A small piece of me dies whenever I read or hear the words Rock Icon, partially because rock stars already have more than their share of cash, bennies, and pussy that givin' them godhood on top of everything else goes against every shred of common sense that I got.
What's more is that those words ‘rock icon' were undoubtedly conceived by mega-conglomerations to dupe us into buying records on the merit of hype and heresy, which is about as insulting as the idea of taking popular albums, adding a couple of bonus tracks or alternate takes, then printing the words Special Edition along the seam so that no-nuthin' null-nodes will actually repurchase these records because they gotta have those throwaway songs which are rarely worth the plastic they're recorded on. And yeah, okay, I know I'm no better than those no-nuthin' null-nodes because I've fallen for this rat-trap of capitalist consumerism more times than I care to relate. Hell, I know I can't beat the system. But if you wanna talk about rock icons -- and I mean REAL rock icons -- I know of a dude that blows all the Iggys and Ozzys and Jaggers clear outta the water. I mean, this guy's innovations changed the way we record music, ya'll -- and that's without stepping one foot on the whiskey stage, which makes all the cock-struttin' and self-laceration with broken glass/chomping off bat wings jive seem like little more than ridiculous pantomimes of bullshit.
The man I speak of goes by the name of Joe Meek, a fella who in his heyday -- late ‘50s to mid ‘60s -- ruled the radio waves in the UK from a soundboard; when he didn't blaze the charts with top ten hits, he was holed up in his home-studio, cranking out sonic soundscapes that were so radical that it's a wonder they didn't lock him up in a loony bin -- all of which led to not only some raucous and righteous tunes, but also to some pretty important breakthroughs in studio recording. And if history taught us anything, it's that the greatest Breakthroughs (in rock ‘n' roll at least) are products of some lunatic brain who also happens to be endowed with a dangerous amount of creative brilliance and/or ineptitude (typically the latter) to back his/her monkeyshines.
Like most rock pioneers, Meek never got the credit he deserved. Despite being England's first independent producer, Meek's legacy goes largely ignored by the general public, and he was never suave nor popular enough to get inducted into The Rock N' Roll Hall of Fame. But so what? Clearly, this is nothing new. The bigwigs run everything, and a small fish like Joe Meek -- whose name hardly generates a buzz in this day and age -- doesn't stand a fighting chance when there isn't a buck to be made by exploiting his name. But Meek was an anomaly -- as an artist and human being -- and despite the general indifference his name provokes now, he had heavy acts like The Beatles, Bowie, and Rod Stewart beggin' to work with him. What's more, he turned em' all down cold.
The first thing you should know about Meek is how technically incompetent he was. In addition to being tone deaf and dyslexic, Meek couldn't sing, play, or write a single phrase of musical notation to save his life. But Meek's career is a testament to the idea that vision counts for more than conventional talent, because being completely inept never stopped Meek from producing a seminal body of work. Furthermore, Meek's level of ineptitude is exactly the degree of ignorance it takes to stamp out the blasé three chord blues-driven rigmarole of traditional rock and really start RAWKIN' with some truly original noise. I suppose, in this respect, that Meek is sorta the granddaddy of all those untrained, albeit great and original, rock n' roll acts that have emerged out of the noise-chaos every now and then. The seminal groups I speak of are groups like DNA, The Fugs, The Godz, Half Japanese, The Sex Pistols, The Shaggs, Suicide, etc. that ain't much on technical guitar shreddin,' but have so much raw spirit in the marrow of their bones that even when they played a succession of wrong notes, it still somehow had the total effect of sounding straight and true.
However, unlike all those mentioned groups desperately hanging on the fringes of obscurity, Meek's music was actually being heard and dug by juvenile masses from sea to shining sea. Little did the kiddies back then know (nor care) that the Meek tunes they were shakin' and sweatin' to were in effect the early rumblings of experimental music (if not complete ineptitude running amok on popular radio). Because before Meek ambled on the scene, most of the songs that peaked on the pop charts were so lame and inconsequential that they practically resembled commercial jingles. Now I'm not implying that all the pre-Beatles radio blather of days past was dogshit. There were plenty of heavy-hitters too; a few of them even produced some of the best noise mankind ever created. In fact, the best wailin' back then (and perhaps even now) was a sonic eruption so wild and raw and seething with uncompromising sexual energy that some folks even took to callin' this noise-germ ‘the devil's music' -- which, if you ask me, is a pretty righteous moniker (and always will be).
