, the group featured Ann "Honey" Lantree, the first preMaureen Tucker female rock timekeeper.
The group's lone U.S. hit, "Have I the Right?" (Meek's only other U.S. Top 40 showing besides "Telstar"), opened with the sound of marching, charging feet, igniting a lingering dispute among pop fanatics as to "who stomped first" on a pop record--the Honeycombs or the Dave Clark Five. According to Meeklore, someone from the DC5 camp was at the sessions for "Have I the Right?" and stole the idea for "Bits and Pieces." In any case, by the end of '64 and into '65, there was stomping everywhere, from the Nashville Teens' "Tobacco Road" to the Supremes' "Where Did Our Love Go," a trend which continued on through glitter (Slade's "Cum On Feel the Noize") and tartan rock (the Bay City Rollers' "Saturday Night") to punk (the Sex Pistols' "Holidays in the Sun," and "White Riot" by the Clash).
Regardless of who put the first boot down, by 1965 a new regime of British rockers had stamped out Meek's streak of hits. Despite a commercial morass and mounting personal problems, Meek continued to put out quality recordings, Diken says. "They only stopped coming when Joe put a gun to his head."
Meek's final year was torment-ridden. Diken runs down the litany of worldly woes: "He was a suspect in that murder case, there were gay bashers [Meek was openly homosexual] and thugs looking for protection money from him and, unable to get a hit anymore, he was having a tight cash crunch. A number of Joe's artists had falling-outs with him over money. There was an ongoing lawsuit from a French composer who claimed Meek plagiarized 'Telstar' from his obscure film score. Consequently, Meek never saw any writer's royalties for 'Telstar' in his lifetime. That really held him back. He would've been able to really advance his studio setup, and he was distraught over that."
As if that weren't enough, Meek was taking drugs, dabbling in black magic and hearing not-so-friendly voices in his head.
"During Joe's last recording session, he was so paranoid that his studio was being bugged and people were stealing his ideas, he wouldn't talk. He just kept writing notes to his assistant Patrick Pink and then burning them in the wastebasket," says Diken, laughing. "He told Pink, who he was recording, 'Don't even sing, just mime the lyrics into the mike.' He was fucking losing his brains. It's tragic, but it's pretty funny."
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Despite the tragedy, It's Hard to Believe It ends optimistically with the heavenly title track--Meek's attempt at "Eve of Destruction"-styled social criticism. Where Barry McGuire angrily railed, "You may leave here for four days in space, but when you return, it's the same old place," Meek can't seem to condemn space exploration completely. Glenda Collins, one of Meek's last discoveries, warns us warmongering earthlings with a righteous mixture of awe and disgust, "We're all in for a shock and soon, we'll find living creatures on the moon!" But anybody who'd read Meek's liner notes to IHear a New World, which foretold the existence of such curious lunar life forms as Saroos, Dribcots and Globbots, already knew that.
As Killer Joe's legend grows, so does the talk of bringing his tragic tale to the big screen. Certainly, it has enough lurid elements--great rock 'n' roll, homosexuality, swinging Sixties London, space travel, the occult and plenty o' violence--to make any Hollywood exec palpitate. Until then, Diken plans to take Meek's music to the public in other media, including live performance.
"We did a release party for the record, with an all-star band that included Marshall Crenshaw, myself and Richard Barone of the Bongos performing many tracks from the album. It was just a private thing. Now we've been asked to do a gig for the public in New York. Without knowing it, the date they offered us was February 3! Pretty wild, eh?"
Whatever you do, Dennis, don't fly to the show. Take the bus with the broken heater to New York if you must! And for Meek's sake, how about a volume two?