Think that crack-afro sporting, B-movie actress murderer Phil Spector is crazy? Yeah, I suppose he is, but Joe Meek has him beat across the board. He was a maverick pioneer of independent music, invented way more shit in the studio, and quite probably killed more people than old Phil. After you hear his story though, you’ll know he earned it the whole way. Why a major motion picture has yet to be made about him is beyond me. [Editor's note: A play about Joe Meek entitled Telstar: The Joe Meek Story ran in London’s West End in 2005.]
Born under the star Robert George Meek in 1929, Joe’s life long love (and hate) affair with music began when a brief stint in the Royal Air Force as a radio operator peaked his interest in outer space and the limitless possibilities of electronic sound. In his early twenties, he got a job with the Midlands Electric Board, which allowed him to gather up and begin creating gear, including a disc cutter. From there, he found work as a sound engineer for independent studios and started to make his name in the business, both as an innovative genius and as someone difficult to work with. Being forced out of a lucrative Landsdowne partnership by one Denis Preston would turn out to be something of a blessing in disguise.
In early 1960, Meek co-founded Triumph Records and disappointingly produced his first top 10 single, “Angela Jones” by Michael Cox. The disappointment here is based on the fact that it may have been a number one if the mom & pop pressing plants of the day – to which his self-supported label was completely dependant upon – could have kept ahead of demand. That year, Meek arguably created the first concept album as the guiding force behind the “Outer Space A Music Fantasy” theme for Rod Freeman & the Blue Men’s I Hear a New World, which was also remarkably ahead of its time in regards to its use of homemade electronic sound. Triumph did not last long as a label, but important lessons had been learned and new ground was constantly being broken.
It was around the time of Triumph’s fizzling when Joe figured out that, since he didn’t have the muscle to commercially back a hit, he could find far easier success by signing artists himself then merely leasing their material to major labels for a tidy profit. This shift was convenient since his next and by far most successful enterprise was to build a home studio above a leather-goods store and become more independent than ever while proving himself capable of scoring several UK number one hits. Hell, he basically kicked off the British Invasion by producing the Tornadoes’ “Telstar,” which was the first British record to hit the top of the US Hot 100, winning an Ivor Novello Award in the process. However, by the time The Beatles started experimenting with psychedelics, the hits started drying up. Meek’s unique flavor of Saturday morning Cowboys & Injuns cartoon rock was starting to be viewed as camp by a maturing generation that demanded a socio-political consciousness more relevant to their lives.
Times were changing and he fell into a cycle of drugs, paranoia (believing Decca had microphones in his studio’s wallpaper to steal ideas), rage, depression, and obsession with paranormal and occult activities. He believed his hero, Buddy Holly, and others who broke on through to the other side were trying to contact him from beyond the grave; he would record graveyards to try and hear the dead, but instead got a talking cat meowing for help. Having been brought up on charges of homosexuality earlier in the '60s – just being gay was illegal back then – which meant the pigs had free reign to pester and blackmail him, while his finances scattered to the wind under frail legal structures (he was unable to earn any royalties from “Telstar” in his lifetime due to an ultimately failed plagiarism suit). In January of ’67, the body of a former associate of Meek was discovered in a suitcase, leaving the police to declare they’d be brutally interrogating all known homosexuals in the UK. With no foreseeable good news on the horizon, Joe shot his landlady and himself with a single-barrel shotgun borrowed from Tornados bassist Heinz Burt on February 3rd, exactly eight years to the day after Buddy Holly went down with Richie Valens in his lap.
During the 245 singles (of which 45 cracked the top 50) and assorted albums he’d put his distinctive stamp on, he basically created the modern methods of compression, echo, reverb, sampling, multiple overdubbing on a two track, and the seemingly obvious process of recording individual pieces of a song separately, then arranging them together into a single composition. This was actually a big step forward from just putting a mic in the middle of a jam and hoping for the best, as was the fashion for the first half century of recording when they had to record directly onto vinyl in one live take.
Vampire, Cowboys, Spacemen, & Spooks is one of a few Meek compilations being released at once, though this one focuses specifically on his purely emotive instrumental work. Joe had very particular views concerning the use of the human voice as a musical instrument. After all, this is the man who walked into a Rod Stewart recording session screaming with his fingers knuckle deep in his ears until Rod stopped singing and left, while refusing to work with the Beatles (whom he considered “just a bunch of noise”), David Bowie, and the Rolling Stones. Aldous Huxley said, “after silence, that which comes closest to expressing the inexpressible is music” and I’m sure Meek would agree. His thematic subject matter certainly clung to the realms of the ineffable, and that sphere is given supreme definition here with some 60 tracks on two CDs.
Many of his most renowned hits are here, including a rare studio mix of the previously mentioned “Telstar” and other Tornados rarities, but the focus of this collection is on creating a whole picture of the man. Half a dozen previously unreleased tracks have now fulfilled their destiny, such as the sweetly sorrowful “Moon Rocket” by Roger Lavern & The Microns – which samples a take off before smoothing out on a rollicking, adventurous beat with a disembodied piano keeping the timing out front – as well as a raucous Animals blues version of “Besame Mucho” by Dave Roland. The lone vocal track (not counting the odd “doo-doo-doo ooooh-aaaah” chorus and the forgettable Dauphine Street Six number “Shenandoah”) shows Meek’s vision of complimentary vocals with his self-titled orchestra’s “Cry My Heart,” where at least a three-part harmony hammers home a bleak tale of love lost, but that’s a real rarity here. The emphasis is on ideas and themes, not mere words. Tracks like The Thunderbolts’ “Lost Planet” and the Moontrekkers’ “Night of the Vampire” presuppose electronica, hip-hop and their future fusions with rock in and of themselves alone, and covers like the aforementioned “Besame Mucho” and The Saints’ version of “Wipeout” always add something vital and refreshing.
Granted, all 60 cuts can’t be winners, but the collection paints a clear picture of a tragically undervalued genius. Being mostly without words, there’s not much obstructing our emotional impression of the man and his many achievements in the early-to-mid '60s. He’s the reason why these recording have aged so well and, what’s more, provide an essential link in the chain for any music fan with an interest in history. Everything in the charts today owes this man a reach-around.