For those of us that grew up in the ‘60s, Joe Meek may be a familiar name. I would call him one of the truly innovate record producers / sound engineers Britain had.
As a youngster, Joe realised his love for electronics, taking over his father’s shed, modifying radio sets and making all sorts of electronic gear. After finishing National Service as a radar engineer, he worked for the Electricity Board in the Midlands. He had become very interested in music production and recording and managed to acquire a secondhand record disc cutting machine.
Joe left the Electric Board and joined a radio production company, making material for independent record labels and radio stations such as Luxemburg. He gained much admiration following his work on the recordings of the Ivy Benson’s all-girl dance band and Jazz Trumpeter Humphrey Littleton. Joe understood the importance of “engineering” the recordings. Remember, in the late ‘50s all we had were AM, Medium wave wireless sets and 78 rpm records. These had very limited frequency and dynamic ranges. So, to make the most of that, Meek compressed, topped-tailed the recordings, so that they sounded as good a possible. Humphrey Littleton recalled that on a recording of ‘Band Penny Blues’, Meek had compressed and uplifted the piano to give a big thumping presence. Littleton went mad, as recording was released without his hearing it first. He thought it didn’t sound original. However, it was a smash hit!
In 1960, Meek set up Triumph Records and eventually moved into a 3 storey flat above a leather shop in London’s Holloway Road. One room was a control room, with a lot of home-made recording equipment. 2 track tape machines, mixers, echo chambers, compressors etc. Other rooms contained various microphones and special effects gear. He would have piano and guitars in one room, drums and bass in others and some vocalists in his bathroom. Musicians often complained of getting electric shocks from microphones and guitars! Artists recording there included Lonnie Donegan (Cumberland gap), Johnny Leyton (Just Like Eddie), The Honeycombs (Have I the right) and of course The Tornados with Telstar, which was a number one hit in ‘62 and set Joe up. A classic example of Meek’s playing around with recordings, can be heard at the beginning to the record Telstar. The strange space-like mechanical sound introduction, was actually a recording of an old tractor played at a slower speed and backwards. His recordings were over-dubbed many times, adding different instruments and vocal and effects. This detracted from HiFi quality. The record companies Joe used to press the records always complained about the quality of the recordings. But Meek knew this would produce a distinctive sound. It did. And, people loved it.
Joe was known to be hard to work with and during the mid ‘60s, was running into financial problems. He was convinced that Decca Records was bugging his studio to steal his recording secrets and would not let anyone into the building if he was not there. He had a real “thing” about communicating with the dead and would leave tape machines running all night in the hope of recording voices from the other side. He produced the Mike Berry recording “Tribute to Buddy Holly” following Buddy’s death. Of course, being a homosexual in the 60s was a bit of a problem and in ’63 was fined for importuning. He never recovered from this and it fed an on-going depression. Many musicians passed through his hands and It’s said that Brian Epstein asked Meek what he thought of a group called the Beatles. Joe said don’t sign them up. He agreed to record a small band as long as the signer was replaced. The signer being a young Rod Stewart. In ’67, in his recording studio, Meek shot himself after killing his landlady.
It is very sad thinking about someone who paved the way for modern recording techniques ended up like this. He was an early experimenter with compression, reverb, direct connection of instruments into recording desks, multi-tracking and so on. Phil Spector, well known for his “Wall-Of-Sound” image, said that he owed much of this to Meek’s own inventiveness. I could go on and on, but not enough pages.
So, off to pop my copy of Telstar on the radiogram. Hope you are listening Joe.
Seth Pittham. Zeta services