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Meek at his home recording studio, c. 1960s
|Birth name||Robert George Meek|
|Also known as||Robert Duke, Peter Jacobs|
5 April 1929|
Newent, Gloucestershire, England
|Died||3 February 1967
|Genres||Experimental pop, outsider|
|Occupation(s)||Record producer, songwriter|
|Labels||UK: Triumph (co-owner), Pye Nixa, Piccadilly, Decca, Ember, Oriole, Columbia, Top Rank, HMV, Parlophone
USA: Tower, London, Coral
Robert George "Joe" Meek (5 April 1929 – 3 February 1967) was an English record producer and songwriter who pioneered experimental pop music and assisted the development of recording practices like overdubbing, sampling and reverb. He is best remembered for writing and producing the Tornados' instrumental "Telstar" (1962), which became the first record by a British group to reach number one in the US Hot 100. It also spent five weeks at number one the UK singles chart, with Meek receiving an Ivor Novello Award for this production as the "Best-Selling A-Side" of 1962.
Meek's other charting singles include "Johnny Remember Me" (John Leyton, 1961), "Just Like Eddie" (Heinz, 1963), "Angela Jones" (Michael Cox, 1963), "Have I the Right?" (the Honeycombs, 1964), and "Tribute to Buddy Holly" (Mike Berry, 1961). He also produced music for films such as Live It Up! (US title Sing and Swing, 1963), a pop music film which featured Gene Vincent, the Outlaws pop group, jazz musician Kenny Ball and others. Meek's concept album I Hear a New World (1960), which contains innovative use of electronic sounds, was not fully released in his lifetime.
His reputation for experiments in recording music was acknowledged by the Music Producers Guild who in 2009 created "The Joe Meek Award for Innovation in Production" as an "homage to [the] remarkable producer's pioneering spirit". In 2014, Meek was ranked the greatest producer of all time by NME, elaborating: "Meek was a complete trailblazer, attempting endless new ideas in his search for the perfect sound. ... The legacy of his endless experimentation is writ large over most of your favourite music today."
At the time of his death, Meek possessed thousands of unreleased recordings later dubbed "The Tea Chest Tapes". His commercial success as a producer was short-lived, and he gradually sank into debt and depression. On 3 February 1967, using a shotgun owned by musician Heinz Burt, Meek killed his landlady Violet Shenton and then shot himself.
- 1 Biography
- 2 Legacy
- 3 In popular culture
- 4 References
- 5 Bibliography
- 6 Further reading
- 7 External links
Childhood and early careers
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Meek was born at 1 Market Square, Newent, Gloucestershire, and developed an interest in electronics and performance art at a very early age, filling his parents' garden shed with begged and borrowed electronic components, building circuits, radios and what is believed to be the region's first working television. During his national service in the Royal Air Force, he worked as a radar technician which increased his interest in electronics and outer space. From 1953 he worked for the Midlands Electricity Board. He used the resources of the company to develop his interest in electronics and music production, including acquiring a disc cutter and producing his first record.
He left the electricity board to work as an audio engineer for a leading independent radio production company which made programmes for Radio Luxembourg, and made his breakthrough with his work on Ivy Benson's Music for Lonely Lovers. His technical ingenuity was first shown on the Humphrey Lyttelton jazz single "Bad Penny Blues" (Parlophone Records, 1956) when, contrary to Lyttleton's wishes, Meek 'modified' the sound of the piano and compressed the sound to a greater than normal extent. The record became a hit. He then put enormous effort into Denis Preston's Landsdowne Studio but tensions between Preston and Meek soon saw Meek leaving. During his time he recorded US actor George Chakiris for SAGA Records and it was this that led him to Major Wilfred Alonzo Banks and an independent career. He also engineered many jazz and calypso records including vocalist and percussionist Frank Holder and band leader Kenny Graham.
