Joe Meek: Portrait of a Genius

I went through a pretty intense Joe Meek fixation a few years back, with the result that I now own over a dozen CD compilations of Meek rarities which, with a few notable exceptions, are mostly unlistenable. Being a completist in your approach to this eccentric, wildly uneven, and very prolific British pop producer’s work may be as self-punishing an endeavor as attempting to see all of Jess Franco’s movies. For those with a more casual interest, the 2002 two-disc compilation The Alchemist of Pop — released by Sanctuary/Castle Music and compiled by Roger Dopson with the help of Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley — should more than do the trick. (And if even that’s too much, the 1995 Razor & Tie single disc package It’s Hard to Believe it: The Amazing World of Joe Meek, if you can find it, should fit the bill.)

If your initial dip into Meek’s catalogue then sparks an interest in exploring his work further, I’d recommend as the most essential of the Meek rarities comps RGM’s fine Let’s Go: Joe Meek’s Girls (focusing exclusively on Meek’s work within the girl group sound) and Intergalactic Instro’s, which chronicles some of his work in the realm of that anomalous early 60s chart mainstay, the guitar driven instrumental. And then, of course, there is the Meek artifact I’ve most recently got my hands upon, Castle’s 2005 Portrait of a Genius: The RGM Legacy box, which was also compiled by Roger Dopson, this time with the intention of expanding upon the portrait provided by his Alchemist of Pop collection.

meekGiven the glut of Meek material in my CD cabinet, “essential” is the last word I’d have expected to use in describing Portrait of a Genius. But color me surprised. The amazing thing about this set is how, with well over a hundred tracks and very little overlap with previously released collections, it manages to provide such a consistently enjoyable listening experience. Consider this, then, a next step on from those previously mentioned collections in your journey toward becoming a hopeless Joe Meek obsessive. In other words: Welcome to my world.

For those that don’t know, a lazy — but, to my mind, fairly accurate — way of describing Joe Meek is as a combination of equal parts Phil Spector and Ed Wood. Like his contemporary Spector, Meek was a bold sonic innovator in the realm of pop music production, one whose techniques, while considered highly unorthodox at the time, would prefigure many of what would be considered standard practices in the recording studios of today. What Meek lacked, however, was Spector’s talent as an A&R man, that knack for picking great songs and performers that Spector proved with hit after iconic hit.

In fact, one listen to Meek’s notoriously caterwauling vocal demo for the Tornados’ “Telstar” will demonstrate that he was not only tin-eared, but literally tone deaf. Thus his approach to “song writing” basically boiled down to him presenting one of his beleaguered session players with a tape of his wounded howlings, out of which that player was then expected to somehow divine a melodic pattern. (Despite the great deal of interpretation that this required, it was, of course, always Joe who got the writing credit on the label.) The discs that resulted from this — as well as from Joe’s practice of either making records for actors and other non-professional singers who were nearly as pitch-challenged as he was, or sometimes picking acts based simply on his need for young male company — were so uneven in quality that his only hope was to deluge the market with product in the hope that something would stick.

And indeed some did stick. Not only did Meek score a healthy number of top ten hits in his native UK throughout the early and mid-sixties, but the aforementioned instrumental “Telstar” — a track that has become shorthand for the space race-inspired optimism of the early 60s — went on to make The Tornados the first British act to top the U.S. charts. 1964 saw another International hit for Meek with the Honeycombs’ “Have I The Right?”, a song whose combination of twee vocals, sped-up, mosquito buzz guitar lines and literally boot-stomping percussion granted it a stunning uniqueness that endures even today.

In the course of making all of these records, hits and flops alike, Meek pioneered a sound that was largely achieved by applying too much of just about everything — compression, reverb, echo, distortion, close miking — that the finicky British sound engineers of the day prided themselves on using judiciously. His apparent need to make a guitar sound like anything other than a guitar, a drum like anything other than a drum, and a human voice like something distinctly non-human also spurred him to the creation of a number of gadgets of his own. Given this, I think it’s no exaggeration to say Meek paved the way for seminal, effects-heavy British post-punk bands of the late 70s and early 80s like The Cure, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Magazine, Joy Division, and even U2. (Though I don’t think that the fact that U2 might not exist if not for him should be held against him.)

Beefing up the legend is the fact that Meek, like Spector and Ed Wood, was a true eccentric, though perhaps to a level that trumps even the two of those men combined. As with Spector, Meek’s volatility would prove his undoing, though at a much earlier point in his life and career than it did Spector. On top of this there were Meek’s obsessions with the spiritual world and outer space — the first exemplified by his frequent conducting of séances and belief that the late Buddy Holly was guiding his career from beyond the grave, the latter by his conviction — harbored as late as the mid 60s — that life existed on the moon.

Portrait of a Genius starts with a disc dedicated to the engineering work Meek did during the mid to late 50s, when he worked as a hired hand at established British studios like IBC and Lansdowne. This is by far the least interesting disc of the set, and, whether intentionally or not, serves mainly to give the listener a picture of just how dismal the state of British pop was in the decade leading up to the advent of the Beatles. Stiff, over-orchestrated balladry and novelty tunes for moms and dads abound, leading you to consider that, if you were a young John Lennon in that musical landscape, you probably would have embraced skiffle music, too.

