Joe Meek - a Portrait
Part 4: Joe Meek - the British Phil Spector?
In the literature about Joe Meek there's a story going around: In 1964, Phil Spector visited London, had the idea to meet Joe Meek and called him up. Meek exploded at the phone, screamed at Spector not to steal his ideas any longer and sent him packing, then he smashed the phone down so hard on the cradle that it broke. - A nice little anecdote, "bigger than life", so to speak, but with all probability this is a story from fairyland.
In fact, the often drawn comparisons between Meek and Spector are mostly unfounded. Much more obvious are parallels between Meek and U.S. guitarist and recording pioneer Les Paul; Meek knew his work very well and respected it deeply.
Meek as well as Spector had a preference for sunglasses, mono recordings and loads of reverb, but besides this they didn't have much in common. Their productions and recording methods were completely different. Certainly, Meek was aware of this, and so he must have known that there were no ideas or compositions that Spector had stolen from him.
Both men indeed - and this, in a certain way, can be seen as a connection between them - were producers who strived for a unique sound for their recordings, a sound that could not be copied. In different ways the both of them were successful in this, and they both were pioneers in this, one in the U.S., one in Great Britain. And in their real life, the both of them were not very happy.
Meek as well as Spector weren't after hi-fi recordings, the both of them used "sound" as a kind of marketing argument, in a sense of "trademark".
Meek, as described before, had a sure instinct for sound economy. He loved to present deliberately constructed, striking sound effects that he developed himself. Besides this, he focused on reducing things to the minimum required.
The specialty of Spector's "wall of sound" was to blur the individual sounds and to stir up the instruments. Often he doubled or tripled instruments, there was not one piano or one drum set, there were three. The result was a massive boulder of instrumental sounds in which the vocals were downright engraved.
Meek knew all his devices and what he could do with them, several of them were of his own making. He knew exactly which machine could give him the sound effect he wanted, as well as where to put which microphone in what way; close-up miking (see chapter 3) was one of his specialties.
Not so Spector. He didn't really know the studio equipment, and he didn't care to know. He likely never even touched a mixing console or edited a tape himself. He never set up a microphone, the only thing he knew was: close-up miking would have been deadly for the sound he was going for. This sound he had exactly in his mind, but usually he had no exact clue how this could be done technically. So Spector always was the kind of producer standing in the back of the control room and describing his imaginations to the technicians who had to find a way to realize them.
There is no Spector production that tonally or technically could be taken for a Meek production. And vice versa, there's only one Meek recording existing that (for a short moment) could be mistaken for a Spector production: Little Star (Shine On Us Tonight), recorded in 1963 or 1964 with the not identifiable duo Lea & Chess and not published during Meek's lifetime. [Meanwhile I know a little bit more about this recording. If you're interested, feel free to visit my blog!]
Even in their publishing policies, Meek and Spector worked in a completely different way. Spector had a very fine feeling for the hit potential of a song, and he concentrated his work on just those tunes he really considered a possible chart hitter. Meek, it must be said, lacked this kind of instinct. He produced a vast number of recordings, hoping that just a couple of them would take off.
Meek biographer John Repsch delivers facts: Between 1962 and 1965, Spector had 21 records in the Billboard charts; Meek, in the same time, had 24 records in the British Top 40. The difference: Spector released just 24 records, Meek no less than 141. Indeed this speaks a clear language.
A different question is whether Meek and Spector bore resemblances to each other in their character traits. But in this respect again there's a lot of nonsense written in press articles and the blogosphere. To name one example, Spector as well as Meek are both often described as gun nuts. This is not the place to speculate about Spector, but it can be said for sure that Meek wasn't. Later chapters will try to explore this and some other questions.
Sources see part 13
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© 2006 Jan Reetze
last update: December 27, 2015