Joe Meek
By: Devin McKinney | Categories: HiLo Heroes

meek

JOE MEEK (1929–67) invented a sound and lost his mind. Obsessed with circuitry and the occult, he spent his boyhood on Gloucestershire hilltops, fiddling with shortwaves and listening to the wind. After manning radars for the RAF, he got into pop, in 1962 producing John Leyton’s “Johnny Remember Me,” a love song to a ghost that sparked a séance fad in the UK. (Meek believed he was psychic, and claimed to be in contact with Buddy Holly.) The next year, “Telstar,” love song to a communications satellite, was a worldwide #1 for his band the Tornadoes.

Meek built a studio in his tiny London walkup; he’d place his bands on the landing and his singers in the bathroom. The sound he found, dense with compression and echo, was as distinctive as Phil Spector’s — cheesy, eerie, melodic, tribal beats from a Star-Club on Mars. He suffused the British charts with death discs (“North Wind,” “My Friend Bobby”) and Halloween theatrics (Screamin’ Lord Sutch) while indulging sci-fi fantasies for kicks (1960’s concept EP I Hear a New World). But Meek was a nervous homosexual and paranoid schizophrenic, and success fed his fears. He was busted for soliciting sex from a man; then a boy’s body was found in pieces behind an Ipswich hedge, and the police wanted to talk to him about it. He became certain his phone was tapped, and that the London pop elite were plotting against him. The spirit voices wouldn’t cease. On February 3, 1967 — anniversary of Buddy Holly’s death — Meek took a shotgun to his landlady, then killed himself.

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On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Roger Corman, Agnetha Faltskog, Stewart Lee.

READ MORE about members of the Postmodernist Generation (1924-33).

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Devin McKinney is author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History and most recently, The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda.