Monday, September 22, 2008

The Haunting Saga of Joe Meek

I had planned to feature several of the outsider musicians in Irwin Chusid's book, "Songs in the Key of Z,"but then I got stuck on the Joe Meek chapter. I ALWAYS get stuck on the Joe Meek chapter.

I'm tempted to feel a touch of envy when researching the lives of outsider geniuses, but life is not always a roll in the hay for the musically inclined. The factors that make for an outsider artist: eccentricity, visions (aural and otherwise), intense spiritual inclinations, obsessive compulsiveness, and the marching to one's own drum, also make for a difficult life journey. The social isolation and ever-lurking symptoms of mental illness are always a possibility for intense unhappiness, and in the case of Joe Meek, homicidal rage.

So why the fascination with him? He's just endlessly fascinating. A gay, tone-deaf farm boy who set up his own recording studio in a London flat above a leather goods store, Meek could only compose songs by humming tunelessly into the ears of willing musicians who were able to discern what the noises in his head were supposed to sound like. Living in England in the early 60s when homosexuality was a crime, he was paranoid and subject to blackmail threats for his secretive personal life. He visited graveyards to record sounds of the after-life, and he was obsessed with outer space and the sounds that might reflect that particular state of mind. He will also be remembered for his infamous technique of hurling whatever heavy object happened to be nearby at musicians who pissed him off, in his quest to reach unknown heights of magical musical moments.

He used metal springs, kitchen gadgets, all manner of recording devices, blow-out levels of reverb, and musicians' feet stomping on the floorboards of his flat to achieve his goals. For a time he produced some innovative, memorable music and worked with session musicians as talented as Jimmy Page and Ritchie Blackmore, but by the late 60s, the buttoned-down world of London was about to explode into psychedelic wackiness and Meek couldn't produce a hit. The rent was due and he was depressed and paranoid, resulting in two shotgun blasts, the first hitting his landlady, the second, himself. No more Meek sounds would follow (that we know of); it was 1967 and he was dead at 37.

Clip from the documentary, "A Life in the Death of Joe Meek," showing just how stodgy the British recording industry was at the time that Joe Meek did the unthinkable and became an independent producer. There were musicians playing in every room of his flat, including the bathroom, kitchen and stairway, while Meek did the opposite of what the industry dictated. Instead of making it sound "live," he made it resemble the music in his head. And that was a ca-razy sound indeed.

Here's his big #1 hit, Telstar, by The Tornados. Space-age surf music, unheard of in 1962.

The Tornados - Robot Scopitone, 1963.

The Honeycombs - Have I The Right? Honey Lantree on the skins. The Honeycombs couldn't believe the foot-stomping, heavily drum-laden sound that came out in the final mix. They freaked out and not in a good way. But it went to #5 in the U.S. and was their biggest hit.

Joe Meek - I Hear a New World from his Outer Space Music Fantasy concept album.

- Interview of Joe Meek showing some of his equipment in the background — "I have to watch some of these a hawk."

- "The Strange Story of Joe Meek" - BBC documentary (part 1 of 4).

- For more of Joe Meek and other outsider musicians, see Richie Unterberger's "Unknown Legends of Rock 'n' Roll Psychedelic Unknowns, Mad Geniuses, Punk Pioneers, Lo-Fi Mavericks & More." After you read this and "Songs in the Key of Z," you might be feeling a little bit like an outsider yourself. Watch some CNN. That'll put you to rights.

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