'The Strange Story of Joe Meek' might have been more appropriately titled 'The Meek Story of Joe Strange', as the subject of this biographical rockumentary was unprepossessing yet deeply eccentric with it.
Joe Meek is unknown to the general public, but he changed the sound of rock music. After his National Service stint as a radar technician, he worked as a television engineer, then became a sound engineer for IBC recording studios in London in the mid-1950s. He worked with most of the prominent British recording artists of the day, most notably on several early hits for Lonnie Donegan at Lansdowne, an independent record producing firm for which Meek designed a recording studio.
In the late 1950s, Meek began to write songs, and decided to become an independent producer. He created the bootlace-budgeted Triumph label, making recordings in a converted flat above a North London shopfront. With the Outlaws and the Tornadoes as his house bands, Meek miraculously managed to release several top-10 singles in the early 1960s. Meek's greatest influence was the U.S. rocker Buddy Holly, who also influenced several other U.K. music innovators of this time, notably Graham Nash and the Beatles. Meek produced a Buddy Holly tribute album in '61. His greatest triumph at Triumph came a year later: the Tornadoes' instrumental 'Telstar', a #1 hit in the U.S. and Britain, featuring Meek's unique electronic sounds, and named for the communications satellite which excited the public on both sides of the Atlantic at this time. Another transatlantic hit produced by Meek was 'Have I the Right?', recorded by the Honeycombs.
Although Meek was an innovator, for some reason he failed to keep up with his own innovations, and eventually he was left in the dust by other recording producers after showing them the way. Highly introverted and subject to mood swings, almost certainly subject to bipolar disorder, Meek killed his landlady and then committed suicide on 3 February 1967: the anniversary of Buddy Holly's death, now recalled as 'the day the music died'.
This documentary features talking-head footage from members of Meek's family and from artists who worked with him, as well as rival producer Mickie Most. Among the facts on offer, we learn that Meek's forename at birth was Robert: it's surprising that he chose to change this name to Joe by deed poll, yet he kept his off-putting surname Meek. We also learn that his innovative soundtracks included such effects as a toilet flush (electronically enhanced with echo effects) and a magnetic tape played backward (this before rock musicians allegedly included deliberate backwards messages in their recording tracks).
Because Meek worked with house bands rather than stage acts, the concert footage on offer here is in-studio stuff. The entertainment quotient of this film is lower than usual for a typical rockumentary, but those who are interested in the history of U.K. rock will find this film utterly compelling, and required viewing. I'll rate it a full 10 out of 10.
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