In January 1960, together with William Barrington-Coupe, Meek founded Triumph Records. At the time Barrington-Coupe was working at SAGA records in Empire Yard, Holloway Road for Major Wilfred Alonzo Banks and it was the Major who provided the finance. The label very nearly had a No.1 hit with Meek's production of "Angela Jones" by Michael Cox. Cox was one of the featured singers on Jack Good's TV music show Boy Meets Girl and the song was given massive promotion. As an independent label, Triumph was dependent on small pressing plants, which were unable to meet the demand for product. The record made a respectable appearance in the Top Ten, but it demonstrated that Meek needed the distribution network of the major companies for his records to reach the shops when it mattered.
Its indifferent business results and Meek's temperament eventually led to the label's demise. Meek later licensed many Triumph recordings to labels such as Top Rank and Pye. That year Meek conceived, wrote and produced an "Outer Space Music Fantasy"' an Album I Hear A New World with a band called Rod Freeman & the Blue Men. The album was shelved for decades, apart from the release of some EP tracks taken from it.
304 Holloway Road
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Meek went on to set up his own production company known as RGM Sound Ltd (later Meeksville Sound Ltd) with toy importer, Major Wilfred Alonzo Banks as his financial backer. He operated from his home studio which he constructed at 304 Holloway Road, Islington, a three-floor flat above a leather-goods store.
His first hit from Holloway Road reached No.1 in the UK: John Leyton's "Johnny Remember Me" (1961) written by active psychic Geoff Goddard. This "death ditty" was cleverly promoted by Leyton's manager, expatriate Australian entrepreneur Robert Stigwood. Stigwood was able to gain Leyton a booking to perform the song several times in an episode of Harpers West One, a short-lived ITV soap opera in which he was making a guest appearance. Meek's third UK No.1 and last major success was with the Honeycombs' "Have I the Right?" in 1964, which also became a number 5 hit on the American Billboard pop charts. The success of Leyton's recordings was instrumental in establishing Stigwood and Meek as two of Britain's first independent record producers.
When his landlords, who lived downstairs, felt that the noise was too much, they would indicate so with a broom on the ceiling. Joe would signal his contempt by placing loudspeakers in the stairwell and turning up the volume.
Meek heard many up and coming bands and artists over his career, some of which he didn't see any potential for. After Brian Epstein asked his opinion of the Beatles' demo tape, Meek told him not to bother signing them. On another occasion he signed a band on the condition that they get rid of their lead singer: a 16-year-old Rod Stewart.
Meek became fascinated with the idea of communicating with the dead. He would set up tape machines in graveyards in an attempt to record voices from beyond the grave, in one instance capturing the meows of a cat he claimed was speaking in human tones, asking for help. In particular, he had an obsession with Buddy Holly (claiming the late American rocker had communicated with him in dreams) and other dead rock and roll musicians.
His professional efforts were often hindered by his paranoia (Meek was convinced that Decca Records would put hidden microphones behind his wallpaper to steal his ideas), drug use and attacks of rage or depression. Upon receiving an apparently innocent phone call from American record producer Phil Spector, Meek immediately accused Spector of stealing his ideas before hanging up angrily.
Meek's homosexuality – at a time when homosexual acts were illegal in the UK – put him under further pressure. In 1963 he was convicted and fined £15 for "importuning for immoral purposes" in a London public toilet, and was consequently subject to blackmail. In January 1967, police in Tattingstone, Suffolk, discovered two suitcases containing mutilated body parts of Bernard Oliver. According to some accounts, Meek was afraid of being questioned by the Metropolitan Police, as it was known they were intending to interview all of the gay men in London. This was enough for him to lose his self-control.
Meek's depression deepened as his financial position became increasingly desperate. French composer Jean Ledrut accused him of plagiarism, claiming that the tune of "Telstar" had been copied from "La Marche d'Austerlitz", a piece from a score Ledrut had written for the 1960 film Austerlitz. The lawsuit meant that Meek did not receive royalties from the record during his lifetime, and the issue was not resolved in his favour until three weeks after his death in 1967.
Homicide and suicide
On 3 February 1967 Meek killed his landlady Violet Shenton and then himself with a single-barrelled shotgun that he had confiscated from his protégé, former Tornados bassist and solo star Heinz Burt, at his Holloway Road home/studio. Meek had flown into a rage and taken the gun from Burt when he informed Meek that he had used it while on tour to shoot birds. Meek had kept the gun under his bed, along with some cartridges. As the shotgun had been owned by Burt, he was questioned intensively by police, before being eliminated from their enquiries.
