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- Posted on Jun 8th 2007 5:00PM by Gaylord Fields
Meek was one of the first, and definitely the most distinctive, of Britain's independent producers. Born in 1929, he showed an aptitude with gadgetry from an early age, later becoming a radioman in the Royal Air Force. After sharpening his skills during a stint as a sound engineer for Radio Luxembourg, he constructed a home studio in his cramped London flat in 1960, which is where he recorded dozens upon dozens of tracks, many of which charted on the British hit parade. It was a common occurrence at a Meek session to see musicians huddled in the stairwell or in the dual bathroom/echo chamber, much to the continued annoyance of his landlady, who lived downstairs and will prove to play a pivotal role in this story.
Long fascinated by outer space and the occult, Meek made his mark stateside when his production of the Tornados' 'Telstar' became the first single by a British group to reach No. 1 on the American charts, in late 1962. A breathtaking work of low-budget sonic futurism, the instrumental displayed all the Joe Meek trademarks, including a kit bag of sound effects, a pronounced bias for the high end of the aural spectrum, ample compression and distortion, and a whirring clavioline, an early electronic keyboard, which all brilliantly evoked the recently launched communication satellite of the song's title. Additionally, during the British Invasion, he placed his stomping, effects-laden production of 1964's 'Have I the Right,' by second-tier British beat combo the Honeycombs, into the U.S. Top Five.
Like Spector, Meek was increasingly given to mentally suspect behavior and often manifested other signs of illness, such as paranoia (one story recounts that Meek once rebuffed Spector -- who had placed a friendly call out of the blue to his fellow producer -- going on to accuse the Wall of Sound creator of stealing his ideas). And Meek had the extra burden of being gay at a time when homosexuality was illegal -- and zealously prosecuted -- in the U.K., which compounded his fear of persecution. Also, by 1967 Meek's oddball production style and reliance on recording teen idols had become passé and his funds began drying up. Accordingly, he had placed himself on the wrong side of his landlady, Violet Shenton, who was constantly demanding he settle his back rent as well as keep the noise down. On February 3rd, Meek would take matters -- and a shotgun -- into his hands, fatally shooting Shenton before turning the gun on himself.
The date Meek chose to commit this murder-suicide was surely no coincidence, as it was the eighth anniversary of the airplane death of Buddy Holly, whom Meek worshiped and would often attempt to contact in seances. In recent years, songs, books and plays have been written in tribute to Meek, assuring that his current cult following is, sadly, as attributable to his shocking end as to his shockingly odd and beautiful musical oeuvre.