Anyway, Meek's music didn't have the sheer blinding energy and audacity of, say, Chuck Berry's or Little Richard's, but what his music did possess were anomalous idiosyncrasies unlike anything heard on radio before. Moreover, Meek delivered these tunes in ‘50s/‘60s-styled sock hop jams, which were/are largely considered to be the lowest form of mindless, predicable trash that only a generation of clueless teenyboppers could get off on. Nevertheless, Meek, at least in the beginning of his career, was proud that his brand of noise was of the bubble-gum pop variety, and from his perspective, he was merely fulfilling his part in the supply and demand scheme that the music industry has operated on since its inception. Plus, Meek was damn good at what he did. Back then, the state of music was one where the youth culture only expected two things outta their rock n' roll: that it be fast and fun. Rarely did people utter the words ‘rock' and ‘art' in the same sentence, unless there was a rollicking punch-line behind it. This certainly accounts for the ridiculously meager outpour of serious rock songs during that time period. The majority of clatter that materialized out of those salad days of rock was little more than vanilla anthems and adolescent howlin'. Be that as it may, Meek knew that the inherent pulse and soul that drove the youth outta their heads ultimately resided in its back-beat. His catchphrase was, “If it sounds right, it is right.” Clearly, Meek had the right sound pegged from the onset via catchy melodies and memorable choruses about whatever was in vogue at the time re: love, lust, milkshakes, muscle cars, etc. And despite the adolescent meanderings rife in Meek's music, his production possessed some of the most advanced noise of its era, if only on the basis that he had the unprecedented foresight to incorporate the deliberate use of reverb which he coupled with Plan 9 from Outer Space special effects on the order of quasi-cosmic fuzztones and compressed caterwauling unlike anything else on the pop charts before or since.
Meek had 70+ acts in his stable. Arguably one of the biggest of these groups were The Tornados, who had all the appearances of six pimply-faced limey geeks, but when they hooted and hollered, they suddenly came across like greaser punks hell-bent on devastatin' everything in short order. Their claim to fame lives on as being the first British rock ‘n' roll act in history to make number one on American pop charts with their hit "Telstar," named after America's first satellite. This tune, incidentally, is also reputed to be Margaret Thatcher's favorite pop song. Ironic to their namesake, however, The Tornados disappeared almost as quickly as they peaked. In fact, most of the groups on Meek's label Triumph Records were fly-by-nighters, unable or incapable of generating more than one solid hit. There were a few exceptions that managed to garner some semblance of long-term notoriety, most notably Gene Vincent, Petula Clark, Screaming Lord Sutch, and Tom Jones, but most of Meek's acts would dissipate as was the industry standard at the time. Which is just as well, because Meek's vision would eventually outgrow the monotonous jowls of traditional rock.
As a producer and student of muzik, Meek understood better than most the innate limitations inherent in gutter-bucket rock ‘n' roll and opted instead to record instrumental blitzkriegs with his own band The Moontrekkers. The music that came out of this noise-experiment was Meek at his creative peak insofar that some of it resembled a stripped-down cosmic hybrid of The Ventures meet The Sun Ra Arkestra strata of atonal freak out-noise. This was during a time when the only other group that dared to explore the extensive possibilities of sound for the sake of art (except the free jazz musicians and the avant-garde composers of the time) were The Dream Syndicate crowd, whose members -- a pre-Velvets John Cale, Tony Conrad, Angus Maclise, La Monte Young, and Marian Zazeela -- were so ahead of their time that the general public immediately wrote off their white noise rumblings as music for shut-ins and drug-addled beatniks.