Meek was subsequently buried at Newent Cemetery, Newent, Gloucestershire. His black granite tombstone can be found near the middle of the cemetery.
The lawsuit against Meek was ruled in his favour three weeks after his death in 1967. It is unlikely that Meek was aware of Austerlitz, as it had been released only in France at the time.
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Meeks' inability to play a musical instrument or write notation did not prevent him writing and producing successful commercial recordings. For songwriting he was reliant on musicians such as Dave Adams, Geoff Goddard or Charles Blackwell to transcribe melodies from his vocal "demos". He worked on 245 singles, of which 45 reached the top fifty. He pioneered studio tools such as multiple over-dubbing on one- and two-track machines, close miking, direct input of bass guitars, the compressor, and effects like echo and reverb, as well as sampling. Unlike other producers, his search was for the 'right' sound rather than for a catchy musical tune, and throughout his brief career he single-mindedly followed his quest to create a unique "sonic signature" for every record he produced.
At a time when many studio engineers were still wearing white coats and assiduously trying to maintain clarity and fidelity, Meek was producing everything on the three floors of his "home" studio and was never afraid to distort or manipulate the sound if it created the effect he was seeking.
Meek was one of the first producers to grasp and fully exploit the possibilities of the modern recording studio. His innovative techniques—physically separating instruments, treating instruments and voices with echo and reverb, processing the sound through his fabled home-made electronic devices, the combining of separately-recorded performances and segments into a painstakingly constructed composite recording—comprised a major breakthrough in sound production. Up to that time, the standard technique for pop recording was to record all the performers in one studio, playing together in real time. This was substantially different from that of his contemporary Phil Spector, who typically created his "Wall of Sound" productions by making live recordings of large ensembles that used multiples of major instruments like bass, guitar, and piano to create the complex sonic backgrounds for his singers.
In 1993, former session singer Ted Fletcher introduced the "Joemeek" line of audio processing equipment. The homage to Meek was due to his influence in the early stages of audio compression. The name and product line were sold to the American company PMI Audio Group in 2003. The current product line includes a microphone series called "Telstar", named after Meek's biggest hit.
Artists that Meek recorded
He passed up the chance to work with the then unknown David Bowie, the Beatles (the latter he once described as "just another bunch of noise, copying other people's music") and Rod Stewart. John Repsch, in The Legendary Joe Meek recounts that upon hearing Stewart sing, Meek rushed into the studio, put his fingers in his ears and screamed until Stewart had left. He preferred to record instrumentals with the band he sang with – the Moontrekkers.
In 1963 Meek worked with a then little-known singer Tom Jones, then the lead vocalist of Tommy Scott & the Senators. Meek recorded seven tracks with Jones and took them to various labels in an attempt to get a record deal, with no success. Two years later after Jones' worldwide hit "It's Not Unusual" in 1965, Meek was able to sell the tapes he had recorded with Jones to Tower (USA) and Columbia (UK).
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The following list of artists Meek also recorded is alphabetically arranged by surname, or by first element of group name (ignoring "The"), or by surname of a featured artist's name with group.
