Album: Joe Meek

Portrait of a Genius, SANCTUARY
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The Independent Culture

Joe Meek remains pop's most compelling example of the link between genius and insanity - for, as the title of this four-disc set asserts, he was undoubtedly a genius, blessed with an idiosyncratic ear and a grasp of sound engineering that was unparalleled in his era. He was the British Phil Spector, albeit less grandiose in execution - where Spector booked entire orchestras to realise the sound from his head, Joe was more of a typically British garden-shed innovator, battling away on his own at something nobody else realised was possible.

He started out as a jobbing engineer, freelancing for labels like Philips and Pye on a series of seminal recordings. The first of these discs reads like a who's who of Fifties UK jazz and pop, featuring milestones like Humphrey Lyttelton's "Bad Penny Blues", Chris Barber's "Petite Fleur", Frankie Vaughan's "Green Door" and Lonnie Donegan's "Puttin' On The Style", along with folk and blues cuts from Peggy Seeger and Big Bill Broonzy, and lounge music from Kenny Graham and his Satellites, whose "Lullabye" prefigures the kind of space-exotica themes that would play such an important part in Meek's own later projects. Meek subsequently set up his own RGM Studio, where he developed the distinctive reverb and echo that gave hits like John Leyton's "Johnny Remember Me" and The Honeycombs' "Have I The Right" their unique, futuristic sound.

Meek's apotheosis came with The Tornados' giant worldwide hit, "Telstar", a track which still has the extraordinary ability to make most other records sound old-fashioned. It's presented here in three stages, from Joe's own pitch-seeking demo humming of the melody, through a cheesy early organ version, to its eventual space-surf splendour. But his triumph was short-lived. Two months after "Telstar" topped the chart, The Beatles released "Love Me Do", and it was game over.