Ultimately, however, Meek's mark on history resides in the fact that he was one of the first producers to fully conceptualize and utilize the abundant possibilities in modern recording. In effect, Meek heralded a new age in studio production, which resulted in putting some of the spotlight in the producer's corner for once. His innovations, which are still used today, take root in outside the box type o' thinkin'. By this point it was becoming evident that the studio equipment used back then was hopelessly outdated, a fact which led to Meek's own inventions, the most significant being a compression unit which he'd run music through to get otherworldly effects, later becoming known as his signature trademark. Beyond his inventions, however, Meek was a studio whiz, as was apparent by the use of the following innovations:
- Distorting/synthesizing vocals and instruments with reverb
- Rearranging and combining musical segments a la Billy Burroughs' cut-up composite method.
- Use of reversed tapes (Meek even recorded a toilet flushing and played the tape backwards on a record)
The significance of these breakthroughs are pivotal, particularly the use of multi-tracking, and the prime effect completely changed the dynamics of studio recording forever. Prior to multi-tracking, performers were recorded live and collectively in real-time, which didn't leave much room for mistakes if any given band had a sliver of a chance of capturing the magic and promise in one inspired take. On one hand, this standard of mono-recording resulted in dividing the absolute cream from the rest; but once multi-tracking caught on, any hack band off the street could slip into a studio and play/sing their part of a melody as many times as they dreamed until they got it right. Furthermore, producers could edit, splice, retool the takes afterward until they arrived at the best possible version. Although this development led to an open-door policy and over-saturation of talentless pretty-boys, it also immediately improved the quality of records everywhere.
For all his brilliance, it should come as no surprise that Meek's craziness was tantamount to all of the so-called madmen in the annuls of rock ‘n' roll. Moreover, I believe the key to Meek's work and modernizations had more to do with his chemical imbalance than his drive, talent, and amphetamine binges combined. As for his barbiturate habit, this also shouldn't be surprising. It was the early ‘60s in swingin' London, and back then, the hippest play you could make was load up on bennies and follow Brando's lead. Plus, the pressure of the music biz was one where Meek felt that pill-consumption was the only reasonable avenue to keep his schedule, success, and secret lives intact. And though the drugs would eventually take their toll on him, not to mention heighten his pre-existing paranoia, Meek was in fact clinically insane, narcotics notwithstanding. He has confessed on numerous occasions to have had regular contact with the Other Side -- Buddy Holly's ghost, as well as a Native American chief and Egyptian Pharaoh Rameses' -- and his obsession with the occult went so far that Meek periodically hauled his recording equipment to various grave sites in an attempt to capture the howls of paranormal phenomena. The intent of these late-night excursions was to fuse pop music with the spirit world, which admittedly is a brilliant idea, but bonkers nonetheless. In addition to being a grade-A nut job, Meek was also gay. In those days, homosexuality was not only taboo but also illegal in England. The culmination of all these factors, particularly when compiled with the fact that Meek by the year ‘67 was in debt, manically depressed, and by all accounts washed up and unable to produce a hit in what was by then the first notable flowering of the psychedelic movement, ultimately led to Meek's untimely demise.
In the end, at the precious age of 37, Meek ended up turning his brain matter into a Jackson Pollock painting with a borrowed shotgun, but not before letting loose on his landlady first. The motive behind the homicide is speculative and inconclusive. In any case, perhaps if Meek lived a little longer, the public would've gotten hip to his distinctive sound, but somehow I doubt it. Meek set a pretty mean lead in his day, even expired a rock ‘n' roll suicide, and if these circumstances couldn't drum up some attention/curiosity from the masses, much less the Hall of Fame, then nothing short of a highly publicized mass homicide would snap the public out of their general malaise toward Joe Meek.
With all the facts and ruminations before us, perhaps Joe Meek isn't a rock ‘n' roll icon after all. He certainly fits in more in the mold of the Syd Barretts and Kool Keiths of the world than the Mick Jaggers. Which for some reason reminds me of a George Carlin line: “The caterpillar does all the work, but the butterfly gets all the publicity.” In a sense, I suppose Joe Meek was emblematic of all the proverbial caterpillars in the world. So for that reason and the most obvious -- his tunes are interesting and fun -- it's probably worth putting on his records every now and then, and maybe, just maybe, we can make up for the heap of shit that life fed him while he was alive.
[Photo Copyright 1966 Clive Bubley]