Barry Cleveland’s book (and CD!), Creative Music Production is an interesting, great look on Joe Meek‘s work. It glosses over the more lurid parts of the story (which are available in many places, and as such, don’t really need to be recounted in the book) in favor of actually focusing on the innovations that Joe Meek made to the recording of pop music.
Meek started his music career as an engineer for IBC, the International Broadcasting Company in his home of England. Actually, his first gig was as a projectionist in their TV Commercials room, running films of American advertisements so English admen could learn from them. After about a week of that, they realized the young boy (who cut his teeth tinkering with radios, recording devices and other mechanical bits in his shed) had much more potential than that and made him a junior engineer on their radio road shows. Again, after a week, he became the LEAD engineers on same. He ended up being one of the most reknowned studio engineers at IBC. Unfortunately, he was one of the least liked, due to equal parts his overly-meticulous, experimental nature, his insistence on his being right — which he often was, and his paranoia. This ended up with him bouncing to a few different studios — each time being one of the leading engineers before he just built his own studio.
Actually, that’s a bit inaccurate. It wasn’t just his prickly nature that caused him to bounce around and start his own studio — it was his ambition to write songs, choose artists and record them — essentially being an A&R man (or, what we nowadays think of as a record producer) as well as an engineer. And he was pretty good at both; he had a lot of hit singles in the UK, and was involved in some of the few pre-British-Invasion English US chart successes. For instance, he wrote “Put The Ring On My Finger” for Les Paul & Mary Ford, produced “Have I The Right?” by the Honeycombs, and did, well, just about everything but play on “Telstar” by the Tornados, his biggest hit, which was the only English single by a group to hit the US number one position at the time (and the fifth total single to perform that feat).
The quality of the songs — though high — wasn’t the only reason for these (and many other) of Meek’s successes. It was his innovative sound, mostly got through reverb, distortion and compression. Nowadays, none of those three is particularly rare or special. In fact, most modern music is OVERLY compressed, and I defy you to find a recent pop record that DOESN’T have distortion on it. However — at the time, Joe Meek was the first. He fought hard to get the sounds he had in his head, and he was able to figure out how exactly to get them. His first hit, “Bad Penny Blues” by Humphrey Lyttleton — which was also his first solo production — featured a distorted piano rhythm track. This B-side… of a jazz single, no less, went to number one in the UK on the POP charts. At a time when (well, like now) jazz music didn’t typically move vast quantities of units, this was remarkable. And part of the reason for its success was that it was a completely different sound in a music world where the standard procedure for recording was to get as accurate a sound as possible. Engineers and A&R men at the time went for a sound that would recreate you being there. Joe Meek, on the other hand, like most pioneers decided to use the medium as itself. Why use something to create a knockoff of a different experience, when you can use that very same something to the fullest of its abilities to create a whole NEW experience?
Meek had trouble — even with his chart successes — convincing others to go this route. Sometimes he would have to remix to get the mastering engineers to master his discs, convinced that Meek had made errors — he couldn’t POSSIBLY have wanted it to sound like THAT, right — and eventually they’d agree to master it… whereupon it’d often do quite well. (Not that every Meek single did — although unlike folks like Phil Spector or Brian Wilson who poured everything into a single track, Meek’s methodology was to do as many different songs as quickly as he could in hopes that something would stick. And for an independent label, he had quite a high rate of success. He had a lot of flops and stiffs too, of course, but he knew that he would, and that was just part of the territory.)
Many of Meek’s secrets remain a mystery. The sources of the sounds he got are often only rumored — even with today’s technology, some 50 years after the fact. (He died 40 years ago this year, and was working professionally for 12.) However, Cleveland worked backwards and used equipment lists, some incomplete, from various stages of Meek’s career to explain how Meek got some of his sounds, and how he may have gotten others. Those sounds that remain mysteries get explained by the various rumors, and given explanations on, how, if the rumors were true, how they may have been manipulated to, well, sound like THAT.
If you’re not an audio buff, some of it may make for dry reading — there are a couple chapters devoted to going over his various equipment, and much talk of different models of machines and the sounds those machines can create. I’m an amateur audio engineer, and some of it went completely over my head. However — the book is still engaging. If you’re an actual engineer, I would be this book would be indispensable. For audio geeks like me, it’s still incredibly interesting. For complete laymen, it might be dry, but Cleveland’s writing style is engaging enough that you’ll probably be able to pick up the bulk of what he’s talking about pretty quickly, and come away with a clear idea why pop music geeks talk about Meek so reverentially.
At the very least, they’ll probably dig the free CD that comes with the book of Meek’s long lost album, I Hear A New World, with a mix that accurately portrays the way he intended it. (Earlier CD issues remixed it a bit to make a bit more palatable to modern ears.)