Saturday, 2 February 2008

Meek, not mild

41 years ago today, on the anniversary of Buddy Holly's death (which he himself had claimed to have predicted in a seance years before), Joe Meek shot himself after murdering his landlady.

A short and often brilliant career had burnt down and ended in the worst possible way, Meek's own problems driving him to destroy another's life as well as his own. His depression, drug use, paranoia, worry about his homosexuality being exposed (it was then a criminal offence in England) all did for him in the end. He was however a true innovator, a rebellious experimentor and a technical genius who really did come up with the holy grail of pop music; something different.

He knew this and was initially guarded and eventually paranoid about others stealing his ideas. One day, strangely providing a connection to a modern day shooting tragedy, Meek received a phone call from Phil Spector, who he was already suspicious of. He refused to talk to him, instead accused him of stealing his production techniques in order to produce the 'Wall of Sound', then promptly hung up on him.

However, except in producing loud and 'full' recordings, Spector didn't copy Meek or vice versa; Spector used conventional instruments en masse with multi-tracked voices to create his sound.
In contrast, working with many musicians (including the Tornados) but often individually, Meek recorded and manipulated a mixture of sounds from instruments and anything else that took his fancy. Then, using tape recorders at various speeds with proprietory and his own home made equipment he produced - pre-synthesiser - effects and sounds that today would be difficult to originate from scratch; the arts of tape manipulation having been largely supeseded in the intervening years.

So he was one of, maybe the first, engineer/producers to realise the possibilities of using recording equipment as a production tool, and also how to push vinyl mastering to new limits to present it properly to the listener. The 1962 Decca pressing of "Telstar" is a technical tour de force in it's own right. But I won't go on..

Maybe, considering how things turned out it's perhaps in bad taste to laugh at aspects of Meek's life, but apparently there were laughs a plenty. Some though, were unintentional. One of my favourite stories concerns Meek's obsession with the paranormal, the afterlife and general 'ghostwatch' style activities.

As a virtuoso recording engineer it was no problem for Joe to mic up a graveyard to record any messages from 'beyond'. Mostly he got nothing, of course, until one night a cat obliged by meeowing and wailing for some time, certainly long enough for Joe to later analyse the sounds and announce that the cat was trying to converse with him using human speech; it was in fact a trapped human spirit pleading for help via the medium of Cat. Cat-onese maybe.
I guess you had to be there. I wish I had been.

This extract from a documentary is a long clip in total, but the audio of the cat incident - with subtitles - is a minute and a half in, after stories from Screaming Lord Sutch and Heinz Burt:

Anyway, if you want to take a look there's plenty out there about Joe, his life and his body of work (for instance, "Telstar" was the first record by a British group to reach number one in the U.S. charts - sorry Beatles fans). Interest in him seems to be growing again, with a cinema film in production and an in-depth documentary to be shown soon.

Before we finish off, with The Honeycombs, here's a strange mix of Delia Derbyshire meets Joe Meek, complete with rockets and aliens; it's a version of "Telstar". For me it lacks both the energy of the original 'Telstar' and the brooding menace of the 'Dr Who' theme, but it's well meant and it shows spirit I suppose. That's something Joe would have approved of, I'm sure.


Misery Guts said...

I love Joe Meek. I see him as the Grandmaster Flash of his day.

Total genius!

office pest said...

Yes, with him ,the more I look, the more I find.
Apparently he turned down the chance to work with the Beatles. I would have loved to have heard the result of his and John Lennon's collaboration, with 25 tape recorders in use!
Also, I have never heard George Martin's views on Joe Meek, if there are any on record; I'd be interested to hear what they are. I believe they were both of a similar vision but had somewhat different approaches of course.

Joe C said...

Any idea where that Joe Meek video has gone - I need to try and track down the audio of him and the cat in the graveyard and can't find it anywhere...

Any help, much appreciated.

office pest said...

joe c:

I got the clip from YouTube and it was part of a cut up BBC doc someone had uploaded. I imagine the PRS or similar have been through and had it taken down. However I’m sure if you make a few requests around the various Joe Meek fan sites someone will be able to sort you out with this clip as it is quite well known.

Good luck