Joe Meek may well be the most important pop music producer there ever was. That’s not to say that he’s particularly popular or influential. Or that he ever recorded any kind of classic album. Admitedy, most of his recordings heard today sound somewhat cheesy and dated. But his legacy lies not so much in the quality of the music he produced, but in the way he revolutionized production itself.
In the late 50s and early 60s, when producers were almost always employees of the big labels, Meek was probably the first one to truly go independent. Back then recording was more about science than art, and these record company studios were inhabited by men wearing white coats who followed strict guidelines in attempting to replicate real life sounds as accurately as they could. Meek, however, was determined to explore new ideas and experiment with audio recording equipment. He chose to bypass working for the companies, and set up his own little independent studio above a hand-bag store in London. There, he set to work building all sorts of crazy contraptions, pioneering effects such as reverb, echo and compression. These tools, together with his unorthodox recording techniques (sampling found sounds, tape splicing, multitracking…) became his trademarks, and he was thus probably the first record producer to develop a signature sound.
All of this is on display in I Hear A New World, a 1960 album that he billed as an “Outer Space Music Fantasy”. Inspired by the then-nascent space programme, it’s a mostly instrumental record that tries to imagine what music would be like on the Moon (I guess folks back then still thought there might be Moon-people). Half a decade before George Martin began experimenting with tape loops on Beatles records, Meek’s vision was already fully realized, and the sounds and studio effects heard on I Hear A New World heralded the psychedelic era.
By the early 60s he had become an in-demand producer, and several of his tunes went to the top of the UK sales charts. The spacy Tornados instumental “Telstar” is particularly noted for being the first British record to hit #1 in the States. But by the mid 60s, despite big name producers like Phil Spector and George Martin praising him and admitting to his influence on their own work, he was clearly falling behind on what was hip. His records (which were still basically light pop music and often instrumental) lacked the depth of Dylan or Beatles albums, and the hits stopped rolling in. He sank into severe dept, which together with his personal problems (drug use, depression, extreme paranoia, being flamboyantly gay in a time when homosexuality was still illegal in Britain) led him to end his life in a distrubing murder-suicide.
I’ve included I Hear A New World and a couple of my favourite compilations. The first one has most of his big hits, and I suppose is a good place to start. The other one compiles a bunch of tunes he recorded with female artists and girl groups. Not as far-out with the production, but some really nice catchy songs.
Also, if you’re interested, you can watch the recent biopic Telstar for free over here. It’s pretty neat. Kind of intense; mostly deals with his being a crazy jackass and brutalizing everyone around him. Good acting though.
I Hear a New World (1960)
It's Hard to Believe: The Amazing World of Joe Meek (1995)
Let's Go! Joe Meek's Girls (1996)