Roots of Electronica: Joe Meek
It’s difficult to listen to Joe Meek’s “I Hear A New World” without a certain thrill of eeriness. Against an intentionally spacey background, warped voices croon about transmissions from a foreign planet (or maybe a foreign plane of thought) and cryptic lines musing, “how can I tell them/what’s in store for me?” tease and fray the edges of the unsteady fantasy. The song’s missed attempts at cheekiness amplify its overwhelming “something’s off” quality. But what is off, exactly?
Fans of Meek know the answer. Joe Meek was a brilliant and innovative producer but his life was deeply troubled, marred by years of mental illness and substance abuse. This culminated in a horrifying end when, in February of 1967, Meek killed himself and his landlady with a shotgun borrowed off a member of his studio band. Meek’s untimely death now looms large over his work, whose formerly whimsical quality has been forever soured with a ghoulish sense of foreboding.
It wouldn’t be telling the full story to say that Meek’s dark life had a fully negative impact on his oeuvre (on the contrary, his music is probably a lot more interesting than it might have been had he simply been a well-adjusted whiz kid). But it’s a shame when sordid stories cloud the real accomplishments and innovations that he gave to the world.
Along with Phil Spector, Meek was one of the first and most significant “star producers”, a console maestro as creatively important as the acts whose sounds he shaped. Meek wrote much of the work performed under him, and enjoyed relative success on the back of his unique song-craft and sonic atmospheres. His most famous piece is the hit song “Telstar” (performed by The Tornadoes) which went to #1 in both the US and UK in late 1962. “Telstar”, an instrumental ode to the Telstar communications satellite, still stands as an effective encapsulation of the Meek aesthetic: rough, otherworldly, warped and greatly informed by a quasi-Utopian vision of “outer space”.
It’s difficult to imagine what space must have meant to people in the era before a man on the moon. However, one gets a sense through listening to Meek’s work that it epitomized a spirit of sublimity that was equal parts glorious and unnerving. It was the perfect muse for Meek, a man obsessed with occult and outsider ideas, driven by a desire to discover unknown and often uncomfortable regions of perception- a desire that dominated both his music and his life. In the spirit of the space cowboy, Joe Meek was a fearless novelty seeker instinctively inclined towards unconventional techniques and sounds, which galvanized his many important studio innovations in areas like sampling and tape manipulation. This impulse also galvanized the eccentric fascinations that ultimately consumed him, such as his preoccupation with receiving and recording the voices of the dead.
No genius is without madness but the balance is more tenuous in some than in others. Joe Meek was undoubtedly an individual with a poor handle on his own mind and his premature death closed the door on a huge score of the “projects that could have been”. But what work Meek did produce has an energy that could only have come from an uninhibited dreamer lost in visions that were too distant and unnatural to be accessed by the conventional thinker.
Meek’s greatest work, the work which best channels his madcap energy, is I Hear A New World, his 1960 “outer space music fantasy”. Though the music is sometimes quaint and overly casual, its flourishes of bizarre sounds and spacy tonal suggestions keep it fresh and surreal decades later. Song titles like “Globb Waterfall” and “Valley of the Saroos” transport imaginative listeners to alien climes, and the tension between the grainy, old-timey sound quality and the future-minded experiments in tape-looping, echo, and fantasy effects maximize a sense of uncanniness.Joe Meek in his hay day, via The Woodstock Whisperer .
The most noteworthy electronic trick used by Meek is his insistent warping of everyday noises (from bubbles being blown to radio static), which are pitched, carved out, drowned in reverb, and altogether twisted throughout the LP. I Hear A New World achieves something quite rare in the way it mutates organic sound: it manages to produce music that actually feels like it’s coming from another world. There are albums far more outrageous than I Hear A New World, but Meek wisely chose to include familiar elements in his brew (singing, domestic ambiance, quaint luau-friendly instrumentation), which makes the piece feel dreamlike in a real way: distorted but grounded in the known.
When electronic music first began to take shape it was absent of aesthetic direction. Advances in recording technology and technique might have been impressive but oftentimes there was little understanding of what “artificial” music might mean to people, what feelings manipulated vocals and un-nameable effects would ignite in untrained listeners. Joe Meek inherently understood what few producers and engineers at the time did: electronica is weird. When something sounds alien it evokes alien feelings, and without a nod to this, the full results of using electronics can’t be realized. Today we take for granted an aesthetic association with electronica: Boards of Canada using warped children’s voices to conjure hazy nostalgia, Aphex Twin fusing his ambient soundscapes with the mythology of his “lucid dreams”, etc. But in the past, most electronica was either devoid of concept or sold as “functional music” (i.e. 1964’s Soothing Sounds for Baby, an album designed to lull children to sleep). Joe Meek’s gift to the genre was his introduction of “the musical fantasy”, an oddball coloring that was necessary to marshal novel sounds into appropriately novel realms.Courtesy of joemeekdoc.com.
Joe Meek was burdened and blessed with a love of other worldliness. He saw existence as full of fantastical elements that were waiting to be uncovered; he had visions of a state beyond reality, he fixated on the stars, and he believed in life beyond life (legend has it that Meek claimed to receive counsel from his deceased idol Buddy Holly). However poorly this obsession might have served him as a person, it certainly energized his life as an artist, granting him the power of multi-dimensional sight and aesthetic mastery. His peculiar mind saw new potential for everyday sound (the whirring at the opening of “Telstar”, for instance, is a toilet flushing backwards), new expressions for the human voice, and new ways that music could be played and received. Without any instrumental proficiency, Meek still managed to remake music in his own image and push electronica further into its inevitable uniform of outer-galactic weirdness. The artists of today, accustomed to the spaced out moods and purposeful uncanniness crafted by producers through the decades, owe Meek a great debt of gratitude