These early tracks also do a nice job of laying out for us the state of the “science” of British sound recording at the time, when studio engineers still wore white lab coats and prided themselves on setting to tape the most sacrosanct representation of a performance possible. And it’s true, these recordings do sound incredibly crisp and clear, especially given the technology that these studio professionals had to work with at the time. And that just goes all the more toward giving you an idea of just how radical Meek’s approach must have seemed. For, rather than aiming to simply document a live performance, as his peers did, Meek sought to use that performance as the raw material for something greater and more mysterious. Rather than sounding like the musicians were playing right in the room with you, his recordings instead sounded as if they were calling out to you across the ether, as if the performers themselves existed on some different, highly idealized, astral or spiritual plane. Some hint of this can be heard on the first disc of Portrait, in the swampy rhythm sound and dense reverb of Jimmy Miller & The Barbecues’ “Sizzling Hot”, though later examples of this sound would be far more dramatic.

Disc two of Portrait moves on to Meek’s early years as an independent producer. The clear highlight here, as on previous overviews of Meek’s work, are the tracks from the Meek magnum opus I Hear a New World. Essentially a stereo demonstration record with an outer space theme, that album featured a mishmash of abused and detuned instruments, sped-up voices, cavernous reverb and homegrown sci-fi sound effects, all geared toward bringing to audible life Meek’s vision of life on the Moon. Given what we now know about the man, its difficult not to hear all of this as a kind of internal soundtrack to Meek’s own fevered imaginings, and, as such, it comes across as at once sublimely goofy and deeply unsettling. Also featured on this disc is one of Meek’s first UK smashes, the densely atmosphered and deliriously overwrought comic book gothic “Johnny Remember Me”, sung by British television star John Leyton.

Disc three kicks off with the 1962 “Telstar” and proceeds through one of the most exciting periods in Meek’s career, the time between 1962 and 1964 when his status as the mastermind behind a huge international hit put him at the forefront of the British pop scene. As this disc documents, much of this time was spent trying to recapture the magic of “Telstar” with a slew of similar group sound instrumentals, both by The Tornados and by other Meek-mentored groups like The Thunderbolts (“Lost Planet”, “March of the Spacemen”) and The Checkmates (who give us the marvelous, spy-themed “Interpol”). However, because Meek seemed to use the format of the guitar instrumental in particular as a laboratory for sonic experimentation, the tracks are anything but derivative or uninspired. Also on this disc is the must-hear insanity of Meek cohort Geoff Goddard’s “Sky Men”, a twee-voiced account of a close encounter complete with an alien spoken word interlude.

The final disc of Portrait is my personal favorite of the set, because it focuses on Meek’s “beat group” period, an episode in his career that gets shorter shrift on other compilations. This was a time during which Meek, blindsided by the success of the Beatles — not to mention deteriorating under the increasing weight of his many personal demons — is seen to have been flailing a bit, desperately groping for a new sound and struggling to maintain a foothold on relevance in a radically shifting pop landscape. Now, of course, I’m a fan of this particular disc in part because I’m a fan of British beat group sounds in general, but also because there are simply some real gems to be found here.

As countless Nuggets and freakbeat compilations now demonstrate, the margins left by the chart-hogging monsters of 1960s British pop — your Beatles, your Stones, your Who — were littered with hundreds of great songs that never got to bask in the glow that the top of the charts afforded, due, in most case, to them being just a little bit too odd or eccentric. It is these very songs that now make up an alternate history of 60s pop that is, for many of us retro music fans, just as fresh and exciting as many of the tracks by those aforementioned monoliths are over familiar. Just such a song is Paul Kane’s “My Fair Baby’s Coming For Me”, featured on Portrait‘s disc four, whose simple chord progression, marked by sudden, unexpected turns, makes it sound like some kind of proto Pixies song. Also great is the punkish “Movin’ In”, by former Tornados bassist — and Meek live-in partner — Heinz. And then, of course there is the Honeycombs’ “Have I The Right”, in both English and German language versions, surely one of the weirdest sounding hit records of the initial beat boom.

Portrait of a Genius fleshes out its picture of Meek with interview excerpts from an “audio biography” of Meek conducted in 1962, as well as with neat odds and ends like an original answering machine message and a truly bizarre, rambling tribute recorded by Meek for the alleged benefit of the artists Joy and Dave. However, while most of this only serves to deepen the mystery, it is in the box’s information crammed booklet that you’ll really see some light shining into the dark corners. This consists of a lengthy biographical essay by Bob Stanley, reproductions of numerous clipping from the period, and text interviews with a number of Meek’s contemporaries and former collaborators/victims. Added to the set’s masterful marriage of comprehensiveness and overall listen-ability — even more impressive, given its studious, chronological sequencing — this material serves to make the box a must have for anyone whose interest in Meek goes well beyond the casual, yet perhaps falls short of seances and other attempts at spiritual communication.

Joe Meek’s ultimate unraveling came dramatically on the night of February 3, 1967, and had a body count. Capping a period of mounting paranoia and occultist obsession, the producer killed his elderly landlady with a blast from a shotgun before turning the weapon on himself. It was the 16th anniversary of Buddy Holly’s death. Even without such a fiery conclusion, Meek’s story still might have been the stuff of pop legend, but, with it, it has presented irresistible grist for myth-making. As such, it has been recounted in books, radio dramas, stage plays and, just last year, a feature film starring, among others, Kevin Spacey. But to my mind, Portrait of a Genius: The RGM Legacy tells Meek’s story in the best way possible, by way of the man’s music itself.