Dave Adams, Deke Arlon and the Offbeats, the Ambassadors, Chico Arnez, Burr Bailey and the Six Shooters, Chris Barber, Shirley Bassey, the Beat Boys, Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers, Mike Berry, the Pete Best Four, Pamela Blue, the Blue Men, The Blue Rondos, The Buzz; The Cameos, Carter-Lewis and the Southerners, Andy Cavell, George Chakiris, Don Charles, The Checkmates, Chris and the Outcasts, Neil Christian, Petula Clark, The Classics, Glenda Collins, Jess Conrad, Peter Cook, Michael Cox, Bobby Cristo and the Rebels, the Cryin' Shames, Tony Dangerfield and the Thrills, Danny's Passion, Billie Davis, Alan Dean and his Problems, Ray Dexter and the Layabouts, the Diamond Twins, Lonnie Donegan, Silas Dooley Jr., Diana Dors, the Dowlands, the Ferridays, the Flee-Rekkers, Flip and the Dateliners, Emile Ford and the Checkmates, Lance Fortune, The Four Matadors, Billy Fury, Geoff Goddard, Kenny Graham and the Satellites, Iain Gregory; Heinz and the Wild Boys, Chas Hodges, Kenny Hollywood, the Honeycombs, the Hotrods, the Impac, Peter Jay and the Jaywalkers, David John and the Mood, Tom Jones, Johnny and Chaz and the Gunners, Joy and Dave, Charles Kingsley Creation, Roger LaVern and the Microns, Jamie Lee and the Atlantics, John Leyton, Peter London, Humphrey Lyttelton, Malcolm and the Countdowns, the Manish Boys, Valerie Masters, Jimmy Miller and the Barbecues, the Millionaires, the Moontrekkers, Jenny Moss; the Outlaws, the Packabeats, Mike Preston, the Puppets; Donn Reynolds, Bobby Rio and the Revelles, the Riot Squad, Danny Rivers, Kim Roberts, the Saints, Wes Sands, Mike Sarne, the Saxons, Shade Joey and the Night Owls, the Shakeouts, the Sharades, Anne Shelton, Robb Shenton, Simplicity Pattern, Sounds Incorporated, Freddie Starr and the Midnighters, Tommy Steele, the Stonehenge Men, Big Jim Sullivan, Screaming Lord Sutch and the Savages, the Syndicats, Gerry Temple, Gunilla Thorne, the Thunderbolts, the Tornados, Frankie Vaughan, Toby Ventura, Gene Vincent, Ricky Wayne and the Offbeats, Houston Wells and the Marksmen, Brian White & the Magna Jazz Band, Chris Williams and the Monsters, Yolanda, the Young Ones, and Joe Meek himself.
"The Tea Chest Tapes"
After Meek's death, the thousands of recordings he hid at his studio remained unreleased and preserved by Cliff Cooper of the Millionaires. Subsequent to his suicide in 1967, Cooper is said to have purchased all of Meek's recordings for £300. These recordings were called the "Tea Chest Tapes" among fans, as they were stored in a tea chest when Cooper took them out of his flat. Alan Blackburn, former president of the Joe Meek Appreciation Society, catalogued all of them in the mid 1980s.
On 4 September 2008 these unreleased recordings went up for auction in Fame Bureau's 'It's More Than Rock 'N' Roll' auction, fetching £200,000. They contained over 4,000 hours of music on 1,850 tapes, including recordings by David Bowie as singer and sax player with the Konrads, Gene Vincent, Denny Laine, Billy Fury, Tom Jones, Jimmy Page, Mike Berry, John Leyton, Ritchie Blackmore, Jess Conrad, Mitch Mitchell and Screaming Lord Sutch. The tapes also contained many examples of Meek composing songs and experimental sound techniques. Tape 418 has Meek composing songs for the film Live It Up!.
In popular culture
In later years, the interest in Meek's life as well as influence on the music industry, has spawned at least two documentary films, a radio play, a stage play and a feature film.
- On 8 February 1991, the BBC showed a 60-minute documentary in its Arena documentary series, entitled The Very Strange Story of... the Legendary Joe Meek. The BBC has since reprised the documentary several times.
- On 26 March 1994, BBC Radio 4 broadcast Lonely Joe, a radio play based on the life of Meek, written by Janey Praeger and Peter Kavanagh.
- On 2 February 2005, Telstar, a stage play about Meek, written by actors Nick Moran and James Hicks, opened at the Cambridge Arts Theatre and then toured to York, Darlington, Guildford, Eastbourne and Manchester, before opening up at the New Ambassadors Theatre in London on 24 June 2005.
- On 12 April 2008, A Life in the Death of Joe Meek, by US filmmakers Howard S. Berger and Susan Stahman, was shown as a work-in-progress at the Sensoria Music & Film Festival in Sheffield.
- On 19 June 2009, a film adaption of Moran's and Hick's play, Telstar: The Joe Meek Story, premiered in London, directed by Nick Moran and with the star of the play, Con O'Neill, continuing his portrayal of Meek.
Tributes and references
A number of artists have made tributes to Meek in various ways:
- Franco-English pop singer-songwriter MeeK chose his stage name as a homage to the British producer.
- British punk Wreckless Eric recounts Meek's life and recreates some of his studio effects in his song "Joe Meek" from the album Donovan of Trash.
- The Marked Men, a Texas punk band, have a song titled "Someday" with lyric: "Joe Meek wanted all the world to know about the news he found."
- The Frank Black song "White Noise Maker" deals with Meek's suicide by shotgun, the white noise maker of the title. "It's been so long since my Telstar."
- The Bleeder Group, a Danish alternative rock group recorded a song on their second album Sunrise, called "Joe Meek Shall Inherit the Earth"
- Matmos, an Electronic duo, have a song on their 2006 album The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of the Beast called "Solo Buttons for Joe Meek".
- Pluto Monkey, British left field artist, released a three track CD single on Shifty Disco featuring the tracks "Joe Meek" and "Meeksville Sound Is Dead"
- Swing Out Sister include a short instrumental named "Joe Meek's Cat" on their 1997 album Shapes and Patterns, inspired by Meek's 1966 ghost-hunting expeditions to Warley Lea Farm during which he allegedly captured recordings of a talking cat channelling the spirit of a former landowner who committed suicide at the farm
- Graham Parker's 1992 album Burning Questions includes the cryptic "Just Like Joe Meek's Blues"
- Sheryl Crow claimed that her song "A Change Would Do You Good" was inspired by an article she read about Meek
- Jonathan King recorded a song about Meek called "He Stood in the Bath He Stamped on the Floor".
- Johnny Stage, Danish producer and guitarist released an album in tribute of Meek, entitled The Lady with the Crying Eyes featuring various Danish artists, on 3 February 2007
- Dave Stewart (the keyboardist) and Barbara Gaskin recorded the song "Your Lucky Star" dealing with the life and death of Meek, released on the 1991 album "Spin". Dave Stewart also recorded a version of "Telstar" on the occasion of its 40th anniversary in 2002. This was later released on the Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin 2009 mini-album "Hour Moon". The album also features the duo's previously released Meek tribute "Your Lucky Star" from their 1991 album "Spin".
- The Spanish label Spicnic released in 2001 a tribute CD, "Oigo un nuevo no mundo. Homenaje a Joe Meek", featuring various Spanish bands.
- Trey Spruance, from the band Mr. Bungle, has stated that the ten-part song/instrumental "The Bends" from their album Disco Volante is inspired by Joe Meek's music. Specifically "I Hear a New World".
- Thomas Truax regularly performed his Meek tribute "Joe Meek Warns Buddy Holly" on his 2008 tours, a song apparently about Meek's supposed warning via spirit-writing predicting Buddy Holly's death. A single and accompanying video was scheduled for release on 3 February 2009, the 50th anniversary of Holly's demise, also the date of Meek's suicide.
- Robb Shenton released "Lonely Joe" as a tribute to the producer on 28 October 2008. Shenton was one of Meek's artists and was with five Meek bands between 1963 and early 1966: The Bobcats, David John and the Mood, the Prestons, the Nashpool and Flip and the Dateliners. He also sang backing vocals with many others.
- "Meet Joe Meek" sometimes known as "Just Like Joe Meek" by the Babysitars sampled the BBC 2 Arena documentary on Meek and their composition "Crazyhead" was said to be inspired by Meek.
- In 2004 and 2006 respectively, UK record label Western Star records put together and released two volumes of Meek tributes on CD. These compilations were made up of Western Star artists all paying tribute by recording songs originally recorded or written by Meek. Then in 2012, producer, label boss and long time Meek enthusiast Alan Wilson released "Holloway Road", a song about Meek. This featured on the album Infamy, by his own band The Sharks.
- In 2005, Cane 141 released a B-Side called "Joe Meek Shall Inherit The Earth".
- Brend 2005, p. 55.
- Chusid, Irwin (2000). Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music. Chicago Review Press. ISBN 978-1-55652-372-4.
