Innovative 1960s record producer Joe Meek has often been called "the British Phil…
- Posted on Jan 28th 2011 4:30PM by James Sullivan
David Peters, Redferns / Getty Images
If the sound in Joe Meek's head gave him a creative signature, it also killed him. On Feb. 3, 1967, Meek, wired on speed and complaining of voices, shot and killed his landlady, then turned the gun on himself. He was 37.
An electronics fanatic who built crystal radio kits and the first working television in his hometown, Meek became a self-styled record producer after serving as a radio technician in the Royal Air Force. His career of choice was an unlikely one: The odd young man was certifiably tone-deaf.
Still, he was a true innovator, devising unique ways to achieve sounds (such as echo, reverb and close-miking) that were considered all wrong by the establishment producers of the time. Meek's fearless experimentation and his strange story have inspired admirers from Frank Black to Sheryl Crow, and his songs have been covered by Vampire Weekend and Dead Kennedys. In 2009, the Music Producers Guild created a Joe Meek Award for innovation. The first recipient was Brian Eno.
At the dawn of the space age, Meek became infatuated with the mysteries of the cosmos. His obsession gave him his first and biggest hit, the instrumental 'Telstar,' by a group called the Tornados, which included members of Johnny Kidd & the Pirates ('Shakin' All Over'). 'Telstar' supplanted Elvis Presley's 'She's Not You' as the No. 1 single on the British charts in October 1962 and hit the top of the charts in America that December, replacing the Four Seasons' 'Big Girls Don't Cry.'
Working out of his three-story flat above a leather shop in the London borough of Islington, Meek entertained a parade of aspiring rockers. He recorded an unknown Tom Jones, dismissed the demos of a group called the Beatles as "matchbox music" and released instrumental music by another group after sticking his fingers in his ears when their singer, Rod Stewart, opened his mouth. That single, a horror theme called 'Night of the Vampire,' would be declared "unsuitable for people of a nervous disposition" by the BBC.
Meek's second big hit, the Honeycombs' 'Have I the Right,' was given a distinctive crunching sound when he directed the band members to stand in his stairwell and stomp their feet. (Always paranoid about his ideas, he later claimed that a spy for the Dave Clark Five nicked the sound for their hit 'Bits and Pieces.') Gimmicks like that infuriated his landlords, who often banged on their ceiling with a broomstick.
Meek cultivated his eccentricities, working with original shock rockers Screaming Lord Sutch and the Savages and composing an album-length outer-space fantasy called 'I Hear a New World.' A diehard fan of the late Buddy Holly, he worked tirelessly to produce tributes to the singer and other heartthrobs of the early rock 'n' roll era.
He worked so hard, in fact, that as early as 1963 he admitted friends were telling him he was "ready to crack up." A gay man living in a time of ingrained as well as legal intolerance, he began to believe that his walls were bugged, and he made recordings in graveyards, attempting to communicate with the dead.
By early 1967, Meek was painfully thin, pale and high-strung. He was also broke, having been sued by a French composer who claimed he'd stolen the melody to 'Telstar.' When a young man's mutilated body was discovered in suitcases, Meek was convinced he'd be a suspect.
The day that he snapped had particular significance for the troubled producer: It was eight years to the day since the death of his idol, Buddy Holly. Three weeks after his suicide, Joe Meek was exonerated in court of the plagiarism charge.