- "Joe Meek". Nndb.com. 3 February 1967. Retrieved 27 October 2011.
- Fact (February 28, 2013). "Joe Meek's experimental pop classic I Hear A New World gets expanded reissue". Fact.
- "Brian Eno wins the first Joe Meek award". Audioprointernational.com. Archived from the original on 31 January 2009. Retrieved 27 October 2009.
- Joe Meek (23 July 2014). "The 50 Greatest Producers Ever | No. 1 Joe Meek". Nme.Com. Retrieved 1 August 2014.
- "Harpers West One (TV Series 1961–1963), IMDb, Undated". IMDb. Retrieved 27 September 2014.
- Plaque #1755 on Open Plaques.
- BBC Music Moguls, part 2, Melody Makers
- Chris Mikul (1999). Bizarrism. Critical Vision. p. 111. ISBN 1-900486-06-7.
- Fry, Colin (2011). The Krays: A Violent Business. Edinburgh: Mainstream. p. 93.
- Bondeson, Jan (2014). Murder Houses of London. Stroud, Gloucs: Amberley Publishing. p. 362.
- Savage, Jon (12 November 2006). "Meek by name, wild by nature". The Observer. Retrieved 8 March 2016.
- "Roger LaVern". The Daily Telegraph. London. 28 June 2013.
- "Telstar - The Sound of the Future". BBC Radio 2. Retrieved 3 January 2016.
- Abbas, Maha (6 November 2008). "Genius or Insanity? The Mind of Joe Meek". Stony Brook Independent. Retrieved 2 June 2009.
- "Joemeek.com". Joemeek.com. Retrieved 27 October 2011.
- "PMI Audio Group". Pmiaudio.com. Retrieved 27 October 2011.
- "Tom Jones' Visual Discography, B.J. Spencer, Undated". Txhighlands.com. Retrieved 27 September 2014.
- "Meek's 'Tea Chest Tapes' go to auction". Retrieved 26 May 2009.
- Cottingham, Chris (4 September 2008). "What's on Joe Meek's master tapes?". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 26 May 2009.
- "Joe Meek Archive The entire collection of Joe". Retrieved 26 May 2009.
- "IMDb: "Arena" The Very Strange Story of... The Legendary Joe Meek (1991)". IMDb. Retrieved 27 September 2014.
- Myiget,net: BBC R4 – Janie Prager and Peter Kavanagh's 'Lonely Joe' Retrieved 11 August 2012
- "What's on Stage, 4 February 2005: Stars Tour Lord Arthur, Telstar, Arsenic & Old Lace". whatsonstage. Retrieved 27 September 2014.
- "Wat's On Stage, 21 April 2005: Moran's Debut Play Telstar Transfers to West End". whatsonstage. Retrieved 27 September 2014.
- "Sensoria 2008: A Life in the Death of Joe Meek". 2009.sensoria.org.uk. Retrieved 27 September 2014.
- Telstar: The Joe Meek Story at the Internet Movie Database
- "Video: "He Stood In The Bath He Stamped On The Floor"". Youtube.com. 6 January 2007. Retrieved 27 October 2011.
- "Myspace: Joe Meek Tribute". Myspace. Retrieved 27 September 2014.
- "Spicnic label website". Spicnic.com. Retrieved 27 October 2011.
- Brend, Mark (2005). Strange Sounds: Offbeat Instruments and Sonic Experiments in Pop. Backbeat. ISBN 978-0-87930-855-1.
- John Repsch: The Legendary Joe Meek (UK; 1989, July 2003) ISBN 1-901447-20-0
- Barry Cleveland: Creative Music Production – Joe Meek's BOLD Techniques (USA; July 2001) ISBN 1-931140-08-1
- Barry Cleveland: Joe Meek's BOLD Techniques, 2nd Edition (USA; December 2013) ISBN 978-0-615-73600-6 
- The penultimate chapter of Alan Moore's spoken word piece "The Highbury Working" concerns Meek's last moments.
- Mallory Curley: Beatle Pete, Time Traveller (Randy Press, 2005)
- "Joe Meek". Barry Cleveland. Retrieved 6 June 2014.